Encouragement for Today’s Pastors: Help from the Puritans
Joel R. Beeke and Terry D. Slachter
Reformation Heritage Books, 2013
This book is just the sort of help weary pastors need to refresh their spirits, reminding them of the great privilege they have in shepherding God’s people. Pastoral work is challenging on the best of days, and the authors highlight that by referencing several studies highlighting the growing numbers leaving ministry due to “conflict, burnout, or moral failure” (p.1).
But why would 21st century pastors look back 400 years for encouragement from Puritan pastors? Anticipating that question, Beeke & Slachter remind us that these men also faced many challenges and demands in their ministry. The very term “Puritan”
… was originally a pejorative term … meant as an accusation that these Christians were too zealous for purity and too precise in their religion. It also implied they were fanatical and could never have fun (p.9).
While North America pastors today face numerous demands in our wired, social media savvy culture with expectations of 24/7 availability, Puritan pastors were not spared trials in fulfilling their responsibilities. In addition to the difficulties of life in the 17th century, with regard to their pastoral work they faced
… opposition, persecution, imprisonment, expulsion from their congregations, financial hardships, physical harm, and even death (p.11).
The authors acknowledge that the Puritans didn’t always get everything right, but do contend that these godly, biblically informed men excelled at bringing God’s Word to bear upon our lives, strengthening our minds and hearts to trust and follow God in all our circumstances. As a group, these men “had an enormous impact on the spiritual life of the English-speaking world”, and “traces of the influence of the Puritans in Britain, the Netherlands, and North America persist to this day” (p.13).
Drawing extensively from the Puritans, Beeke and Slachter explore six crucial areas of pastoral ministry, demonstrating how these men faced the challenge to remain effective in ministry.
Cultivating personal piety
Three aspects of personal piety are covered in this section: recovering and maintaining zeal in ministry; giving proper priority to daily communion with God through prayer and Scripture meditation; and, focusing on God’s promises to enable pastors to faithfully fulfill their calling.
Resting in God’s sovereignty
In a culture driven by visible success, today’s pastors can easily become discouraged. Beeke & Slachter write:
We affirm God’s sovereignty with our lips, but our roller-coaster ride on the ups and downs of church attendance may betray our hidden fears that our work is useless. Many pastors face pain and disappointments in ministry, which, at times may result in anger against God Himself (p.51).
Remembering that it is God who gives the increase in our work (See 1 Corinthians 3:5-9) enables us to properly submit to his will in our ministry settings. Again, because the Puritans were committed to a robust reformed theology, they understood the value acknowledging God’s sovereignty over every aspect of life, including the results seen in pastoral ministry.
Recovering clarity in their calling
Understanding the nature of pastoral work is vital to remaining faithful to the task.
We pastors are busy with countless worship services, classes, committees, small groups, one-on-one meetings, funerals, weddings, home visits, hospital visits, luncheons, lectures, and board meetings. In the midst of our busyness, are our books of theology gathering dust? Many men took their first steps toward ministry impelled by a passionate love for biblical truth and the desire to share it with others. They consumed theological books like well-cooked steaks. But after seminary, many of their theological works have become monuments to a bygone era of study (p.79).
The Puritans excelled in doctrinal preaching, and there are scores of Puritan titles available to 21st century pastors hungry to grow theologically. Seven incentives are given to encourage pastors to continue growing theologically. It enables pastors to:
- Enrich People with Our Greatest Treasure
- Build God’s Temple with Gold, Silver, and Precious Stones
- Defend the Church against False Teachings
- Lay Foundations for Effective Evangelism
- Equip Yourself for Edifying Preaching
- Enable People to See the Big Picture
- Glorify God and Enjoy Him Forever (pp.80-90)
In light of the sheer volume of Puritan doctrinal writing available, Beeke & Slachter provide helpful suggestions on where to begin. (See pp.90-92).
It is, of course, one thing to be informed, and quite another to put that knowledge to work. Pastors acquire doctrinal and theological understanding so as to live godly lives themselves, and to lead and encourage their congregations to do the same.
The Puritans emphasized the link between doctrine and application. Most of their published works contain “edited series of sermons” (p.94). In these sermons they set out the doctrine contained in their texts, explained it, and provided detailed instruction in putting those principles to work in daily life. They drew a clear line from “the Bible to doctrine to application” (p.94).
