Reflecting on the basis of a call to ministry (or a lack thereof)
Dr. Milton writes:
[Martin] Bucer teaches us that the warrant, the calling and the work of the pastor, must be grounded in the Word of God and in the theological commitments of the Reformation and must be embraced personally by the pastor. In other words, the pastoral ministry is not just a Biblical idea, though it must be that, it is also a Spirit-shaped reality in the soul of the one called to be a pastor.
He also recounts a conversation before his own seminary training, in which a seasoned minister challenged him:
You only have your call from God! When they give you a Christmas raise and then run you out on a rumor, when the devil stirs up opposition against you for the sake of Jesus, and when you are hurt like our Lord was hurt, you will only have one thing to help you pick up your things and move on to the next field of service. Do you know what that is?” I decided not to answer. “You know what it is? It is your calling from God.” We both stood there looking at each other without talking. This eternity lasted for about a minute. Then he laid down the hammer for the final time. “Son, are you called by God to be a pastor according to the Word of God?” I whispered that I thought I should go home and pray about that. Brothers, that is just what I did.
(Read Dr. Milton's whole letter here.)
Dr. Milton's words, quoted above and in the rest of his letter, are both profound and wise. When someone is called to the ministry, it is not on the basis of the approval of their congregation, the outward affirmation that they receive (or that they don't receive), or any other external measure that should be what "keeps them going" so to speak. It should be their unequivocal sense that shepherding the flock of God in his church is all that they can do—the only thing that they can do.
This is why Charles Spurgeon frequently admonished his students that, if there was any other profession in which they felt they could be satisfied and content, they should run as fast as they could from pastoral ministry and do that! (See Spurgeon's Lectures To My Students.) It wasn't that Spurgeon didn't want more pastors coming into the church, but that he recognized that (in his day) the ministry was seen as a cushy and undemanding job, and maybe one in which someone who didn't want to work all that hard might find their ease.
Still today, pastoral ministry is a job where a lazy man can find a decent paycheck without too much work. Now, let me be clear: it is not that it should be this way, but for some it is. I've known lazy pastors, who present a façade of busyness and activity while hiding in their studies or wandering around, whereabouts unknown. Their sermons were ill-prepared and poorly presented, their visitation (what little of it existed) was infrequent and filled with empty clichés, and they didn't know their sheep from the wolves among them. These men were more susceptible than most to failed marriages and to the temptations of pornography, plagiarism, and other scandals that eventually wreaked havoc in their congregations; while they usually didn't stay more than a year or two in any one congregation, they did great damage during their brief visit. Thankfully, most of the men I'm thinking of are no longer in the ministry.
I think Dr. Milton's admonitions are invaluable today. I believe our day is more like Spurgeon's, in terms of many men attending seminary and dabbling at the possibility of a career in ministry, than most of us would like to admit.
As I commented on in my recent post reflecting on the decrease in placement, I believe we can see the fruit of the problem I've listed above (among other problems) in how many qualified candidates there are who are called as Dr. Milton described, yet who have not found placement into a ministry position. I don't think we can chalk that up entirely to the decline of the church, but also to the fact that, for years, there was a shortage (or an apparent one, at any rate) of called, qualified pastors and pastoral candidates, and therefore we threw open the doors of our seminaries and our presbyteries and welcomed in all who would come. Now we are seeing one of the consequences.
I think a second factor that has led to this (and to the decrease in placement issue as well) is that some—perhaps many—of those entering seminary do so because it was either implied to them or outright said that, if they were really serious about maturity in their Christian faith, they would go to seminary and pursue a career in vocational ministry. This is dead wrong! Not least because, as Dr. Milton reflects, this is no basis for a true, biblical ministry of the Word. There are many professions (most of them by far, in fact) in which a godly young man or woman can serve God faithfully.
If you are a seminary student—or if you are a seminary graduate who is pursuing a call to be a pastor—I would urge you to read Dr. Milton's words and take them to heart. There is no shame in determining that you are not, in fact, called to be a pastor! But if you are so called, be encouraged, as Dr. Milton (and I) long for you to be, by the true and biblical basis of your call to ministry.
