Dear Aspiring Pastor,
I have been thinking about what I want to write you as a result of your recent desire to pursue pastoral ministry. First, let me say that I thank God for this desire. I consider the privilege of being a pastor of Christ’s flock an unspeakable joy which I do not deserve. It is my great joy and only desire to preach his Word to his people for his glory. I desire nothing more than to see Christ’s fame spread to unbelievers around the world and to see Christ’s church honoring his name by walking in the truth.
I believe God can be glorified in secular vocations as much as this sacred vocation. However, it remains true that being called into ministry is certainly the grandest of vocations. It is not grand because it is easy, or comfortable, or because it makes you wealthy or powerful. It is sacrificial and often painful. It is can be frustrating and demeaning. It is glorious though to be an under-shepherd of Christ. Few people know the privilege of serving the flock of God which he bought with his own blood. Thus, as pastors we rejoice in our sufferings as we fill up the afflictions lacking in Christ for the sake of his body, the church (Colossians 1:24).
Being a shepherd of the flock is also a dangerous calling. You will stand before God and give an account for the souls of those in your care (Hebrews 13:17). It is not easy to be an example for the flock to follow day in and day out (Hebrews 13:7). It is weighty to know that teachers of God’s Word incur a stricter judgment (James 3:1). It can be incredibly discouraging to be rejected, mocked, and persecuted as you pour out your heart making an open statement of the truth to those who are blinded by their sins (2 Cor. 4). Many men fall to the temptations of the world, the flesh, and the devil. They prove to be hired hands as they pursue self-preservation and flee the sheep, leaving them to the wolves (John 10:11-14). Many men cannot tolerate the blessing of having their name reviled for the sake of Christ. Most men do not last a life time in ministry. I heard recently that 9 out of 10 pastors who begin in ministry end up leaving the ministry. I have watched men I love and respect fall into grave sin and disqualify themselves. I have watched others lose sight of suffering as a good soldier in Christ and walk away for “greener pastures.”
This drives me to the central reason I am writing this letter. How do you avoid being a casualty of your own sinful heart, the pull of a world that beckons you to earthly comfort, and the Devil who will seek to bring harm to Christ’s church by attacking her shepherds? While I don’t think there is a silver bullet which will guarantee your pursuit of holiness, faithful preaching of the Word, and endurance in suffering, I do think there is some wisdom to be found in learning from the application of the Word by older men. My best shot at an answer is that you need to start ministry in a wise and Christ-honoring fashion, if you hope to finish in that same manner. So, what does a wise and Christ-honoring beginning look like?
I think we ought to look to the Scripture for the answer, particularly the Apostle Paul. There is much to gain from Paul as he trained so many young pastors and wrote much of the New Testament. As we look at his writings, I want to focus on Paul’s supreme passion in ministry, his goal for the church, his method in ministry, and his exhortations and his expectations of pastors.
Paul’s Supreme Passion in Ministry
Paul tells us his passion in a variety of places. He states it quite succinctly in his letter to the pastors in Ephesus in Acts 20:24.
24 But I do not account my life of any value nor as precious to myself, if only I may finish my course and the ministry that I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify to the gospel of the grace of God.
Paul’s life mattered not to him. He only wanted to finish the race the Lord Jesus had given him. What was that race? To testify to the gospel of the grace of God. This is Paul’s supreme passion in ministry. He wants the gospel of God’s grace in Christ to be known across the world for God’s glory. He states the same in Romans 1:1-5 and Romans 15:20-21. This is what Paul was focused on. If you want to last in ministry, you need to begin and finish with this same passion. You need to be ready to pour yourself out for this ultimate end. You need to be committed to preparing for this. You may not fully know yet how much this will cost you. However, you can choose to be committed to paying whatever cost will come.
Paul’s Goal for the Church
Paul’s goal for the church was really fairly simple. He tells us his goal in Colossians 1:28-29.