In the chapter on “The Calling of the Shepherd”, the authors note:
One reason pastors become discouraged is the lack of clarity regarding their calling. 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 (p.107).
Drawing from Jonathan Edwards, William Perkins, Robert Traill, and a host of other Puritan pastors, readers find a summary of what God has called pastors to do, and what he has not called them to do.
- God has not called you to produce converts.
- God has not called you to comfort unrepentant sinners.
- God has not called you to be like other ministers, but like Christ.
- God calls you to serve Christ for His pleasure and glory.
- God calls you to care for the spiritual needs of men.
- God calls you to preach His Word and nothing but His Word. (pp.108-117)
Discovering means of support God provided
Recognizing God’s providence in history and his glorious power in creation were two ways that Puritans found comfort and support in ministry. For example, with regards to God’s providence in history, John Flavel recommended keeping a written record of those providences because our memories often fail us. Recalling them enables us to keep present trials in proper perspective (pp.122-123).
Pastoral ministry is lonely at times, and the book has two chapters on the value of remembering we are part of a long line of believers who have served God in every age. Puritan pastors valued meeting together for prayer, fellowship and mutual edification.
Twenty-first century pastors should avail themselves of the blessings of interacting with fellow pastors who have fought some of the same battles, experienced many of the same heartaches, faced similar challenges, and are familiar with the conditions that lead to burnout. It only makes sense to join with others for prayer and spiritual conference as often as possible, for this spiritual discipline will enrich your ministry and enable you to find strength in the Lord (p.140).
Today’s pastors can find encouragement from reading biographies of earlier saints. Puritan pastors encouraged their congregants to reach spiritual biographies (p.144). One Puritan pastor defended the practice with these words:
In the lives of holy men we see God’s image, and the beauties of holiness, not only in precept, but in reality and practice (p.145).
The first biographies I remember reading as a young child were of Adoniram Judson and David Brainerd, and I can say that these two books significantly contributed to my interest in serving Christ vocationally. We can learn much from those who traveled the road before us. We are not islands.
Recognizing the dignity of their office
Many pastors are discouraged because they measure their effectiveness by faulty standards: the size of their building, the number of people in membership, or the size of the church budget. Others are intimidated because their leadership is resisted, or their teaching is questioned. Along with these common difficulties, the Puritans frequently endured government opposition and harassment.
Along with these movements that rejected the Puritan pastor’s authority, the Puritans were scorned for their plain preaching and Reformed theology. … In the midst of those challenges and the ordinary difficulties of ministry, the Puritans dug deep into Scripture to confirm the worth and dignity of the pastoral office. This helped them defy the enactments of the king, turn deaf ears to the slander of critics, resolutely oppose the sects, and heed only the voice of the Head of the church who commissioned and commended their service to Him (p.155).
Beeke and Slachter summarize ways in which the Puritans saw pastoral work similar to the work of angels:
- They are both heavenly.
- They both study God’s mysteries.
- They are both God’s servants.
- They are both servants to the church.
- They both are ministers of the Word, declaring God’s will to men.
- They both comfort the downcast. (pp.167-168)
This exploration of the dignity of the pastoral office concludes with an excellent chapter on the urgently important call to preach the Word of God.
Taking comfort in grace and glory to come
The Puritans readily considered the rewards of faithful ministry, and three rewards in particular are highlighted: (1) spiritual children – pastors are privileged to draw others into the Christian faith; (2) spiritual legacies – leaving a testimony of faithfulness and revival; and (3) vindication – the “manifestation of God’s righteousness in establishing the righteousness of His faithful servants” (p.195).
A 17th century “literary tour of the glories of heaven” (p.197) rounds out this delightfully encouraging look at pastoral ministry.
Whatever discouragement you may face at present, whatever dark hole you may find yourself mired in, by the Spirit’s gracious power, lift up your heart to God in heaven and contemplate the heavenly glory of Christ, seated at the right hand of power. That will be enough to raise your spirits, renew your sense of calling, and rekindle your love for God’s Son, who first loved us (p.207).
This is a welcome resource for battle-weary servants of God. Church members will find this an excellent insight to the world of ministry, encouraging them to pray daily for their pastors. I hope it is widely read.