Learning the Work of Pastoral Ministry

Founders Journal · Spring 2002 · pp. 19-21

Learning the Work of Pastoral Ministry

Jonathan Leeman

In my third year of membership at Capitol Hill Baptist Church, I told my pastor over lunch I was feeling called to preach. My pastor, Mark Dever, replied that the call to the ministry was both internal and external–that only I could decipher the internal, but that our church was responsible for the external confirmation. “So let’s get you involved in more teaching,” was his first conclusion. “And don’t think you are going anywhere until you do an internship,” was his second.

I quit my job in July 2000, and spent the final five months of 2000 as a pastoral intern at CHBC. Broadly speaking, the internship gave me the opportunity to try out the many hats a pastor must wear in the local church. Tasks included preaching sermons, preparing Sunday school curricula, visiting shut-ins, preparing bulletins, assisting the church administrator, organizing a Christmas program, visiting various denominational and pastoral conferences, and arranging material in the church archives.

Perhaps more valuable than performing these tasks, however, was the frequent discussions with the pastor and pastoral staff about every imaginable element of the public gatherings of our church, what we called the “service review.” After every Sunday evening service, the pastor and his gaggle of assistants and interns would convene in his study for two hours, over a meal of fast food, and take turns reviewing every event of the morning and evening services–every Sunday school lesson, announcement, song, prayer, and sermon. Everyone commented on every item under review: “How could that class be taught better?” “Did the announcements go too long?” “Did the music in that hymn drag?” “Was the sermon outline clear, or its application relevant?”

When conducted in the spirit of charity and encouragement, the service reviews provided feedback for the pastor, and cultivated deliberateness and thoughtfulness in the staff as we planned the activities of the church. In time, we learned to apply two criteria to every activity, spoken word, and lyric: Is it biblical? In addition, is it pastorally helpful, given the peculiarities of our time, place, and congregational personality?

Service reviews were not limited to Sunday evenings, but every church-related activity provided an opportunity for learning. For example, we would travel together on the way to a graveside service. En route, Pastor Dever would explain his general protocol for funerals. On the return home, we would then converse together over what we might have found encouraging or distracting.

Does this sound overly analytical? I cannot overstate how instructive these times were for us. Christ would often do this with his disciples when they withdrew from the crowds. He would explain himself and ask provocative questions. Although I had attended Capitol Hill for four years when the internship began, I was amazed by how much I learned. This was largely due to the pastor’s use of every spare moment to interact purposefully with the young men on his staff.

There were two additional examples of this discipleship regimen. First, the pastoral staff gathered every Thursday morning to discuss weekly reading and writing assignments. My fellow interns and I read six assigned books and wrote thirty-one essays (3-6 pages) in five months! Secondly, I was initially assigned fifteen new church members to meet with over the ensuing months of my internship. After these meetings, I would discuss pastoral concerns about an individual or family with Pastor Dever, comparing my observations with his. Again, this gave him the opportunity to cultivate my pastoral sensibilities.

At the conclusion of my internship in December 2000, I began a Masters of divinity at Southern Seminary and am now in my second semester. When I compare seminary with my time at Capitol Hill Baptist both as a member and as an intern, one lesson is clear: Seminaries do not make pastors; churches do. Seminaries might do well at teaching doctrine, but knowledge of doctrine applied can only be worked out in the context of other human beings–lots of them, with lots of hurts, and troubles, and opinions. An older pastor can teach a younger one in months what it might take years to discover on one’s own.

Following are six lessons I learned from my internship:

  1. A pastor must keep the good of the whole church at the forefront of his considerations and affections. Another church leader complained to Pastor Dever about a troublesome group in the church and he used the language of “they this” and “they that.” He eventually interrupted this other leader with, “Remember, brother, ‘they’ are ‘us.’”
  2. The ability to delegate is crucial for a pastor whose time-expenditure must adhere to his biblically assigned responsibilities. A pastor should continually gauge his work with the question: What does Scripture say a pastor is and how a church should function? Pastor Dever frequently reminded us that he would allow any program to fail (other than preaching and teaching) that depended on him.
  3. A pastor must be constantly mindful that God works over long stretches of time sometimes. The perfect word cannot be administered in every conversation. Moreover, the life of a church does not depend on any one meeting. Sometimes an assertive position must be taken but sometimes a closed-mouth shrug is best. Therefore, Pastor Dever will often state his position once, but never does he then twist an arm or exhaust every word that could be said. He leaves the Holy Spirit to convince.
  4. A pastor must regard the disgruntled members of a congregation with a love seldom reciprocated by them. First Corinthians 13 is often read at weddings; I learned it should also be read at pastoral installations. More than anyone, a pastor is to be patient, kind, not envious, not proud, not rude, not self-seeking, not easily angered, and keeping no record of wrongs. He must certainly not delight in evil but rejoice in the truth. In addition, if he expects to continue shepherding his flock for very long, he must always hope, always trust, and always persevere.
  5. The head of the body must be one of the most encouraging and grateful members of the body. The head must be able to look down at the knee, for example, and thank the Lord for its faithful operation, even if the knee is sore. The head must know how to care for the knee, exercising and resting it in a right balance. Accordingly, I have never seen Pastor Dever miss an opportunity to thank someone for the work they are doing in the church, whether they are giving a Sunday evening devotion or working in the nursery. He even thanks his staff on a daily basis for those activities they are assigned to do by contract.
  6. A church member’s ability to submit to pastoral authority is often directly proportional to his or her teachability–the submissive are teachable, and the teachable submit. Moreover, the submissive and teachable members are probably most to be trusted in positions of authority. (In this sense, the pastor should be the most submissive and teachable of all). The person capable of obedience is a person with an awareness of the world outside of them, and the body as a whole. Submitting to someone over you implies you understand the body is made up of many parts, each with a different role, and that each part must be faithful to its own role for the good of the whole body. Those who shirk authority are generally concerned only with themselves and have little awareness of the whole body, much less their dependence on it.

In conclusion, the Lord leads individuals into the ministry through all types of channels. My own experience suggests that the individual who moves straight into seminary without participating in an internship has been deprived of several wonderful opportunities. The practical “hands-on” experience helps the individual, as well as the church, discern whether the necessary gifts and calling of God are present. An internship also allows an individual to observe a given pastoral style at a distance conducive to analysis and reflection. Once an individual is in the pastorate, nothing is neutral. A pastor’s every action will acquire at least some vested self-interest. Finally, an internship awakens an individual to the wounds his seminary lessons will eventually be called on to heal, and how crazy life in the ER can be. This can only make him or her much more focused student.