This past month I entered my ninth year as an ordained minister of the gospel. The time has gone by quickly and I am thankful for all that the Lord has done through his appointed means of grace. One of the joys of pastoral ministry has been to frequently speak to young men who are considering or preparing for pastoral ministry. “What should I read?” “Where should I go?” “How should I prepare?” Often I will give three pieces of advice for men as they seek preparation for ministry: 1. Don’t be a free agent, be under care of elders at a presbytery level. 2. Be a humanist, read literature widely, don’t get “just” a Bible degree in college; study the original languages. 3. Be a churchman and attend a seminary that is accountable to the church. There are many fine seminary institutions which are accountable to boards, but we need a generation of churchmen—men who love the church and support her institutions.
I am sure that some of the students that God has brought through my congregation can hear me say it now! But for those who are currently in seminary or in their first couple of years of ministry, I would offer further reflections on my short tenure as a minister of the gospel. I realize that there are men who have much more wisdom; much deeper piety; much broader learning; much more experience; much more “success” as a pastor; and much wider responsibilities as men of God. But we are among friends here! In honor of entering my ninth year, allow me to share nine areas of reflection on pastoral ministry that I have meditated upon:
Soul Care Begins with Yours
In the ministry there is a temptation to fall into professionalism. It takes discernment to know whether your soul is actually being fed or whether you are merely preparing sermons, talks, and classes out of work-related duty. Guard your love for Christ. John Owen said that we need to preach to our own souls. Often examine the state of your relationship with Christ. Read books for your own edification. Be in a pattern of Scripture reading for your own growth and not just to mine sermon fodder. Feed your soul before you feed your congregation’s soul. Pastors have withered on the vine for lack of abiding; even successful pastors in growing churches. Take care of your soul.
Focus on Your Family
The phone will not stop ringing. Emails continue to come. The meetings will never end. The sermon preparation begins afresh every Monday morning. As these important components of ministry become part of your weekly routine, do not neglect loving your family. Guard your family worship time. Leave the cell phone off the dining room table (Lydia has to remind me of this one.) Take a day off. Be in the pattern of working hard and resting joyfully with your wife and children.
When I came to Los Angeles in January of 2009, my oldest child was five years old; she’s now a teenager! The time will go quickly. I will never regret the family vacations, coffee dates with my wife, game nights, or trips to the beach. Don’t let your family be sacrificed on the altar of ministry-busyness. A famous 20th century reformed pastor and his equally famous wife have a son who is angry and bitter and makes excuses for his hatred for the God of the Bible due to the lack of investment from his parents. He claims they lived to serve others but never took time to serve him. The god Molech requires the sacrifice of children; Yahweh does not.
Be a Co-Pastor
This is not a two-office versus three-office reflection, but a reminder that in reformed ecclesiology the minister is not a one-man show. The Lord Jesus has established a church with both teaching and ruling elders. Know your elders. Work with them. Pastor the flock together. Good ruling elders will prove to be of great worth to a young and zealous pastor. If your elders are not trained, equip them. If they take their responsibility in the church seriously, cherish them. Find opportunities for your elders to be seen shepherding the flock.
As I take phone calls and emails from seminarians asking what they should look for in a pastoral call, I always tell them, “find a church with good ruling elders.” That conversation usually ends with something like: “If it wasn’t for my good ruling elders I may have blown up* the church years ago!”
(*Blown up is not literal, of course, but NSA, thanks for checking in.)
Good ruling elders know they are pastoring alongside of you rather than being “rubber stamp men” or “yes men.” They too are shepherds. Use them. Love them. Know them. Find them!
What is going to drive your pastoral ministry? The latest and greatest book will come out telling you how you are doing it wrong. Then the next book will come out in the same year. Don’t let the ever-changing winds of evangelical doctrine drive your pastoral theology.
The New Testament puts forth an ordinary means of grace ministry and your Confession and Catechisms will help you to be grounded in biblical pastoral ministry. Being a confessional pastor is honest and practical. The Westminster Standards (or Three Forms of Unity) will help you to understand what the Bible teaches concerning preaching, prayer, counseling, and much of the hands on work of the ministry. Don’t allow your Confession to be a dusty relic of what your church once believed. Be confessional, be ordinary.
An ordinary confessional ministry ought to include zealous preaching, passionate prayers, training men for ministry, global and home missions, community involvement, and a well-rounded Christ-centered approach to church life. Be ordinary. Be confessional.
