The Power of a Special “Good Word”

How should ordained pastors close a service of worship? Dismiss the people with a hand signal? Announce a hymn? Offer a closing prayer? Exhort them to go out and be good witnesses for the Lord?

All four means have been used, but there is one better. It is to pronounce over them a benediction. In other words, bless them in the name of the Lord, and send them away with the assurance that the Lord will go with them.

That’s what a benediction is. It is a “good word” pronounced over the Lord’s people in the Lord’s name. Numbers 6:22-27 introduces us to the great priestly benediction. God ordered Moses to instruct Aaron and his sons to use this blessing to dismiss a gathering of his people. The priest was to raise his hands and say:

The Lord bless you and keep you; the Lord make his face to shine upon you and be gracious unto you; the Lord lift up his countenance upon you and give you peace.

In this Old Testament blessing there is, by the way, a preview of the mystery of the Trinity. Note the threefold reference to “the Lord.” That is, as you go out from here, the triune God — Father, Son, and Holy Spirit — will be with you.

God’s instructions to Moses for the priestly blessing make it clear that this benediction is not a collection of empty words. The Lord tells Moses that when it is pronounced, “So will I put my name on the Israelites, and I will bless them.” It is a promise of God’s favor.

Some pastors may feel that this is all too Old Testament and priestly. It might help them to be reminded that, when rightly understood, the pastor’s ministry is both prophetic and priestly. Think of such priestly ministries as the pastoral prayer, the wedding ritual, the serving of the sacraments, or the graveside sentences. In these, pastors are carrying out the priestly aspect of their calling.

The blessing of God’s people at the close of a service of worship is one more wonderful privilege contained in a pastor’s ordination.

A benediction is important because a local congregation does not cease to exist when it disperses. A local church can be considered both a gathered and a scattered community. When together for worship, it is gathered. When its people disperse to their many locations, it is scattered. In both cases it is still a church. St. Peter, for example, wrote an epistle to the church “scattered” abroad.

How appropriate it is, then, that before believers leave their place of assembly they are sent forth to take up their varied stations with a promise that God will also be with them in their many and sometimes isolated locations.

During the week ahead of you, here’s my benediction for you, my dear reader, from Hebrews 13:20-21:

Now may the God of peace, who through the blood of the eternal covenant brought back from the dead our Lord Jesus, that great Shepherd of the sheep, equip you with everything good for doing his will, and may he work in us what is pleasing to him, through Jesus Christ, to whom be glory forever and ever. Amen.

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Photo credit: Grace Lutheran Church (via

Learning to Fire the Bright Spots

When I was just out of seminary and beginning to lead my first church as a full-time pastor, a retired minister, the Rev. C. P. Stewart, told me a story I have carried with me throughout my life. Here it is:

Back in the days when steam-driven locomotives pulled 100-car freight trains across this continent, a westward bound train was laboring up a pass in the Rocky Mountains.

Its pace gradually slowed until finally it came to a standstill. The fireman in the engine cab was young and found himself defeated and helpless.

Riding the caboose at the end of the train was a retired fireman. He walked the length of the long string of boxcars, climbed into the locomotive’s cab, and offered his help.

The young fireman was glad to let him take over.

The retired fireman started methodically shoveling coal into the firebox. The steam gauge began to rise and when it registered that pressure was adequate he signaled the engineer to open the throttle.

After a couple of sharp tugs the train began to move again and this time made it up the grade of the mountain pass.

Amazed, the young fireman asked his senior what he had done differently, noting that he himself had been shoveling just as hard.

As the train moved forward, gradually gaining speed, the older man opened the door of the firebox. First he pointed out a couple of clinkers — residue of burned coal — lying dead in the ashes, then pointed to places in the bed where the fire was burning brightly.

Pointing out this contrast with his long poker, he said, “If you want the train to move you have to fire the bright spots.”

