Results tagged “pastoral ministry” from Reformation21 Blog

Pastor, Keep Preaching the Gospel to Yourself!


Do you want to be a gospel-centered pastor? Just keep preaching the gospel. Doing so is much more than merely pinning John 3:16 to the tail of every sermon or conversation. The first person we must preach the gospel to is ourselves. The gospel must not merely be conceptualized as an abstract idea that we talk about but instead, what feeds our soul and compels our life and ministry. My ministry hero, Andrew Fuller (1754-1815), would often remind pastors, "The best way to hold fast the truth as a minister is to live upon it as a Christian."

A pastor's life must be built on the solid foundation of Jesus Christ and his gospel. As a pastor, I have found that when I am most discouraged, and my ministry starts feeling like drudgery, often it is because I have stopped thinking about the fact that, by God's grace, I am a Christian. Sometimes my pastoral work and responsibilities eclipse the foundational reality that I am a child of God. When this tragic eclipse happens, my focus in pastoral ministry goes straight to performance, people-pleasing, failures, fears, and frustration.

Pastors must also commit to preach the gospel to our congregation relentlessly. Again, doing so is more than merely tacking Jesus and the gospel onto a sermon but rather preaching and applying the biblical message in light of Jesus. Why is this so important? Why can't the preacher simply say true things from the Scripture without showing how it fits together in Christ? It is because, apart from Christ, there are no promises, there is no good news. No passage from the Bible has been truly expounded until the particular message of the text is integrated with the climax of God's revelation in Jesus Christ.

When ethical and moral imperatives are proclaimed as sufficient, even abstracted from Jesus, the result is a crossless Christianity in which the central message becomes a soul-deadening abstracted exhortation to try harder in order to live according to God's rules. Where this moralistic approach to preaching is embraced, the hearers who possess a seared conscience are invited to adopt an attitude of self-righteousness: according to their judgment, they are adequately living by God's rules. Whereas faithful believers with tender consciences may despair because they know that they consistently fall short of God's standard.

Preaching the gospel from the entire Bible is required theologically, pastorally, and missiologically of Christ's undershepherds. Theologically, because all Scripture is centered on him and finds its meaning in him. Pastorally, because the only true obedience anyone can render is the obedience of faith in Christ and his gospel. Missiologically, because there is no salvation for anyone apart from Jesus Christ.

Pastors have a myriad of responsibilities, but none can replace the preaching of the gospel. In fact, all other activities must be permeated with the gospel message. Doing what matters most, and the only thing that ultimately matters for eternity is possible for every single preacher. Relentlessly preaching the gospel is not dependent on budgets, platforms, giftedness, technology, or anything else. All it takes to preach the gospel in a constant willingness.

A few years ago, I heard from a pastor who was in South America on a mission trip preaching the gospel when a weeping man approached him. The man verified his name and then asked the pastor his father's name. When the pastor told him the man his father's name exclaimed,

"Thank you, Jesus!" Then the man said, "Fifty years ago, your father came on a mission team and shared his testimony through a translator. One of the men in the crowd was my father, and though he said nothing at the time, he trusted Christ that night. He taught me the gospel, and I was called to preach the gospel. I know your father's name because my father thanked God in prayer for your father's faithfulness until the day he died."

Pastor, just keep preaching the gospel to yourself, your congregation, and the whole world.

David E. Prince is pastor of preaching and vision at Ashland Avenue Baptist Church in Lexington, Kentucky and assistant professor of Christian preaching at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He is the author of In the Arena and Church: The Promise of Sports for Christian Discipleship and Church with Jesus as the Hero. He blogs at Prince on Preaching and frequently writes for The Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, For the Church, and Preaching Today.

A Peaceful Parting


I suspect that if we conducted a careful study, we would find that dissolving a pastor's call when he isn't expecting it or disagrees with his session's (or elder board's) assessment is one of the most common experiences of both unrest in our churches and deep pain in the life of a pastor and his family. It occurred to me recently that I've never talked to my session about this and encouraged them in how to do it well if the time should ever come. Men often learn the hard way how to avoid the worst mistakes, but only after a minister has been hurt and a congregation disrupted. With that in mind, I wrote a letter to my session that we'll also use in officer training from now on. Here's the substance of that letter.

First, I think it is important to impress upon you what you are doing, whether it is the right decision or not. Ministers are no different than anyone else. We derive a great deal of our identity from our vocation. If we are different in any way, it may be that we derive considerably more identity from it than most. It is a high calling, and one which we are specifically told in Scripture we will answer to God for at the judgment. Being told we aren't good at it (you don't have to say it--inviting us to leave says it quite effectively) is typically an earth-shaking experience. No, we shouldn't put so much stock in it. But we usually do.

This local congregation, for us as pastors, is often our entire world. These are my friends. This is my support network. I work here. I worship here. These are the people I celebrate with and mourn with and am growing old with. If I am at play, it is usually with parishioners. If I am at work, it is with my congregation. If I am in worship, it is with this local body. When a minister's call is dissolved, he suffers doubly. He not only loses this community, but he loses it in the very moment he needs it most. Of course, a minister needs to steel himself for this. And for this and so many other reasons he needs community outside his own parish. But no amount of such community can offset or seriously blunt the pain of losing this particular community.

And the pain and suffering of the moment is exponentially increased by the unavoidable reality that the minister's family is suffering as well. Though they may experience the vocational aspect as shame that their husband or father was found lacking or failed in some way, the communal aspects are typically shared equally with the minister. This suffering of the family is a weight all on its own. This wife and these children are losing all their friends and often their entire world. On top of this, the minister also adds it to his other sufferings. He feels responsible for their suffering. If he is rightly being terminated, then his failure is the cause. If he is wrongly being terminated, then it is at the hands of these men he trained and was responsible to lead. So, he feels betrayed, but also responsible for his own betrayal and the pain his family now feels.

Many tears have been shed at the burden of this pain and the loneliness that comes with it. It is enough to drive most men - perhaps especially the good ones - out of the ministry altogether. This is not to mention the potentially lasting effects on the family members and their faith.

I begin with all of this not in order to scare or shame you away from doing what you think is right and necessary, but to frame the consequences of your actions under the best of circumstances. My hope is that knowing this you will 1) proceed with utmost care and concern for the pastor and his family, even if you are frustrated with him and 2) at least attempt in good faith to mitigate these painful elements by ensuring that the pastor and family are tangibly cared for in the process.

Second, I want to admit that pastors are often their own worst enemies. Our own sin is enough to cause us to be terminated. An unwillingness to repent of it is even more problematic. And when a minister fights the session over his termination, it's very difficult for anyone to do any of this well. There are always two parties (at least!) in this thing and both must act in good faith and with humility. You, the session, cannot be wholly responsible for how the minister responds. You can, however, by means of how you conduct yourselves and the love which permeates your actions, do all in your power to ensure the best outcome. I ask no more than that.

Third, here are a few insights I want to leave with you that might help you avoid the most common pitfalls in this process.

There should be, at a minimum, an annual review conducted with the pastor.

1. The review should be closely coupled with the pastor's job description. If the pastor is in need of correction or redirection, this process gives the easiest and most obvious opportunity to do so. If he is falling short of expectations, this is the time to tell him. Such shortcomings should be recorded in writing and with the pastor's acknowledgment that he has heard them (whether he agrees or not). There should also be clear communication about what the standard is that he is expected to achieve, how quickly he is expected to correct the problem, steps he is expected to take to correct it if such steps are being dictated, as well as the potential consequences if he does not. Much pain has been caused by blindsiding a pastor. Perhaps a pastor should be more self-aware, but it is all too common for a minister to believe things are fine, only to get called to a meeting where everyone has already decided that he's finished. A pastor that is reasonably surprised to find himself in trouble has a valid complaint. Don't surprise the pastor with news that he is being let go.

Too seldom is this entire difficulty seen in the proper spiritual context. Devote significant time to prayer individually as an elder and collectively as a session. Pray for wisdom, patience, unity, and love. You are preparing to dismiss a man that you once affirmed was called by God to minister to your congregation. Surely this is a time to pray!

2. Don't wait to address issues. Too often I've observed circumstances where leadership is dissatisfied but they don't say anything until they can't stand it anymore. This leads to explosive interactions, a shocked and disoriented pastor, and few options but a swift parting of ways. Address things early. This permits a more collegial approach in which members of a team identify a problem and once defined, work together to arrive at a solution. This approach creates more options, allows for more love and mutuality, and tends far more toward the peace of the church.

3. Initial concerns should be discussed individually with the pastor. The worst thing an elder can do is circulate his concerns among the other elders without the pastor being given the courtesy of knowing he has failed to meet expectations. "Circulating the court" is considered inappropriate under any circumstances. To then have this inappropriate action directed at yourself as the pastor is quite hurtful. It may seem right to ask around, but it's not. Go to the pastor. Tell him your concerns. If you believe the other elders need to be made aware of your concerns, tell the pastor that, and then make them aware in the context of a session meeting in which the pastor is present.

4. Make up your own mind. A session works best when each man is properly called and equipped, and then exercises his gift by coming to his own convictional position. Elders who spend more energy reading the "winds of opinion" on the session or relying on the wisdom of other elders to make the decision for them aren't fulfilling their office. You will act collectively, but each of you must come to his own conviction about what is best here. The pastor's livelihood and everything I mentioned above hangs in the balance. You owe him and the congregation the best of your gifts to discern what is wise. This isn't the time to be lazy.

5. Consider alternatives to termination. Obviously, there will be circumstances where termination is warranted. Sometimes, even immediate termination with no warning (e.g. egregious sin) is the best or only clear option. However, it may be possible to hire someone to fill in where a pastor's gift set is thin. Or perhaps an extended sabbatical will resolve issues like fatigue or lack of vision. Maybe the pastor needs continuing education in an area of weakness. Sometimes termination is indeed the best option. But in cases where the pastor "just isn't getting it done anymore" consider why that's so and how it might be corrected. The needs of the church may have indeed changed, and a minister who was a perfect fit before isn't capable of providing the leadership that is needed now. Is termination the best way forward? Maybe. Maybe not.

6. Get the Presbytery involved. Presbyteries usually have a committee whose job is, in part, to enter into these situations. Non-denominational or independent churches sometimes have a council of local pastors that exercise some sort of oversight at the request of the elders. It is especially appropriate to get them involved early in cases where the problem is primarily a relational one. Let them bring the wisdom of pastors and ruling elders who aren't emotionally invested into the discussion. They can't force you to do anything that isn't already required of you in the BCO (in the case of a PCA church). But they can provide a much-needed perspective. This will also bring them into the pastor's circle - they will give him an outside set of eyes that can help him see things he otherwise can't see or doesn't want to see. There is much help available here. Avail yourselves of it. And do so sooner than later.

7. Provide the most loving possible exit plan. In cases where it is necessary to dissolve the pastor's call, and particularly where it is not a matter of sin, but simply of unmet expectations, the entire process should be one in which the pastor is lovingly treated. Practical ways (partly captured by the above encouragements), are to communicate with him clearly, often, and in a loving fashion. Seeking alternatives to termination will show your desire to care for him. Consider his spouse: how can you love her well through this? Ask the pastor that question and take seriously his response. Structure the exit in a way that leverages all the patience you can possible afford - give him time to find new employment, and the means to provide for his family during that window of time. The bottom line is that you should both say and show that you love him and his family. You may be frustrated with him right now, but if he has faithfully ministered to you in the past, show him the respect that he is due and don't dishonor him by treating him as a mere "employee." He is a man, a father, a husband, a brother in Christ, and at least at one time your faithful shepherd called by God and given to you as a gift. Remember the vows you took to care for him and keep those vows up to the end.

I know these words won't always apply in every situation. This letter can't possibly serve as a step-by-step guide in every case. Where it fails to give guidance, the watchword is love. Ministers are fallible, and in their own ways weak, men. The more faithfully they minister, the more exposed they are. Failure should not come as a surprise, then. Where their failures are moral, and particularly where there is repentance, treat them as brothers-in-arms who have been wounded in battle. It may mean the end of their service as your pastor, but not as your brother in Christ.

Rev. Matthew Bradley is the pastor of All Saints Presbyterian Church in Brentwood, TN. Matt also teaches at New College Franklin in Franklin, TN (Systematic and Biblical Theology, New Testament Greek).

Ministering to Felt Needs


There was this nice, new family who was visiting your church for the past month or so. But you haven't seen them now for a couple weeks, and so you ask someone who was more connected with them: "What happened to the Jones family?"

"Oh," your friend responds, "they didn't feel our church was meeting their needs."

You exchange eye rolls, and the conversation moves on.

Now, I don't know the Jones family, but in another sense, I do. Because I'm the Jones family. And you're the Jones family. I don't mean that in some sort of pantheistic, or V for Vendetta revolution kind of way, but in the way that makes us a little slower to roll our eyes at a family leaving (or joining) a church for that reason. First we should understand what these felt needs are, and then distinguish the category into which they fall. Are the felt needs something that:

  1. Our church should meet, but doesn't
  2. Our church would like to meet, but can't (usually for reasons of size and resources)
  3. Our church does not want to meet, and therefore will never meet

If we examine the reasons by these categories, we will probably find most people falling into the first two. In Reformed circles though, because we are allergic to the phrase "felt needs", we automatically place many people hungry for those to be met into the third category. Then we will happily reclaim them once they have matured in their appetite for "solid food".

There is good reason behind this visceral reaction against ministering to felt needs. We want to affirm the primacy of the glory of God, which, as fallen human beings, seldom cracks the top five on our list of felt needs. So instead we strive to show people that we have misaligned desires, and that in order to flourish fully, the Lord Jesus Christ must take the throne at the center of our desires, and we must work with His Spirit to subordinate all of our other felt needs, channeling them towards knowing and enjoying Christ.

But what we miss in that above declaration is the little motivational phrase: "in order to flourish fully." That's a felt need. We dare not set up the Christian life as a set of doctrines and imperatives abstracted from the "why" of fulfilling our purpose as human beings. The truth is we all seek Christ in order to satisfy felt needs, the most basic one being our need for relationship with God. Jesus was not shy about satisfying even the crassest of felt needs as a pointer to the fact that Christ has come to satisfy our deepest, most eternal needs.

