Our family’s first computer, purchased in 1995, used an MS-DOS operating system that required typing individual commands at a prompt. My dad purchased “DOS for Dummies” and was off to the races. Now, many many many years later, the complexity of those earlier code based systems has a simple interface that only requires users to “point and click” or even simply to push on a touch screen. All the complexity is going on in the background; the only thing that has changed in the simplicity of the interface.
After 15 years of pastoral ministry, I have come to value the simple. I am not a “detail person” and I do not have great gifts of administration, so overly complex systems, approaches, or paradigms weary my soul. On the other hand, to boil complexity down to simple principles allows me the freedom to pursue goals with hope and energy. There is something elegant in reducing complex tasks, such as pastoral ministry, to a few simple principles that inherently absorb the complexity and translate it into something achievable for minds like mine. Below are three principles derived from Acts 6:4 that have become my “interface” for the complexities of pastoral ministry.
But we will give ourselves continually to prayer, and to the ministry of the word.Acts 6:4
Pastor in Prayer
I think it is reasonable to say that a pastor should pray for everyone in his congregation regularly. As a bi-vocational pastor in a smaller congregation, I think I can reasonably pray for every member on a weekly basis. When we gather for corporate worship on Sunday morning, I want to have remembered each person I see in prayer. This doesn’t just mean “Lord, Bless __________and _________ today.” Depending on the occasion, I may give thanks for them, I may pray for a spiritual need, I may seek wisdom in how to pastor them, I may ask for favorable outcomes to trials in their life, etc… Every week is a little different.
By pastoring them in prayer, I am acknowledging that these sheep belong not to me but to the Good Shepherd. By pastoring them in prayer I am acknowledging my limitations to bring about change in their lives. By pastoring them in prayer, I am cleansing my heart from fleshly sins that arise in all earthly relationships when given the opportunity. By pastoring them in prayer I am regularly preparing for the day when, face to face with my Lord, I will give an account for those in my care.
Every congregation is different and every pastor is different. Perhaps some would find a weekly prayer too little while others find it too frequent. I can imagine the pastor of a church of 400 would struggle to do anything else if he prayed for each member weekly. Perhaps in a larger church the ministry of prayer could be divided up among the spiritual leaders of the church so that members were cared for in prayer more frequently. But I think it is safe to say that if a member walked up to their pastor to seek some advice or ask a question about a sermon and the pastor didn’t remember the last time he prayed for this person, it would be a problem.
Pastor in the Pulpit
By pastoring in the pulpit, I mean the reading, exposition, and application of God’s Word (1 Timothy 4:13). I should be familiar with my text so that when I read it, I do not stumble. Furthermore, I should be able to read it aloud with an emotion appropriate to the text. I should be able to expound it clearly (never exhaustively as we continue to grow in our knowledge and abilities) so that the truth is made plain. And I should have an understanding of how this text is intended to shape God’s people in His image.
God’s people are shaped by God’s Word, and the pastor/teacher is the gift God has given to the Church for the purpose of communicating the Word. It is a solemn responsibility to stand and deliver the Word. It may be the one time in a week when Truth rings loudest to the man who works a difficult job, or to the teenager who comes with neighbors and whose own family is a mess. It may communicate the needed strength to a parishioner who has always been faithful and appears strong yet is being sifted like wheat in her heart. The pastor cannot judge the effectiveness of the Word by the number who come to an altar or who compliment the sermon when it is finished: the Word is unfathomably effective in ways that cannot be measured.
Of course, this requires study and preparation. Most of my sermons are written on the basketball court or while walking or jogging, but the form only comes after texts have been read and meditated upon. There have been times in my pastoral ministry where I have used curriculum or study guides from books that I think are beneficial. Depending on the various requirements of a ministry, I think that is completely reasonable. But I also think that the pastor should endeavor to preach an original sermon for which he has labored during the weekly assembly of the saints and deliver that which God has first worked into his own heart.
The ministry of prayer and pulpit can become an “ivory tower” affair if the pastor is not connected with his people. In order for prayer and pulpit to be most effective, they must be informed by the personal relationship a pastor shares with his flock.
Many times, these relationships develop naturally over the course of time. There are weddings and funerals in every family that are natural times in which to observe, speak truth, serve, and simply be together. Conversing with people over coffee before Sunday morning church begins or staying after on a Wednesday night prayer service may be my best opportunity to find out how God is working in lives.
There may be other times when a pastor needs to be more intentional. Making visits to a home (a la Richard Baxter) or meeting for coffee might be appropriate ways to get to know and shepherd individuals/families in the church. Hospitality may play an important role in the personal aspect of pastoral ministry as your home is opened to your church family. A pastor need not be an extrovert, but he must love enough to get to know those in his flock.
After many years of pastoral ministry, I concluded that there were too many Sundays when I came home knowing I had spent too much time working on a building or planning an event to have actually pastored well. Even with this simple paradigm, I still struggle. So, dear reader, say a prayer for me and for your pastor: we are not sufficient for these things, but our sufficiency is of God.