Formal schooling is over. Is it time for "the rubber to hit the road"?
As I was finishing my final semester at Nazarene Theological Seminary in Kansas City, I began thinking about what life after long years of going to school might look like.
In fulfilling God's call to full-time ministry, what would I find myself doing? Was I going to spend long hours counseling people about seemingly overwhelming issues? Or maybe there were going to be long hours spent in study surrounded by books? Was I going to spend a lot of time calling on parishioners? Or, I thought, smiling to myself, perhaps I was going to spend long hours wandering around town in a daze? What does a minister in the Wesleyan theological tradition do?
There's one question that people ask of graduating ministerial students. And I was asked about it by quite a few people. That question is: "Where will you be going?"
For most of that final semester at seminary, I answered that question by saying, "It doesn't matter."
Indeed, even though my geographic landing point after graduation was unknown almost up to the graduation day, I was unperturbed by having to respond, "I don't know where we'll be going." For me that spring, the critical question was not so much, "Where will I be going?" as it was, "What will I be doing when I get there? "
About the time I began struggling with that what-will-I-be-doing question, I was drawn to Paul's words in Ephesians 4:11-16: "So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ. Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of people in their deceitful scheming. Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will grow to become in every respect the mature body of him who is the head, that is, Christ. From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work."
This letter or epistle to the Ephesians has been called the crown jewel of Paul's writings. Dr. Ralph Earle, my seminary Greek professor, went even further in his book, Know Your New Testament. He argued that Paul's letter to the Ephesians is "the most profound book in the New Testament."
It is in the section in Ephesians about an exalted Christology and the appraisal of the high privileges of believers in Christ that Paul points to what a minister should be doing.
What did Paul say that a minister does? In the words of Ephesians 4:12, it is "to equip God's people for works of service" or, as the New Living Translation says of pastors, "Their responsibility is to equip God's people to do his work and build up the church."
In those last few months of my seminary studies, I looked through several books on pastoral ministry. Those books included what I had purchased as course textbooks during my eight years of undergraduate and seminary studies. As I looked through those books, I did not find a lot of consideration given to Ephesians 4:12. Indeed, I ran across only one that specifically discussed the pastoral task of equipping others. The others dealt with specific tasks like preaching, counseling, visitation ministry, and even one-on-one evangelism.
Paul talks about the pastoral ministry being a gift. One implication of this statement could be that pastors are thus Christ's gift to the church. To be sure, we are God's gift to the church and thus to each member of it. However, our responsibility is to furnish each of those members for their particular service in the body of Christ. We are to equip them. Merely stopping at the statement that the ministry is a gift from God would make it quite easy for me to feel much taller than my 5 feet 7 inches or for my head to swell beyond the 7 3/8's that it is.
To be sure, in this same passage, Paul talks about the church being the body of Christ. So we must humbly understand that our ministry is God's gift to the church in the context of this body analogy.
Furthermore, this body is not produced by me or any other minister. The Holy Spirit and Christ produce the Church, not me. Furthermore, Christ, not me, is the head of that body.
So where does that leave me? Well, certainly in a subsidiary role to Christ and to the Holy Spirit. My job is not to produce or create the church. My job is to help that body function properly.
Paul doesn't press his analogy of the body very far. However, I've been wondering: Which part of the body would the pastor be?
Perhaps one logical part for a pastor to be would be the spinal cord. Of course, like most analogies, it is not perfect, so don't carry it too far. Think about it, though. Our spinal cord is the central nervous system that enables our body to function properly. And the pastor is the one who equips the other members of the body for their particular service. If the spinal cord is defective, the body will not function properly. And if the pastor is defective, the body of Christ will suffer.
But precisely what does this equipping involve? It's too easy sometimes for people to think of "equipping the saints " as meaning training Christians in one soul-winning technique or another. However, I do not think that captures all that the Bible means about equipping the saints. Focusing just on that one activity doesn't produce healthy bodies. It produces rows of recording devices rather than a properly functioning body.
Equipping people for service in the body of Christ means much more than witnessing training--although that is probably included. It means helping each Christian discover his peculiar spiritual gift and then aiding him to exercise it in his intended place in the Church of Jesus Christ. Equipping is more than going through the content of a book like Meet My Saviour on five successive Wednesday evening meetings. It means helping old sister Jones (who has a disability) to become an active part of the body of Christ by encouraging and empowering her to discover her spiritual gift, and then aiding her in exercising that gift.