When large crowds gathered to hear Jesus preach (Matthew 14,15), he did not scoff at them because, by the end, they were less interested in redemptive history than getting some bread and fish. Jesus was continually healing people of diseases, and casting out demons. He did warn people not to stop or be content with seeking for that superficial level of satisfaction, but he urged them to go on to want more, to want not just water to quench thirst, but to have the source of thirst-quenching inside of you. The fact that Jesus and His church meet simple, low level felt needs is not an obstacle, but a pointer towards Jesus' capacity to meet the deeper needs we are less aware of.

Let's take two extreme examples to see how we can affirm "wrong" felt needs people attempt to satisfy when they come to worship.

1) Entertainment. We do not want worship to be entertainment, right? But is it wrong if someone is entertained by a worship service? What are the underlying desires which cause people to seek out more banal entertainment outlets? Is there any good desire God has placed within the human heart which entertainment satisfies, and which therefore points to God? People want to be part of something engaging, exciting, relatable, and which takes them out of themselves. Are we so sure we want none of that in worship?

2) Chore. We never want worship to feel like a chore, right? We don't want people simply showing up to church because they think they have to, do we? Or is there anything underlying someone's desire to do something as a chore, which we can affirm as good in how we relate to God? Is there any sense of obligation or duty which we owe to God, or of doing something we know is good and right, and helpful, even when we don't always feel like it in that moment?

Felt needs can serve as a starting block, or even guideposts along our life, as we see how Christ provides the answers to the things we care about the most, not necessarily because we've latched onto the absolute best things, but because all things are in Him and through Him. (Rom 11:36). 

Justin Poythress is the Assistant Pastor of Student Ministry at Christ Community Church in Carmel, IN.

When Discontent Sheep Show Up


Most pastors have heard the complaints of visitors coming from other local churches. It is not uncommon for believers to grow discontent with their circumstances and begin looking elsewhere for a new church family at some point in their Christian lives. In America, it is all too easy to leave one congregation and join a new one a few steps down the road; but, pastors and churches need wisdom to know how to engage discontent sheep.

Faithful local churches want to grow through the redemption of sinners. Through evangelistic efforts and the consistent administration of the ordinary means of grace, there should be a healthy expectation that there will be new believers joining the church periodically. However, the most significant growth in most local churches is Christians transferring their membership from other local churches. Almost 60% of American churches have an average of 75 members, so it's refreshing and can be exciting to see new faces with new and different gifts. It is not wrong to want to see the church grow, but it should never be without several important considerations.

It can be easy to fall into the snare of entertaining the unrighteous comments of discontent sheep when they come from other congregations. C.S. Lewis brilliantly described the allure of comparison when he explained the true nature of pride in Mere Christianity. Lewis wrote, 

"Pride gets no pleasure out of having something, only out of having more of it than the next man... It is the comparison that makes you proud: the pleasure of being above the rest. Once the element of competition is gone, pride is gone." 

A pastor must guard against comparing himself or his church to other pastors or local churches. There can be an unrighteous tendency to prey on those who may not be thinking clearly about their circumstances for want of a new church member. Pastors should always be quick to remember that for every discontent sheep that comes to them from another congregation, there are more than likely sheep in their own congregation that have done the same thing at other times. Proverbs 18:17 provides the helpful reminder that, "The one who states his case first seems right, until the other comes and examines him." Pride is a pernicious evil that can only serve to drive a wedge between churches and their leaders who should instead be encouraging and praying for one another, hoping for each other's growth and faithfulness in their shared community. The "golden rule" certainly applies in the relationships between churches and their members (Matthew 7:12; Luke 6:31).

Pastors should make an effort to meet with the discontent sheep from other faithful local churches who have visited, and should be prepared to ask several pointed questions: What is so bad at their church that Christians can't be reconciled to one another or problems solved in a godly manner (Matthew 5:24)? Have they done everything possible to live peaceably with the members and leadership of the church they're leaving (Romans 12:18; Hebrews 12:14)? Are they filled with any malice, strife, deceit, jealousy, anger, or hostility, or are they engaging in gossip (Romans 1:29; 2 Corinthians 12:20)? Pastors should be careful to not listen to the discontent ramblings of a bitter spirit, but should instead seek to encourage the brother or sister to remove the log from their own eye and make a new attempt at reconciliation (Matthew 7:5), or even offer to act as a mediator if the issue is with the leadership of the other church.

There are certainly cases when the discontentment of sheep is legitimate and they have good reasons to leave their church. Sadly, churches can be abusive and authoritarian, or they can be heretical. Additionally, a Christian should have a general desire to be in their church knowing that there is substantial agreement on doctrine and philosophy of ministry. If things change, there may be very legitimate reasons for a believer to look for a new church family. Likewise, Christians are never obligated to remain in a local church and nobody can insist that they must. Church membership is a vital aspect of the Christian life; but, Christians need to be members of a faithful local church, not necessarily any one church that they may have joined at some particular point in time.

Nevertheless, when pastors are not careful to ask the right questions, to challenge gossip or uncharitable comments, or to insist on attempts at reconciliation, there is a subtle undermining of the other church that takes place. Often, the issues that cause discontent sheep to leave their churches are not informed by all of the necessary details to make a decision. Sometimes there are bits of information that are not known and sometimes cannot be divulged. So it is important for local pastors to develop healthy relationships with other local pastors so that when a discontent sheep shows up from another church, the pastors of each congregation can talk openly about the best steps forward. There is no room for ministerial greed in the Kingdom of God; it does great harm to the church at large and only serves to fuel the pride of men. Churches need not have territorial, competitive spirits. The churches of God should want the best for one another, and how we interact with discontent sheep from each other's churches can go a long way in being a united, faithful, God-glorifying presence in our communities.

Doing Doctrine Pastorally?


As Reformed churches face an array of social challenges and pastoral concerns, I have found the idea spreading that we must "do" doctrine pastorally. That is, we must decide the Bible's teaching based on how we think it will impact our hearers. Most recently, we see this occurring with respect to men and women struggling with homosexual desires. The doctrine in question does not concern homosexual behavior, on which evangelicals are agree, but on how the Bible understands same-sex orientation (SSA). In my opinion, the Bible's actual teaching is not seriously in doubt. The desire or orientation toward homosexual sin is not categorically different than other impulses to sin. Not only are we not to engage in the sinful behavior, but we must also mortify the desires toward the sin in question. Jesus even put his emphasis on the inward condition over the overt sinful acts:

"What comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this defiles a person. For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander. These are what defile a person" (Mt. 15:18-20).

The same focus on sinful desire is found in James 1:14-15: "each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire.  Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin." (The words for desire - epithumia - does not mean temptation, as is being said, but clearly relates to an inward orientation.)   According to Jesus and James, not to multiply other biblical citations, in order to combat sinful actions one must purify the heart.

Given the clarity of the biblical data, it may seem surprising that many purportedly Bible-believing people take a differing view when it comes to same sex attraction. When it comes to this struggle (and apparently only this one), we change our approach. Instead of mortifying homosexual desires by the power of God through the means of grace, in this one case we tell people that while they must not act on their impulses they may still "flourish" within an SSA identity.

At this point in the conversation I find myself being the socially offensive one by asking, "But isn't that contrary to what the Bible says?" Almost invariably, the reply will speak of the enormous psychological suffering SSA people have experienced, and often an accusation that if people like me had their way we would subject all such people to electric shock therapy (I promise, I have never electrically shocked anyone, though I have threatened to do so when my teenage children won't get out of bed!). But then comes the rub: "we want to do our doctrine pastorally." Doing doctrine pastorally seems, therefore, to mean that we shrink back from stating the biblical truth when we think it will hurt.

Against this relevant backdrop, let me offer 3 reasons why while we should certainly be pastoral as we declaring biblical truth, we nonetheless should never "do doctrine pastorally":

  1. We have no right to do so. The idea that pastors have the duty and/or wisdom to compromise Scripture where we think it will be painful is worrisome in the extreme. In some cases, this practice risks earning the label of false teaching. The Bible insists on exactly the opposite: "We refuse to practice cunning or to tamper with God's word, but by the open statement of the truth we would commend ourselves to everyone's conscience in the sight of God" (2 Cor. 4:2).
  2. We have Jesus' example. One thing Jesus never did was tone down the requirements of God's Word out of sympathy for his hearers (and let us not think Jesus less sympathetic to struggling sinners than we are). Consider Mark 10:11-12. Jesus had answered the Pharisees' "test" regarding divorce by insisting on the standard of Genesis 2: "What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate" (Mk. 9:9). The disciples were shocked! Mark says they asked Jesus about this privately and Matthew 19:10 shows they thought it better not to marry if one could not divorce. So what did Jesus do? Did he "do his doctrine pastorally," not giving offense or challenging them to hard things? Far from it! Instead, Jesus doubled down, insisting that to divorce unbiblically and remarry was to commit adultery (Mk. 10:11-12).
  3. We have no need to. Not only can we be both doctrinally faithful to Scripture and pastorally compassionate to struggling sinners, but we must always do both together. It is not unloving to speak biblical truth, even in extraordinarily challenging situations, when we follow up with personal encouragement, pastoral support, and a loving commitment to pray. In truth, this is the only really loving thing for us to do.

In conclusion, I wonder if in the face of today's social challenges we have simply lost confidence in God and his Word. Do we think our wisdom higher than that recorded in Scripture? It seems that we may. Do we think the Bible's demands for godliness are just too hard? When it comes to mortifying a confused sexual identity, it seems that many Christians do think it is impossible. If this is our attitude - questioning God's Word and doubting God's power - we have good company in the disciples who followed Jesus. Just after the episode where Jesus taught on marriage, the disciples expressed the impossibility of what Jesus demanded. Jesus' answer to us is not only true but it is the most compassionate and loving position we can espouse: "With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible" (Mt. 19:26).

When Preaching is Not Your Thing...


Pastoral ministry is exceedingly difficult; and, anyone would be hard pressed to find a pastor who hasn't entertained the thought of what life would be like if he were to do something else. Loving God, His church, and His people is a vital prerequisite for ever pastor, but if he doesn't love the work of the ministry, he will very quickly lose the hope and motivation necessary to persevere. Pastors without the requisite calling, qualifications and gifting are prime candidates for tragic failures. There are numerous books and articles available to help convince men to enter into or stay in the ministry. But, there is not much out there to help a man discern whether or not it's time to pack it up. Here are a few things to consider when seeking to discern whether or not it's time to move on:

Preaching Matters

As the principle, ordinary means of grace, preaching is supremely important. Honest preachers will admit that we all have good and bad sermons; but, if our spiritual gifts truly are what we assume them to be, we ought to most frequently be providing helpful insight from the Word of God that inspires further study and deeper devotion for our hearers. Everything we do won't be a home run; but, if we don't at least have consistent base hits, perhaps we need to consider whether or not a pulpit ministry is the best fit. In a day when many churches are without a pastor it's easy to overlook serious indicators that a man may not be fit for regular preaching. This is not to say anything of the man's godliness, his pursuit of holiness, his understanding of or love for the Scriptures. It is not even to question a man's zeal for preaching and teaching. However, just as I have a great zeal for being a PGA tour professional golfer, my gifting in that particular area is significantly lacking--to say the least.

Many church leaders are unwilling to tell young men who aspire for ministry that they are simply not gifted. Churches must be more discerning when sending a man to seminary, and seminary professors should also be honest with men as to whether they should consider other areas of service. The assumption is often that saying such things is harsh or overly critical--or, that a man may be a poor preacher or teacher now, but given enough time, he will improve. Perhaps he will make strides, but the best environment to do so is in a homiletics class or filling pulpits as a seminarian, not after he has received a call to stand in the pulpit of his own congregation every Sunday. Sometimes churches assume that because a man is a gifted Sunday school teacher or small group leader that he is qualified to be a preacher. Weekly pulpit ministry is a far different undertaking than teaching a Sunday School class. To suggest otherwise is unfair to both the man and to the congregation he is called to serve. 1 Timothy 3:1 says, "If anyone aspires to the office of overseer, he desires a noble task," and so long as the man is godly, there's often an unwillingness to consider whether or not his aspirations for ministry are commensurate with being "able to teach" (1 Timothy 3:2). Sometimes it is difficult to tell someone they are not what they assume themselves to be. However, the all-too-common wreckage of a failed ministry is far worse than hurt feelings and a call to serious self-assessment.

Caring for the Body

A man may be a gifted orator in a pulpit, but doesn't possess the necessary gifts to care for God's people in the broader range of pastoral work like counseling and visitation. Very few pastorates are "preaching only" positions, and those that aren't require a man to spend significant amounts of time caring for the body of Christ. Pastors who aren't willing and able to meet with people in the church to provide biblical counsel, to visit them in the hospital, to sit with them as they die, or to rejoice with them when a child is born or a major life milestone is hit likely aren't cut out for pastoral ministry. Again, this is not to say anything negative about the man's godliness or desire, but how God has (and has not) gifted him.

Associate Pastors

Some men may not be gifted preachers, but are skillful Bible study teachers, biblical counselors, and possess excellent organizational skills. Unfortunately, these important gifts are often downplayed--making the role of an associate pastor far less desirable to a man than being in the pulpit each week. Jason Helopoulus has explained that "good assistant pastors are hard to find." Most seminary graduates aren't applying to churches with the express intent of taking on and remaining in an associate role. Many associate pastor positions are thought of as proving grounds and launching pads to eventually replace the senior pastor or be sent off to another ministry in time. But for some men, being an associate pastor is the best way they can serve the church. In reality, many churches would fail miserably without the careful attention to detail and organizational skills that a good associate pastor often provides.

Refusing to Step Away

Every pastor has bad days, weeks, months, and years of ministry and may be tempted to quit The answer is not always that he shouldn't. Some men may have a strong sense that they are, in fact, not qualified for pastoral ministry. Nevertheless, they refuse to quit. One reason why many who should leave the pastorate stay is that a lot of time and money has been invested in helping him get into the pastorate. Besides, many will ask themselves what else they are qualified to do? Churches have entrusted the souls of the people to this man and are depending on him to persevere. Doesn't the church need him? And who hasn't heard that pastoral ministry is unlike any other career because it's a "calling." Once a man has a "calling," how can he walk away from it? Others lock themselves into the pastorate out of fear of others or because they have an unbiblical understanding of the call to ministry.

Do You Think It's Time?