Challenging the conventional wisdom on Ministerial Calls
Trueman observes that the practice often is in conflict with similar practices in other parts of our congregational life:
I have often wondered why it is in Presbyterian circles (and probably other churches too) that we routinely call men in their twenties, straight from seminary, to be ministers when we would never dream of calling someone of such an age to be a ruling elder. It seems odd to apply the biblical norms only to the latter.
I think he is more right than wrong here. I know at Covenant Seminary, where I studied, there is a requirement that a man must have at least three years of pastoral ministry behind him before beginning a Doctor of Ministry program; I have wondered why a similar requirement is not made for those who would enter the ministry. Why not at least one or the other of the following: either several years of work experience in secular employment, or several years of ministry experience as an intern, pastoral assistant, or non-ordained ministry position?
Trueman goes on to point out that, too often, churches and presbyteries simply rely on seminaries to do their jobs for them, with regard to determining whether a man is fit for ministry. If they have completed seminary, the conventional wisdom goes, they must have some "chops" that make them suitable as a pastor. He makes the following point about that:
What is needed is a clear understanding that seminaries are not presbyteries: they do not make any judgment on suitability for ministry; they simply teach the necessary technical theological skills at the appropriate level.
He concludes with a poignant reminder about achievement and potential vs. fitness and qualification for ministry:
An MDiv degree, a congregational vote, an `internal call' and an act of presbytery do not mean that a man is really called by God to be a minister.
This is much-needed re-thinking. I know that our presbytery has ordained men on these bases, when in fact several of us have had serious questions about whether they were truly ready to serve the church as pastors-- or whether we were setting them up (and their congregations as well) for potential devastation.
Read all of the posts here:
Some Questions and Thoughts on Ministerial Calls I
Some Questions and Thoughts on Ministerial Calls II
Trevin Wax on "11 Questions Every Pastor Should Ask"
His questions fall out into two general categories: About Preaching and About the Mission of the Church. In the first category, he touches on:
- Whether my sermons pointing to the "big-picture" message of Scripture
- Whether my message is distinctively a Christian/Gospel message
- How I am applying God's Word for His people
In the second set of questions, he asks questions about:
- The impact of my congregation in its context and community
- Evangelism and reaching the lost with the Gospel
- Making the best use of time and other resources
I think these are valuable questions that, as he put it, every pastor should ask-- but I would especially urge new pastors and recent seminary graduates to keep these questions frequently in mind, particularly during the first, formative years of pastoral ministry.
Read the whole post here.
Eugene Peterson on being a pastor
This is a website and blog that is passionate about strengthening and informing pastors in their financial life in a similar way that this site is about pastoral transition. There is great help here about budgeting, debt, tax-related concerns, financial issues unique to pastors, bi-vocational ministry, and other topics.
The site is run by a pastor, and he is quick to disclaim any expertise, legal or otherwise, related to finances, tax law, or money management. Nevertheless, it is clear that this pastor has invested a lot of study, research, and thought toward this important category of information.
Questions before starting a D.Min.
- Do I have time?
- Will my church support me?
- Can I commit 4-7 years to the process?
- Do I want an accredited degree or just the title?
- What criteria will I use to select a D.Min. program?
Be sure to read Chuck's particular explanation and reflections about each question. Visit Chuck's blog (Confessions of a Small Church Pastor) to read more.
A check on ministerial pride
The man who wrote these words is a good man, a great pastor, and a hard-working church planter. I'm grateful for his ministry and for the particular labor that God has called him to do, and I am thrilled that his church plant is thriving as it is. In saying what I'm about to say, I'm not trying to take anything away from his ministry. In fact, I'm not even sure that this is his particular attitude.