Rev. Stewart was giving a young pastor a tip on how to go about leading a congregation without becoming a casualty of stalled initiatives.

Local churches are complex and lots of activities are going on at the same time – children’s programs, choir practices, committee meetings, some of which can at times be stalled by a variety of conflicting opinions.

While helping a church grow, gaining momentum and depth in ministry, Rev. Stewart intimated, one must take courage from the programs that are thriving, reporting this good news to the congregation whenever possible.

But the story fits many situations: the highly energized family, the public school classroom, the student striving to work her way through college, to name a few.

Things in life go better when one learns to fire the bright spots.

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Photo credit: Thomas’s Pics (via

Second Career Pastors?

TACAccording to Christianity Today (July/August 2013), the Texas annual conference of the United Methodist Church is proposing that people over 45 years of age who express interest in becoming full time pastors should instead be encouraged to “pursue other expressions of lay ministry.”

The only reason the committee gives in the brief report is that this limitation would help the denomination “to plan for the future.” Other possible reasons of course could be guessed.

Still, on this matter consider a “second opinion” from Japan. Many years ago my wife and I were under consideration to be invited to Japan for a summer of interdenominational ministry. We learned later that the committee of Japanese ministers considering us had reservations. They asked, “How old is this man?” When they were told I was 42 they asked, “What does a young man that age have to tell us?” Traditionally, in Japan age is revered and people are assumed to get wiser as they get older. The invitation was generously extended.

Regarding the cutoff age of 45, count me as favoring a case-by-case decision. That’s because there are already second career ministers who have given mature, balanced service in needy situations and have later left a 20 or 30 year blessing behind them.

As an example, I’m thinking of the police officer who upon retirement offered himself for pastoral ministry. After a period of training he was assigned to a church that was in poor spiritual health. The man’s superintendent told me that he had excellent skills in dealing with difficult situations. This former officer had honed those skills on the streets during his first career and brought both good understanding and the right use of spiritual authority to his new assignment.

Here’s my idea of a model pastoral team for a hypothetical annual conference of fifty churches. Ten percent of the ministers would be thirty or younger, perhaps just out of seminary and early in their time of pastoral service. Ten percent would be within five years of retirement finishing a lifetime of pastoral ministry. The ages of the other 80 percent would be spread across the middle 30-to-60 bracket.

In such a situation, the young would bring energy and freshness to the conference though they would lack experience and need coaching. The mature 10 percent would bring wisdom and know-how but perhaps be a bit limited in rugged energy for the task. And the middle 80 percent would look both ways to give and receive inspiration as the team moved forward together.

To circle back to the possible cut-off age of 45, how about this possibility that trumps age: if a potential second-career minister has a vital, growing relationship with Jesus Christ, good health, the ability to preach at least one fresh, Bible-grounded sermon each week, the skill of a shepherd in giving pastoral care to persons both in the church and in the community, and reasonable administrative abilities for the ordering and leading of the congregation, my hunch is that there would be a needy congregation somewhere that would benefit greatly from the service of such a candidate.

At the same time, there is something honorable and inspiring about young persons who respond early in youth to the call of pastoral ministry, prepare well, and determine to give the whole span of their life to the service of God in shepherding communities of his people.

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My Book Will Be Out By Month’s End

Pastor's First Love_shadowI am now counting the days until I receive the first copies of my new book, The Pastor’s First Love: This and Other Essays on a High and Holy Calling. The book will be on and my excitement is mounting.

The pastoral love of which I write is not first of all a love for preaching or pastoral visitation or the oversight of a congregation – as important and even focal as these duties are.

The pastor’s first love is to be a love for Jesus Christ, a steadfast and ever-renewing love – and out of that love, I believe, will flow a desire to carry out the pastoral task with excellence. That’s my thesis. In the book I share details of that task.

The words “pastor” and “shepherd” are interchangeable because they mean the same thing. The Bible has an amazing number of references to the work of shepherding used as a human metaphor. Best of all, Jesus used it of himself.

