Throughout the year, young men (and sometimes older men) anxiously waiting for their first pastoral charge receive the call, pack up their belongings, and move their family to a new community. I remember that first pastorate, too. Having begun serving a small church in rural southwest Mississippi during my last year of seminary, on graduation day, a couple of the members helped load our furniture and kitchen wares onto a cattle trailer and moved us to the church pastorium (yes, I wrote pastorium; a house owned by the church for the pastor). I didn’t know what I was getting into.
Every pastor has to experience the first year of pastoring to start laying groundwork for a lifetime of ministry. So what should a new pastor focus on during that year?
Expect the Unexpected
A young pastor wrote me about the first year of ministry. I grinned widely as I read about the “firsts” that he was experiencing, and thought of my own first year. In a typical Baptist church, the first year includes experiences of first baptism, first revival meeting (the inaccurate vernacular for a protracted series of services), first wedding, first funeral, first deacons’ meeting, first business meeting (uh-oh), and first conflict. Nothing in seminary can quite get the young pastor completely ready for that series of “firsts.”
So keep handy a copy of Dear Timothy: Letters on Pastoral Ministry (ed. Thomas K. Ascol). Read it and re-read it. Work through C. H. Spurgeon’s Lectures to My Students. Refer often to Brian Croft’s Practical Shepherding series that deals with funerals, visiting the sick, shepherding the flock, etc. Make a practice of reading the 9Marks eJournal and Founders Journal for the nuts and bolts of ministry written by seasoned practitioners. Work through Timothy Witmer’s The Shepherd Leader, Conrad Mbewe’s Foundations for the Flock, Charles Bridges’ The Christian Ministry, Martyn Lloyd-Jones’ Preaching & Preachers, and John Piper’s Brothers, We Are Not Professionals. Make arrangements to attend a good conference where you will be trained, encouraged, and exposed to excellence in ministry, e.g. National Founders Conference (in Memphis this year), Together for the Gospel National Conference, The Gospel Coalition National Conference.
One serious malady that often afflicts those freshly minted with a seminary degree is I-know-it-all-now-itis. Such a one is a card-carrying MDiv-er, who has taken a range of ministry-related subjects in readiness for pastoral work. That’s a good thing to have and it does lay groundwork for preparation. But that seminary degree only gets a pastor started. It exposes him to a lot of good things and rich truths but it will take years to solidify, hone, and in some cases, prune what he’s learned to become useful in pastoral work.
Meanwhile, it’s okay that these new pastors have yet to master ministry. The early years of pastoral work become part of the wonderful process through which the Lord teaches and trains a man so that he can faithfully serve the body of Christ for decades to come. So what should he do? Read voraciously. Develop friendships with older, experienced pastors instead of only young guys. Seek help without apology. Most pastors who’ve been at it for a while will gladly assist a younger brother in ministry. All of us need it!
(1) Major on developing a strong devotional and prayer life. Nurture your walk with Christ. Let nothing substitute for a joyous, vibrant relationship to Christ.
(2) Develop in your ability to expound and pastorally apply God’s Word. Biblical exposition, if handled properly, will open the text and let the text speak to the needs of the congregation with sensitive, pointed application. Never stop growing in this area.
(3) Be attentive to your marriage and family life. Attentive means that you lay aside the unending demands of ministry to focus on your wife—serving her, loving her, and enjoying her. Your children need that kind of attentiveness too. Don’t over-schedule yourself in ministry so that your family only gets the crumbs of your time and energy.
(4) Gather around you a few men in whom you can pour your life in a disciple-making relationship. Read and study the Word together. Pray together. Hold one another accountable. Serve Christ together. Do gospel work together.
(5) Patiently listen, shepherd, and serve the body entrusted to you. Some pastors rush in as the professionals ready to make massive changes in a church. They generally have short pastorates. Take the time to know your flock. Learn to genuinely love them. Don’t try to make major changes in the 1st year, maybe even the 2nd and 3rd. Focus on incremental changes in important areas essential to the church’s health. Lay biblical, theological groundwork for changes so that they come more naturally as the body learns the Word and applies it.
Concentrate on a few things
Ministry will be filled with highs and lows, ups and downs. That’s normal. So just the time that you think a particular low or downtime spells the end of your pastoral tenure, realize that it’s part of the cycle of serving a congregation through the rugged issues of life. Persevere through the difficulty. We live in a fallen world. Your ascendency to the pulpit hasn’t changed that reality. So concentrate on a few things:
(1) Be faithful as a Christian, husband, father, friend, student of Scripture, and pastor.
(2) Preach well. A lot of things can be excused but not sloppy, a-theological, poorly exegeted, unorganized, sentimental, application-less preaching. Don’t let leisure or undiscipline or stubbornness get in the way of good preaching.
(3) Shepherd well. You’ve been entrusted as an under-shepherd by the Good Shepherd to care for one of his little flocks. One day he will ask for an accounting of how you cared for, loved, served, and pastored his people. Be ready to give an account of faithfulness.
(4) Set an example as a believer. Concentrate on living a joyfully holy life.
(5) Let Scripture drive you and your ministry rather than the latest dog and pony show. Put into practice dependency upon the sufficiency of God’s Word.
(6) Find your greatest joys, as Jesus told the Seventy, not in what you might accomplish in pastoral work, not in how great you imagine your preaching to be, not in how many have been added to the church’s membership, not in the esteem of others toward you, but that your name is written in heaven (Luke 10:20).
Enjoy the process of pastoral work. Not every day will be rosy. Unexpected demands and challenges will keep you dependent on Christ. Learn that the Lord faithfully abides with you as you, in weakness and sometimes fear, shepherd the flock of God.