Young ministers often talk about being "called to preach." I must confess I've probably used the term myself. However, I've come to see that saying I have "a call to preach" may reflect some self-centeredness.
Being called to minister may be a more Christ-centered way of looking at my call. While preaching is an essential part of my task. doesn't Christ call me to do more than preach? According to Ephesians 4, my call means I am to equip God's people and that call should color and shape everything that I do.
Forty years from now, how will I answer the question: "What have I done as a minister in the fulfillment of my call?"
Will it be: (1) "I have preached thousands of sermons, made tens of thousands of pastoral calls, officiated at a few hundred funerals, performed a few dozen weddings, and dedicated about the same number of babies."
Or will it be: (2) "I have equipped x number of persons to become functioning parts of the body of Christ while preaching, spending time with people, holding funerals and weddings, and dedicating babies."
This second answer would seem to be a far more satisfying (and biblical) summary of a life given to pastoral ministry. I think that's what I'll aim for.
So, in a very brief statement, what does a minister do? Well, he or she equips.
Paul further develops his concept of the ministry by saying that the equipping of the Christians results in something further. In Ephesians 4:13, he talked about attaining both unity and maturity, a maturity measured by nothing less than "the whole measure of the fullness of Christ." By equipping members of a congregation for their service in the body of Christ. the minister enables them to attain the Christian maturity of which Paul speaks. The equipping and maturation process is no less related in the spiritual realm than they are in the physical realm. That is, part of individuals taking their proper place in the world includes growing up.
When Paul talks about persons achieving maturity and becoming like Christ, he is talking about something that happens to believers. Maturity in believers must include what Paul also talks about in Romans 12:1-2. Maturation can mean no less than coming to know the cleansing of the heart and the filling of the Holy Spirit. Part of the task of the holiness minister is to help create a climate in which the Holy Spirit can speak to believers about heart holiness.
Sanctification enables us to become all that God has created us to be. And, unless I've experienced the fullness of the Holy Spirit in my life and am continuing to grow in that sanctified life, I have not achieved real maturity nor am I on the way to doing so. And if we find that our converts are ill-equipped for being in the body perhaps it is because they have not gone on into the fullness of the Holy Spirit with His cleansing and empowering work. They have not achieved maturity.
There is one symptom often prevalent among baby Christians and immature bodies of Christ. Let's call it "vulture-itis." We are a bunch of rumor-mongers and the stories we know of the latest dirt on our fellow believers and the things wrong with the church would make a book that probably would be a best seller at district assemblies.
Bodies can't afford that. Healthy bodies don't destroy themselves -- at least not bodies at peace with themselves. And certainly not those bodies whose members are Spirit-filled.
Pastors who are serious about fulfilling their call will find themselves helping equip the saints and leading the believers on to maturity in Jesus Christ -- a maturity that rises far above petty rumor-mongering. Growing quite naturally out of these two responsibilities is a third that Paul gives.
What else does a pastor do? Well, a minister of the Gospel leads a church. Listen to Paul's admonition in Ephesians 4:14: "We are no longer to be children tossed by the waves and whirled about by every fresh gust of teaching, dupes of crafty rogues and their deceitful schemes."
The task of the minister also includes ensuring the stability of the church in the face of divergent doctrines and deceitful human beings.
Paul was writing these words as he sat in a prison. He had already made some trips which included time onboard a ship. Here, when Paul uses a nautical metaphor of gusty winds tossing boats around, we're reminded of his time spent at sea.
Paul calls for the Church of Jesus Christ to act like more than a small sailboat bobbing along at the mercy of wind and wave. The minister of Jesus Christ is not to go scrambling wildly about in the rigging every time a fresh gust of wind comes blowing along. Instead, the pastor's task is to exercise a steady hand on the tiller.
The call to the minister is for stable leadership so that people can be led away from childish susceptibility and self-centeredness.
The minister must lead church members beyond petty minor issues and skirmishes and deal with truly important matters.
