Some Words of Counsel for Pastors
Following up on an earlier post in which I talked about things I wish I had known or done when I was early on in my pastoral ministry, here I want to touch on some counsel for pastors.
(1) Being fuzzy about the Bible, truth, and life is not a virtue. Fuzziness is usually done to avoid offense or to gain favor or to avoid the loss of money or to promote oneself. Most who are fuzzy are trying to impress others with their brilliance. You’ll know what I mean when you walk away from someone and say, “Wow, that was deep. But I have no idea what he meant!” Or again, many are intentionally fuzzy to make it appear they are generous and inclusive, when in fact they are cruel and damning.
Again, when it comes to the clear truth of the Bible, people are not helped when you remain tentative or vague. Spin is sin. I’m not advocating an angry or arrogant dogmatism, but rather a compassionate clarity.
In a recent blog post, Justin Taylor pointed to C.S. Lewis’s last interview. It was on May 7, 1963, six months before he died. Sherwood Wirt (1911-2001) asked for his writing advice: “How would you suggest a young Christian writer go about developing a style?” Lewis responded:
"The way for a person to develop a style is (a) to know exactly what he wants to say, and (b) to be sure he is saying exactly that. The reader, we must remember, does not start by knowing what we mean. If our words are ambiguous, our meaning will escape him" (C. S. Lewis, “Cross-Examination,” in C.S. Lewis: Essay Collection and Other Short Pieces, ed. Lesley Walmsley [London: HarperCollins, 2000], 555).
This is one of the reasons Lewis is still read today. Agree or disagree with what he’s saying, you don’t have to wonder what he thinks. This blessed clarity and precision is a gift we can emulate.
(2) Never underestimate the degree to which you are by nature and by default a man-pleaser. How might one know when he is seeking the approval and praise of man rather than of God? Numerous ways, but here are two. First, you are a man-pleasing pastor when you yield to the pressure to redefine in more palatable and acceptable terms difficult biblical truths about which there can be little dispute (such as divine wrath, sexual purity, the reality of hell, the centrality of the local church, etc.). This is done lest offense be given, especially to those on whom your church is dependent for their financial generosity. Second, you are a man-pleasing pastor when you spend more time and energy worried about what your congregation thinks of you as a preacher than what God thinks about what you preached. In other words, you are a man-pleaser when, in spite of preaching accurately and sincerely, you feel depressed because others didn’t affirm your efforts.
(3) Never underestimate the degree to which you falsely believe that God loves less those who disagree with you more. This is not to say that we shouldn’t be diligent and precise and always rigorously biblical in our beliefs. It is to say that when other Christians (especially pastors) interpret things differently, God still loves them as much as he loves you. So treat them accordingly!
(4) Never forget that human error does not negate divine truth. It may obscure it, but it does not obliterate it. Or again, our obligation to obey God is not negated by the decision of some to disobey him! Or again, abuse is never a legitimate excuse to legislate neglect.
(5) Never forget that (most?) people come to church on a Sunday convinced that all their problems are bigger than God. Never forget that your task is to portray God as immeasurably bigger than all their problems.
(6) Resist the temptation to be duped by the cult of celebrity. The men who speak at national conferences and write books and whose blogs are widely read are not more important or more holy or more loved of God or more anointed by the Spirit or more glorifying of God. Worse than merely being duped by the cult of celebrity is the temptation to refashion yourself and your ministry of preaching so that you might one day be admitted to membership in it!
(7) Never forget that after 25 or 35 or even 45 years of ministry, when you look back on what has been accomplished, you will care little for numbers or money or book sales or popularity. You will care most about whether or not you are still faithful to your wife and if your kids are walking with God.
(8) Study your wife, love your wife, and then labor to release her into the fullness of what God created her to be. With rare exceptions, most pastors, in one way or another, quench the Spirit in their wives. Be alert to imposing unspoken expectations on her. Be alert to the many ways in which the local church does this. Far more than you, she lives with the fear of failing to measure up (to God, you, and the church).
(9) Never underestimate the power of God’s Spirit, working through God’s Word, to bring gradual but genuine transformation in how people think and live. Often a pastor deals with indifference, opposition, and lack of support by imposing his authority to effect instantaneous change or by too quickly firing and/or hiring. That’s not to say there aren’t instances when you must decisively speak, authoritatively act, and lead with strength. But don’t prematurely pull the trigger in these ways before giving God’s Word the opportunity to display its power. In other words, where possible, be patient!
(10) Never forget, as John Piper reminds us, “that the main aim of preaching is not the transfer of information, but an encounter with the living God. The people of God meet God in the anointed heralding of God’s message in a way that cannot be duplicated by any other means [whether that be drama, film, comedy, or other props]. Preaching in a worship service is not a lecture in a classroom. It is the echo of, and the exultation over, God speaking to us in his word” (Foreword to Preaching: A Biblical Theology by Jason Meyer [Crossway, 2013], 11-12).
Of course, the way in which this encounter is mediated and facilitated is through the transfer of information. But never confuse means with ends. The means is the information. The end is the encounter.
(11) Try not to take yourself too seriously. God loves you, but the progress and ultimate triumph of God’s kingdom does not depend on you (as much as all of us at times would like to believe it does, or should!). Failing to understand this will most often lead to self-contempt, disillusionment, and the manipulation of others to achieve your artificial goals rather than loving ministry in helping them become more like Christ.
(12) Try not to read eternal and earth-shattering significance into emotionally-charged events. Worship last Sunday may have been great, but it doesn’t necessarily mean Jesus is coming back soon. Praise God that he healed someone in your congregation, but it’s doubtful if that will happen every time you pray. Be sensible and sane and rejoice in the good gifts of God, both small and great.
The fact is, whatever brief moments or even extended seasons of either spiritual euphoria or frustration you experience, know that things will, over time, level out. It probably won’t always be this good. But neither will it always be this bad.
(13) Don’t ignore or be ungrateful for revival, should it come. But remember that all revivals share one thing in common: they all come to an end!
(14) Try not to invest too much energy or time in fads, whether they be technological or theological. Like revivals, they too will end (I think that’s why they call them “fads”). Instead, invest yourself in the cultivation of those spiritual values that never go out of style (at least with God they don’t). The bottom line is this: aside from what God does or approves, over everything else may be written the epitaph: “This too shall pass.”
(15) Never forget that the only lasting cure for depression in the pastor’s heart is a healthy and ever-expanding confidence in the sovereignty of God. If you genuinely believe Romans 8:28 is true, then live like it.