During a particularly difficult season of ministry, a mentor wisely counseled me to never make big decisions when things are at their worst. Sometimes a pastor just needs to press through the fire because the fire is intended by God to make us more like Christ. So before you decide to call it quits, take a few other steps first:

1. Pray, asking God for the wisdom you need. Every pastor should have some sense that God has called him into the ministry; but, we can easily misconstrue a desire or interest for ministry with being appropriately gifted and called by God. More than anything, we need God to make clear to us what we can do to be of best use to His church, even if that means serving in another capacity.

2. Talk to your wife and elders--they should be the most honest with you. These are the people God has called to help you navigate the difficult waters of ministry and life. And, if your elders are the kind of men that God wants them to be, they will lovingly, graciously, and honestly assess your gifts with you to help you determine whether or not you're doing the right thing. Perhaps you're better suited to being an associate pastor or serving in another ministry within the church.

3. Make sure you're not walking away just because it's tough. So you'll never be Charles Spurgeon in the pulpit--there was only one. But, just because preaching each week is a difficult task, and just because counseling sessions don't always go how you hope, and just because people leave the church and say nasty things to you on the way out doesn't mean your gifts are lacking. The ministries into which God has called his men to serve will be fraught with difficulties. After all, the people we pastor are a lot like us--sinful, broken, and in need of a lot of forgiveness and grace. Additionally, there will be many challenges without because of the world and the devil. When Paul wanted to give Timothy an illustration for ministry, he drew one from the arena of warfare (1 Tim. 6:12) because of the harship that he would have to endure. 

4. Try to discern whether or not you are merely depressed and need a break. Find a biblical counselor you can trust and let them help you walk through what you're thinking. In the end, you may find that your problem isn't ministry, but something else that you haven't taken the time to think about. You make simply need time off or a vacation to help you get realligned. Even Charles Spurgeon would have to go to the seaside for extended periods on account of health and energy deficiencies (for more on Spurgeon's afflcitions, read Zack Eswine's book, Spurgeon's Sorrows). 

If you've done these things and still have a sense that it's time to step away, do so in a gentle, patient and wise manner before God and His people. No matter how obvious it may be to others that it may be time for you to move on, inevitably there will be some who are surprised and some who are hurt by the decision. Though you cannot live to please everyone, you can labor to help them understand why stepping aside is not only good for you but for the entire church. Whenever possible, seek to be a blessing to the man who steps into the pulpit after you. In doing so, perhaps you'll find that God uses your humility to bring about a great harvest in the season ahead.

Before You Go...


I have served the same small congregation for over seven years now. I am not one of those who would consider myself to have had phenomenal success in the ministry--by most metrics. We did not grow exponentially and send out a dozen missionaries and pastors. We have grown. We have shrunk. We have grown again.

I have had discontent individuals complain over the fact that our church did not have enough elderly members, not enough programs, an unpaved parking lot, that I did not dress nicely enough, that my wife looks too young, there are too many kids, that there are not enough kids, that we sing too many old hymns, that we do not sing enough old hymns, and so on. There seems to be no shortage of illegitimate reasons why people leave a local church in which they are truly loved, pastored, and held up in prayer.

When members leave for unbiblical reasons, the faithful pastor has to fight the unsanctified tendency to envy the churches around me that appear to be more successful on account of their attendance. The faithful pastor is tempted to sometimes too quickly label other pastors as "wolves," "sellouts," or "ear-itchers." The faithful pastor has to listen to all kinds of suggestions from people in the church about what they think would make the church grow with discernment and the consensus of the eldership without attempting everything or rejecting everything. The faithful pastor has to preach the gospel to himself regularly and remember that it is ultimately God who grows the church. As a dear friend and pastor once told me after a church split, "Chris, God did not call you to be successful; He called you to be faithful."

No matter the size of the church you attend, your pastor is always aware that there are bigger churches. He is assaulted and accused by the evil one, and he struggles with the balance between viewing himself as both the sinner and the child of God. He often wonders whether the church would be better off with another pastor, but loves the congregation too much to leave.

Your pastor probably will never tell you many of the things that he struggles with internally because he doesn't want to discourage you. You need to know he has thought about quitting everything and taking up a secular job. You need to know that he feels the sting of betrayal when someone leaves the church. You need to know that he weeps when the sheep bite and run away.

You need to know these things in order to know how to encourage your pastor. You cannot force people to stay, but you can keep yourself from contributing to the pastor's sorrow. These things will also make you a better servant of the Kingdom of God.

If you are a member of a church, take a good look around at the churches in your area. Talk to pastors, visit services, and focus on the major elements. Is the theology sound? Is the preaching consistent? Are they organized by scriptural principles regarding leadership, church membership, and discipline? Be critical in your search, but be expedient, and set your roots. Here are six things to keep in mind before you decide to leave a local congregation:

1. Be in the church. First, this means to actually attend services. When the doors are open, and it is possible for you to be there, be there. Secondly, it means being in the church, dedicated and emotionally attached. Are there difficult people in the church? That's a wonderful opportunity for you to treat them with the love of Christ! Are there old hymns you do not know? Wonderful! You can examine the theology of those hymns and learn while you try to sing. Are there little children that get bored and distracted during the sermon? Great! You now have tiny souls that you are reminded to pray for and you have opportunity to encourage parents as they raise their children in the faith. Examine yourself with a flood lamp and your pastor with a candle.

2. Do not be concerned with other local churches. This goes two ways. Do not be consumed with how awful some churches in your area appear, and do not be consumed with how great other churches seem to be. While not absolutely the same, there is roughly a parallel between the relationship of the church and that of marriage. Looking around and comparing your spouse to other people you know is fatal. One of the best lessons we can learn from Song of Solomon is the way in which the spouses are instant with songs of praise for the other. God put you in a particular church at this time and it will only be destructive to be "browsing." When other gospel-preaching churches are growing in your area, praise God for working in them, and return to serving the local congregation to which you have committed. Resist the urge to nurture the thought, "Would I be happier if I were there?" The grass only looks greener over there. You almost certainly cannot see the thorns.

3. Bloom where you are planted. God put you there to serve him, to grow, glorify His name, and be an ambassador for His kingdom. Ask not what your church can do for you, but what you can do for your church.

4. Do not idolize the "internet pastor." By all means, listen to the sermons of great men. Read books by gifted theologians and pastors. Find ministries that are doctrinally sound and glean from them. But remember, those men do not know you, they do not pray for you, they will not visit you when you are sick or on the brink of a divorce. Your pastor may not be as brilliant or eloquent, but a big part of it is that he is spending his time tending the flock while the theologian is reading and writing. Your pastor is aware that he is not Charles Spurgeon.

5. Do not leave lightly. After someone leaves a congregation on account of discontentment, there is a stall in the growth of the saints--especially for the pastor. Your pastor has been praying for you, preparing spiritual meals for you, and striving to serve you. Even if you leave and another person comes, he will feel the pain of your departure. Keep in mind that when a congregant leaves because of unbiblical discontentment, your pastor will be tempted to start believing that he is unfit for ministry. There is not a scriptural precedence for leaving a true church, and I am convinced that it is sin to leave for reasons other than moving, church-planting, or significant and clear biblical reasons.

6. If you do move on from a particular congregation, leave in peace. It is always a temptation for a departing person or family to try to take the best with them. This is divisiveness and sinful. Unless the church you left is a full-blown cult teaching heresy, do not poach sheep. You sin against Christ's bride by luring others away. If you are leaving for legitimate reasons, be honest with your elders about those reasons, but be tactful and brief if you must explain to others so that you do not sow seeds of discord.

I understand the appeal of reliving that church honeymoon period where everyone is nice to you and whatever work you do is thoroughly applauded. I believe Satan's most effective tactic is often to keep Christians impotent by moving them from church to church. When he does, there is perpetual delay to the work to which they once belonged. Your pastor does his best work when he is encouraged by the spiritual growth and commitment of the saints.

I pray that God presses these things upon your heart in such a way that you can best serve Him in His church. To God be the glory.

Chris Marley is the pastor of Miller Valley Baptist Church in Prescott, AZ. Chris has a M.Div. from Westminster Seminary California (from the Institute of Reformed Baptist Studies).

How to Discourage Your Minister in the New Year


I recently had someone come to see me who was struggling in their church. In all honesty it would have been hard to be more depressed by what they had to say. I had very little sympathy with their complaints and told them if they wanted affirmation I was the wrong man to whom they should come. However, on account of their coming to me, I want to give you 6 ways to discourage your minister in the New Year:

1. Attend Worship Services irregularly and be unreliable - Maybe attend 2 out of 4 services, sometimes 3 out of 4, but make sure it's irregular. Nothing depresses ministers like people not being in church. The other thing to do is, when you're asked about it, be defensive, clearly show to the person who's asking that you're ok and it's no big deal; the church should be grateful you are there at all. If you're asked to do something, or are on a rota, try to pull out as late as possible or even just not show up.

2. Grumble, moan and complain. - This is an obvious one but when you speak to people about church make them aware how unhappy you are, how unfriendly folk are, how the church isn't focussed on you and people like you, that you don't get much out of the preaching, songs are not good, nobody cares and throw in 'It's not just me that feels like this'. Compare and contrast with other churches who do things better, preferably bigger churches that have more resources.

3. Focus on minutiae of church life. - Chairs, coffee, timings of meeting, musicians, service schedules, publicity.

4. Speak to others in the congregation but not the leadership - This way word gets back to the leadership through others, 'Some people are saying...' ordinarily this is normally one person but nobody likes to name names so they will instead couch it in the plural.

5. When you come to worship, try to arrive late and leave as soon as possible. - It's really difficult to catch folk who come late and leave immediately after the service. By doing this you're not giving people the opportunity to speak into your life but it does allow you to use the 'No one really speaks to me' line.

6. Take things personally. - If there's an invitation that you didn't get, a notice that was given that was poorly worded, an email that didn't mention you, a thanks that was given by someone in church leadership that overlooked you, a joke that you didn't appreciate, someone who didn't get to speak to you on a particular Sunday - make sure you take these as a personal slight and hold on to it.

On the positive side of this have a watch of Ligon Duncan - How to encourage your Pastor.

In Defense of the Sabbatical

Pastoral ministry often feels like a 24/7 calling. A pastor can't leave the care of the people of God at the door of the office when the clock strikes 5 PM. While pastoring in the First World requires considerably less sacrifice than it does in most parts of the Second or Third World, it has its own unique challenges and sacrifices. Late night counseling sessions, sudden emergencies and hospital visitations pull a pastor away from spending time with his wife and children. There are the challenges of overseeing staff members. There is the important labor of identifying, training and leading elders and deacons. There is the opening of the home to visitors and members alike. If he belongs to a denomination, there might be quarterly meetings and committee work. In a smaller church, it is not uncommon for the solo minister to have the primary responsibility of giving oversight and guidance to the administrative needs. Then there are the undesirable burdens of discontent and divisive individuals in the church. Add to these the challenges posed by opposition in the community and one can begin to grasp the wearisome nature of ministry. 

The pastor's family also makes exceptional sacrifices. A solo pastor's children don't see him very much on the weekend when most other fathers spend quality time with their families. The children of senior or solo pastors will almost never know the benefit of having their father sit next to them in the service in order to teach them how to worship. A pastor's wife helps carry the weight of the burdens that weigh down the heart of her husband. Even when a pastor wisely protects his wife from knowing details about congregants that she does not need to know, he cannot protect her from knowing that he is burdened by a number of aspects in the life of the congregation. No matter how many protections a minister may put in place to guard himself and his family, the demands of ministry always take an extraordinary toll on pastors and on their families. It is no surprise that we see so many pastors falling into sin on account of not taking time to feed their souls spiritually. One can easily begin to see why it would do local churches a world of good to grant their pastor(s) suitable vacation time, days off, study leave and Sabbaticals. 

In his excellent 2007 article, "Taking Care of Your Pastor," Chad Van Dixhoorn  writes:

"Increased vacation, adequate study-leave, and regular sabbaticals (along with the more creative ideas that you may have) could aid churches in their quest for ministers who are both godly and gifted. It may aid those whose abilities need room to grow or provide someone with the time to write...It will help seasoned pastors ward off that extreme weariness that causes so many to fail, and will help new pastors get a good start in their ministries."

I am writing this a week away from a short Sabbatical that our elders graciously built into my call package when we organized in May of 2015. To that end, I wanted to explain one or two aspects of Sabbaticals that churches might want to consider. Historically, ministerial Sabbaticals have been viewed differently than extended vacation time. A man may get 3-6 months off in order to work on a project that he has not had time to work on with his regular schedule. This may include vacationing in a spot where he can work on a book, dissertation or some other pastorally related project.

While churches that give their pastors Sabbaticals generally give them 3-6 months leave from their pastoral duties, pastors face certain dangers when they are away from the congregation for that length of time. For instance, many pastors have grown discontent when they are away from pastoral work for several months. It is easy to convince oneself that you need a new pastorate, while you are away from the burdens of ministry and sitting on the porch of a farmhouse or in a chair on the beach. In turn, some ministers end up using their Sabbatical to look for a new call without telling the elders of the church. Another danger is that members in the congregation who are discontent with the pastor can seek to take advantage of the pastor's absence in order to stir up sinful dissent among other members of the flock. While the ruling elders of the church ought to be competent to protect against such dissension, discontentment can be powerful and spread swiftly when the pastor is not in clear sight. 

One way pastors can guard against the potential dangers that might accompany a Sabbatical is for them to ask the elders to divide the Sabbatical up into smaller breaks over a few years. That was the approach that I took with the elders at New Covenant. Rather than take a whole 3 months at once, I asked for 3 months broken up over a 3 year period  (3-4 weeks a year above and beyond my vacation time). This has worked out quite nicely. It has given me an extended break and an opportunity to work on writing while spending more time with my family at the beach or mountains. It has also given me a zeal to get back to the pastoral call to which the Lord has called me. 

However, in whatever shape or form it may take, I would encourage all local churches and sessions to show love to their pastor(s) by granting the adequate time for them to rest their bodies, refresh their souls, recalibrate with their families and refocus their labors. I am certain that the members of the congregation that does so will ultimately also be the beneficiaries of the blessing of the pastoral Sabbatical. 

