Graham Heslop
Graham Heslop Graham has an insatiable appetite for books, occasionally dips into theology, and moonlights as a lecturer in New Testament Greek at George Whitefield College, Cape Town. He also serves on the staff team at Union Chapel Presbyterian Church and as the written content editor for TGC Africa. Graham is married to Lynsay-Anne and they have one son, Teddy.

Amid Modern Pressures, Remember Paul's Priorities for Pastoral Ministry

Amid Modern Pressures, Remember Paul's Priorities for Pastoral Ministry

In his Call to Spiritual Reformation, D. A. Carson lists a few modern pressures faced by pastors. He says:

  • “The pastor’s job has been diversified,” demanding that pastors must counsel, referee, chair committees, raise funds, and manage their online brand—among other things.
  • “Many pastors…suffer from low estimates of the value of their work,” giving rise not only to confusion about their identity but overcompensation, “acting far too much like professionals and far too little like those given to the ministry of the word and prayer.”
  • “Some clergy bury themselves in endless activism. Through no one’s fault but their own, they give themselves to endless work, always keeping busy but never carving out time to study, think, meditate, and pray.”

Carson continues, “These and similar pressures erode our values, deflect our aims, and finally corrupt our schedules.” Whether it’s the pressure to be and do all things or the need to validate your employment—heck, even your very existence—these pressures end up shaping the pastoral work, even creating new ways of evaluating ministry.

I’m aware that there are almost innumerable compounding pressures on pastors, especially in smaller churches. Administration is regrettably inevitable. So too is budgeting and building maintenance. Incredibly busy seasons arrive unannounced. And various volunteers along with communications must be managed. Throughout this, pastors are dealing with sin—both theirs and their people’s. But the danger is that circumstances begin to give shape to ministry priorities. As Carson says, pressures end up shaping pastoral work.

Thus it’s worth shutting out those many voices declaring what the pastor should be and do, to listen to God’s. The best place to hear what he says about ministry priorities is found in the pastoral epistles. So under the headings below, I pick out four of Paul’s emphases concerning pastoral ministry, from 1 Timothy. My prayer is that these will encourage pastors who feel pressurised into being all sorts of things that God doesn’t expect of them.

1. Pastors Must be Devoted to Sound Doctrine

Firstly, Paul reminds Timothy that the task of being an elder (or shepherd) is a noble one (3:1). It is a high calling, a “stewardship from God” (1:4). Stewarding what? Paul says pastors are stewards of “the gospel of the glory of the blessed God…with which I have been entrusted” (1:11; see 6:20). This is why Paul exhorts his understudy, saying: “Until I come, devote yourself to the public reading of scripture, to exhortation, to teaching” (4:13). The pastor must be devoted to sound doctrine, delighting in, defending, and declaring God’s truth.

Thus core to pastoral ministry is—and must always be—a commitment to stewarding God’s gospel, carefully studying the scriptures and sound doctrine. Because teaching is primary to pastoral work, so too should be study. Theology isn’t something you do for three or four years at seminary, in preparation for ministry. No, study is inseparable from faithful pastoral work. Pastors are entrusted not only with flocks but with God’s truth. It is by the latter that they shepherd the former.

2. Pastors Should be Alert to Dangerous Distractions

No, I’m not referring to social justice—see my fourth and final point. But Paul does warn Timothy about “myths and endless genealogies, which promote speculations” (1:4), leading to vain discussions (1:6). He later spells out the tremendous danger of these, saying that because of them “some will depart from the faith” (4:1, 7-8). Thus he writes: “Avoid the irreverent babble and contradictions of what is falsely called ‘knowledge,’ for by professing it some have swerved from the faith” (6:20-21).

Considering Paul’s emphasis on stewarding sound doctrine, whatever he was warning Timothy against probably denied or distorted that gospel—the truth entrusted to the church. That much is plain.

But what else distracts? Five commentaries will likely give you five different answers regarding the content of this speculative babble, myth, or gnosis. And I don’t want to offer a sixth. Instead I’ll say this: without any embarrassment, faithful pastoral ministry needn’t have an opinion on every trend. Nor will it be forever innovating itself or its preaching. It shouldn’t feel the need to engage in every online conversation and contemporary issue. Not that these are bad things. But the cumulative effect of trying to have an eye on everything other than sound doctrine will likely end up being a distraction—and that’s dangerous.

3. The Pastor’s Charge is Love

Following from the previous two points, Paul exhorts Timothy to “wage the good warfare” (1:18), “holding faith and a good conscience” (1:19). But this doesn’t excuse acerbic teaching or aggressive, overbearing leadership. True, Paul refers to “warfare,” yet pastors aren’t permitted to fight dirty. In fact, Paul writes, “the aim of our charge is love” (1:5). Towards the close of the epistle he repeats the idea of waging the good fight for the faith, only immediately before that he says: “Pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, steadfastness, gentleness” (6:11-12). Earlier Paul says pastors ought to “set the believers an example in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith, in purity” (4:12). This should always be the case, even when they’re challenging sin and correcting error.

As one old saying goes, ‘make love, not war.’ But Paul exhorts Timothy to make war, in love. This provides at least two correctives for us today. Firstly, as Paul often says, pastors must defend the faith; that is, they mustn’t accept the endless attempts to radically modify it, mollifying the zeitgeist. There are enemies to the gospel, threats to the church, and opponents to truth. Jesus warned of wolves and Paul speaks of warfare. Secondly, how we wage this war is in love. Without qualification. Thus any fighting for the faith cannot preclude gentleness, godly speech, purity, and—of course—love. We aren’t fighting to beat our opponents but because we care about and love people, not merely the truth.

4. Mercy Ministry is Inseparable from Pastoral Ministry

Finally, as I’ve argued at length elsewhere, pastors must be committed to mercy ministry. They must support the deacons and ensure that their local church meets people’s practical needs, assisting the poor or needy both in their midst and on the streets. In fact, the New Testament seems to teach that elders or pastors are responsible for the diaconal work, in the absence of deacons.

Consider 1 Timothy. Maybe you haven’t noticed this before. But, quite remarkably, in an epistle many deem a kind of church manual (3:14-15), Paul devotes the best part of an entire chapter how Timothy should care for the vulnerable (5:4-16). Mercy ministry wasn’t some Pauline appendix. He doesn’t say, ‘Once you’re hitting Sunday services out the park and the 5 ministry M’s are flying you might want to spare some time for the poor.’ Rather, the truth that pastors defend in love is the same one that reaches out in love to assist the needy, vulnerable, and disenfranchised.

Remember Paul’s Priorities

Pastor, let God give shape to your ministry. Beware of overly reforming your ministry around changing circumstances and fleeting trends. True, certain seasons might result in temporary adjustments and peculiar actions. But earnestly seek to make these Pauline priorities your own, rather than allowing modern pressures to shape your pastoral ministry. Take heart if your ministry is simple. Paul’s was; Timothy’s too.

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