When asked what counsel he would leave with today’s Christian preachers, Haddon W. Robinson said:
Preach the Bible. If you don’t preach the Bible, you have nothing to preach. But don’t just preach the Bible. Preach the Bible to people. Understand your audience. Who are they? Pastors have a great advantage when they interact with their congregation. You know their hurts, problems, and questions. I think it is vitally important that the people in your congregation know that you love them. You want God’s best for them. When you do that, you capture something in your preaching that is vital and solid.
“Life-changing preaching: An Interview with
Haddon W. Robinson”, Ministry, July, 2014
When I first read that interview, a bit over three years ago, I had just read two engaging blog posts from a well-known American evangelical pastor and consultant. In addition to his responsibilities as Lead Pastor of a growing congregation, at the time he held an executive position with a major publisher, was a contributing editor for a leading Christian publication, was a columnist for another magazine, while overseeing a major publishing project, and serving as a visiting professor at two leading seminaries. Further, he has authored numerous books and articles and is in demand as a consultant throughout the evangelical world.
The juxtaposition of Robinson’s interview, which did not intend to address the full spectrum of pastoral ministry, with the responsibilities of that publisher-columnist-professor-author-consultant pastor left me thinking about what constitutes effective pastoral ministry.
That was three years ago, and now, as I am nearing 48 years in pastoral work, and in the final weeks of an Interim Lead Pastor assignment, I find myself thinking about the heart of pastoral work again.
I cannot help wondering how this pastor described above fulfills his pastoral role. What meaningful interaction does he have with the congregation he leads? What does he really know about his people – their burdens, hurts, questions, and fears? Is he really a shepherd of his flock?
I do not mean to be overly critical of this individual who demonstrates a clear passion for the cause of Christ. He works hard, and all the things he does are important. There are many like him. My question relates to the pastoral call – to the solemn responsibility as an overseer of God’s people gathered in a local church. It’s time we reflect again on how the Scriptures describe pastoral ministry. I have highlighted phrases worthy of careful thought.
Acts 6:2–4 (ESV)
And the twelve summoned the full number of the disciples and said, “It is not right that we should give up preaching the word of God to serve tables. 3 Therefore, brothers, pick out from among you seven men of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we will appoint to this duty. 4 But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word.”
Acts 20:28 (ESV)
Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood.
1 Timothy 4:13–16 (ESV)
Until I come, devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to exhortation, to teaching. 14 Do not neglect the gift you have, which was given you by prophecy when the council of elders laid their hands on you. Practice these things, immerse yourself in them, so that all may see your progress. Keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching. Persist in this, for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers.
1 Peter 5:1–3 (ESV)
So I exhort the elders among you, as a fellow elder and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, as well as a partaker in the glory that is going to be revealed: 2 shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight, not under compulsion, but willingly, as God would have you; not for shameful gain, but eagerly; 3 not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock.
I know how easy it is to become distracted from the daily weight of pastoral work – of keeping the flock attentive to God. Our world is filled with opportunities to do good things, and sometimes we are drawn to activities and ministries outside the congregation we’ve been called to shepherd. It is not that these outside responsibilities are wrong, but they pull us away from our primary calling to shepherd the flock of God which we’ve been commissioned to lead. It is all too easy to busy ourselves with many good things while neglecting to be vitally involved in the lives of those God gave us to shepherd.
In previous times, the vocation of a Protestant pastor was well-defined, but today the rise and growth of parachurch organizations has brought the business mindset into Christian ministry, clouding our vision of the pastoral office. The work of a Christian businessman is noble, as is the calling of a Christian soldier, magistrate, mother, student, or laborer. Yet we must not fail to recognize the distinct vocation of pastoral ministry, specifically as ministers of the Word in Christ, the anointed Servant of the Lord.
Every Christian has a gift to use in service to others for their mutual edification (Eph. 4:7,16), but the ascended Lord specifically charges ministers of the Word to build up the whole body in the knowledge of Christ and in likeness to Him (Eph. 4:11-14). Pastoral ministry is a special office and a special calling that requires special qualifications of character, ability, and experience (1 Tim. 3:1-7).
Joel R. Beeke & Terry D. Slachter, Encouragement for Today’s Pastors:
Help from the Puritans, Reformation Heritage Books, 2013, pp.107-8.
I believe we need to regain a fresh understanding of what it means to pastor a local congregation. And while some are clearly able to handle wider responsibilities than others, we must not lose sight of the priority laid out by the apostles when faced with increasing ministry challenges: “… we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word” (Acts 6:4).