Monday, December 1, 2014

Pastoral priorities

The modern pastor is expected to be many things.  He or she is required to be an administrator, a counselor, a fund raiser, capable of working with both senior adults and children, a teacher, a preacher, a coach, and a friend to all people.  In some churches the pastor is expected to be skilled at plumbing, wiring, cleaning, lawn care, building construction, and driving a bus.  In a church of 50 people the pastor may have 50 different job descriptions in addition to the written one.  It should not surprise anyone that clergy have a very high burnout rate and many leave the ministry prematurely each year.  No one person can be expected to effectively do all these things, and the fact that many churches do have such expectations of their pastor shows how out of touch they are with what should be the priority of the pastor.

Ephesians 4: 11-12 tells us that God gave the pastor to the church to equip the saints for the work of ministry.  Verse 14 explains that this would prevent believers from being tossed to and fro by every wind of doctrine.  In his final letter to Timothy, Paul urges him to rightly divide the word of truth so that he would not be ashamed to stand before God (2 Tim. 2: 15).  Later, Paul would add that he needed to be ready to preach at all times sound doctrine that the people would need to hear 2 Tim. 4: 2-3).

These verses, and more, indicate to me that the preaching ministry of a pastor must be one of his or her highest priorities.  A significant part of that preaching ministry is to set aside sufficient time for study of the Scriptures so that what is presented is sound doctrine.

I've just finished reading Think: The Life of the Mind and the Love of God by John Piper.  In the book Piper challenges Christians to become more serious in their studies of the Scriptures.  Many Christians in North America seem to have a very shallow grasp of the Christian faith and its doctrines.  I think Piper would argue that part of the reason for this is that many of us fail to think deeply about what we read and hear.  Too often, we are content to listen to a 30 minute sermon on Sunday morning and go about our lives without really examining what was said.  Shallow thinking leads to a shallow faith.

Unfortunately, such shallow thinking is not confined to the pew.  It can be found behind the pulpit as well.  Here, the damage can be even worse.  Not only can it lead to a shallow faith in the minister, it can also lead to the spread of false doctrine that will poison the faith of others.  To correct this problem requires the pastor to be committed to being a student of the Word as Paul commanded Timothy.  Time must be set aside each week for study if the minister is to stand in the pulpit on Sunday to proclaim the truth of God's Word.  This often will require that some of the other expectations listed above will have to be given to others.

While this may not be popular in those churches that still have the mistaken belief that they have hired a minister to do all these things for them, this is exactly what the Ephesians passage is saying.  The pastor is to equip the saints to do the work of ministry.  While I am not one who believes that the pastor should not visit people or spend time outside the church office meeting some of these other expectations, I do believe that the bulk of that work is to be done by spiritually mature and equipped lay leaders.  The pastor must have sufficient time to study and prepare his or her messages.  The pulpit ministry must have priority.

The Puritan preacher, John Owen, once stated, "The first and principal duty of a pastor is to feed the flock by diligent preaching of the Word.  It is a promise related to the New Testament, that God 'world give unto his church pastors according to his own heart, which should feed them with knowledge and understanding' (Jer.iii.15).  This is by preaching or teaching the word, and no otherwise."

I have to admit that there were times reading this book that I felt convicted in my own ministry of allowing other pastoral duties to take me away from the proper study of Scripture.  Billy Graham has admitted that he now wishes he had spent more time in study and less speaking, and I share that regret.  However, it's never too late to turn that around.  One of my 2015 goals is to deepen my study of the Scriptures so that when I do speak I will have a word from God to share with my listeners.

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