28 Him we proclaim, warning everyone and teaching everyone with all wisdom, that we may present everyone mature in Christ. 29 For this I toil, struggling with all his energy that he powerfully works within me.
Paul states his goal for the church is that they may be presented mature in Christ. His deepest desire for the church is that she grows up in maturity in Christ. He is jealous for her to be singularly devoted to Christ and his gospel (2 Cor. 11:1-4). He wants to see her walk in a manner worthy of her calling (Ephesians 4:1-6). He desires that the church not be tossed to and fro by every wind of doctrine, but that she knows and speaks the truth in love so as to be mature in Christ (Ephesians 4:14-16). Paul also tells us his method for achieving this goal when he says, “Him we proclaim, warning everyone and teaching everyone…” He proclaims Jesus and exhorts and teaches the church. This leads to my next point.
Paul’s Method in Ministry
Paul’s method necessarily followed from Paul’s understanding of the gospel. Paul strives with all Christ’s energy precisely by using a methodology that is dependent on Christ’s Spirit to do the real work of heart change. The gospel teaches us that we are dead in our sins. We are unable to believe and obey. We are under God’s wrathful and just judgment. “But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved—“ (Ephesians 2:4-5).
God is the agent who gives us life. God does this through the unmerited favor he shows us in Christ. He is not provoked by any good in us, but by the fact that he is good. We receive this grace through faith alone in Christ alone. Therefore, we must have a ministry methodology that is likewise dependent upon God’s powerful and gracious working. Paul tells us that his methodology is to “proclaim Him (Jesus).” In 1 Corinthians 2:1-5, Paul gives us more insight into his method.
1Cor. 2:1 And I, when I came to you, brothers, did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God with lofty speech or wisdom. 2 For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. 3 And I was with you in weakness and in fear and much trembling, 4 and my speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, 5 so that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God.
Paul teaches many truths besides just the Cross. So, why does he insist he knew nothing but “Jesus Christ and him crucified”? He does so because everything he taught ties back to the center of the story of God and his work: Jesus and his death and resurrection. When Paul teaches on living under unjust government, he ties it back to Jesus and the cross (Romans 13). When Paul teaches on marriage, or having an unjust employer, he ties it back to the gospel (Ephesians 5:21-6:9). Jesus is the center of the story. Our ministry methodology must be constantly tied to proclaiming him. Further, in 1 Cor. 2:4-5, Paul tells us that he intentionally avoids gimmicks, entertainment, and other worldly means of attracting attention, because his ministry is Spirit-dependent and he wants God to get the glory. Paul actually states in 1 Cor. 1:17 that to use these other methods is to “empty the Cross of its power.” I can think of no more damnable statement about worldly methodologies than that! I could multiple examples where Paul speaks of his ministry methodology, but I will end this point with his statement to the Ephesian pastors from Acts 20:26-27:
26 Therefore I testify to you this day that I am innocent of the blood of all, 27 for I did not shrink from declaring to you the whole counsel of God.
Paul’s Exhortations and Expectations of Pastors
Paul was not just an Apostle and Missionary-Pastor. Paul was also a man who trained young pastors and elders. He often gave them exhortations as to what mattered in ministry and in their own lives. The first of these exhortations is found to his church plant in Ephesus. We read his exhortation to the elders / pastors in Acts 20:28-31:
28 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. 29 I know that after my departure fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; 30 and from among your own selves will arise men speaking twisted things, to draw away the disciples after them. 31 Therefore be alert, remembering that for three years I did not cease night or day to admonish every one with tears.
Paul is deeply concerned that wolves will come in and lead the flock into false doctrine. He commands the elders to be on the alert. He challenges them to follow his example of constant teaching and admonishment. He knows that from the beginning Satan has had no greater desire than to lead God’s people astray from God’s Word. Satan is a liar who comes as an angel of light. He deceptively whispers into the ear of Christ’s bride prodding her to pursue other lovers. He comes as a wolf in sheep’s clothing. Christ’s under-shepherds must be diligently on the look out for these false teachers. We must be constantly teaching and preparing Christ’s flock the Word, so that they can spot the wolves and reject their lies.