In the majority of cases today pastors do not fill a highly visible position. They serve in the inner-city, the suburbs, at the county crossroads, in hospitals, nursing homes, wherever there is a station of Christ’s church or there is human need.

But their influence is greater than they often realize. I was brought up in a little church in southeastern Saskatchewan. The pastors we had back in the thirties of the last century were of necessity self-taught. Seminary and even college were out of the question in the days of the Great Depression. But for kids growing up these men were markers of godliness and I still remember their names – Wartman, Garret, Smith, McGougan, Summers, and perhaps others. They paid attention to the children.

So who do I hope will be helped by The Pastor’s First Love? In writing I’ve had a target audience in mind. (1) Seminary and college students in pastoral training; it is the period of training when a pastoral mind is being formed. (2) Young and newly appointed pastors who feel the need to further refine their understanding of the task and sharpen the skills required. I write about cases.

I have also had in mind, (3) Pastors who have served for a long while but have grown discouraged and perhaps lost the vision and zest for their calling; and (4) lay people who sense the need for a better understanding from a layman’s perspective of what the pastoral calling is all about.

I have prepared the book prayerfully and would ask my faithful readers to pray with me that, as it goes out by the end of the month, it will find its way into the hands and hearts of those who need it most.

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To Vancouver and Back – Part Three

Part Three

Call it nostalgia, or just a desire to relive precious moments of the past. Whatever it was, it moved our daughter, Carolyn, and me to make one visit to the Free Methodist church in New Westminster before boarding our plane early the next morning at the Vancouver airport to return to Toronto.

Fifty-six years earlier Kathleen and I arrived at the Free Methodist parsonage at 326 Eighth Street with our little family – Carolyn, 8, Donald (Donnie), 5, Robert (Bobbie), 3, and John David, five months. I was there to serve this church as their pastor.

We were total strangers to the congregation and they to us, and on both their part and ours this venture had to be launched with strong elements of trust.

We discovered very soon that we had been appointed to serve a church that warmed up quickly and knew how to love its parsonage family. That’s not to say that during five following years there would be no missteps or differences of opinion as to how best to move the work forward. It is to say that love prevailed between pastoral family and people, finding many ways to express itself, and the church thrived.

So Carolyn and I borrowed my niece Jayne Taylor’s Honda Civic and drove 10 miles to park it in the church’s parking lot.

Only Betty was at the church. She is now a grandmother but when we first knew her she was a teenager in the youth group. She stopped from her work of preparing the church bulletin for Sunday and we had a pleasant chat about old times and mutual friends.

Carolyn and I spent some quiet moments in the empty sanctuary. Slight changes have been made but it is still the beautiful house of worship it was when first used in November of 1956. Back then, Willis Barnes, a member and an interior decorator, had chosen the color scheme and it had created an environment of warmth that drew people together and prompted them to worship God.

What memories those moments brought back of sermons preached, prayers prayed, testimonies given, sins forgiven both by God and one another in this lovely structure of bricks and mortar. Who could forget sacred moments at its altar?

Then we made an unscheduled visit to Wesley Manor down Kennedy Avenue from the church. It’s a 41-unit apartment building affiliated with the church where a handful of residents spilled quickly from their apartments to greet us.

Margaret, Don, and others, like Betty, are grandparents now but were teenagers when we were pastoring the church. Theda was also a teenager who by Canada post sends us newsy notes every now and then.

We visited Verne in his apartment. He was a young married man back then but had recently lost Lucille, his beloved wife of 60 years. Our visit was warm and tender. And with Shirley, the operations manager of the Manor, we chatted briefly.

They gathered in the open area near the entrance and we spontaneously formed a circle to chat and laugh together, recalling old times. I learned some things about those days gone by that I had not known at the time.

