On Being a Pastor: A Letter to Myself

During the month of October, I have taken up the challenge to publish a blog post every day. I have worked hard to avoid a negative or critical tone in what I have written. True, I did defend the role of the critic, especially when it is clear that the focus of criticism—as, for example, the church—is so clearly an object of the critic’s love and affection.

Still, knowing my tendency to embrace the critic’s task with excessive enthusiasm from time to time, I have tried to make my posts this month as positive and informative as possible. Only my readers can judge my success in that endeavor.

The post I published on October 19 bore the title “Coping with IPR (Involuntary Premature Retirement).” In it, I listed “the three most important truths I have learned (or re-learned) in the past seven years.” I also suggested that I might come back to one or more of those truths in future posts over the course of the month and push out their implication a bit further.

As it turned out, I did that only for the first one. In the remainder of this post, then, I want to address the point contained in important truth number three—i.e. the quality of leadership as the key to success.

Over the course of my forty-five year career in Christian ministry (since I graduated from Bible college in 1970), I served in pastoral ministry–either full-time or part-time; either as solo pastor, lead pastor, or associate pastor–for a total of twelve years in four different congregations. I wasn’t very good at it, which explains the fact that my tenure was never very long in any of the churches.

I worked hard, but I was young(-ish), and I wasn’t clear, in my own thinking, about what “success” in pastoral ministry would look like. I wrongly assumed it had something to do with the size of the congregation/budget/building or the number of programs or activities in which the congregation could be involved.

I have not served as a pastor (at least not officially, as part of a church staff) for more than twenty years. In that time, I have come to a couple of conclusions.

  1. I’m not sure we can find anything like a pastor’s job description in the New Testament. If it is there (Paul’s instruction to the Ephesian elders in Acts springs to mind), it doesn’t describe the work of many pastors I know.
  2. Whether or not we can find a first-century prototype for a twenty-first century pastor, I think the role can benefit the church anyway, when it is pursued according to some guidelines that reflect the special character of this unique job.

I have known a few really wonderful pastors in my life and some real rascals as well. Unfortunately, during those times when I most needed the ministry of a faithful and compassionate pastor, only rarely was I in a situation where I could experience that kind of pastoral care. That unmet need has contributed to my disillusionment with church, in general, over the past few years.

I would like to be a pastor again. I hope I will have that opportunity before the end of my active ministry. I think I could be a good pastor now. I know I would be a better pastor than I was before. I would try to be the kind of pastor I wish I had known during my times of deepest spiritual need.

Accordingly, I have written a letter to myself as a reminder of what I have come to believe should characterize the life and work of an effective pastor. Here it is.

Dear Eric:

Here are three somewhat disconnected bits of advice for you to keep in mind, in the event that you are ever again called to serve a group of people in the role of a pastor. Nobody asked for my thoughts in this regard. They were simply on my mind, and they represent some deeply-held convictions concerning the character and conduct of those who are privileged to serve the people of God in what may be the aspect of Christian ministry with the greatest potential impact on the work of the kingdom of God.

1. You are the congregation’s servant, not its CEO, and certainly not its autonomous leader and power-wielder. St. Francis is your model, not glitzy televangelists and prophets of the “prosperity gospel.” If you want to run something, start a business. If you want to be paid a professional’s salary, pursue a profession. But if you claim to follow the one who owned nothing more than the shirt on his back, realize that every dollar you receive in compensation is a dollar not being used for some other kingdom work.

2. Preaching is a great privilege, the greatest privilege an individual can be granted as part of his or her pastoral duties. Don’t abuse it. Practice discipline in preparation and delivery. Work hard to communicate well. Don’t pretend to be an expert in anything. Just share your heart. Don’t waste your people’s precious time, and never, never take this privilege for granted.

3. Finally, Eric, keep in mind that everybody in the congregation is suffering some sort of emotional trauma or pain, or they soon will be. They are not simply instruments through whom you realize your career aspirations. They are an assembly of the wounded and hurting. This is probably especially true in the case of those among your “flock” who have once served in church ministry themselves. Their presence as part of your congregation may, in itself, signifiy that they are suffering pain. Always remember the words of Henri Nouwen—

“When we honestly ask ourselves which persons in our lives mean the most to us, we often find that it is those who, instead of giving advice, solutions, or cures, have chosen rather to share our pain and touch our wounds with a warm and tender hand. The friend who can be silent with us in a moment of despair or confusion, who can stay with us in an hour of grief and bereavement, who can tolerate not knowing, not curing, not healing and face with us the reality of our powerlessness, that is a friend who cares.”

Imagine how the pastoral ministry would be transformed if pastors saw that as the model for their service to Christ and to his people. Now, go with God, and be the presence of Jesus for his people under your care. And may God’s grace and peace go with you.

Amen.

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