But his words reminded me of how many of the church planters I know embody an attitude that is unhealthy for the church-- a sense of ministerial pride. Yes, church planting is hard, and it is, indeed, physically and emotionally draining. But not anymore than any other ministry-- because the simple fact is, any pastor who is adequately doing his job and fulfilling his calling will inevitably find that it is physically and emotionally draining, to a degree beyond what he once imagined it might be.
I say this, because I know that no church planter ever had a week (plus a day or so) like I just had in a "revitalization" ministry: a week ago this past Wednesday, I got word that a lifelong-member in our congregation, age 74, had died of a stroke. I personally took this news to her best friend of more than 50 years, who has also been in the church that long, and to another long-time friend. I broke the news to much of my congregation that night, many of whom had known this lady all their lives, had been taught Sunday School and Bible School from her as children. I conducted her funeral on Monday, and then went to the hospital to visit with a second-generation member of our congregation and her family, as she gave birth to her first child. All of this, in addition to regular Wednesday and Sunday activities, plus a Christmas Eve service.
While the death of a long-time Christian isn't outside of the realm of possibility for a church plant by any means, most of the rest of those circumstances (even the regular activities and services) are. And the longevity of it makes the emotionally-draining quality that much deeper.
My point isn't to say, "you think church planting is hard-- you should try revitalization!" Rather, it is to say this: church planting is hard; so is revitalization. So is ministry in an established, healthy congregation. So is campus ministry. So is international missions.
Which is to say, ministry, if you're doing it right, is hard.
And we need to get over ourselves enough to acknowledge this better. The way my friend presented the difficulties of his year made me feel like he had to make the point that, for some reason, he felt his year was harder than mine because he is a church planter.
Maybe it is because church planting normally embodies leading people in new and fresh directions. Maybe it is because church planters are treated like the "rock stars" of the pastor world. Maybe it is because, for a decade or more, church planting has had a strangely special status in my denomination (the PCA). Or maybe it is for reasons I can't enumerate. But for whatever reason, church planters often seem to have this chip on their shoulder that proclaims, "what I'm doing is more important than what you're doing."
(By the way, all of us are susceptible to this struggle. When I was in college, it was foreign missions that took on the same attitude and pridefulness.)
Let me just knock that chip off by saying, in response: no it isn't-- and that sort of competitive spirit that you are always identifying your ministry (and, by default, mine too) by is antithetical to the Gospel. It is antithetical to Kingdom growth. Please stop it.
Clergy tax preparation
Having access to a good CPA or tax preparer-- and one who is familiar with clergy tax law-- is a great help. The trouble is, they can sometimes be difficult to find.
I know of three:
- Deborah Lee, St. Louis, MO. 314-821-2560. email@example.com
- Doug Neal, Columbia, SC 29204. (803) 787-7017.
- Brenda Paoni, Cordova, TN 38018. (901) 757-8866.
Deborah recently wrote a short tax guide for seminary students for goingtoseminary.com. I don't know her personally, but she's a graduate of my seminary alma mater, and we know some people in common. I've known Doug for years, and he has prepared my taxes before. Brenda currently handles our taxes. All three should be able to help you with yours, if you find yourself in need of a tax preparer who is acquainted with the nuances of clergy tax law.
Sermon preparation and delivery, part 1
The first thing you should know is that I primarily preach verse-by-verse, chapter-by-chapter through books, in an expository* manner. When I started my ministry at Hickory Withe Presbyterian Church, I began preaching through the book of Luke. We have taken a couple of breaks from Luke, and in those times I have preached a series on the cross and a series on the Lord's Supper. Even in those cases, nearly all of my sermons are expository.
Expository preaching through a book has the side benefit of having a clear picture of "what's next." There's little mystery about where I'll preach next week, if this week I finished out chapter eight. So that is one part of my preparation that I don't have to think about week-to-week.