For example, Don, the retired auto mechanic, told us that as a 15-year-old boy he was in fiery rebellion, so when I landed at his parents’ front door to take him golfing (and I was no more than a novice) he fled out the back door. But, he noted as we talked that my continued attention to him brought him out of his rebellion and led to his salvation.

Carolyn and I flew back to Toronto realizing afresh what a smorgasbord of surprises life inevitably sets before us. Good things happen unexpectedly; dark clouds gather, but don’t stay. In the life of faith there are bitter herbs to be tasted and mouth watering fruits to savor.

For the overwhelming majority of good memories, looking upward we respond, “Thank you.” Regarding memories of the missteps, the blunders, the good intentions gone awry we say, also looking upward, “In your mercy forgive us our failures.” And God gives us his peace.

We go forward courageously because in faith we live through all of life’s vicissitudes fully aware that “underneath are the Everlasting Arms.”

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How Can I Know if God is Calling Me to Full Time Ministry?

In his First Corinthian letter, the Apostle Paul addresses Christians at least 15 times as those who are “called.” He uses this term because in matters of salvation, God must always be seen to initiate. But the Apostle, who already has been called to be a believer in Christ, refers to himself in an additional way — he is “called to be an apostle of Christ Jesus” (1 Cor. 1:1). It was like a call within a call.

It is both sobering and joyful that genuine Christians are in a relationship with Christ because God called them to put their faith in Christ and they responded. And if within that relationship he sets them apart with a special assignment it is because again they are “called” in a more particular way.

But that special call does not come to all in the same way. Or when it comes it sometimes needs helpful clarification.

The Apostle Paul was called on the Damascus Road through a direct encounter with the living Christ. So dramatic was that call that he was stricken with temporary blindness (Acts 9:1-9). By contrast, Timothy, his son in the gospel, appears to have been called into full time ministry more mundanely, by the recognition and assignment of the Apostle Paul himself (Acts 16:1-5).

God does sometimes call through the voice of humans. John Wesley’s call to holy orders was at the urging of his own father. John Wesley allowed that urging to be God’s call and the results were amazing.

This leads to the question: how can I know if God is calling me into full time ministry?

Here are some questions to help you clarify whether the call you are sensing is Christ’s call to full time service or whether what you feel is simply a strong desire to follow the Lord fully as a lay person.

1. What do my senses tell me when I am closest to the Lord? During a time of heartfelt devotion, for example, does the Holy Spirit’s urging in the direction of an explicitly Christian calling seem more pressing and real?

2. Is the question of a call fleeting or persistent? When the Lord calls, he makes his voice heard with a certain persistence. In this way he may give us time to test the call. If the question of whether I am called or not is only occasional it is not so likely to be a call to full time ministry.

3. Does the Lord confirm his call by the comments or questions of others? Someone may ask, “Have you ever considered the ministry?” This may be only one of several signals he gives us to work into a pattern for our prayerful reflection.

4. When you are given opportunity to serve in some public way, like leading a prayer group, or accompanying a pastor on a call, do you sense the Lord’s blessing in that experience? Do other believers notice it?

5. Do providences that the Lord sends across your path fill you with thoughts of a special ministry? For example, suppose you are unexpectedly given opportunity to go on a mission trip, and through that experience the Holy Spirit challenge you in a more particular way.

6. Do I see needs that I sense I could meet? Some full time ministries have developed simply out of a believer’s awareness of need accompanied by that believer’s willingness to attempt to meet that need. That kind of signal is enhanced when the church also recognizes it.

The special call to full time ministry ought not to be rare in vital Christian circles. The late Paul N Ellis once said that before all young Christians choose a vocation for themselves they should ask the Lord prayerfully and seriously, “Do you need me for full time service?”

And if they are not called to full time service they should prayerfully ask the Lord to lead them into a vocation in which they can serve Him faithfully and with joy. In that broader sense, every Christian should live under a sense of divine vocation (Rom. 12: 1,2).

