Sometimes our beliefs about pastoral ministry hinder our effectiveness. As I have interacted with pastors, elders, and deacons—from a wide range of Christian denominations—I have heard a few beliefs about pastoral care that actually undermine pastors’ commitment to shepherd God’s people. It’s not that these people are wanting to shirk their responsibilities; they just haven’t been taught how to think about shepherding in a way that matches the scope of biblical teaching. Here are a few areas in which we need to renew our minds.
Belief #1: “I’m called (and trained) to preach.”
Often in contemporary pastoral training, there can be such an emphasis on training to preach that there is insufficient time to train preachers to be effective shepherds.
This is why, in my experience, most pastors are more comfortable with the pulpit or public ministry of the Word than they are with the private ministry of the Word. (By “pulpit or public ministry of the Word,” I mean preaching and teaching classes. By “private ministry of the Word,” I mean one-on-one conversations with people about personal questions, trials, or sins.)
Most seminarians graduate being more equipped to study the Scriptures and present their findings to groups than to use the Scriptures in one-on-one interactions. But I can be even more specific. In the private ministry of the Word, there seem to be levels of confidence and competence among pastors and other church leaders: discipling a new believer is easier than talking to someone about personal suffering, and that can be easier than confronting someone about a personal sin.
Belief #2: “I just don’t have the time.”
This is undoubtedly true; there are always more non-Christians to evangelize, more hurting believers to comfort, more sinning believers to confront, more sermon preparation to do, etc. However, Ephesians 4:11–14 suggests a focus for the pastor’s professional efforts: How can what I do in ministry also be part of equipping others for ministry?
Maximize your time for mentoring
It’s not uncommon in evangelism training programs to require more experienced evangelists to accompany less experienced evangelists so they will learn how to be more effective. The same approach can be applied in other ministry training. Visitation and counseling sessions can involve the pastor and one or two others. Although one-to-one ministry opportunities involve the sharing of personal information, people can be assured that the trainees are bound by the same commitments of confidentiality as the pastor. The more this happens, the more accepting people will become.
Maximize your trainees’ time for ministry
There might be two obstacles for those whom you try to mentor in the private ministry of the Word:
- Too often people equate “ministry” with “programs at church.” That is only one way of organizing ministry, but it is neither the only way nor even the most efficient way sometimes. If people think this way, they might be reminded that some “programming” is a relatively recent innovation in church history. One-to-one interactions have always been—and will always be—necessary for the spiritual growth of a congregation.
- The people who will be trained for one-to-one ministry (whether it’s considered counseling, comforting, or advising) might initially shy away from what seems like an overwhelming prospect. “When will I be able to do that?” They will need to be helped to understand that face-to-face ministry can occur in strategic ways while they are sharing coffee, talking about an upcoming church event, exercising together, etc. If people are together, intentional and strategic ministry can occur. Ministry surely already occurs in such settings. Your equipping efforts will help them to see those opportunities as they arise and make the best use of the time.
Belief #3: “I don’t have the desire.”
This obstacle could reflect a couple of underlying matters of concern. If it is a reflection of your lack of concern, then that violates a basic requirement for shepherding. If this is a reflection of your lack of needed interpersonal skills, those can be learned if you have been called to pastor. Desires (what you are motivated to do) are tied to values (what you consider to be important), although desires might need to be nurtured. Desires can be nurtured by planned training and practicing skills. Seeing the fruit of using skills helps to fan a spark of desire into an inferno of desire over time.
Belief #4: “I don’t have the gifts.”
This conclusion could reflect a misunderstanding of spiritual gifts. We often think of “spiritual gifts” only in terms of special abilities that can be used once a person is saved. Thus, for example, speaking in tongues and prophesying are special abilities and are identified as “gifts.” But the New Testament’s teaching on gifts has a broader focus than just special abilities. What about “evangelist,” “apostle,” or “pastor-teacher”? These “gifts” are roles, each with skills associated with them. In the light of these observations, we would be better off thinking of spiritual gifts more broadly as manifestations of the Spirit’s presence in believers’ lives, whether in the form of special abilities or in the form of opportunities for service. If you are called to be a pastor, then you can learn whatever skills are needed for the role, because that is how the Spirit manifests His presence. You can step out in faith to learn the skills needed to fulfill your calling.