Another thing that is important to get clear is that I work ahead. I've been slowly worked ahead further and further for a number of months now, and I'm getting close to being as ahead as I want to be (for the time being, at least). I got ahead by increments: the first week, I developed a rough outline (proposition and main points only) for that week's text as well as the next three weeks after it. The week after that, my rough outline was already done-- so I took that time to build in more detail on the other outlines. The third week I drafted rough outlines for the next month, and in the fourth I fleshed them out more, etc. Right now I have all my texts outlined through the middle of January, except my Advent series (and I have rough outlines for some of them).
Also: I work ahead by planning ahead. I have a general idea of what I will preach in 2009, even though I haven't begun to outline anything past January. I have planned breaks three times during the next year, and I'll probably finish Luke in early 2010. I'm keeping my options open, but after that I'll probably preach a portion of Genesis before returning to the New Testament to look at Acts (thereby rounding out Luke's writings.)
So, there are some preliminary ideas. Next time, I'll begin to talk about how I prepare.
*Bryan Chapell distinguished an expository sermon as one that takes its proposition, main points, and sub-points directly from the text.
The urgency of the preaching moment
In the front pews the old ladies turn up heir hearing aids, and a young lady slips her six-year-old a Life Saver and a Magic Marker. A college sophomore home for vacation who is there because he was dragged there, slumps forward with his chin in his hand. The vice-president of a bank who twice this week has considered suicide places his hymnal in the rack. A pregnant girl feels the life stir inside her. A high school teacher, who for twenty years has managed to keep his homosexuality a secret for the most part even from himself, creases his order of service down the center with his thumbnail and tucks it under his knee... The preacher pulls the little cord that turns on the lectern light and deals out his note cards like a river boat gambler. The stakes have never been higher. Two minutes from now he may have lost his listeners completely to their own thoughts, but at this moment he has them in the palm of his hand. The silence in the shabby church is deafening because everybody is listening to it... Everybody knows the kinds of things he has told them before and not told them, but who knows what this time, out of the silence, he will tell them.
Frederick Buechner, Telling the Truth. New York: Harper and Row, 1977, pp.22-23. (Quoted in The Power of Speaking God’s Word by Wilbur Ellsworth, Farn, Ross-Shire, Great Britain: Christian Focus, 2000.)
Book recs for small church/revitalization ministry
I've written a post like this before, but it's been a while and I've read a lot of books since then. Plus, this one is more narrow in focus.
At General Assembly last week, one of my good friends from seminary (who is open to small church and revitalization ministry in the future) said to me, "I've read From Embers to a Flame [by Harry Reeder]; what other books would you recommend to me about church revitalization and pastoring a small church?"
Such a great question-- and I'm honored to be asked it. Here is my response:
Books on small-church ministry:
- Help for the Small-Church Pastor by Steve Bierly. Very practical and helpful, focused on churches that probably won't ever be any bigger than a "small church."
- No Little Places by Ron Klassen and John Koessler. For folks in a small church in small towns and suburbs, and areas in-between (like the area I'm in!). This is a good book that brings helpful perspective and addresses some of the identity issues that small churches might have.
- Effective Small Churches in the Twenty-First Century by Carl S. Dudley is a very helpful book that is based on thorough and useful research. Dudley deals with the data and concepts that arose from his study, so many of the ideas here are fresh and not found elsewhere (in other words, this one takes you beyond the "conventional wisdom) about small churches). Good stuff.
- What Is Your Church's Personality? by Phil Douglass-- of course, it's written for all churches, but you should recognize by now that the dynamics of communication become more influential as the overall size of a group gets smaller; thus, in small churches then it is ALWAYS a centerpiece issue. Plus, understanding how small churches think is so helpful for guys like you and me, because we're on the opposite side of the "wheel" from most of them.
Books on revitalization in particular:
- The Practices of a Healthy Church by Don McNair is, perhaps, the gold-standard in revitalization concepts. McNair wrote and taught in response to the church growth movement, arguing that the priority ought to be on church health, not growth. Still essential today.
- Historical Drift by Arnold L. Cook. This one is great for a church that doesn't yet know that it is a revitalization church (or that it is becoming one). Very helpful from a leadership perspective in such a circumstance.