Be a Presbyterian
Being presbyterian teaches us that we are not alone in the ministry. The work of the ministry is local and regional and national and global. Ministers have responsibilities that at times encompass all of these. Being presbyterian reminds the young, Type A, overachieving minister that there are others who also have responsibilities in the kingdom of God. You are not the head; Christ is. Being presbyterian will bring him back down to earth, so-to-speak.
For the young minister who is shy or timid, being presbyterian will raise him up to be the man of God that he intends him to be. He will be lifted up to do the works that he may not see himself doing.
Being presbyterian lifts the humble and grounds the over-achiever.
Now you may say, “Nathan, but I am a Baptist” or “I am a Congregationalist.” The same counsel stands: be presbyterian. Being presbyterian also gives one higher courts to which you may appeal. If things are not well in your ministry, you have brothers who can give formal counsel. If an injustice has occurred against you, you have a court to which you can appeal. Be presbyterian.
Continue Your Education
I love education and I love classrooms. Not all have the same loves. That’s okay, but be a student. Continuing education charges me and refreshes me in ways that nothing else can. Education is stretching and a great gift. Continue your education.
It’s healthy and helpful to be told to read something that you may not necessarily read. It’s valuable to be “forced” to write papers that you may not have written otherwise.
This does not have to happen in a classroom or formally, but you will do well to maintain something of the student life. We do not know everything as ministers and there is much more that we can all learn. Study to show yourselves approved. If you want to formally continue your education, pursue a DMin degree or a ThM degree. If you don’t want to pay the money for the coursework, many seminaries have online classes that can be audited or heard on iTunes. The writing of books will never end, Solomon tells us. The reading of them and writing about them ought not end either!
Love the One You're With
From time to time pastors talk about other congregations: “It would be fun to pastor here or there.” “It would nice to have that congregation.” “A larger congregation in a different location may be a better fit.”
In all of the shop talk that happens concerning open pulpits and different ministry opportunities, do not allow your care and love to cease for the congregation over whom God has placed you. A congregation that knows their pastor loves them and cares for them is a congregation that will respond (through the work of the Spirit, of course) to his ministry. Just as a wife would not respond well to a husband who loves another woman, neither will a congregation that senses that a pastor’s heart is not with them. Love the congregation over which God has placed you. That does not mean that you can never take another call; but it does mean that as long as Christ keeps you in a certain place you ought to deeply invest your love into that flock.
Your congregation should be able to say without pause, “I know my pastor loves me.”
Take Care of Your Body
A couple of years ago I was convicted that I was not properly caring for the body that the Lord had given me. I was overweight (morbidly obese, actually) with high blood pressure and the sedative life-style of the ministry was not helping in that sphere of life. The Lord convicted me that something needed to change. I have worked hard over the past two years to correct the damage that I have done to my body over the three-plus decades of my life.
As pastors we are called to point men and women to the Christ who is savior of body and soul (think Heidelberg Catechism Q.1). Pastors that are overweight and essentially in an active state of dying because of their lifestyle do not reflect God’s will for body-care. Exercise. Eat healthy. Sleep regularly. Be under the care of a good physician (I recommend “functional medicine.” Google it.).
For some—like me—this will always be a struggle, a thorn in the flesh, but we must be taking care of the bodies that God has given us. Get control of this while you are young, it gets harder with time.
There’s something odd about a severely overweight man pointing people to the disciplines of the Christian life. Don’t let your lifestyle be a stumbling block for the gospel.
Use Your Dining Room Table
Many Christians have never been in a pastor’s home. Can you believe that? So much of my wife and my early Christian discipleship was done informally in living rooms and at dining room tables. My experience with this was modeled, but I have come to find out that many Christians have never been in a pastor’s home. Don’t let that be the case.
Practicing hospitality is one of the biblical requirements for you being a pastor. Open your home. Love strangers and sojourners. Welcome new Christians. Disciple over coffee or tea. An open home will bring ministry opportunities that would not have come other wise. As I often say after a long Lord’s Day to my congregation, “The coffee’s on. Come over.”
The dining room table is powerful weapon in gospel ministry. Use it!
The nine reflections above are not in a particular order. It’s not the logical order of the decree, but the order in which I have recently reflected. There are many more things that could be said. My list is incomplete and maybe after 20 years of ministry I will focus on different things or say things differently.
There are lots of great books that can help you prepare for ministry. Seminary is great, if not essential. Training is available on many fronts.
Young pastor, you will continue to grow, be stretched, and learn new things. The same can be said for me. Men that have served longer, what would you add to my list? Men that are just beginning, what would you wish older pastors would say? Congregants, what would you teach us?
Spirit, help us all to be men who reflect Christ and point his people towards his face.