Belief #5: “I counsel from the pulpit.”
I have three responses to this comment.
Your sermons don’t connect equally with everyone
Both the public ministry of the Word and the private ministry of the Word should be efforts to explain and apply Scripture in Christians’ lives. But the more general focus of preaching to a group of people means that not all applications will apply equally to everyone. It also means people can walk away without appreciating the significance of the preacher’s lesson for their lives. In addition, if the sermon raised questions for the listener, there might not be a quick way to get them answered. Then, as people return to the daily grind of Monday–Saturday, issues can be overshadowed by the “tyranny of the urgent.”
You need a public and private ministry
In Acts 20:20 (ESV), Luke reports Paul saying, “I did not shrink from declaring to you anything that was profitable, and teaching you in public and from house to house.” There seem to have been different sites of ministry, affording Paul opportunities to be more focused with people’s needs when necessary.
Paul’s private ministry of the Word also appears in Colossians 1:27–28 (ESV): “To them [the saints] God chose to make known how great among the Gentiles are the riches of the glory of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory. Him we proclaim, warning everyone and teaching everyone with all wisdom, that we may present everyone mature in Christ.” Notice Paul’s emphasis on everyone. In a sense, Paul did not want to leave any soul unturned. Of course, he does not clearly specify that a focus on “everyone” meant “one-to-one” meetings. However, he expected this same type of ministry to be carried out by the Colossians themselves: “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom” (Colossians 3:16 ESV). It seems unlikely that Paul expected such ministry to be done only in large-group settings.
A few tips to make your pulpit ministry more effective
None of this should be understood to imply that preaching is unnecessary or unhelpful. Indeed, Paul told Timothy, “Preach the word; be prepared in season and out of season” (2 Tim. 4:2). Paul advises Timothy to always be prepared to use the Word in ministry. “Using the Word” requires both accurate understanding of it and insightful applications of it in the lives of people. But this leads us back to a key question: How can sermons be crafted so that insightful applications are prominent? It might require a shift in focus from a traditional approach used in seminary classrooms.
The Scriptures are usually taught from historical, grammatical, and thematic perspectives in seminary. All that is valuable, but such emphases might not sufficiently represent how the books of the Bible were originally written to real people with real questions or struggles. Reading them in this way puts you in a better frame of mind to suggest applications of the passages in your sermons.
Read the Scriptures with these questions in mind: What do the biblical books reveal about God as comforter, counselor, teacher, etc.? What do they reveal about the typical dynamics of the human “heart/mind/soul? What do they reveal about the goals God’s people should have in life? What do they reveal about how people might change (the process or elements of lifestyle change)? Not all passages will address all of these questions, but they can be a useful start to appreciating the burdens laid on the biblical writers by the Holy Spirit.
Living in a fallen world ensures that your job as a pastor will always be challenging, since you are in a war between the kingdom of God and the kingdom of Satan. Furthermore, living in a fallen world ensures that your job as a pastor will always be thrilling. God will use you as you seek to use His Word to accomplish His purposes in the world. Like Timothy, you too need the powerful reminders Paul provides in 2 Timothy:
“And the things you have heard me say in the presence of many witnesses entrust to reliable people who will also be qualified to teach others. Join with me in suffering, like a good soldier of Christ Jesus” (2 Tim. 2:2–3).
“Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly handles the word of truth” (2 Tim. 2:15).
“All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work” (2 Tim. 3:16–17).
“I remind you to fan into flame the gift of God, which is in you through the laying on of my hands. For the Spirit God gave us does not make us timid, but gives us power, love and self-discipline” (2 Tim. 1:6–7).
Cultures have changed, to be sure, but the need for the public and private ministries of the Word will never change … until the Lord returns.