- The Prevailing Churchby Randy Pope is very much like Reeder's From Embers to a Flame, in that you get insight into how an effective and seasoned Pastor grew and learned these principles by living them. Perhaps in Pope's case you get even more of a glimpse into that. Very good explanation of the principles that undergird a healthy church.
- And The Shofar Blewby Francine Rivers is a fiction book, but it gives such a real and clear look at the life of a revitalization pastor that it could BE real, as far as I can tell. Certainly, it unveils some of the realities and temptations that a small church/revitalization pastor will face.
- If It Can Happen Here... by Jeff Patton. I'm a little bit hesitant about recommending this one, only because it offers only a fairly narrow model of how true revitalization can happen. Nevertheless, it does so in a descriptive (not prescriptive) way, so it's good to glean what you can from what this guy did.
- Outgrowing the Ingrown Church by Jack Miller rivals McNair in being one of the staples of revitalization, in part because Miller began to teach and train what he did so early. Miller's ideas are so good, in part because they are so pastoral. I'm always ministered to when reading Miller, not just given new ideas.
- One Size Doesn't Fit All by Gary Macintosh does a great job of discussing what the leadership dynamics are in a small church, how they change as the church grows, and why some churches grow into large ones while others drop back to a smaller size and stay there.
- Surprising Insights from the Unchurched by Thom Rainer. I continue to be amazed that more pastors haven't read this book. Rainer's research is impeccable, and the insights he derives from it are not only surprising but SO valuable and practical. This is a handbook for working through the concept of vision and strategy for any church, especially small and revitalization churches.
- Developing a Vision for Ministry in the 21st Century by Aubrey Malphurs is probably the best book around on how to develop a vision within the church. (For a scaled-down version of the same content, check out The Vision Thing by Don Clements.)
- High Expectations by Thom Rainer pre-dates Surprising Insights but, in a way, picks up where the other leaves off. This book deals with the idea of "closing the back door" which is a problem in all churches, but can be crippling for the small/revitalization church. Again, great research and even better insights.
- Well-Intentioned Dragons by Marshall Shelley, again, fits for all pastors in all churches, but also again can be especially poignant for the small-church pastor. How do you deal with the "problem" people in a congregation? Shelley handles this so ably.
- The Heart of a Servant Leader by Jack Miller focuses on the spiritual health and servant mindset of a pastor. You will not lead a church to revitalization unless you have also been revitalized; there are few books beyond Scripture that will lead you through personal revitalization than this one.
- Restoration God's Way by Donald McNair. Every revitalization church has those who have been bruised and broken by others; some have been left in the wake of a difficult season while others remain involved, perhaps even in leadership. You will need to understand healthy, biblical church discipline and restoration to shepherd such people effectively. McNair does as well as anyone at teaching this.
What makes it worth it
There are times when the ministry is tough-- enough to make you ask, "is this worth it?"
Let me tell you clearly: it is.
Every now and then, God will send encouragement your way to stoke the fires for ministry. Here are a few recent examples from my ministry:
- In an e-mail received on a Monday morning: "Just wanted to let you that the message was so good. We are so happy to have you as our pastor."
- A conversation with a couple just before worship a few weeks ago: "We wanted to tell you that you have helped us to love church again. Before we started coming here, we had almost reached the point where we didn't even want to go to church anymore. Through your teaching, your preaching, and your love for us, you've helped us get excited about church. Now we look forward to every time we come."
- In a note I received today: "Your sermon Sunday was an answer to prayer. Having suffered a harsh remark from someone I respect, I have harbored ill will toward them. This has troubled my soul. Thank you for pointing me to God's Word on that very subject and giving me hope that I can get past the hurt to pray for God's mercy for both of us. His message was what I needed to hear!"
John Piper recently blogged about "How can I bless my Pastor?" His take-away point was, "I want to see lives changed." When you're in ministry, God can and does use you to change lives-- and He will sometimes grant you encouragement that you have done exactly that.
That's what makes ministry worth it.