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The Essence of the Pastoral Task

After serving for 21 years as a local pastor I spent 19 years as a general administrator of our denomination. During that time I was regularly involved with committees that determined if persons who wished to become pastors were prepared and qualified to enter the office.

In the Free Methodist church the final body to affirm an ordination is an annual conference and it is to an annual conference that all ordained personnel are accountable.

For that body, therefore, the selection process leading to ordination is prayerful, long and complex. It involves interviews, supervised summer assignments, questionnaires, recommendations, a check on educational achievement, psychological tests and more.

What are the qualifications an ordination committee is looking for? First, does the candidate manifest a clear sense of God’s call? That is primary. Then a good grasp of the Scriptures, a solid work ethic, the ability to speak well, honesty, intelligence, skill in relationships, a sense of humor, and on and on. The expectations are high.

It was not until nearly two decades ago when I was preparing the Staley lectures to be given at Roberts Wesleyan College that I was able to simplify these diverse criteria to my own satisfaction under two heads: GODLINESS AND COMPETENCE. The insight came from a careful reading of Paul’s First letter to the young pastor, Timothy

Godliness is a personal attitude of respect and moment-to-moment accountability to God that underlies all attempts to serve him and his people. We might say that the godly person is marked by “a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith” (1 Tim. 1:5). Godliness shows in a piety that is genuine, not affected.

It is not, however, a once-and-forever gift, so the Apostle Paul exhorts the young Timothy to “train yourself to be godly” (1 Tim. 4:7) and “pursue godliness” (1 Tim. 6:11). Godliness is a dominant word in the pastoral epistles, representing a never-ending goal.

But to godliness must be added competence. Competence involves a broad knowledge of the pastoral task and a developed skill in carrying out its diverse responsibilities. Godliness without competence leads to blundering and ineffectiveness. On the other hand, competence without godliness will show itself as efficient but lacking authenticity.

I saw while I was pondering First Timothy in preparation for the lectures that at the core of competence is an insightful recognition of sound doctrine. In fact, Paul’s first issue in his letter is doctrinal competence in countering those who teach false doctrine (1 Tim. 1:3).

Paul reminds Timothy that he himself had been appointed by God to be “a teacher of the true faith to the Gentiles” (1 Tim. 2:7). He exhorts Timothy, “Until I come, devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to preaching and to teaching” (1 Tim.4:13). The proclamation and enforcement of truth is at the core of competent pastoral ministry.

Competence also includes skill in relating to parishioners. “Do not rebuke an older man harshly… treat younger men as brothers, older women as mothers, and younger women as sisters, with absolute purity” (1 Tim. 5:1,2).

And it includes caring for administrative matters such as seeing to it that believers’ special needs in the family of God are met (1 Tim. 5:9-16).

Let there be competent preaching, teaching, pastoral care and careful administration in a godly pastor’s hands, and you have the essence of the pastoral task in all ages.

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This Week’s Visit to the Seminary

NortheasternKathleen and I are just back from a visit to Northeastern Seminary in North Chili, NY. We go there once a semester to meet with a four-hour evening class. The class has a collection of my materials on practical pastoral issues and from them Professor Gerhardt gives me freedom to deal with subjects of my choosing.

Northeastern seminary is on the campus of Roberts Wesleyan College. From Brampton we travel westward around the western end of Lake Ontario, then east along its southern shore, crossing the Niagara River and driving 75 miles further east to the edge of Rochester, New York.

This semester the class was smaller than usual, but with a cross-section of Christian traditions – 12 students from Lutheran, Free Methodist, Pentecostal, nondenominational, Baptist and others. There were African Americans and Caucasians in almost equal numbers. But color or traditions were scarcely noticeable, veiled by the warm evangelical spirit that seemed to tie classmates together.

It was a mature group. There were ordained ministers, two or three already assigned to serve a congregation; others were on the way to ordination; yet others were lay church workers. One young woman introduced herself to me as a laid-off mechanical engineer who showed strong interest in the subject of the course.