Being Pence-ive about Dinner with the Ladies


Adultery among any people group is a serious and dreadful act in this fallen world. In fact, in an increasingly fatherless culture where divorce is becoming more and more the rule rather than the exception, one would argue that this is empirically verifiable. When a pastor, who is supposed to be the undershepherd of the people of God commits the sin of adultery, however, it is especially egregious and brings deep shame upon the Gospel, ruins his local congregation, and is an assault on the purity of Christ's Church.

I was ordained to pastoral ministry last November. It was, at the same time, the one year anniversary of my own mentor's departure from the ministry. This man left ministry because of his serious, adulterous moral failings. That same year another prominent minister left his church in Florida for similar reasons. Earlier that year a flood of pastors (and laymen) suffered the consequences of having their families broken apart because their online marital infidelity was exposed in the sight of the world. If there is anything that I learned from that flood of nightmares that took place around me leading up to my ordination, it was that no one is above sin. No one is so strong as to be immune to falling into temptation.

Earlier this week Vice President Mike Pence made news when it was revealed that, as a rule, he doesn't dine alone with a woman who isn't his wife, nor does he attend events with alcohol unless she's by his side. This revelation was met roundly with ridicule, mockery, and in some quarters accusations of misogyny--sadly, even among quite a number of fellow believers on social media.

As soon as I saw the headlines, I realized that if the world thinks Pence is weird, to quote my favorite version of the Joker, "Wait til they get a load of me." The fact is, this sounds not only like my own life and practice, but also like many (if not most) of my friends in pastoral ministry. After all, we've watched innumerable ministers fall like dominoes, as their families fall apart and their decades long marriages come to an end. All I can think is, "Why would we not seek to be as careful as possible in order to preserve the honor of Christ, as well as our wives and families?"

Does this mean that a pastor who has a policy similar to this can't have godly and mature relationships with sisters in the Lord? Does it mean that we are not allowed to foster friendships with the opposite sex? Certainly not. Anyone who draws such a conclusion, I suspect, is working with more of a caricature than real life. There are many practical things that a pastor can put in place, generally exercising common sense (e.g. having windows in his office, keeping others nearby when he has meetings, letting his wife know when and where he is meeting with another woman, etc.).

Women are ultimately not the problem. Women are not de facto the enemies of married men. Rather, all men are easily seduced by their own hearts. James tells us that: "Each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire" (James 1:14). When a man (like Mike Pence) does his level best to never be in isolation with another woman, he isn't necessarily saying something about the woman; he is saying something about his own heart. He is functionally saying, "I am not always strong. I am never self-sufficient. I don't want to give a place for sin to happen, or for others to even think that a sin has happened."

I recently preached a sermon in which I compared the sin of Judas (which was premeditated and extremely well thought out) to the sin of Peter (which was spontaneous and unexpected). In contrast to Judas, Peter was shocked by his own sin. Why did Peter swear over and over again that he would rather die than deny Jesus? Because at the moment, he wasn't planning to deny Jesus. Just because we aren't premeditating a sin doesn't mean that we aren't capable of or liable to commit it. Peter learned that lesson the hard way.

I am not suggesting that all men (or, even all pastors) must take the same steps as Vice President Pence. I am, however, insisting that men who make a similar course of action their policy not be accused of wrongdoing by those who do not. For some, what the Vice President does may be considered too careful. For some it may be seen to be above and beyond what they consider reasonable. Some may even mock such men and tell them that they are "scared" or "afraid" or "insecure." It's never possible to completely stop people from putting a nasty spin on your decisions to safeguard the church, your life, or your family. However, I've witnessed enough men, in my own life, who have become statistics--men who are still shattered by the sin in their own lives--that I refuse to treat anyone who exercises such care with disdain or disrespect.

Adam Parker is a Teaching Elder in the Presbyterian Church in America and Pastor of Pearl Presbyterian Church in Pearl, Mississippi. He has an Mdiv from Reformed Theological Seminary in Jackson, Mississippi, and is the Associate Editor of Reformation 21.

A Pastoral Letter to Myself (In the Case that I Fall)


Dear Self,

You're much weaker than you think. Remember that Scripture says, "Let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall" (1 Corinthians 10:12). It's easy to look at men who have fallen in ministry with a hint of disgust and harsh judgment when they don't simply disappear. But, let's be honest; you know how much you would struggle to fade away from public life if the same thing happened to you. Pernicious pride is always lingering within. God-forbid that this letter ever becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy; but if it should, pursue humility, accountability and godliness. By God's grace, diligently pursue repentance and holiness. If you should sin in such a way that you are no longer qualified to serve in pastoral ministry, please put the following counsel in practice:

1. Remember that you only have yourself to blame.

Ever since the garden, man instinctively seeks to shift blame on others for his sin. You're like your father, Adam. Remember the way in which he sought to blame even God for giving him Eve; and, remember how he blamed Eve for giving him the fruit (Genesis 3:12)? Guard against the temptation to blame others for your own sin. As a Christian, you are not obligated to sin; and, when you do sin, it is a willful transgression against the Law of God. No one else made you sin. Now you must own it. You're not helping anything by scandalously blaming others, publicly exposing them, and ensuring they take a fall with you. If someone else was involved in your sin, there are appropriate means that God has appointed for dealing with them, and you are not part of it now. Repent! Begin working through a process of spiritual restoration. Trust the Lord and His church to rightly handle others.

2. Stay off of public platforms.

Your repentance should be as public as your sin (not in the sense of parading it, but in the sense of making it evident); and, if at some point you have a public platform of which people outside your local church are aware and talking about your sin, it may need to be addressed in an open forum. Otherwise, shut down your social media accounts, don't write posts for ex-pastor blogs, and don't try to find ways to turn your fall into a method of gaining fans and followers. Your friends and counselors may not be willing to tell you this, so I will. You have brought shame to the name of Christ and His Church. You have violated the 3rd commandment (Exodus 20:7). The grace of God is so profound and rich that you're not beyond forgiveness and restoration, but that doesn't negate the fact that your sin has consequences. Whatever public ministry you had before has been lost at present...and rightfully so! The world doesn't need you; and, it certainly doesn't need you to start a new blog detailing your recovery process or to write a book about the sordid details of your fall. They surely don't need daily Tweets of your glimpses of hope in the midst of the darkness of your rebellion. From the dust you came, and to the dust you shall return. You are far from being as great and necessary as you think. Know that truth about yourself and act on it appropriately.

3. Be honest and get pastoral help.

It's going to be tough to admit to another pastor that you need his counseling because you've spent so much of your life counseling others. Remember, it's the same pride that got you into this mess that will keep you from getting the help you need. You've never been surprised by the sin of other Christians, so why do you think one of your friends will be surprised by yours? Find a man you respect and love, sit with him and let him pour into your life. You need his counsel, so be honest. What led to your fall? What changes have you made? What's going on in your heart? If you can't be honest and receive counsel, you still haven't reached the end of yourself--you're still living upon your own self-righteousness. Give it up now and trust God's appointed ministers to help you. You'll be exceedingly thankful that you did so, in the end.

4. Rediscover the power of the ordinary means of grace.

Up until this point in your life, you've never met a man who fell in ministry who was making good use of the means of grace. They're simple means. You talk about them all the time. You know from your own experiences how wonderfully transformative and powerful they can be. But, you allowed yourself to get too busy with ministry over the years. You got distracted, off track and started using the Bible as a preaching manual, first and foremost, instead of the truth that you are to always love, behold, and apply. Prayer became non-existent for you; worshipping with the saints became a chore; and, partaking of the Lord's Supper has of recent years been merely a ritual. Now it's time to transform your schedule and your habits to make use of the means of grace. You know what to do, so do it. God promises to be there when you arrive; and, while your salvation was all of God, your communion with Him depends in large part upon your willingness to engage in the relationship.

5. Use the gifts God has given you to serve in another vocation.

Don't spend your time trying to find ways to plant a new church or take on a de facto pastoral ministry in another city. As far as pastoral ministry is concerned, you're done for now. That doesn't mean that God is done with you; and, it doesn't mean that your gifts are useless to the rest of the world. You've spent much time learning how to organize and inspire people to work hard and work together; you've learned how to lead a team to make great progress. You've learned how to become a problem solver, a motivator--as well as how to network and skillfully use resources. You've preached sermons in the past about the gift of work and how God's people don't have to be pastors to glorify Him. Now it's time to take your own advice, find work so you can provide for your family, and be the best man you can be on the job. It will take time to get used to, but God has uniquely gifted you to serve others. Don't let those gifts go to waste.

6. Remember the Gospel that you have preached.

Don't forget what you have preached to others. You're far worse than you think. God's grace is far greater than you can imagine. You didn't come into the Christian life as a perfect man, and you won't leave this earth as one. You're going to sin--as you always have--but thanks be to God that in Jesus Christ there is grace upon grace for pardon and restoration. If you confess your sin, He is faithful and just to forgive you and to cleanse you of all unrighteousness. Jesus died that you might live. While the consequences of your sin are going to be very difficult to live with for some time, you have been redeemed and are, therefore, secure in Christ. Don't forget these precious truths. Your sin is great, but your Savior is greater. Remember the word of the Apostle, "For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God" (2 Corinthians 5:21). Those are just as true for you today as they were the first day you believed. Fight to believe the truths of the Gospel for your own soul.



Shepherds and Self-Awareness

When ministers and elders gather together, it is usual for them share their ministry burdens with each other. The calling of a minister of the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ is high and hard; the weightiness of the calling and the sufferings experienced in it give us the need to discreetly share some criticisms we endure, oppositions we face, and brokenness we encounter. We are usually acutely aware of how these contribute to our own suffering.

It is more rare to hear ministers and elders reflect on how their congregations have suffered because of their ministries, despite the fact that this kind of self-awareness is a route to the most blessed and mature ministries. Why is it as uncommon as it is? Often because self-centeredness not only makes us shallow and blunt instruments of ministry but also blinds us to the harm done to the Lord's sheep entrusted to us. Then the sobering words of Ezekiel 34:3-4 become increasingly applicable to us: we fail to strengthen the weak, heal the sick, bring back the straying, and seek the lost. We place hindrances between Christ and his sheep. Self-promotion, self-pity, apathy or harshness begin to characterize us. Evangelical writers offering counsel to pastors describe this all too common problem in varying ways. Some label it as low emotional intelligence or as narcissistic personality disorder. In the worst of cases, those who ought to be Christ-like shepherds of the sheep are self-centered abusers of the flock, and as these studies indicate, troublingly blind to themselves--and able to speak of their 'challenges in ministry' with great sincerity.

So how do we cultivate a healthy self-awareness in gospel ministry? How do we cultivate a humble and fruitful love for the flock?

Ordinary Means

First, we need to be engaged in communion with God, using the ordinary means of grace. We need to be in the Word for ourselves and in prayer for ourselves. As we come to him, the Lord uses his Word and Spirit to remove simple and overly high views of self, making us wise; his pure commands will enlighten us, including to ourselves. (Psalm 19:7-8) He will prune us for greater fruitfulness. (John 15:2) As we grow in knowing and communing with the Lord, we begin to see ourselves with far greater clarity, and realize with renewed depth how difficult it is to discern our own errors. (Psalm 19:12) We more deeply realize our need of our Lord Jesus Christ, and His perfect sufficiency for all. (Romans 7:24-25) United to Christ, and living in him, we become more like him. Through this, our ministry grows.

Communion with the People of God

Second, we need the communion of the saints for our own sanctification. We need to see ourselves as worshipping the King of kings and Lord of lords alongside them, with them. We need their love, encouragement, their concerns and wisdom. We need to be ready to listen to and heed our wives, elders, and fellow ministers. We also need to be ready to hear from our congregants. They see us, hear us, and know us from week to week. They enjoy the blessing of our ministries; they also suffer under the weaknesses and sin in our ministries. As ministers, when we receive concerns from church members, we need to guard against "circling the wagons" with sympathetic fellow ministers who don't see us day in and day out. It is all too easy to self-justify and commiserate with them rather than listening with a servant's heart to those living with our ministry. Our congregants may well see with uncomfortable accuracy that our ministry is going poorly; or they may have a gut sense that something is off, or missing in us, though they struggle to articulate it. If you want to grow in God-exalting ministry listen, reflect, and pray. Heart-searching counsel of past ministers is also a help; Charles Spurgeon's essay, "The Minister's Self-Watch", is a good place to begin.

Strict Judgment and our All-Sufficient Savior

Those who minister will be judged with greater strictness (James 3:1). We need to proceed in ministry with great care and humility. We are not sufficient for our calling, but our Lord is more than sufficient for us in it. We bear the treasure of God's good news in jars of clay, so that it would be evident that God is the one who saves and sanctifies. (2 Cor. 4:7) He provides for and enables growth in faithful, fruitful ministry--including the painful blessing of coming to a more accurate self-awareness.

William VanDoodewaard has served as a church planter and is Professor of Church History at Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary. This article is expanded from an earlier version published in the PRTS Update.

The Guilt of Pastoral Ministry

As I was re-reading a section of Resilient Ministry: What Pastors Told Us About Surviving and Thriving, these words made a Facebook debut:

"We asked our summit pastors, 'What obstacles stand in the way of your fruitful, growing walk with Christ?' They focused on one primary issue: workaholism. Their workaholism largely stems from two sources: the belief that they never work hard enough (and that others work harder than they do) and the assumption that they are responsible for everything that happens in the church... [Pastors] were greatly concerned that, to the layperson, their flexible schedules make it look like they are goofing off. While studies we referenced earlier show that pastors work every bit as hard--if not harder--than other professionals, the anxiety that pastors carry of having to demonstrate that they are "earning their keep" is pervasive" (34).

There is a tendency--it seems--for pastors to prove themselves. In one sense, that is necessary. Demonstrating one's giftedness and ability to 'meet' and maintain the qualifications in 1 Timothy 3 are required by the Lord. Books such as Called to the Ministry by Edmund Clowney and Concerning the True Care of Souls by Martin Bucer further elaborate on those qualifications and provide insight into God's demands on those called to the ministry. The specifics of pastoral ministry, however, are not what cause the guilt that often lead to workaholism.

