I knew two weeks after my conversion to Christ at 16 years of age that the Lord was calling me to full-time service, and I testified to the fact. But not until seminary did that “call” become narrowed to pastoral ministry.
First I thought I would be a singing evangelist and began developing in that direction. Then during a final two years at college my thoughts went in the direction of teaching in a Christian college and I looked with some interest at an opportunity offered me to attend a graduate school at a good university.
But two months before graduating from college, I told the head of the English department, the late Mary Alice Tenney, that I had two options – university for a doctorate or seminary for a divinity degree. She responded instantly with great feeling, “O, Don, you should go to seminary.” I took that as a word from the Lord and spent no more time thinking about the university path.
During three years of seminary I was also a student pastor of a congregation 20 miles away. My wife and our four children lived near the church and I carpooled with other students each day. Each course I took seemed to fix my intention on pastoral ministry more solidly until by the time I graduated and our family headed for a church appointment 2,000 miles away, I had come to embrace pastoring as a life’s work.
During seminary, gleaning from here and there, I had latched onto a simple outline of what the pastoral task involved. I have never revised it except to fill it out more completely as I accumulated experience. I offer its three points here.
1. Preaching and teaching the Scriptures. Because real pastors have a passion to teach, preach and proclaim on more than just Sunday morning, they assume responsibility to make sure the Christian Scriptures infuse the life of the church in every respect – Sunday School, small groups, special courses, vacation Bible Schools, youth retreats, etc. They can’t do it all but with diligence they can see that it all gets done.
A special subset of this primary pastoral concern is to see that children are taught the catechism. Another is to encourage teachers to promote Bible memorization. And outreach programs into the neighborhood are monitored to be sure that what is practiced is Bible-based evangelism.
2. Pastoral Care. Pastors go out to their people. They visit them in their homes, listen to them in their studies, see them in hospital rooms, touch base with them in small groups, rejoice with them as they prepare for weddings, and sorrow with them when funerals must be planned. They reach beyond the faithful to those who have wandered from the path or who have never known the Lord.
Pastors can only preach and teach with heart if they learn of their parishioners’ joys and struggles by first-hand contact. And the people know when their pastor really cares for them.
3. Pastoral Oversight. Churches have to be administered and all churches are not administered on the same governing structures. Some are congregational, some are more episcopal, and yet others find a balance between the two. But in each case, the pastor has responsibility to know the rules established by constitution or by-laws and to live by them as well as help lay leaders to apply them.
I learned from experience and observation that pastors who understand and govern by established laws are less likely to generate misunderstandings, excite carnal outbursts, and even cause church splits. I learned also that well-administered churches are more likely to be harmonious and well-focused on mission.
It is now 37 years since I left my last pastoral assignment at the local level. During 19 subsequent years in the bishop’s office I determined to continue to think pastorally of the new assignment. Now, during 18 years of retirement this pastoral perspective continues to shape my thinking. It is so deep in me that my dreams often have their setting in churches Kathleen and I served together decades ago.
By the grace of God, the pastoral vision does not fade. I continue to visit local churches as a guest speaker. And once a semester I teach seminarians on pastoral issues. Most importantly, morning prayers in our house regularly include pastors far and wide. We pray that they will know Christ so intimately and their faith will be kept so fresh that they will work from a pastoral passion that does not diminish with the passing of the years.