The end of August marked my 10-year anniversary of serving as pastor at New Life Presbyterian Church in Yorktown. As I reflect on the mistakes I’ve made and the fruit that has been borne from my ministry, I offer five things that I’ve learned about pastoral ministry during the time God has graciously given to me to serve as shepherd of God’s people. This of course is not all there is to be said about pastoral ministry; these are simply things that stand out as lessons that are easy to overlook:
1) Ministry is primarily about people.
As pastors, we are called to be men of the word who preach and teach the word (2 Tim. 4:2). We are called not only to watch ourselves, but to watch our doctrine (1 Tim. 4:16). We are guardians of the truth who must constantly be aware that wolves come among us in sheep’s clothing (Acts 20:29), so we must be doctrinally sharp and culturally aware. All of this means we must be men who give ourselves to study, prayer and private reflection. But if we give ourselves to the life of the mind at the expense of attention and care for people, we have missed the mark. As a seminary professor once told us: if you have to choose between your books and people, you should always choose people.
2) Apply the tools of the trade.
People come to pastors with a great variety of questions and concerns. It can be tempting to expect oneself to be able to solve all problems and to be able to offer informed counsel on all subjects. But a pastor is not a psychologist, a financial adviser or lawyer. His calling as pastor means his responsibility is to bring God’s Word to bear on a person’s situation, and to intercede for them before God. These are the tools of the trade, and really the only resources a pastor has. Thank God they are tools that are more than sufficient to revive the soul and make wise the simple.
3) Learn to be OK with the fact that some people will not like you.
There is a certain amount of people pleasing that is expected in a pastor. As was stated in Point 1, pastors are called to serve, love and minister to people. One lesson that can be learned from the recent controversy surrounding Mark Driscoll is that it really doesn’t matter how great a preacher you are if people feel you are leading them in a “domineering manner.” But it’s also true that a pastor who leads a church in a particular direction, and who is not afraid to be clear in his doctrinal convictions, will undoubtedly find that he steps on toes. He has to be OK with that. Pleasing God sometimes means displeasing people. “The fear of man lays a snare, but whoever trusts in the Lord is safe.” (Prov. 29:25).
4) Apply the Gospel to the inadequacy of your preaching.
For some preachers, Sunday afternoon can be a difficult time. All you think about is the comment you made from the pulpit that you shouldn’t have, or the comment you didn’t make that you should have. It can be easy to beat oneself up with all the woeful inadequacies of your message. If I may invoke another seminary professor, I remember Dr. Dan Doriani at Covenant Seminary once encouraging us that the blood of Jesus covers our sins in the pulpit as much as it covers our sins out of the pulpit. Those are words of life for every preacher with a sensitive conscience.
5) The little things matter.
Fresh out of seminary, it is easy to conclude that people will be so impressed by a pastor’s learned and nuanced understanding of some esoteric theological subject. In reality, what means the most to people are little things you didn’t even talk about in seminary: listening to people and refusing the temptation to interrupt; sending a card to someone expressing your thanks for his/her ministry; remembering a newcomer’s name on Sunday morning; doing what you say you’re going to do; assuring Christians that God loves them and works everything out for good. Turns out the little things are actually very big.