First, we discussed the Christian funeral with its ramifications. I recalled that when I was in seminary more than fifty years ago the professor gave one lecture on the subject. That was valuable, but the first funeral after seminary can be daunting. Facing death with a family, empathizing with them, and then putting their loss into Christian perspective in a service of worship and consolation is a significant task.

Last night the subject of weddings and marriage raised interesting questions. One asked: Should a minister marry unbelievers? Answer: Marriage is an institution ordered by God for the blessing of all mankind, not merely a provision for Christians. We derive this viewpoint from the matchless story of Adam and Eve. The story is rooted in creation. Christians say marriage is the covenanted union of one man and one woman intended until death. But whether a man and woman present themselves as believers or nonbelievers, it is the duty of pastors to show due diligence in proceeding in accordance with the rules and regulations set down by the body whose ordination they hold.

The question whether a minister should marry a believer to an unbeliever was raised. The Scriptures clearly declare that Christians are to avoid the “unequal yoke” because, “What does a believer have in common with an unbeliever?” (2 Cor. 6: 14-18). Pastors need to have this question resolved in their minds and to have reached a good understanding with their church board before the matter comes up.

We have visited Northeastern happily in this role for several years. Each time, the fact that Kathleen is with me seems to mean a lot to the class. It gives us both opportunity to share with an oncoming generation of pastors and other church workers some things we know about the pastoral life from long experience. Passing the torch like this also makes us feel like an ongoing part of the church of Jesus Christ, who himself was “that great shepherd (pastor) of the sheep” (Heb. 13:20). Of equal blessing to us is this: each time we visit, a sense of collegiality develops quickly and age differences don’t seem to matter.

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One Week in the Life of Pastor John Doe

Photo credit: Flik (via story is a composite. Everything in this pastor’s week is possible. And not just for the mega-church pastor. Pastors who read this may find their vision of the scope of a busy, hard working pastor’s duties expanded. And lay readers who read it may have their own awareness of the pastoral task enlightened and their appreciation for the demands of the pastor’s work raised)

Please meet Pastor John Doe. Secular people may not understand his title though they know it has something to do with the church. A few even joke that it is a one-hour-a-week Sunday morning job. Here is a glimpse into one typical week, and the kind of thinking that drives Pastor Doe.


It’s eight o’clock Tuesday morning and Pastor John Doe is closeted in his study, reading, researching, meditating, and praying as he lays out pulpit plans for the following Sunday. In the morning he’ll preach his last sermon in a year-long series from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, “The Bedrock of Obedience” (Matt. 7:24-27). In the evening it will be, The Christian and Gambling.

When he hears his administrative assistant arrive at nine, the phone in the office next to his study begins to ring. She thoughtfully protects him from calls that can wait. But at 11:45 she breaks his solitude to tell him that the conference superintendent has called; the new Smeaton baby has arrived (a boy); and Jane Hewlett of the Mother’s Morning Out Circle phoned to ask if he would lunch with them this coming Thursday noon and bring a brief devotional. Oh, yes, and Mrs. Grundy phoned to complain that the sound system had not been loud enough Sunday and if this problem isn’t fixed she’ll just stay home and listen to a television preacher.

There’ll be no time for jogging, this noon. By 12:20 he is enjoying his lunch alone — a sandwich, an apple, and a thermos of decaf. By 1:15 he’s on his way to the hospital, first to give thanks with the Smeatons on the arrival of their son, then to visit a high-schooler who has had shoulder surgery, and finally to bring God’s comfort to Grandma Simms in the cancer ward.

By 3:15 he’s back at the church for an appointment with a troubled single mother. She fears her 13-year-old daughter, Alene, is getting into drugs. The symptoms are ominous — secretive conduct, falling grades, a forged bank withdrawal, and wide mood swings. Pastor Doe has had a good relationship with Alene so he assures the mother that he will get in touch with her and he’ll also put the mother in touch with a support group. He prays with her but both know that, if her fears are true, there may be hard days ahead.