Giving this kind of leadership to a congregation takes constant study, reflection, and prayer on the part of the minister. Stability does not mean fossilization; Fossilization can lead to Pharisaism. A hand on the tiller does not mean coming to a standstill and dropping anchor.
The young minister must realize that Biblical study and theological exploration do not stop with graduation from Bible colleg or even seminary. Twenty or thirty years later, the minister must be able to deal intelligently with the issues of that time period rather than being caught in an endless loop of battling the issues of previous decades.
Years ago, Nazarene General Superintendent J. B. Chapman said "Only an educated ministry can conserve and spread the Wesleyan message of holiness." His words mean we must be conscious that effective church leadership requires more than a warm heart. It also takes a clear head.
What does a minister in the holiness tradition do? To summarize the Apostle Paul, the answer is: 1. Equips. 2, Points to the sanctifying Holy Spirit. 3. Leads.
The idea of a pastor as a shepherd has been around for a long time. However, like most analogies, doesn't it fall a bit short of reflecting everything? I'm not trying to say it is a bad analogy. It was a very good analogy in the heavily agrarian context of biblical times. One of my problems with it is that I've never personally known a shepherd. I can't automatically identify with all the nuances implied in that analogy. They have to be explained to me by people like Philip Keller.
There's a term in more recent usage that may capture better what Paul was thinking of when he wrote in Ephesians 4. It's the concept of the pastor as a player-coach. That doesn't mean I want to discard the analogy of a pastor as shepherd. I don't. However, Ephesians 4 indicates that a pastor equips. And while he is equipping church members for service he is also leading them -- leading them individually into maturity in Jesus Christ while also exercising a strong influence on the further development of that local church.
With this concept of my future task, everything that I might wind up doing over the following forty years suddenly took on a new perspective, including the times I might spend running a balky copier or picking up groceries for sister Jones. It took on this new perspective because, as a holiness minister, I was going to help those people who've called me as their pastor to become fully functioning parts of the body of Christ.
After his first year in the pastorate, how does a young preacher feel about the Lord's work?
Oh, you're taking a home mission church so you'll have plenty of time for study and writing?"
That is how one young minister friend reacted when I told him I was moving to Uvalde, a small town west of San Antonio, Texas.
That floored me. My call from God never included any fine-print clauses about year-long vacations, and certainly nothing concerning prosperous congregations, luxurious parsonages, and comfortable salaries. To me it had always meant ministry -- "caring for God's people as a shepherd does his sheep" (Ephesians 4:11, Living Bible). And that's exactly what I intended to do.
Very quickly I discovered that pastoring my congregation of two dozen was not a recipe that included plenty of time for study and writing. In fact, after the first month, I was ready (if I could have afforded them) to start recruiting associates to direct our church's ministries in Christian education, music, and visitation. To keep my ministry at peak productivity, I found it necessary to establish a "normal week" work schedule. Time-gobblers such as sermon preparation, reading, correspondence, long-range planning, service planning, and administrative details tended to get out of hand. I also learned that a few minutes spent each morning outlining the priorities of the day (on paper) kept me from bogging down. I use a pad provided by a local bank as an advertising gimmick, which has emblazoned across the top, "Things I Gotta Do Today."
Satan really knows how to work on me. When a new convert begins to falter, the Devil quickly dims the memory of a newly acquired Sunday school bus full of children, a baptismal service at the river, reconciled marriages, new hymnals, a growing youth group, a new public address system, new tables, chairs, and chalkboards. Then that "master of deceit" makes those problems loom like ghostly shadows on a child's bedroom wall. I should have heeded Mrs. Edward Lawlor's advice to "keep a diary of your first year." It would serve as an excellent reminder to the devil of the great things God has done for us.
Naturally, I have some built-in defeat mechanisms. For instance, I'm always going out to pick the ears of corn two days after I've planted the seed. It is frustrating to see that the stalks haven't even come up. But things -- vegetable or spiritual -- just don't happen that fast.
To create a sense of continual forward movement for both me and my congregation, I have adopted a policy of making something new happen each week -- even if it's only adding door stops in the restrooms.
