My first several years of pastoral ministry were difficult. Not because of the work, mind you, but because of a lingering, unanswered question, “What should I be doing?”
Studying and preaching seemed to be a given, but what else? Discipleship, prayer, hospital visits, and evangelism seemed like good things too, but things kept falling through the cracks and simply going undone. It didn’t help that I was a single, solo-church planter for my first two and a half years of pastoral ministry. I had no one to take me under their wing and help me grow.
Then another unanswered question began to surface, “What do the people want me to be doing”. Ministry for the next few years would be guided by the pulse of others. Ocassionally, I spontaneously swung over to the “Pastor-As-Big-Boss” model which, in contrast, gets the people to do what they want them to do. But there was no guidance system from within me that helped to prioritize my service. During this pastoral frenzy, I happened upon a Eugene Peterson book titled The Contemplative Pastor. My pastoral lostness found a northstar. Peterson writes:
“I am busy because I am lazy. I indolently let others decide what I will do instead of resolutely deciding myself. I let people who do not understand the work of the pastor write the agenda for my day’s work because I am too slipshod to write it myself. The pastor is a shadow figure in these people’s minds, a marginal person vaguely connected with matters of God and good will. Anything remotely religious of somehow well-intentioned can be properly assigned to the pastor.”
Peterson’s words hit me straight between the eyes. I finally understood what pastoral ministry wasn’t! But this also raised another question. If not that, then what? Finding out what something isn’t only gets you halfway to the discovery of what something is. After all, seeing the problem is always easier than discovering the solution.
Fortunately, God has not left us in the dark. He gave us His Word! I was drawn back to the scriptures for the positive definition of pastoral ministry. What are the Biblical priorities for the pastor? 1 Timothy 3, Titus 1, and 1 Peter 5 provided more answers for me. He had spoken, and I was now hearing in a new way.
At the same time these truths were landing, my wife and I found ourselves in a ministry transition. I had been sending out resumes for pastoral openings and my wife Jordan asked me “What would be the first things you would do if you got hired by one of these churches?” Her question invited me to assign specific written priorities to all I had been praying over and pondering. What followed was the first iteration of my pastoral priorities.
- Know the Gospel well. As a shepherd, I have to rest in the Gospel and humbly walk with Jesus. A shepherd must spend time with the Chief Shepherd and know him well. Basic childlike faith and godliness are a necessity for every pastor. As a shepherd, through the power of the Holy Spirit, I will experience rest and power by the finished work of Christ in every area of life, even in my pastoral failures.
- Shepherd my own family. I have heard it said, “You can sacrifice your family on the altar of ministry, but you can also sacrifice ministry on the altar of family.” The pastor/shepherd needs to avoid overstating or understating the importance of family. However, the Bible remains clear, leading my family well is a precursor for serving the church (1 Tim. 3:5).
- Prayer and Preaching. This is what a Biblical shepherd does. Prayer and ministry of the Word. This priority must not be relegated to a small part of my life. It seemed to me like distractions here might become a pastor’s greatest vulnerability. If we find ourselves inordinately occupied with causes outside of the church, rubbing shoulders with influencers, or meeting an unending array of felt needs, then we will lose the holy center of personal prayer and public preaching.
- Model Biblical friendship. Planting and pastoring is lonely. But loneliness can sometimes be avoided with initiative and care for others. I realized that I did not need to model relational breadth over depth to truly serve God’s people. I could take the initiative among a few, invest the time and see what might happen. As leaders emerged, I realized it would become particularly important to invest my time in them. This might even help the congregation. In many of the churches I have come to respect, the pastor, along with the plurality of pastors, tries to display for the congregation what true friendship and accountability look like. I wanted to do the same.
- Disciple 6-8 men a year. “Who are you discipling and who is discipling you?” became a critical question to answer. It didn’t need to be overly structured or complicated. I could set up weekly meetings and go through the Bible with someone else. I could invite leaders and members to do the same. It might be sloppy, but I think God uses our busted up methods to grow the people we are discipling.
- Practice hospitality. My church is my call—I need to get to know them. How can we create space to have people over to our house? Are folks inviting me over to their house? It seems like a lot of pastors rarely open their homes and, consequently, don’t get invited into the homes of members or unbelievers. The key, I thought, was to keep it simple. Take someone out for coffee. Make some phone calls. Get to know the people that God has entrusted to me.
- Be faithful in wedding, funeral, and hospital responsibilities. These are the touchpoints in defining moments of people’s lives. If I wanted to really shepherd people, my presence needed to be felt in those times. I’m not sure I ever saw these simple shepherding tasks in any church planting manuals. But I wanted to remember that visitors rarely look at guys who start churches as ‘planters’; they see them as pastors. And if we can be around for the joys and pains, then we will truly be a church family.
Simple pastoring, that was the goal.
So these are now the pastoral priorities that I achieve on some days and fail at on others. But this journey has convinced me that proactive pastoral ministry can weaken the addiction to wrong priorities and reactive service. I think I now see it a bit more clearly. It’s not about being a great leader. It’s about becoming like the Good Shepherd.