Have you ever heard this question or thought to ask a pastor: "What do you do?" Having grown accustomed to such questions, I often request additional information. It seems that the public, and more narrowly the church, have lost sight of the rigors of pastoral ministry. It wasn't too long ago ministers were somewhat esteemed as educated men who maintained a good work ethic. Now, people often wonder if we are bi-vocational, not because we need additional income but because ministry isn't laborious. Many have wrongly concluded that pastoral ministry is limited to a 20-45 minute 'talk' on Sundays. Certain popular, but wrongly focused, television series on the life of preachers and TV evangelists do not help. Some of us, therefore, feel the urge to prove ourselves. We want those who doubt our strenuous labors to retract their misinformed notions. That produces guilt, a guilt that causes man to be our chief end. That is, unless man is satisfied with the work of our hands, we cannot rest. So we work and work. Some document their hours. If the proof of long hours is in the pudding, one cannot deny the validity of one's work ethic if it's documented. This is not the yoke Jesus mentioned (Matt. 11:28-30). Rather, it is heavy, burdensome, and produces guilt that never finds satisfaction.

Have you felt guilty? Having talked to enough professing Christians who do not attend church, I'm accustomed to hearing, after urging them to submit to elders and become members in a church, "Don't make me feel guilty." There is a difference between guilt and conviction. While there may be overlap in the semantic domains and even a shared experience in how each is received, in some respects it seems the end of conviction is holiness while the result of guilt is shame and despair. The former causes you to turn to the Lord and reacquaint yourself with him. The latter, in many instances, causes you to retreat from Jesus and fill the perceived void with other things (e.g., work). When guilt is the impetus for work and people are the ones whom you ultimately seek to satisfy, pastors will run on a never-ending treadmill that leads to exhaustion and burnout.

For many, that statement isn't enough. They can agree that an endless cycle of work can lead to exhaustion, nervous breakdowns, family degradation, and depression. Nevertheless, they still want to know what pastors do. To satiate that desire, let me provide a short list. Pastors marry, bury, and diagnose. We baptize, counsel, and collect. Many of us are Google-educated accountants. We maintain church property, put out of the fires of family conflict, and are given to janitorial service. We conduct home visitations, hospital visitations, and attend your children's sporting events and graduations. We are surrogate fathers, act as law enforcement when there is physical abuse in the home, and are educators. Pastors are cultural anthropologists, novice demographers, and building contractors. We are also students, committee members, and financial advisors. Ministers are fundraisers, entrepreneurs, and graphic designers. We comfort the hurting, rejoice with the joyous, and weep over sin. Some of us are music directors, worship leaders, facilitators, and public speakers. Others are authors, professors, and administrators. This is a short list. What about our own family? What about personal spiritual growth? Where in this laundry of duties is there time for studying the word and prayer? For some, those last three areas of concern don't seem like work. After all, it is every Christian's responsibility to care for his or her family, grow spiritually, and spend time understanding God and his world through his word and prayer. The reality is pastors are specifically called to these duties for God's glory and the edification of his church, but overarching demand and ensuing guilt sometimes causes us to fill our schedules with good, though at times unnecessary, appointments because you demand that we demonstrate our viability by how much you perceive we work.

Granted, not everyone thinks this way. There are some who realize the arduous task of pastoral ministry. They've read about the long hours, the inability to detach from one's vocation, which impedes upon family time and vacations, and the burden of having a continuous concern for God's church (2 Cor. 11:28). Perchance those who are in the know can educate those who presently believe we do very little to receive our paycheck. It would be a great service to pastors if they knew those in their congregation truly believed they worked hard apart from the committee meetings, writing assignments, and travel, but that their calling to the word, sacrament, prayer, and evangelism is enough (Matt. 28:18-20; 2 Tim. 4:1-5). You can assist pastors in this regard. Frankly, it is hard enough to keep the commandments of God. When Christians add to God's commands, it only creates a guilt and unrest in pastors that finds no terminus in the glory of God; rather, its end is the satisfaction of man.

Along with educating those in the pews about the work of ministers, what else can you do to help pastors discard the guilt of pastoral ministry? As some do in my congregation, encourage pastors with the gospel. The gospel can become something pastors preach for others. Sometimes we neglect the reality that it is for us. We need to be reminded and participate in the story afresh that Jesus' ministry and the application of his finished work provided the Holy Spirit grants us acceptance with God. Bathe us in that reality. You can also keep ministers accountable. Ask them if they have enough time in their schedules devoted to the word, prayer, and evangelism. Inquire if they are spending suitable time with their family and in the Bible for personal growth. (Studying for a sermon and reading the Bible for personal growth can often be two different realities). If pastors seem hesitant or answer negatively, follow-up with how you can assist them in creating time for those important areas of life. I guarantee they will appreciate you, and, Lord willing, this will help alleviate the guilt of pastoral ministry.

Faithfulness and Fruitlessness in Ministry?

A couple of weeks ago a friend asked a question: "How would you encourage a faithful brother who had been pastoring for several years and has not, in that season, seen a conversion directly from his preaching, though the church is growing and health with saints being built up and believers joining the church?" 

It is a good question, and one which many faithful men might face. In itself, the question makes a number of what are good and proper assumptions, as well as wrestling with some significant issues that cannot be avoided. Here are some thoughts for pastors and preachers in such a position: 

1. Do not underestimate the work of building and equipping, for this is fruit, and it can be - as well as an end in itself - a means to the end of reaching others with the gospel. 

2. Do not presume that what you are preaching is not the gospel, but do not presume that you are preaching that gospel as clearly and pointedly as you might. Go back to your Bible to ensure that you are preaching truths rooted in the person and work of Christ, but also preaching the person and work of Christ in themselves - preach Christ, not just about him! 

3. Are you preparing the way by a thorough and plain explanation of the problem of personal sin and impending judgement? Are you preaching the law in the good old-fashioned sense? 

4. All your preaching should be evangelical, but consider whether regular and specific evangelistic sermons might be an extra avenue of pursuing this end. 

5. Is the church actively and specifically praying for conversions in its public meetings (Lord's days and prayer meetings) and its private occasions (personal and family worship)? 

6. I think it is worth considering whether or not there is any sin in your life or the life of the church that might be a reason for God to withhold a blessing. I say this not to cripple you in conscience, but because it is worth taking into account. 

7. Do not fall into the mentality that 'the nation is under judgement' and that therefore, in effect, your labours are doomed to failure - the gospel remains the power of God to salvation for those who believe. Preach it in that confidence. You must cultivate this confidence actively. 

8. Consider whether and to what extent these growing members are personally engaged in making Christ known in their families and among their friends and neighbours and colleagues. 

9. Consider whether there are specific evangelistic avenues that could be pursued e.g. home and personal (1-2-1) bible studies, door to door, open air preaching. As we engage in such, the Lord sometimes sends blessing by another route. 

10. Are you setting a personal example of evangelistic endeavor (not merely pastoral-professional duty)? 

11. Are you equipping the saints for this work in your public ministry? Is this one of the areas in which they are being built up? 

12. Are you giving the impression that the church is a place for those believers to come and rest (it is) but not also to work (that too)? Some believers who seek out a faithful ministry do so because of weariness. They need, under God, to be healed, equipped, stirred up and sent out.

13. Are you yourself given to prayer for God's blessing upon your ministry in all these respects? 

14. Consider that Satan will particularly assault the church and ministers who particularly pursue this. Expect it to be hard, and to bring hardships. 

15. Are you prepared to accept that this could be a testing time in which the Lord is challenging your faith as to whether you believe God's promises, and so will go on relying upon God's means to accomplish God's ends in God's time? Such patient persistence is one of the hardest things to maintain. 

In offering such counsels, I convict myself over again. None of them are accusations, but examples of the kind of questions I would ask and continue to ask myself. When you do so, preach in the prayerful expectation that God will bless his gospel.

The Pastor's Family and Friendships in the Church

One of the pieces of advice that I received from a seasoned pastor when I was first beginning ministry was, "Don't befriend the people in your church. They will most certainly hurt you." I assumed his words were the result of countless battles over 30 years in ministry, enduring numerous blows inflicted by those with whom he was closest. Now, as I come to the end of my first decade as a pastor, I understand the reason why my friend gave me that particular advice. I have known deep hurt in ministry and have often thought back on that conversation: Should I find my friends elsewhere?

How does a pastor do what he's called to do without developing friendships and making himself and his family vulnerable to the hurt that accompanies relationships? Jesus showed us the greatest love when he laid down his life for his friends (John 15:13). How can a pastor follow the Master's way if he's unwilling to do the same? No one likes getting hurt, and it's especially difficult with a family in tow. So where is the balance? How can a pastor protect his own heart and his family from the emotional blows that sometimes accompany friendships in the church, while simultaneously being willing to be hurt for the sake of Christ and his bride?

Friends or Acquaintances? 

The consistent drumbeat of Scripture is that Christ's powerful, inwardly constraining love compels the believer to deny self for the honor of God and the good of others (2 Corinthians 5:14a). Some of my sweetest pastoral moments have come when I've put friendships in the church above deadlines, expectations, and to-do lists. Sitting beside the bed of someone I can genuinely call a friend in the last moments of his life is far more meaningful than just being his pastoral acquaintance. I have found that my chief pastoral duties of prayer and the ministry of the Word are far more effective when I am known and seeking to know others despite the inevitable difficulties that may arise. I don't generally yearn for my acquaintances like I do for my friends with "all the affections of Christ Jesus" (Philippians 1:8).

Pastoral ministry can be lonely, but I am convinced that more lonely than the pastor is often his wife. While most pastors have fraternal relationships with other men in ministry, most pastors' wives don't have a lot of women to share their burdens with in a meaningful way. And if pastors' kids are going to value the local church throughout their lives, it seems appropriate that at the very least they should be able to call others in their church-going midst "friend." Some people in the church that my wife and I have considered our closest friends have hurt us in significant ways. We want to prepare our children for the same results should they have to bear them, and yet we want their friendships to be genuine, not filled with doubt and uncertainty.

Being a pastor is a unique calling, and while others may hurt any and every member of our family, I must remember that I have hurt my friends as well (Eccl. 7:21). It's inevitable in relationships, but Jesus didn't avoid the hurt of friendships--neither should I! As well intentioned as my friend was to encourage me to keep my friendships out of the church, I can't agree with his advice. Some of my best friends are members of the church in which I serve, and I know that we may hit some bumps along the journey together; but, bumps in the road with a friend are far better than smooth sailing alone.

Trust Your Neighbor as Yourself?

That being said, pastoral friendships require great wisdom. Several years ago it dawned on me that I know more collectively about the personal lives of everyone in my local church than anyone else. Such knowledge could potentially be harmful if improperly handled or wrongfully disclosed in an unguarded moment with a friend. God has uniquely gifted and given grace to pastors to hear and handle information about His people. We may think very highly of our friends within the local church, but we must remember that not everyone is called to bear the same burdens. It is wise to remember "Whoever keeps his mouth and his tongue keeps himself out of trouble" (Proverbs 21:23).

On the personal level, sharing our lives with God's people as friends doesn't mean all of our friends need to hear about everything in our hearts and minds. Pastors are men, and as the old adage goes, even the best of men are men at best. We have our own sin struggles and temptations that need to be dealt with, and we need accountability. But the pastor's accountability should be with his fellow elders and other pastor friends, not the people in his congregation. Any congregation should know their pastor is accountable to others, and that those he is accountable to are trustworthy and concerned about his holiness, and the good of the church he serves. But a pastor loving his brothers and sisters as friends doesn't always mean that he should trust them with every detail of his life. I have no reason to doubt that my friends are trustworthy and are not ill-intentioned, but I also know that a church can be hurt deeply by miscommunicated, misunderstood, or wrongly used information about their pastor.

Be a wise friend for your good, for your family's good, and for the good of the church. But by all means, be a real friend and not just an acquaintance. Your life with fellow Kingdom citizens will be far greater and a lot less lonely. Pastors and their family members need good friends, and many of those friends could be sitting in front of them each and every Lord's Day.

Nick Kennicott is the pastor of Ephesus Church, a Reformed Baptist Church, in Rincon, GA. He blogs at the Decablog. You can follow Nick on Twitter @kennicon.

Navigating Dangers and Temptations in Ministry

Throughout my twenty-plus years of following Jesus Christ and serving in His church, I have repeatedly seen pastors disqualify themselves for ministry. The moral failures of such ministers have led to confusion, pain, and even a crisis of faith for many. Of course, there are those who occupy a very public ministry who fail, but I have seen just as many, if not more, who crash and burn in smaller local churches. I have witnessed, first-hand, as denominational leaders, pastors, and Sunday School teachers entangled themselves in sin that could have been avoided. And whenever I see this happening, I am simultaneously saddened, frustrated, and scared. As our church continues to raise up, install or send ministers into pastoral ministry, I find the need to address this issue all the more pressing. Not merely the failure of public ministers, but the danger we all face as leaders. Do not be deceived, we are all tempted in ways that can bring far greater destruction to the glory and honor of Christ (not to mention to our family and church members) than we could imagine. The question is, how do we navigate the treacherous waters of such dangers as we seek to serve the church?

There is no simple policy that we can implement to protect us. No promises we make to our wives, nor any programs we install on our computers will save us. Only Jesus saves. But there are four principles that should guide us through the dangers and temptations connected to ministry. In fact, these principles are not only for leaders, but for all of God's people.

Stay Humble

"Therefore let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall" (1 Corinthians 10:12).

The real danger of sin and temptation is not so much in the world as it is in our own hearts. Every one of us is capable of grievous sin and rebellion. James reminds us that we are tempted not only by outside influences, but by our own desires which ultimately give birth to sin (James 1:14, 15).

The problem is not that we are ignorant of this truth, but that this theological truth has not sufficiently taken root in our hearts. We agree that it is theoretically possible to fall, but we don't believe it will actually happen to us. We convince ourselves that, for whatever reason, we are beyond the risk of losing our marriages and ministries. We aren't. You aren't. Knowing and embracing the frailty of our own souls is key to depending on the grace of God in all of life. Knowing that we must "take care" lest there be in any of us an evil, unbelieving heart" leads to humility. (Heb 3:12) And it is the humble who know their need of Christ's preserving grace and their hope in the midst of trials and temptations. Be humble, or you will fall.

Stay Safe

"Look carefully then how you walk, not as unwise but as wise, making the best use of the time, because the days are evil" (Ephesians 5:15-16).

The answer to avoiding sin is not in policies and protocols, but there is wisdom in arranging our lives strategically to avoid unnecessary temptation. 