In these first twelve months following seminary graduation, I've learned to listen to my wife. It's amazing the kind of perspective she can give me on a problem or situation that I feel closing in on me -- such as the financial shoestring our congregation operates on. And she seems to sense -- long before I do -- when I need to take a break and "slow down to smell the flowers." In addition, she keeps an eye on my eating habits, public appearance, actions, and speech. That's not really ego-building. But then God didn't call me to erect monuments to my ego.
At times, a home mission pastor can begin to feel a kinship to that medieval pillar-sitter, Simon. Much of what happens -- or does not happen -- in our congregation necessarily focuses on me. As a result, a feeling of loneliness and public exposure can develop. Our limited personnel prevents us from having a multifaceted program for every member of the family or even a great music ministry. In spite of all my prayers to the contrary, at times it is very much a one-man show. Under that kind of pressure, taking a day off to slow down and smell the flowers has been a hard discipline.
Pastoring in a small town (10,000 population) can create a feeling of living in the spotlight. Wherever I go in Uvalde, I'm still the Nazarene pastor, and every person I meet is a potential member of my congregation. While in town, it is almost impossible to get my mind out of "church gear." So, Barbara and I have discovered the relief of escaping for an afternoon or evening to San Antonio -- ninety miles away.
To imply that a crammed schedule has devoured any study and writing time would be misleading. Most every morning I'm in the office with about half that time set apart for reading, study, and writing. That reading time has nurtured my love for good books into an insatiable appetite. However, the effects of inflation, plus needs at home and church, have drained away any book budget there might have been. Fortunately, the widow of a Christian and Missionary Alliance pastor has graciously made available her husband's library. His complete collection of E. Stanley Jones, plus works by Niemoller, Torrey, and A. B. Simpson has made for rich reading. One of my members belongs to an excellent evangelical book club and is always sharing the latest. The local public library has volumes by J. B. Phillips, Peter Marshall, Elton Trueblood, and Norman Vincent Peale.
In the midst of all that rich diet, the Lord began to talk to me about my reading of His Word. He was right. I was spending so much time reading about the Bible that I found little time to actually read it. I was expecting to feed my flock from the rich pastures of the Word when I myself was ill-nourished. I'm attempting to balance the scales. Instead of always picking up the nearest newspaper, I now reach for the Bible. I may read through a book of the Bible from several translations on successive days. I'm amazed at all that I'm discovering in the Bible for the first time!
"There's a lot of things you'll never learn in the classroom!" "They just teach you rosy ideals in there. You'll find there's a real world outside waiting for you."
I heard a lot of well-intentioned advice like that during my eight years of college and seminary. Some fellow ministers seriously attempted to get me to see the folly of throwing away those years while a lost world awaited me. Along the way, a few of my college and seminary classmates succumbed to the temptation to "get out into the work" because they "weren't learning that much in school anyway."
After twelve months as a pastor, I have come to place a high value on every hour I spent sitting in a classroom taking notes, doing research in a library, writing term theme papers, or chatting over a Coke in the student lounge. I'm convinced that without my formal schooling, I'd have been blown out of the saddle long before now. Particularly valuable were the years at seminary. The introduction to the great religious classics, a look at the depths of God's Word, a knowledge of how people learn, an evangelistic strategy, and the picture of the ideal church have all helped me retain a balance of ministry plus a sense of progress.
It is true that you cannot learn everything about ministry from books. But, I'm convinced that learning from other pilgrims through the printed page has enabled me to be a lot further down the road after twelve months than I otherwise would have been
Well, what great lessons have I learned in my first twelve months of being a pastor?
One is that it is more rewarding to measure ministry in persons rather than in impersonal numbers. Statistical progress is only a secondary measuring stick. You've got to keep your eyes off the attendance and offering board and riveted on Keith, who's fighting a terrible temper, a cigarette habit, and has two broken marriages . . . and on Frank, who is testifying to victory over a narcotics addiction . . . and on Pat, who tried to commit suicide before she came into contact with the church . . . and on Jeanne, who has discovered peace and joy where before there was only frustration and meaninglessness.
The second and most important lesson is: If you know that you are abiding in Christ, that you are controlled by the Holy Spirit, and that you are praying according to the Word and will of God, you can expect God to answer prayer.
-- Howard Culbertson,
This article was published in the Preacher's Magazine not too long after I had completed my first year of pastoral ministry.