A couple of months ago a young man considering pastoral ministry sent me (and several others) a list of excellent and searching questions about ministry. I thought the answers might provide useful insights for others thinking about Christian ministry, as well as a window into the life and soul of a Pastor for church members. Perhaps my fellow bloggers here on Gentle Reformation might like to answer some or all of the same questions, to provide a range of views on these things?
1. What is the most difficult or challenging thing about being a pastor?
The most difficult/challenging thing about being a Pastor is probably the fact that I am doing a difficult task (ministering the Word of God accurately and clearly, pastoring and counselling in a wide range of settings involving all kinds of people and problems) for which I will be judged more strictly, which requires not just technical abilities (in language, intellectual understanding, creativity, etc.) but above all godliness. In other words I can't snap at my wife or children in the morning and then go off to work effectively, in a way that might be possible in another kind of work. I need to keep a conscience void of offence before God and man in order to do this job.
2. What has surprised you the most about being a pastor?
The depths of sin and hypocrisy in my own heart - how I can fall prey to temptation even while engaged in the holiest of work, even while preaching a sermon. I suppose I've been surprised by the sins of others too, which as a Pastor I have been made aware of in a way that I wouldn't have been otherwise. And yet I've seen people at their best as well - it's surprising (though it shouldn't be) to see how people cope with the most difficult of circumstances by the grace of God.
3. What thing do you know now that you wish you knew when you first became a pastor?
I wish I had known how quickly the years would fly past, that every week counts, that I need to redeem the time, that there is never going to be a large chunk of empty time when I can read that book and so it's better to get on with it as soon as possible!
4. Knowing how essential and vital bible reading and prayer are, aside from these two—what other things do you do to keep motivated and encouraged?
The fellowship of like-minded men in the ministry is a great encouragement: good pastors' conferences are oases, especially where I can hear preaching live that will feed and water my own soul. Reading good Christian books for pleasure and not for work. Listening to good preaching online is the next best thing to hearing it live in a worship service. My wife is my best encourager, giving honest feedback lovingly.
5. Considering Paul’s explanation to Timothy of the biblical character traits of a truly gifted and called minster—what would you wish to elaborate or “add to” (you know what I mean) that list?
I'm always struck by how the qualifications for the elder have to do with character rather than gifts primarily. Not that gifts are irrelevant, but graces matter even more. And once you're in the ministry you realise how true this is. Robert Murray M'Cheyne said 'My people's greatest need is my personal holiness.' The longer I've gone on in the ministry the more I've appreciated this axiom. It relates to what I said on question 1 - the heart of the ministry is bound up in the heart of the minister.
6. Also considering this list—what trait does Paul mention that you would say is chief above all or absolutely essential?
What I said in q5 notwithstanding, the one quality that sets apart a man for the ministry is his ability to teach. All the other qualities are to be true of all Christian men. A minister must exemplify them in a blameless way (not perfectly, but without anything in his life that obviously disqualifies him on these counts), but this one is the exceptional one for the gospel minister. So I suppose if you're looking for something that sets a man apart from other godly Christian men, it's this one. But all are essential—if a man doesn't display them all to a high degree then he can't be an elder.
7. What frustrates you the most about being a pastor? And what do you think you could change or do to eliminate that frustration?
I am frustrated by people who join the church, who take solemn membership vows, and yet seem to have little interest in keeping those vows. Of course we all sin, we all fall short of our vows, but I get frustrated by those who are shocked and offended when I ask them to do what they have already bound themselves to do—to uphold some aspect of the church's teaching, or to submit to the leaders of the church even though they don't agree with what they have decided. Why did they join a Reformed church if their convictions aren't really Reformed? What did they think they were getting?! Perhaps my frustration is starting to show...! I try to remind myself that sanctification is a continual process, that Christians don’t all grow at the same rate, that some true believers are immature and need to be encouraged. I also try to make as clear as possible to prospective members of the church what it is they are signing up to when they join a Reformed church!
8. What do you find the most fulfilling and joyful about being a pastor?
As another Pastor put it long ago, 'I have no greater joy than to hear that my children are walking in the truth.' (3Jn 4). To see the members of the church responding in a godly way to the preaching of the word, to their afflictions, witnessing to their non-Christian friends, loving the brethren, delighting in the truth, bearing one another's burdens, forgiving one another and all of that - it makes all the agonies and heartaches worthwhile! And to see people converted through your ministry is a wonderful blessing and privilege. To see Christ saving, comforting, strengthening and teaching his sheep through my clumsy efforts is a wonderful experience.
9. What excites you? What gets you pumped up and motivated in the daily fulfillment of your ministry?
The knowledge that Christ is ministering to his people through me - my stumbling sermons, my counselling, my visiting - is a great motivator! Also the joy of sitting at the desk to study in depth the Word of God, to read the best of what the Spirit has taught the Church down through the ages, and then to pass it on to others - it's such a blessing to my own soul, never mind anyone else's!
10. What frightens you the most in the daily fulfillment of your ministry?
The knowledge that those who teach will be judged more strictly (Jas 3.1) and that I keep watch over the souls of the members of my church as one who will give an account (Hb 13.17) - that the King and Head of the Church is watching all I do and say, and my motives and desires that lie behind those words and actions. The thought of the Minister as a watchman who must give a clear warning to the lost is also a fearful one.
11. What are some common pitfalls or mistakes you have seen in other men, or even experienced yourself, you would most wish for men starting out to avoid?
I was warned not to spend all my time reading for sermon preparation, but to read widely across a range of theological topics. I fell into the trap of spending too long mining the text and commentaries and dictionaries. While it has certainly sharpened my exegetical skills, it was to the detriment of my general theological knowledge, and it's harder to find time to read in later years, especially if you have more pastoral work to do in a larger congregation.
I haven't prayed enough. I understand the vital primacy of prayer. I know Zech 4.6 by heart, but I don't pray as if I really believed it. I have worked very hard at my sermons and public ministry, but I haven't worked hard at the ministerial task of prayer (Ac 6.4). Who knows how much more blessing my labours might have known if I had prayed more?
12. What one piece of advice would you give to men starting out?
'Keep your heart with all vigilance, for from it flow the springs of life.' (Pr 4.23) I think this is profoundly true for pastoral ministry.
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