One of my pastor friends never travels alone when speaking in other locations. He brings another man with him for mutual encouragement and accountability. This brother is a trustworthy and godly man, but he knows his heart and the world well enough to protect himself from even the possibility of danger. Another pastor friend of mine doesn't spend time alone with women who are not his wife. However, life doesn't always cooperate with our protocols, and he found himself in a situation that required him to drive a young lady home. Again, this is a godly man, and let's assume this was an upright lady. Nevertheless, in this situation he immediately phoned his wife to tell her what was happening, but she was unreachable. So he called me to let someone know. 

Staying safe doesn't mean avoiding all danger or secluding ourselves from real-life ministry, but it does require careful, thoughtful living. Living carelessly in the world with a sinful heart will eventually lead anyone into unnecessary temptation and potentially into ruin. I have seen men fall, but I have also seen men falsely accused. A humble heart will encourage us to stay safe.

Stay Honest

"Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another..." (James 5:16).

The person who cannot be honest with himself or others is the one who will live out a superficial faith that cannot weather the storms of temptation. We must know our own weaknesses, tendencies, and desires. Knowing our fruit sins (complaining, for example) is good, but discovering the root sins that feed the fruit sin (in the case of complaining, namely, the pride by which we convince ourselves that we deserve better) is more helpful to knowing ourselves and where we need to exercise care. 

Staying honest must go beyond ourselves to include others. Honesty with our spouse, friends, and leadership is one of the means God has given us to curb sin and kill temptation. As repenting, believing saints, we are called to confess our sins to one another, and encourage one another lest we find ourselves hardened by the deceitfulness of sin (Heb. 3:13). Staying honest is both personal and communal, and it protects us from pretending we are okay when we are not, and performing as if all that matters is what is going on with us externally.

Stay Close

"Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded. Be wretched and mourn and weep. Let your laughter be turned to mourning and your joy to gloom. Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you" (James 4:8-10).

The true essence of keeping ourselves from the danger of sin is staying close to God by faith in Christ. This is the ongoing work of communion, or abiding in Christ (John 15:1-5). Those who are actively seeking the things above, where Christ is, are those who are not distracted by the enticements of the flesh or the devil. 

Staying close to God is found in the exhortation to "Keep your heart with all vigilance, for from it flow the springs of life" (Prov. 4:23). John Flavel once helpfully explained what it means to keep our hearts in his classic book, Keeping the Heart. He wrote, "By keeping the heart, understand the diligent and constant use of all holy means to preserve the soul from sin, and maintain its sweet and free communion with God."

We can preserve our souls from sin and maintain an experiential closeness to God through "all holy means", or what is commonly called "the means of grace." The ministry of the word, prayer, corporate worship, etc. are the means by which God exposes our sin, shows us our need for Christ, and increases our faith. Those who wander from God's means are far less likely to run to Him in their hour of need.

Christians fall (Prov. 24:16). Pastors fail. But much of our trouble can be avoided by remaining humble, living carefully, maintaining honesty, and drawing near to God. May His grace abound in each of us and protect us from the danger in the world, and the more subtle dangers that lurk in our hearts.

Joe Thorn is the founding and Lead Pastor of Redeemer Fellowship in St. Charles, IL, and the author of Note to Self: The Discipline of Preaching to Yourself (Crossway/ReLit). He was a contributor to The Story ESV Bible and The Mission of God Study Bible. Joe is a graduate of Moody Bible Inst. (BA) and The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary (MDiv). Joe blogs at He and his wife Jen have four children. You can find Joe on Twitter at @joethorn.

Cormac McCarthy on Ministerial Power

I've been reading a good bit of Cormac McCarthy since late spring, when I have time for fiction anyway. McCarthy is a master of terse understated conversation and landscapes, and I happen to be a special admirer of landscapes--real and artistically rendered. But McCarthy is also a sharp observer not just of the human condition but of what that condition does to us, if you follow what I mean--of what it does to the single individual, in that peculiar Kierkegaardian sense, and to every individual so considered. No body escapes being human or being lost in his novels, though some come off rather witless about it just like in this non-fictional world of ours.

One somewhat witless fellow is a certain priest he describes in The Crossing. I know, witless ministers abound in novels. But McCarthy's priest is not a shell of a man and he's witless in a particularly subtle way--and for this reason he is a very good reminder of what pastoral ministry demands of those who would be evangelists and shepherds and potent preachers.

The backstory is convoluted and unnecessary to tell. Suffice to say there is a man living in Sonora who lost essentially everything in the terrible earthquake of 1887, including perhaps his mind. He has taken up residence inside a church whose roof is ruined and about to cave in, and he spends his days (and nights) there, reading and thumping his Bible, pacing and wrestling openly with God. He is Job, or perhaps Ahab the whaler, it's hard to tell.

"The people of the town came and they stood about. At a certain distance. They were interested to see what God would do with such a man. Perhaps he was a crazy person. Perhaps a saint. He paid them no mind." Eventually, they send for the priest, who comes and stands outside the structure and tries to reason with the man dwelling "beneath the shadow of the perilous vault." It's a great scene:

The priest spoke to this misguided man of the nature of God and of the spirit and the will and of the meaning of grace in men's lives and the old man heard him out and nodded his head at certain salient points and when the priest was done this old man raised his book aloft and shouted at the priest. You know nothing. That is what he shouted. You know nothing.

"The people looked at the priest. To see how he would respond." To hasten the story along, the priest went away, troubled by the exchange, but came back the next day, and day after day, to try again. "People came to attend. Scholars of the town. To hear what was said on either side. The old man pacing under the shadow of the vault. The priest outside."

And right there is the whole of the matter: the priest never entered in, never took up the place where the old man stood. He would not, perhaps could not. "The priest wagered nothing. He'd nothing to hazard. He stood on no such ground as the crazed old man. Under no such shadow. Rather he chose to stand outside the critical edifice of his own church and by his choice he sacrificed his words of their power to witness."

"He was a reasonable man and he believed that there was love in his heart," but "there was not."

A reasonable man stands aloof and tries to speak into the situation. The reasonable man imagines himself to love whenever he aims at helping from afar. The reasonable man, however, may well lack the faith to step under the threatening vault, to take up the place of those crazed this way or that by the terrors of life in this world, who rightly understand that everything is in the balance. And in just this way, the reasonable man of this sort often fails to love as he should.

How many ministers, some fresh out of seminary perhaps, stand in the pulpit a bit like this priest stood outside this crumpled church? Such preachers call out to the people and try to reason with them about God and the gospel with words "sacrificed of their power to witness" because they have never stepped into the half-crazed lives of the people before them. How many times have I been as witless as this priest in the world? More than I know or care to admit, I'm sure. Thank God his grace is sufficient to save his people through the preaching of the gospel even when my love is not what it ought to be; thank God that's no excuse for my failure to love the people before me, whoever they may be; and thank God I've sat under pastors who loved so well and see so many of seminary students and presbytery interns doing likewise.

RonDiNunzio 2.jpg
For over 60 years, the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals has been known for its commitment to the Reformed tradition. One of its seminal works, The Cambridge Declaration is a standard for the faith. As the culture continues to erode the Church, the Alliance calls pastors and churches back to the "faith once for all delivered to the saints." We are an Alliance of committed pastors, scholars, and churchmen fostering a Reformed awakening in the Church; an awakening that promotes robust, biblical, historic, confessional Christianity though media, events, and publishing

To that end, we are pleased to announce the appointment of Dr. Ronald DiNunzio as pastor-in-residence. This new position is being created to better meet the needs of local pastors and churches by both gathering and providing resources including: websites, podcasts, publications, and conferences designed to assist them and their leadership team in ministry.

The Alliance is grateful for the opportunity to come alongside the local church to help equip its members with the riches of biblical truth.  

If you would like more information on how the Alliance can help serve you and the local church please contact Pastor Ron at or 215-546-3696 x20.

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TimWitmer.jpg, the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals newest web site, is the result of Alliance members who see the need to build up leadership teams that truly shepherd their churches. Be sure to bookmark the website and come back often. Pastor-scholar Tim Witmer will provide regular insight and on-going coaching material for church leaders. His system contextualizes biblical principles for the specific ministry roles and needs found in today's Church.

Dr. Witmer's book, also titled The Shepherd Leader, has been tremendously helpful to pastors and church leaders around the world. Expounding on his leadership-themed books, Tim's blog will provide further instruction and furnish ministry materials to impact those in leadership and to encourage and equip pastors. You will also find a speaking schedule and free resources that will greatly benefit your ministry.

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Painful revisiting

In the light of recent events at the Thrive Conference involving Mr Driscoll, some readers may be interested in this article from a couple of months ago.

Two-Kingdoms Pastoring [part 3]

This is the third in a series exploring the theology of Two Kingdoms across a variety of topics. The first article can be found here, and the second here Editor

It's tough being a pastor. I know because I've never dared try, but I've watched others try. Sure, you can always avoid preaching on anything so concrete and close to home as to ruffle any feathers, and some ministers have perfected the art of doing so for years on end. But as soon as he takes seriously his task as a shepherd of souls, the minister is likely to hear howls of indignation raised--he is a legalist, a killjoy, binding consciences and trampling on Christian liberty. Or perhaps, depending on his congregation, he may find himself accused of being a softie or an antinomian, refusing to man up and speak uncompromisingly to our culture. In the privacy of one-on-one counseling, he may have a whole audience second-guessing him, but he will certainly second-guess himself: does this erring soul need to be comforted with the promises of the gospel, or jarred out of complacency with a reminder of God's judgment against sinners? One wrong move may be a matter of spiritual life and death. 

Faced with this dilemma, many pastors, in our circles at least, make it their aim to "say nothing but what the Bible says." In one sense this is not only laudable but necessary: the Bible is the authoritative guide for both faith and practice, and the final standard for adjudicating any doctrinal question. But obviously a pastor cannot get very far in the task of pastoring without going beyond Scripture--if not its spirit, certainly its letter. To preach and pastor effectively, the minister must be waist-deep in the stuff of everyday life, the myriad personal, social, political, and cultural challenges that confront his congregation, and that at every point draw them closer to or drag them further from the face of God. And Scripture, it must be said, does not address home mortgages or gay marriage or online pornography as such--obviously, it does address debt and sexuality and lust, but these specific challenges that confront us, in all their concrete particularity and novelty, are not in view in the biblical text.

"Saying nothing what the Bible says," then, can take two forms. Either the minister, fearing to bind consciences beyond the Word by any specific application, avoids as much as possible in the pulpit the pressing social and cultural concerns of the day with which his congregation wrestles the other six days of the week, and confines himself primarily to theological lectures in lieu of sermons, or to vague platitudes when it comes to ethical matters. Or else the minister, convinced that the Bible really does speak to everything, proceeds to read the concerns of the day--gun control, home mortgages, or healthcare policy--straight into the biblical text, closing with a thunderous "Thus saith the Lord!" (Presumably all those who disagree with the application are blinded by sin.)

In pastoral counseling, "the Bible only" has often come to mean something like the "nouthetic counseling" approach, in which the complexities of human psychology and the details of particular circumstances are all filtered out and the struggling soul is told only "confess and repent of your rebellion against God." All this in the name of protecting Christian liberty.

It should be clear at this point that the challenge here is not simply to police the boundary between the "church" as a "spiritual kingdom" and politics as the "civil kingdom." To be sure, great political and social questions add a whole new level of complexity which makes it difficult to bring Scripture directly to bear on them. But even if the pastor studiously avoids offering any guidance on political questions, the problem remains. For no man is an island, and our sins generally have a social and cultural dimension. In other words, they are the complex interplay of what flows from our wicked hearts and what we encounter in and imbibe from the world around us. This milieu, again, differs in key ways from ancient Israel or first-century Palestine, and the pastor will have to rely on a well-informed judgment of his context, and a well-developed sense of prudence, if he is to rightly apply the Word to the lives of his flock. If "Christian liberty" or the division of the "two kingdoms" restricts the pastor from ever speaking beyond the words of Scripture, then clearly it will restrict him from pastoring at all.

Perhaps the solution to this dilemma is to recognize that the pastor himself has a foot in both kingdoms, and I don't just mean in the sense that he has to pay his taxes, and is an officer at the local Rotary Club down the road (though these are significant enough points). Even as a pastor, he has a foot in both. For he speaks for God, but he also speaks as Joe Smith, white boy from rural Indiana who spent a few years in the Navy and then as a salesman before going to seminary. He speaks to each of his congregants as to a sanctified child of God being formed in the image of Christ, but he also speaks to them as mothers, as husbands, as daughters-in-law, as jobholders, voters, cinema-goers. At every point he is navigating the intersection of their vertical dimension--their life in God--and their horizontal dimension--their life in the world. If he tries to worry about only the latter, he becomes a social gospeller with nothing to offer but narrow-minded recommendations for how to make the world a better place. If he tries to worry about only the former, he risks leaving his flock with little concrete guidance in the trials of life.

Clearly, he must do both, and attempting to draw some artificial line between "spiritual" and "civil" areas of life will not help the problem much. But he must remember that while these two are never separate, they are always distinct. The minister may and indeed must make prudential application of Scripture to the real-world challenges of his flock, but he must make sure that both he and they know that there is probably a fair bit of Joe Smith's midwestern biases coloring that judgment, and they themselves must, like the Bereans, search the Scriptures to see whether these things be true. 

Brad Littlejohn holds a Ph.D from the University of Edinburgh and is the Managing Editor of Political Theology Today, the General Editor of The Mercersburg Theology Study Series and can be found writing regularly at

Having been raised on the cartoon television show, Tom and Jerry, I am accustomed to seeing Tom's curiosity lead to his demise. Time after time, he could not seem to learn that Jerry was craftier, perhaps wiser, and determined to make him look foolish. I do not think the old adage, "Curiosity killed the cat" derived from this cartoon show, but it was surely emphasized repeatedly.

Tom, however, is not the only one who is drawn by curiosity. We are, too. At times, walking down the aisle of curiosity can be good (e.g., trying an accent pillow on your sofa or attempting to duplicate a faux finish that you saw on a television show), but there are times when it is not. I have seen this version of curiosity lead to much damage in the church. What is it, you ask? It is in the title of this blog: "listening when you shouldn't."