In the few spare minutes before a 4:30 appointment with a young couple, he chooses congregational songs for next Sunday morning service. The couple arrive. They’re students at a community college who want to talk about marriage. As their story unfolds they confide that they want to wait until they’re married — they want to be chaste — but the struggle is intense. They are deeply in love. The pastor’s sympathetic ear and accepting response calms them and enables them to talk rationally about solutions. He suggests they talk with their parents (one middle-aged couple and a divorced mother) about setting an earlier wedding date. He makes another appointment to see them.

At 5:50 he arrives home. After a pleasant meal he has time to play a computer game with his ten-year-old son, Thomas, and read a Bible story to his five-year-old daughter, Cheryl. At 7:50 he slips away to look in on a newly formed building committee at the church. He’s home by 9:15 and in the quietness of the family room he and his wife, Lenore, chat about family matters — a better medication for Cheryl’s asthma, new tires for the van, and conflict at the child care center where she works.


It was a successful Tuesday but it hadn’t started that way. Before leaving for the church his own quiet time with the Scriptures had turned out to be a worry time. He had tried meditating on a Psalm but instead he had meditated on unresolved stresses in the church. There were three men he couldn’t please. His vision for growth appeared to be the issue. The recent formation of a building committee had increased the tensions. After all, so far as they were concerned, the church was paying its bills, the building was well kept up, the membership was holding steady, and the people enjoyed being together. They complained to him about little things but were never satisfied when he tried to meet them half way. Maybe trouble was ahead.

This wasn’t the way he liked to spend his prayer time. Before he left his room he had committed the matter to the Lord, but was disappointed with the way the problem had got to him. He had confessed his failure, entreated for grace, and gone to face the day.

Wednesday morning bright and early Pastor Doe is on his way to a city 120 miles to the north. At a one-day interdenominational pastors’ conference the main speaker is a young man who in five years has grown a church of 88 members to a congregation of 850. Pastor Doe’s desire to grow his own church makes him eager to hear this man. On the two and a half hour trip he listens to “Preaching Today” cassettes.

The speaker is tall and sinewy with a ruddy face and sandy curly hair. With a couple of preacher’s stories he establishes rapport and then begins to tell how he achieved remarkable growth at his church. For example, he explains that he had to ease out of the membership a few who were obviously not going to support him. (Pastor Doe flinches inwardly.) Then, he had completely revamped the forms of Sunday worship to make them more sprightly, more energized. He was particularly proud of his church’s Jazz and Rock Praise Band, but when it became a fixture in worship a few more members left. That’s when the influx began. He had made it clear from the outset, he told the conference, that he was in charge, and that “sometimes you have to lose 100 to gain 1000.”

His message troubled Pastor Doe. It sounded like power tactics such as a captain of industry might use to turn around an ailing operation by treating employees as mere units of productivity, dismissing long time workers, and bringing in new personnel — always with his eye on the bottom line.

Pastor Doe gets home by eight; the children are in bed; the house is quiet. He’s glad, because he wants to discuss with his wife what he has heard. He describes to her the speaker’s strategies. Doe is confused. Power tactics can be alluring; they certainly seem to have been effective in one pastor’s good cause.

His wife reminds him about a recent sermon he preached from Ezekiel 34. It was about what God expects his shepherds to do — strengthen the sheep who are weak, heal the sick, bind up the injured, bring back the strays and search for the lost. He knew these were the speaker’s desires too, but the methods seemed heavy-handed. Doe’s wife reminded him of Jesus’ words: “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.”

As they talked, the fog lifted. He remembered that he had been called to be a servant to God’s people, to offer creative leadership, to attempt to take them into greener pastures. He wanted to succeed as much as anyone, but he wasn’t willing to reinvent himself as an authoritarian boss. Pastoral authority, as he understood it, was not to be used to intimidate or manipulate the flock of God’s people entrusted to him.


