The Christian Reformed Church now has a $2 million program called “Sustaining Pastoral Excellence.” Notice that it says “sustaining” pastoral excellence and not “producing” such excellence. Thereby we give the benefit of the doubt to pastors now serving the church and we don’t claim more than we can deliver.
The program is funded by Lilly Endowment Inc. The money is being used to (1) improve the mentoring program that our church has had for more than twenty years, (2) support “peer groups” of pastors and other church workers for mutual discipline and encouragement, (3) sponsor continuing education events for pastors, and (4) publish materials that may improve the efforts of pastors and congregations and the health of the whole church.
I am deeply skeptical that another program can produce or sustain excellence in this divine business of caring for God’s own people. And I don’t feel that I myself was an “excellent” pastor. But I (and most other pastors) can say, “By God’s grace I persevered.” That’s why the title of the little book recently published by the Sustaining Pastoral Excellence folks was well chosen: Persevering in Ministry. It’s an easy read for anyone who loves God’s church, because it consists of true confessions by ten seasoned pastors.
In that spirit of confession and learning, I hope the following is a modest contribution to the goal of pastoral excellence.
If we wish to strengthen the pastoral ministry we must be more selective at the beginning. Persons who are unfit for the job cause an enormous amount of pain and sleepless nights to their church council members, they ruin a congregation and when they manage to get a call to another church they will wreck that one too. Misfits become “serial killers,” as one of my colleagues said.
Early screening is even more critical than it used to be, because today church members are less tolerant of pastoral misfits. They simply leave for greener pastures. And forty years ago all candidate pastors came from “Our School.” Today we receive them through many avenues. Therefore the decisive examination is very critical.
Just as the weeding out of obvious misfits should be done early, so the encouragement of talented young people should take place before they have made crucial choices. If our parents, pastors and teachers were absolutely convinced (as I am) that there is no better and nobler calling than being a minister of the Gospel, we might produce a few less excellent business administrators but a few more good pastors.
On the Job Training
The mentoring program for the first few years of ministry is improving, I have heard. And about 200 pastors are already involved in peer learning groups, I have read.
In addition, a pastor should have refreshment and enrichment courses from time to time. They should not always be courses the pastor prefers but possibly some training he or she needs. And when the church council allows time and money for such periods of training, there should also be a system of accountability. The council or its trustee should know beforehand what the pastor is going to do and afterwards what was accomplished.
Disciplined by Listening to Others
However, all training and support does not benefit a pastor unless his or her personal attitude towards God and the congregation is right! That means, first, that the pastor must live a holy (yes!) and disciplined life.
I have enormous admiration for single people who live a joyful, disciplined, Christian life. I don’t know how they do it. For me the nearness of my spouse is necessary to keep me on the rails. She was my best corrective and stimulant, mostly unintentionally, I’m sure. She kept me honest when I got carried away. And if I could not get my point across to her, I knew it would not work for the congregation. Besides, married persons also strive to gain and keep the respect of each other. And women as well as men are kept from many sins, including sloth, if they live their lives before the ever seeing eyes of spouse and children.
A revered rabbi was dying and his disciples gathered around his bed, begging him for a final word of divine wisdom. With laboring breath their spiritual father finally said to his children: “Live always as if the neighbors are seeing you.” The rabbi’s disciples were very disappointed because the saying was not profound enough.
Indeed, it does sound too mundane for a Christian who lives before the face of God, Coram Deo, every day and night. We should not need the neighbor’s eyes to keep us on the straight and narrow. True enough. But I am merely saying that it helps to have someone next to you who knows what time you get up and what you do all day. I have also worked fifteen years in an office environment (CRC Publications) where you are accountable to each other. In a trusting and open atmosphere, good work is produced.
Theoretically it should be possible to be a loner. Most of us know stories about desert saints and pillar saints and godly hermits. But pastors should not live that way - although everyone must have a place to be alone. My point is that if you don’t mix with people who critique you, praise you, and pray for you, you’re heading for trouble.
Called and Equipped
I knew that I was called by God through his church; and that the Holy Spirit was in me so that I could fulfill my calling.
The burden of that call was sometimes light and sometimes heavy. For example, sick-visiting (a duty spelled out in the Call-Letter) was not very attractive to me. When I was in my thirties and had never been ill, I thought that Christians on their sickbeds would be saints at the portals of God. In fact they could be ornery and even when they were happy to see me, they would talk about dysfunctional organs and medical procedures, topics that did not interest me or made me a little queasy.
During my first years of ministry I did sick-visiting out of a sense of duty. But I did it. And God always rewards obedience.
We cannot be excellent in all we have to do, but we can be faithful. And if we serve faithfully, eventually we find joy as the bonus.
Today we talk more about gifts than about calling and duty, I think. I found that I was called to many things for which I had no gifts. But when God calls, he also equips us. Once you are sure that God has called and that he has assigned this task to you, you may not wiggle out of it. His Spirit will do it through you.
First Things First
Share the Load - I did many things wrong. For years I was in a large church, mostly new immigrants, with many unsettled and straying members. I was hardly home for an evening during those years. I thought I had to do it all and that nobody else should or could do it. Now I think I should have listened to the minister who said “You should work with the good ones.” At that time I thought he was in favor of staying with the ninety-nine who were safely in the fold and I was following the Master in going after the one pesky sheep. Actually he had a crude way of saying that I should be an “enabler,” as it is called today. If you teach ten to teach, you bear fruit a hundredfold. If a dozen imitate your witness, your Master’s voice is recorded all over town.
Give Time to Sermon Preparation - But I did a few things right and why not mention two of those: I never allowed anything to interfere with my sermon preparations. Pastors today should not either. They should never use any excuse to neglect their main job. If all of us would preach a little better, the church would be much stronger. For, if you preach real well, God speaks.
I have found that God speaks in the sermon only after I have studied so well, that I know exactly what the message is. That comes first. And then you can be sure that the Spirit of God gets hold of you and your words. That’s God’s promise.
Respect the Congregation - A second thing is: respect for your audience. This requires that you start on time and that you quit on time, because it is their time. I know that Paul once preached through the night but we aren’t Paul.
Respect (and love!) for the assembled church members demands that you not “talk down” to them. After all, pastors are nothing without them. Pastors have no cause to underestimate their intelligence.
Seek the Kingdom - A big change is taking place in the church. All who hold a position of influence have a duty to deny their own hobbies and seek the kingdom. This is another big topic for which I lack space. God forbid that we waste our time with squabbles over what and how to sing.
Trust the Shepherd - No person or program will save us in the rapids of change and form us to be what we should be. What will save us is total trust in the Good Shepherd whom we try to emulate.