I wish it were not so easy to get to this point. Our desires to express sympathy, coupled, perhaps, with curiosity, often take us to a place where we should not be. I recall a certain situation when a woman--let's called her, Susie--was extremely upset at one of her pastors. Susie concluded that the course of action this pastor took was wrong. Her response was to tell others in the church about it. Numerous people allowed her to "bend their ear," as the saying goes. One thing led to another and she eventually developed an entourage that supported her cause. There was great damage in the church as a result. Thankfully, the situation was eventually reconciled and Susie repented of her mischievous actions.

Should anyone, outside of those directly involved in the situation, have listened to Susie? She was hurting, had questions, and needed to share her concerns. It seems there is a way to help Susie without letting one's curiosity enable her to share the particulars of the situation. Let's face it. When turmoil is developing in the church, inquiring minds want to know. Unfortunately, trying to hear one side of a situation can too easily evolve into gossip and, as this specific situation demonstrated, additional (and unnecessary) conflict in the church.

If you notice someone is hurting, and that person begins to share the details of the situation, you may want to consider asking that individual to refrain from sharing specifics of the circumstances, which may include names, dates, location, etc. I know it may be difficult, but many times we have no business knowing all of the details. Do not let curiosity lead you down the wrong path. Do not let your desires to be sympathetic cause you to hear details you should not. You may end up getting involved in gossip, hearing false details, and making wrong conclusions. We need to be there for each during difficulties, but even then we must be cautious. 

Yes, curiosity killed the cat, but apparently cats have nine lives. Listening when you should not is easy to repeat. Sometimes the damage is not readily apparent, which seems to justify your sympathetic ear. However, whether the stakes seem high or not, we should all be careful that we do not allow ourselves to listen to details to which we have no business listening. 

One of the Pastor's Mottos

Mottos (or slogans) are somewhat trendy. Within most organizations, you can expect to have one. They provide vision, core values, and direction for the overall trajectory of the institution. "An Army of One," "Have It Your Way Right Away," "Just Do It," and "I'm Lovin' It" are some of the more familiar mottos. Each of these suggests something about the beliefs of that particular company and their desire for service in certain areas.

Like other organizations, the pastor might also consider ascribing to a motto (or two or three). It may not be as trendy as some of the others, but like every motto is should provide guiding principles by which one can live. (It is a catechesis of sorts). It should grant a sense of one's expectations in the ministry. When he looks to his motto, he should not only be reminded of his calling but also the calling of his Lord and Savior Jesus the Christ. After all, Jesus' person and work are the foundation of pastoral ministry. Without Christ, the pastoral vocation cannot exist. 

So what is one of those mottos? "I came not to be served but to serve and give my life."

The words come from our savior who bore our sins on the tree. It is no wonder he could conclude this motto, or more appropriately titled, this section of scripture, by saying, "...and give my life a ransom for many." Since pastors are not in the business of atoning for anyone's sins, we can, for the purposes of this post, eliminate that portion of the text. Nevertheless, the section that does remain highlights a pastor's calling to service--selfless service.

Selfless service is difficult. In a society where we sometimes embrace the statement, "You scratch my back, I'll scratch yours," it is hard to serve others recognizing that, as a pastor, you will never, as they say in the finance world, "gain the same return on your investment." In other words, pastors cannot, and perhaps should not, expect to receive the same degree of service from others that they supply toward those in their congregation. When one realizes he will not gain the same return on his investment, so to speak, "selfless" becomes a pivotal word. A pastor must serve his local congregation not expecting so much as a thank you in return. His service, however, while toward others, is ultimately toward God and for his glory (WSC 1). And since he knows, or at least I hope he knows, God is pleased with his obedience, that should provide enough motivation for his service even when it seems like his efforts are not producing solid returns.

"I came not to be served but to serve and give my life."

A pastor is also required to endure many sufferings. Similar to his savior, he will be despised and rejected by men. No matter what he does nor how aligned he is with the word of God, people will always find reasons to express their dissatisfaction with their pastor. That may come in the form of email, telephone conversations, or gossip. Whichever their selection, congregants will express their disdain for their pastor's ministry even if they (i.e., those expressing disdain) have no feet on which to stand. Reflecting on the PM will realign the pastor's thoughts so that, when--not if--this comes, he can be reminded of his calling--service. 

The motto does not only serve to brace the pastor for difficult seasons but also enliven his heart for the great blessings of his ministry. Not everything in the ministry is doom and gloom. Seeing the Holy Spirit sanctify his people, bring unbelievers to saving faith, and work in your own heart are some of the many blessings of pastoral ministry. A pastor's faithful service in the word and prayer, as it is accompanied by the sovereign movement of God, will produce the aforementioned. What a joy! What a gift!

"...even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many." (Matthew 20:28)

The God-man Jesus Christ is the perfect shepherd. Not only does his shepherding provide an example to follow in many ways, but it is Christ's person and work that garners his people reconciliation with God. In him, we have the full forgiveness of our sins, perfect righteousness, adoption, and a sure future with him. It should be every pastor's delight, therefore, not only to marvel in these truths, but as an expression of gratitude and obedience to the Lord, serve God's people.

"I came not to be served but to serve and give my life."

So you want to be a Doctor?

"...nor favor to those with knowledge, but time and chance happen to them all" (Eccl. 9:11).

PhD's are becoming more and more common, particularly in the church. For those in the church wishing to pursue postgraduate studies, here are a few questions for you to wrestle with:

Have your seminary professors ever suggested to you that you ought to consider this route? Remember that Paul warns us not to think of ourselves more highly than we ought, but with sober judgment (Rom. 12:3). This is not too dissimilar from the well-known internal-external call for the pastoral ministry. One is as important as the other, in my view. And here your professors - assuming they know you fairly well - are in a position to know whether you are the type of person (1 Tim. 3) who will be a blessing to the church instead of a curse. Remember, "knowledge puffs up, but love builds up" (1 Cor. 8:1).

Are you wishing to teach at a seminary or use your PhD in the pastoral ministry? I know literally dozens of able, gifted men who have PhD's but do not have a position at a Seminary. Be warned: unless you are incredibly gifted or you have very good contacts (i.e., people in high places), a Seminary position will not automatically fall into your lap once you're finished. It likely never will. You will no doubt find that Solomon was correct when he wrote:  "Again I saw that under the sun the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, nor bread to the wise, nor riches to the intelligent, nor favor to those with knowledge, but time and chance happen to them all" (Eccl. 9:11). The right friends at the right time usually proves decisive. Of course, the Lord is the Lord and he will make sure to use you in a way that will be best for the church, even if that means teaching Sunday school classes for a while!

Are you aiming to be a better preacher through your studies? The best theologians God has given to the church have usually been pastors. Moreover, you must be careful that your pursuit of the PhD doesn't make you a boring preacher who is constantly delivering academic soliloquies that even you don't really understand! (Please, please do not use the word "eschatological" in your sermons). For what it's worth, my favorite preachers do not have a PhD. 

Do you have the resources to be able to complete several years of studies? There are different ways of making this work, some more difficult than others. But academic debt can kill you, especially those expensive British universities that love North American students who have money coupled with transcripts full of A's. I was able to get through my degrees with no debt, and for the last two I even made money. This was entirely the Lord's gracious providence to me. If you have a family, be careful about putting yourself into debt. You do not want to be the person spoken of at the beginning of Psalm 37:21 (cf. 1 Tim. 5:8).

Are you in a good marriage? If you are married, pursuing a PhD can be a wonderful time for you and your wife, especially spending time together in a foreign country; or, conversely, you can become so entrenched in your studies that your wife becomes a mere appendix to your life.

Is there a good, solid church in the city where you plan to study? I regret to say this, but I ruled out several good universities because I did not feel there was a church where my wife and I could worship and be spiritually fed properly. 

This is not so much a question as it is a statement: be prepared to be humbled. If you complete your studies, and if God loves you, he will no doubt humble you because you will need it. People love titles, especially "doctor."  And it tends to get to your head, especially when people start treating you differently because you have a "title." Be warned: when God humbles us it is painful. 

But what if you are a Pastor who wants to pursue a PhD?

As someone who has supervised a Pastor who pursued a PhD while he was in the ministry, here are some thoughts:

You need some very compelling reasons to do so. What are they?

Make sure you ask your session (elders) whether they think this is a good idea. Will the flock you care for still get the required care they inevitably need while you're chasing down PhD dissertations from various countries for your research? 

Do you manage your time carefully (Eph. 5:16)? Your family and the congregation come first, which means very little time for television, policing the blogosphere, or video games. 

Pick a topic that will enable you to "double-dip." Study a topic that you will be able to use in your ministry. Reading Thomas Goodwin and John Owen on Christ proved to be helpful to my preaching ministry. But researching the controversy on works of supererogation in Pisa during the 15thC might not have been.

When you arrive at your office in the morning to begin your work I would strongly suggest that the first thing you do is hit your knees and pray. I often asked God to help me in my research.

I am somewhat more cautious about pastors pursuing the PhD because I know from experience the significant demands that are placed on a pastor apart from academic work. Unless you get on a roll - momentum is everything in completing your PhD -, you may find yourself in the company of many pastors who have been pursuing their PhD for a decade or more. Sometimes they get completed; but often they don't - and at no small emotional and financial expense.

The pursuit of the PhD has the potential to be a significant blessing to the church. But there are many dangers involved. For all of the "success" stories we see (published Pastor-scholars writing good stuff) there are many who have not been so lucky. Sometimes they have been providentially hindered; but at other times, I regret to say, they have been foolish. 

Pastor Mark Jones likes to be called "Mark". Once I asked someone in an email to "call me Mark". He should have noted there was no comma after "me", but I was still happy to get a phone call from him!
As a church planter, numbers can often be a consuming topic. Without numbers, or "butts in the seats" as some say, you cannot launch a church plant. Therefore it is a constant prayer of mine, as well as those in our church plant Bible study, that God would bring those into our midst who need to be there.

So far so good...

Why else do we need "butts in the seats"? Is it simply to begin our church plant or even sustain existing churches? According to numerous conversations I have had, the answer is "no." Numbers are important not simply to begin, or sustain, a church but also to ensure budget is met. Without people willfully and freely giving financially to the work of the church, local congregations will struggle. In other words, "butts in the seats" is also a money matter.

When you notice the trajectory toward end-of-the-year giving is likely going to fall wholly short of expectations, "butts in the seat" can evolve into a new meaning. On the one hand, to observe numerical growth can suggest that God is adding to his kingdom. Most, if not all, pastors I know desire a sort of Pentecost experience (i.e., thousands coming to faith under the preaching of the word). But when that does not occur, and the pastor begins to notice the congregation shrinking, worry can set in, especially if one's budget is already a concern. 

"Money talks," as the saying goes. And when times are tough financially, there is a potential danger for people to turn into dollar signs. More people means more money. How do we avoid this? How do we avoid allowing money to take a position in our lives where it should not? People should not morph into dollar signs. Yes, we trust God, but due to the weakness of our faith sometimes it is hard (Matt. 6:25-34). (By the way, presently I am not struggling with this, but I know other ministers who have or are).

What do you think? Reverends Pruitt and Fluhrer: do you have any suggestions?

Pastor: Will You Burn Out?

I continue to be haunted by a question Tim Rice, pastor of Trinity Presbyterian Church, asked me at the Hunger Games (also known as the PCA Assessment Center). As one of our assessors, he asked me during our two-hour interview, "When was the last time you had fun?" Put differently, "When was the last time you took time out for yourself?" For many, perhaps even most, that question provides no cause for alarm, but for me, as well as many other pastors, that question shakes us at our core.

Once the question was asked, I responded in a bit of amazement. It was not with words, however. I turned to my wife with a look of confusion; my mouth was still closed; she nodded in agreement as if to say, "I have been thinking the same thing." Since my wife knows me best, I could not escape the reality of Tim's question and the subsequent answer. Apparently I do not have fun. I do not take time out for myself. 

What do I mean? 

Pastoral ministry requires a lot of you. Although our work cannot be measured in the same manner as other vocations (e.g., a real estate agent, construction worker, etc.), we, nevertheless, spend many hours on the job. As a pastor, someone is always bidding for your time. Those unexpected visits at your study that turn into two hours; emails that need to be sent, counseling conducted, home visitations scheduled and executed, session meetings arranged, disputes settled, checks written, the scriptures properly interpreted (i.e., exegesis), prayer properly utilized, funerals conducted, marriages officiated, so-called important questions that people must have answered, and on and on. This is only a part of pastoral ministry. There are many other aspects to it; nevertheless, all of the aforementioned, and more, are extremely time consuming.

You see, I enjoy what I do. Because of that, I do not mind putting in long hours. My vocation does not seem like work often times. Before my family awakes, therefore, I work. When they retire for the evening, I work. Like the navy, pastoral ministry is a 24/7 calling. But unfortunately I have not learned that my work will always be there and I need to take time out for myself. 

When do I turn off my phone and go for a walk with my family? When do I stop checking Facebook, Twitter, and email to take a drive and/or walk in the wilderness (in Virginia) and simply thank God for his creation? Why don't I go to the neighborhood park to play basketball more frequently? Why don't I set aside more time to take hikes, take my wife out for a date more often, travel...have fun?

It is because I have developed a bad habit in pastoral ministry. I have not learned how to punch the mental clock-out card. And regrettably, if I keep going and going, like the Energizer Bunny, for the sake of pastoral ministry, I will not be a pastor that long. I will burn-out. My wife seems to agree.

Pastor, can you relate? 

Perhaps if I put it differently you can. What is your off-day? According to my session, it is Thursday, but what happens when Thursday arrives? I am still sending emails, making home visits, receiving phone calls, and the like. Thursday really is not an off-day then. Perhaps I check my email a bit less and I do not feel pressured to put in as many hours, but I do work. Yes, I do work, and even as I type this, Pastor Rice's question rings in my mind, "When was the last time you had fun?" When was the last time you took time out for yourself?

Pastor, can you relate? I hope you cannot, but my gut tells me you can. In the past, I have tried to make sure I take a day off. That does not last long, however. I end up working. I am not sure what to do presently, but I am working on it. I hope that through counsel and actually implementing what I learn from older and wiser pastors, I can begin to have fun, that is take time out for myself. 