Thursday and Friday bring Pastor Doe a variety of other pastoral challenges: a visit in the home of an elderly couple soon to be moved to a full care facility after 54 years in their own home; visits on two new families; a conversation with an anguished young man who had just been served divorce papers; a look-in at the nearby school gym on a growing youth group.

By telephone, he learns that one of his members had invited a neighbor to a women’s morning Bible study and after only three lessons her neighbor had professed faith in Christ. A shaken father phones to say that they have a pregnant teenaged daughter and she is hostile and defiant about it; the family needs prayer.


Friday night is family night for the Does. No phone calls. No television. Just games or a good video or reading aloud from books the children love. When it had dawned on them recently that in this busy church their children were getting lost in the shuffle, his wife and he had decided to devote Friday nights solely to them. The children loved it.

Saturday morning he’s at the church for an extended time of prayer, a review of his sermon notes, a conference with the music director, and time to prepare his pastoral prayer. Saturday afternoon may include a family bike ride or a visit to the indoor community swimming pool or just looking after a few family chores around town.

But in spite of the daily challenges, he can’t shake the discomfort that surfaces in unoccupied moments over the tensions with the three members. He wants it to be different. He attempts to isolate this matter from all the other good things but it isn’t easy. Of one thing he is certain: he is not going to use any techniques to run these members off. That is too simple a way to solve the problem and it doesn’t fit with his understanding of pastoring. If they leave on their own that will be different. If he can’t win them to a larger vision then with God’s help he will be gracious and love them in the Lord — without allowing them to block the forward movement of the congregation.


He awakens at 5:30 Sunday morning and lies abed a few minutes reflecting on the week past. He wonders: is pastoring just another job or is it a calling? Given the interpersonal tensions and the financial stresses and the heavy workload, is there an easier way to make a living? Most importantly, does this task have a center — something that ties it all together?

As he shaves, he thinks of the worship service just hours away. Only a pastor can know the satisfaction from caring for a flock of God’s dear people. Every part of the task has its rewards, but he reminds himself that seeing the people gather on a Sunday morning to join in Christian worship is a special joy.

It’s not just the sermon. For him, every part of worship has value. He enjoys singing selected praise choruses because they are sprightly, fresh, colorful, like garnish to a meal. The best of them contain truth in small packages. But his people can’t do without the richer content of great hymns. Who, he wonders, could sing Bernard of Clairvaux’s “Jesus, The Very Thought Of Thee,” without feeling linked to generations of believers who have sung those words together spanning 800 years?

Recently, a few in the congregation had complained that Scripture readings from Old and New Testaments in service seemed too formal. A few verses with the sermon should be enough. The complaint had led Pastor Doe only two weeks earlier to share with his board the reasons for reading Scripture as a separate act of worship. He explained that through the ages the Scriptures have been read aloud to acknowledge the authority of God’s word over his people. The Jewish people read them in their synagogues. They were read in the temple. The early Christians read them in their house churches. The Reformers rediscovered their power when read aloud. To use them sparsely in worship now would deny all this.

As he stands quietly with his musicians, praying together before entering the sanctuary to begin the service, he is suddenly aware of the prelude being played by pianist and flutist: Jesus the very thought of thee, with sweetness fills my breast …. The congregation sits quietly, waiting.


Monday is always fatigue day for Pastor Doe. He sometimes putters around in the little vegetable garden behind the parsonage, but this is dangerous because needs can surface on Monday that lure him to the church. It’s best for him to get out of town and his favorite spot is the bank of a quiet river a few miles to the south. He loves to sit there under a large willow and let his fishing line dangle in the scarcely moving current. He can think or pray or read and allow the freshness of nature to renew him. The experience clears his mind, and by late afternoon he feels ready to gather up his tackle, stow the Russian novel, and get back into town. Suddenly, a new week looks challenging.

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