Unfortunately, the elders at Ephesus did not seem to have taken Paul’s admonishment to heart. For it was not long until Paul sent Timothy to clean up the mess of false teachers in Ephesus. Paul wrote 1 Timothy and 2 Timothy as letters to a young pastor who needed to be exhorted as to how to do his job. I want you to see Paul’s clear and unambiguous focus in his exhortations to Timothy. Look first at what he says in 1 Timothy 4:12-16:
12 Let no one despise you for your youth, but set the believers an example in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith, in purity. 13 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. 15 Practice these things, immerse yourself in them, so that all may see your progress. 16 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.
Notice that Timothy is to be a godly young pastor who is devoted to reading and teaching the Bible. He is to immerse himself in these practices. He is to keep a close watch on his own life and on “the teaching” (doctrine). The salvation of the church, in some mysterious way, is connected to the godliness and doctrine of its pastors! While this passage is powerfully telling, I would argue that it does not reach the heights that Paul comes to at the end of his life in his final exhortation to Timothy in 2 Timothy 3:10-4:5.
2Tim. 3:10 You, however, have followed my teaching, my conduct, my aim in life, my faith, my patience, my love, my steadfastness, 11 my persecutions and sufferings that happened to me at Antioch, at Iconium, and at Lystra—which persecutions I endured; yet from them all the Lord rescued me. 12 Indeed, all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted, 13 while evil people and impostors will go on from bad to worse, deceiving and being deceived. 14 But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it 15 and how from childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. 16 All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, 17 that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.
2Tim. 4:1 I charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by his appearing and his kingdom: 2 preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching. 3 For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, 4 and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths. 5 As for you, always be sober-minded, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry.
What is Paul’s death bed exhortation to Timothy? Follow his example. What did he do? He suffered for the gospel. How does Timothy follow that example? He remembers the gospel that saved him, which is recorded in God’s Word. He stays committed to the Bible as the inspired and all-sufficient Word of God. A word that can thoroughly equip the man of God for every good work. Further, Timothy is to take up Paul’s incredibly exalted charge to “Preach the Word.” He is to preach the Word when it is popular to do so and when it is not. He is to preach the Word knowing that people will reject it and run after false teachers. He is to be godly, endure suffering, and make the gospel known to unbelievers.
If your heart beats with Paul’s, you will feel refreshed and encouraged by this word. You will want to get on your face and ask God to give you gifts and godliness consummate with such a glorious calling. You will feel as if the Word is screaming to come out of your mouth in preaching, like “fire shut up in your bones.” And, you will wonder how you become a man who is qualified for this glorious privilege. I think the best way to answer that question is to stress two attributes you need to do well in ministry:
1. Godly Character.
We live in an age in which patiently waiting for people to mature is sadly under-valued, while gifting is over-valued. Gifting is more important to our godless culture than character. This has become increasingly true in the church. If you are a talented and attractive figure, who cares if you are a godly man? You are a great guy who has a charismatic personality. You will attract crowds. This is so contrary to the view of Paul. Listen to how he describes the character of pastors when writing to both Timothy and Titus:
1Tim. 3:1 The saying is trustworthy: If anyone aspires to the office of overseer, he desires a noble task. 2 Therefore an overseer must be above reproach, the husband of one wife, sober-minded, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, 3 not a drunkard, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money. 4 He must manage his own household well, with all dignity keeping his children submissive, 5 for if someone does not know how to manage his own household, how will he care for God’s church? 6 He must not be a recent convert, or he may become puffed up with conceit and fall into the condemnation of the devil. 7 Moreover, he must be well thought of by outsiders, so that he may not fall into disgrace, into a snare of the devil.