Pastor Rice, thank you for asking me this question. It still penetrates my heart.
ὁ δὲ νόμος οὐκ ἔστιν ἐκ πίστεως, ἀλλʼ ὁ ποιήσας αὐτὰ ζήσεται ἐν αὐτοῖς. Χριστὸς ἡμᾶς ἐξηγόρασεν ἐκ τῆς κατάρας τοῦ νόμου γενόμενος ὑπὲρ ἡμῶν κατάρα, ὅτι γέγραπται· ἐπικατάρατος πᾶς ὁ κρεμάμενος ἐπὶ ξύλου

"I should know what this says," I thought. With our Greek New Testaments opened and our laptops closed, the professor asked the class to translate the verses above and add additional syntactical nuances. Evidently I was not prepared, and now I began to wonder, "Upon whom will the professor call?" 

After a time of silence, one of the students volunteered to address the professors questions. According to the professor, he did an excellent job. Unfortunately, however, as the class continued, the conversation narrowed to only a select few students who knew how to address the professor's questions. I was not one of them. 

What happened?

I failed to obey the numerous exhortations by my Greek and Hebrew professors. Repeatedly they said, "Just spend 20 minutes per day in the languages. It will help you retain them." Twenty minutes skipped one day became forty minutes the next until I realized that I had not looked at Hebrew and Greek for the better part of 4 or 5 days. Surely if I was going to take the languages seriously, and correspondingly God's word, I could not be overrun with excuses. 

"I'll get to the languages later," I thought. "I have papers to write," I concluded. 

I wish I had listened to my professors in seminary. They took the languages very seriously and it showed. It was my disobedience to their exhortations that caused a great deal of remedial work once I graduated.

What now? Is there a solution?

Yes! 20 minutes a day. That is all it takes. You could also ask others to keep you accountable. In fact, assemble a group of people who are interested in tackling a certain section of scripture. Meet in person or via Skype to discuss what you have studied. It will help. I promise.

If you are struggling with the languages and/or find an over-dependence upon Bible software, here are several resources to get you back into the swing of things with Hebrew and Greek.


A Biblical Hebrew Reference Grammar by Merwe, Naude, and Kroeze.
"Basics of Biblical Hebrew Video Lectures" by Van Pelt


It's Still Greek to Me: An Easy-to-Understand Guide to Intermediate Greek by Black
"Basics of Biblical Greek" by Mounce
Seminary changed my life. Through the Bible teaching and supplementary readings, I gained a more robust view of God, his word and church, the sacraments, and my marriage. Perhaps because of the transformation that took place in my life, I so highly recommend seminary to aspiring ministers. However, despite the amazing things that I learned and the glorious things that took place (e.g., sanctification), looking back there are many things that I wish I had done differently. Here is one.

1. Time management.

5 books to read per class, several exams and quizzes, and final papers. Amid the busyness, you also have family and church commitments. In all of this, is it possible to manage your time appropriately? Barring unforeseen emergencies I think it is. It may require the seminary student to watch a bit less television or maintain a tighter schedule, but again, I think it is possible.

When we do not manage our time well, multiple 24-hour nights writing papers and cramming for exams are the result. That paradigm, however, is of no benefit to us. Just as quickly as we stuff Hebrew paradigms into our minds the night before an exam, the information will escape our memory just as quickly a day or two later. The work we place into our final papers also significantly suffers, and correspondingly we suffer, too. Our papers that are due at 10AM Friday morning are sometimes nothing more than what a renown commentator says put into our own words. While we cannot expect our final papers to be original, much like a PhD dissertation, we should demand more of ourselves than that. What we put into our work may correspond to what we get out of it. 

I think sometimes our mentality in seminary is, "I just need to graduate. Once I finish, I will manage my time better." Take it from me, life does not slow down once you graduate and enter pastoral ministry. You still need to manage your time well to include family commitments, word and sacrament ministry, witnessing, and personal reading. And just as easy as it is to slip into poor time management in seminary, it is similarly easy to fall into the same trouble in pastoral ministry. 

What's the result? Instead of writing papers that are essentially a version of your favorite commentary put into your own words, your sermons become duplicates of your favorite commentary with a bit more pizazz. Instead of taking the time to dig into the languages, you become dependent on Logos Bible software (that one's for you, Carl) for parsing and syntax such that without the Bible software your insufficiencies in the original languages are manifest. 

Poor time management can follow you directly into pastoral ministry if you are not careful. Therefore, our time management practices in seminary should help prepare us for how we navigate the waters of pastoral ministry should the Lord take us into this blessed calling. 

The Crucifixion of Ministry

As I prepare to gather a core group (or "launch team," depending on your perspective) for a church plant in Richmond, Virginia, I am attempting to get ahead by developing a leadership training manual. Thankfully I have many resources from other churches in NAPARC member congregations. That takes a weight off my shoulders that I do not need to reinvent the wheel.

One of the most beneficial books I have read on ministry is Andrew Purves' The Crucifixion of Ministry: Surrendering Our Ambitions to the Service of Christ. It revealed many of my self-centered ambitions in ministry while at the same time providing hope for change in Jesus Christ. If the Lord wills that I plant this church, I definitely hope to have this book on the reading list for leadership training. 

Here are some quotations from the book.

"My goal in this book is to offer a perspective on ministry and illustrate a practice that liberates ministers from the grind of feeling that 'it's all up to me.'" (11)

"The ministry of Jesus the Lord is displacing me from the throne of 'my' ministry. In truth it was never mine. We refer to our ministries as if we own them and as if they are all about us. We deeply invest in our own success, although we wrap it up in pious language to soften its prideful aspect. We wish for professional preferment and fulfillment. We enjoy the applause and warm affirmations when they come. We are human, after all." (25)

"To ministers let me say this as strongly as I can. Preach Christ, preach Christ, preach Christ. Get out of your offices and get into your studies. Quit playing office manager and program director, quit staffing committees, and even right now recommit yourselves to what you were ordained to do, namely the ministry of Word and sacraments." (44) 

"Is ministry something we do, or is ministry something Jesus does? The answer, of course, is Yes. We have a ministry, but it is a derivative. It depends in every way upon the continuing ministry of Jesus. His ministry is in the present tense. This is the good news. He is not Lord in name only, but also in act, and not only in the past act, but in the present and future act." (52)

"Ministry is not a matter of a minister working hard, preaching relevant sermons, being a super-efficient congregational administrator, attending those who are sick, downcast, grieving and lonely, all the while growing the congregation and charming the people with a winsome and attractive ability to relate warmly. Outside of abiding in Christ, we have no ministry. It matters not how full our pastoral tool bag is and how much energy we bring to the tasks of ministry. We can do nothing apart from Christ. (119).

Thomas Murphy Was Right

Every organization has its own language. Computer programming companies speak C++. Accounting firms talk in pluses and minuses. The armed forces use a unique language as well. We use words like, "head," "scuttlebutt," "grinder," "salty." The latter is particularly interesting and one that still makes an impression upon me today. The word can have a pejorative meaning, but it does not have to. Those who have been on numerous deployments, and thus are experienced, are called, "salty." It would behoove any newly minted sailor to surround himself with mature, respected, "salty" servicemen.

Similarly, as a newly minted pastor (I only have 3 years of pastoral ministry under my proverbial belt) I want to surround myself with "salty," or experienced, ministers. They have walked the walk and continue to talk the talk. They have what I need: wisdom, patience, experience.

In this instance, the wisdom and experience I require as a new pastor came from the Rev. Dr. Thomas Murphy (1823-1900). In his book, Pastoral Theology: The Pastor in the Various Duties of His Office, Murphy wrote,

"A prominent part of the pastor's work is to go from house to house and see all the families of his congregation at home... This duty of the minister is indispensable... No faithful pastor can or will neglect this work of pastoral visiting" (224).

Murphy used quite strong language (i.e., "No faithful pastor can or will neglect..."). Despite the potential offense he provides, I have found home visitations quite helpful. It adds an element of intimacy between pastor and parishioner that is not ordinarily established on Sunday. 

When I first started pastoral home visitations in my congregation, people wanted to get to know me. They, therefore, cooked for me. I quickly learned, while this was a tremendous blessing, visiting everyone in my congregation would take months if I continued in that manner. Thus, on my second and third round of pastoral home visitations, I attempted to limit my time to about 30-minutes. Sometimes it worked, other times it did not. Either way, I came away extremely blessed.

In my limited experience, Thomas Murphy was right. "This duty of the minister is indispensable." Every home I visit is a blessing for both pastor and parishioner. I am glad I had the privilege to glean from this "salty" minister. 

Pastors and Their Critics: Critics

In yesterday's action-packed episode, I presented some ways ministers might deal with criticism. Today, I want to look at those who bring criticism to pastors.

If you've been in a church for any length of time, you know the pastor's critics. Sometimes they are many, other times just a few. The important thing is that, when you come to offer a criticism to your minister, you make it constructive criticism. Once again, simply being a faithful Christian and speaking the truth in love to your neighbor (for that is what your pastor is, first and foremost!), will go a long way in avoiding strife when offering criticism.

With that in mind, here are three things to consider when offering a criticism to your pastor:

1. Do not criticize your pastor on the Lord's Day. If he is a faithful man, he will be under relentless assault from Satan on that day. In fact, a good way to be a choice instrument for the evil one is to go ahead and say exactly what you think as soon as the man steps from the pulpit. These kinds of criticisms are always uncareful, poorly reasoned, and unhelpful. Take time and consider what is your issue. Sit on for at least one day. And never bring it to you pastor on the Lord's Day.

2. Instead, come to your pastor privately and approach him in love. As with our children, so with our fellow Christians: praise in public, punish in private, so to speak. No, I don't mean that you need to praise him for five minutes before you meekly and, with much fear and trembling, suggest that maybe - just maybe - you have an issue with him. Rather, speak plainly and lovingly, seasoning your speech with grace (Cf. Col 4:6). When coming this way, assume the best about your pastor and give him the dignity of a charitable interpretation of whatever he has said or done.

One more matter on this score. I have seen congregants criticize a minister in front of his wife and children. That's a very effective way to end up with a bitter pastor's wife and pastor's children who make the prodigal son look like Ned Flanders. Avoid this at all costs.

3. Pray that you would seek to help your minister and not simply give your opinion. I mean that - really pray before you go meet with your minister. Pray that he would humbly receive the criticism well and that he would be a better minister for it. Pray that your words would make him - and the church - more useful to Jesus Christ. And pray that you would put on a spirit of meekness, humility, and gentleness as you offer your criticisms (cf. 1 Peter 5:5).

Paul gives an apt summary of the attitude one should have when criticisms need to be made. He writes, "We ask you, brothers, to respect those who labor among you and are over you in the Lord and admonish you, and to esteem them very highly in love because of their work." (1 Thess 5:12-13). If we as Christians did what Paul is saying here, criticisms of pastors would be not only received, but they would foster healthy Christian communities. Truly, criticism would then be redeemed under Christ!

As I said at the outset, I've been the beneficiary of some really, really good critics. I never once felt insulted by them and they immediately put me at ease, even while correcting me. Along with every other human being alive, I struggle to receive criticism well. But the beauty of salvation by God's grace alone is that I am now free to receive it for his glory and for my good. 

Pastors and Their Critics: Pastors

With due awareness of the liabilities, I would like to venture on to the delicate ice of how pastors should receive - and congregants give - criticism. The reason I feel emboldened to do so is that I have had, in my years as a minister, some very good critics and I pray that others would benefit from their sage advice. So, over the next couple of days, I will be posting some on this topic.

To the first thing first: how should pastors receive criticism? The blog posts and articles on this subject are legion, for they are many - and, very often, helpful. However, one can get the impression that pastors, as a general rule, are insecure, defensive, and terrified of criticism. Perhaps many are. But if we believe our theology as Calvinists, these traits should not characterize the Reformed pastor. Moreover, it is not just the pastors who can be faulted; congregations often fail to criticize their pastors in ways that are even remotely Christian.

With these things in mind, the pastor should know that he will receive criticism; not if but when. Therefore, let us ministers, as the Authorized Version has it, "quit ourselves like men" and prepare for it. Here are some things to consider as we gird up our minds:

1. Recognize that, as a minister, you are a sinner, first and foremost. Say to yourself: "I have nothing to commend myself to God. I am not only likely to err, but inclined to do so apart from his amazing grace in Christ." Sing with the hymn writer: "Prone to wander, Lord I feel it, prone to leave the God I love." Beginning here will put the axe to the root of defensiveness.

2. The second follows from the first. If I am as sinful as the Bible says I am (and all of us are), then whence pride? Whence the defensive posture? Surely it's madness to think that I am really as great as I am convinced other people think I am. After all, God looks on the heart - and that is a very scary truth. So, knowing that my heart is deceitful above all else, I must receive criticism with the eyes of my heart wide open: the person bringing the complaint against me is being very charitable, no matter what he or she says. He doesn't know the half of it! In fact, my heart could supply a rap sheet that would make a Chicago cop blush. Thus, no matter the criticism, there are far worse things I have thought and entertained than what the person is bringing to my attention.

Remember the words of Samuel Rutherford when a woman praised him after a Lord's Day service: "Woman, if you knew the blackness of my heart, you would gather your children and run." That's sure to cause some coffee to go down the wrong pipe on a Sunday morning, but truer words would be hard to find.

3. Given (1) and (2), the third thing is, cliched as it sounds, to go straight to Christ. What does that mean really? Well, to borrow the title of a lecture I heard Dr. Ryken give once, it means we do pastoral ministry in union with the risen Christ. We go to no dead Savior, but a living one, who loves us and has called us to the ministry. Therefore, confess to him your pride and bask in his grace. The Holy Spirit has brought you here; your sanctification in this area is intensely personal: God the Spirit brings you here and God the Son cleanses you!

Ministers are especially good at being practical Pharisees - looking good on the outside, but inside full of all manner of wretchedness. Nevermind - God sees this and loves us anyway in Christ. He shatters any pretense to pride by reminding us that we are simply servants of Christ. 

Fix this firmly in your mind: our work as ministers will largely be forgotten when we die, save for a few family and friends and souls we have ministered to. Another will take our place. Praise God, the next one will do better than us! And so it goes until Jesus returns. This is not a depressing but liberating truth: since I am not the sum of my ministry but my life is hid with God in Christ, then I am free to labor with reckless abandon.

Criticism, offered in love and received with humility, provides ministers with tremendous opportunities to grow. It gives us the opportunity to become more effective for the advance of Christ's kingdom. And it reminds us that we really are as bad as the Bible says we are. So let us listen carefully, weigh our responses thoughtfully, and be grateful for wise critics. Tomorrow, we'll look at the duties of those who criticize.