Titus 1:5 This is why I left you in Crete, so that you might put what remained into order, and appoint elders in every town as I directed you— 6 if anyone is above reproach, the husband of one wife, and his children are believers and not open to the charge of debauchery or insubordination. 7 For an overseer, as God’s steward, must be above reproach. He must not be arrogant or quick-tempered or a drunkard or violent or greedy for gain, 8 but hospitable, a lover of good, self-controlled, upright, holy, and disciplined. 9 He must hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it.
Paul spends the vast majority of his writing on describing the character of the pastor, and comparatively very little describing his competence. Gifting is a distant second to godliness for Paul. Paul’s emphasis is on making sure the pastor is a godly and mature man in the faith. This is where I would exhort you to slow down and grow in godliness before being a leader. Any leader who offers you a pastoral leadership opportunity when you are young in the faith is directly violating God’s holy word. Such a pastor may believe he is doing you a favor. But he is bringing harm to you and Christ’s church. This is why Paul tells Timothy to “entrust these things to faithful men who will be able to teach others also (2 Tim. 2:2).” Maturity over time proves a man’s faithfulness. This requires patience on the part of the young man as he prepares himself for this glorious vocation.
2. Doctrinal Competence
Further, it is also vitally important that the young pastor is well-trained in the Word. He must be able to teach. “He must hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it.” He must be well-prepared if he hopes to discern truth from error. He must be thoroughly conversant with the Bible if he hopes to teach the whole counsel of God. He must be able to understand how every part of the Word of God is interrelated in one coherent story about Jesus. He must be able to articulate that to others with clarity. He also should know how the church throughout history has understood the Bible, so as to learn from the faithful men whom God has given the church. He should be adept at understanding how to answer the deepest needs of his congregation through a proper application of God’s Word. This kind of ability requires solid training in biblical languages, biblical theology, systematic theology, historical theology, and church history. It would also be incredibly wise to be mentored by other faithful pastors. I would urge you to strongly consider going to seminary, and to intern in a biblically faithful church ministry.
I have no authority to make decisions about how you approach the next phase of your life. But I would like to give you advice and recommendations based on what I have written above. You will not hurt my feelings if you don’t take my advice. I offer it because I love you, and more importantly, because I love Christ and his gospel.
1. Please date and marry a woman who is pursuing Jesus. I have seen several men end any hope of ministry because they married unwisely. If I could narrow down just one trait, I would say look for a woman who encourages you to trust and obey Jesus. Any woman you are dragging along with you is an unwise choice.
2. Please slow down the pursuit of ministry and take the time to grow in maturity as a godly man. I imagine you are chomping at the bit. But what you need more than anything else is time in a biblically-saturated, Christ-centered, local church. You need time to sit under the preaching of the Word and to read your Bible.
3. Please commit to seminary training. It is easy for young men to arrogantly turn from the immense benefit of sitting at the feet of men who have spent their lives becoming experts in God’s Word. Don’t follow that example. Christ gave these men to his church. Rejoice in that good gift! I am happy to recommend good seminaries to you. I am even pleased to take you to visit some.
4. Please think about doing secular employment while you grow in maturity. It is incredibly helpful to be able to shepherd men in secular vocations in the church when you have had to face walking with Christ in the secular work world yourself. Further, we should not presume upon the church to provide for us. As Christ’s servants, we are worthy of our wages. However, we are also those who are prepared to serve the church while also providing for ourselves through secular employment. The apostle Paul often did this.
5. Please commit to learning ministry in the context of a local church that will help you to grow in your understanding of the Word and how to minister in Christ’s church.
I would love to continue to help you along in ministry, whatever you decide. It is my desire that if you go into ministry, you have the opportunity to start the race in a manner that will help you to finish well. I am jealous for the opportunity to share with you the great joy of ministry I have experienced. I am praying for you.
For His Glory,
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