This summer will mark my third year of ordained ministry; yet I am still a rookie at this ministry business. On a near weekly basis something comes up that catches me by surprise and I learned a long time ago that seminary is probably the worst degree program for preparing someone for ministry. To paraphrase a quote I read a few months ago, “When I graduated from seminary I knew church history, church theology, Greek and Hebrew and discovered the only job I was qualified for was to be the Pope; but that position had been filled.” Seminary really teaches you a lot about the Christian faith but the practical day to day aspects of ministry: administration of a church, organization of church programs, human resources, conflict resolution; management (time and people), contract negation, understanding our penal system, complex matters of mental health (both personal and institutional problems)—the list goes on and on.
So I have been praying for a while for the Lord to place a seasoned minister in my life to help me and guide me. Alas, for a while it felt as though God had ordained that I figure this out on my own. Then one day I read an article about reading classic works and having the authors be your mentor in ministry. I like to read; but I often feel guilty if I read something that I can’t “justify” with regards to my job. This seemed like the perfect solution: I could read and not feel guilty about it!
So I have been reading and God has really been helping my soul through the works that I have read thus far. First I turned to C. Jack Miller’s (one of my favorite pastor/authors) The Heart of a Servant Leader. This is a collection of letters he wrote to individuals while he was a minister. They cover a wide range of topic but almost all of them in some way deal directly with being a leader in a church since his audience was almost exclusively missionaries, elders or ministers. I learned a lot from this book, specifically how I communicate with others and how I could improve my communication skills. What I mean to say is every time we engage in communication with someone we have the opportunity to witness to the Lordship of Jesus Christ; we have the privilege of being humble and showing repentance and we have the chance to encourage someone in their walk with Christ.
So in my e-mails now, even the “most mundane” I try to always share some bit of spiritual wisdom. I have also sought to really organize my email inbox and other segments of my life.
This work also encouraged me because Jack (whom I think most would classify as a “successful” minister) said he thinks it took him about 20 years before he figured out how to be a minister. He had hardships (as I have had), he’d had crisis (as I have had) and he even left the ministry for the time (as I have contemplated). It is encouraging to learn that someone who would later plant a church which would become large enough to have its own network of churches and start a missionary organization (World Harvest Missions), a publishing company and author numerous books would have had so many struggles and felt it took that many years to actually become a minister.
The next book I read was Memoirs of an Ordinary Pastor “by” D.A. Carson. This is a book written by D.A. Carson about his father, Tom Carson, who was a missionary pastor in French Quebec. The book is written by Carson but his primary source material, quoted extensively, are letters and journals and notes kept by his father.
Tom Carson felt called to bring the gospel to the French Roman Catholics who lived in Quebec which, by the picture D.A. painted, was another world and a tough nut for a missionary to crack. This work was easy to read, yet hard to digest. At many points it made me cry—and that was a good thing. Tom was never “successful” by our standards—and that was the point of the book. To show us what faithfulness looks like despite a poor “production.” Tom’s churches were never large (30-40 people at their peak); they were never financially secure but lived day to day. D.A. Carson grew up extremely poor. Tom eventually, discouraged, left ministry and went to work for the civil service. He struggled mightily (as do I) with administrative and organizational tasks. But as his son put it, there is no verse in the bible that says “blessed are you who are organized and skilled at administration.”
This was a great encouragement for me—I often wonder if I am qualified to do anything because of how disorganized I am. I was going through a box of keepsakes I recently came across and in it was a chart my mom made me when I was about 11; it was one of many attempts made by others to help me get organized. For as long as I can remember I have struggled in this area but nothing really, ever changes. So reading that another minister struggled with that and to read Carson’s appraisal of those skills really lifted my spirit.
But Tom devoted himself to knowing the Word of God, and to seeking to do God’s will. Even after he left ministry he effectively became the associate pastor for the church he started to attend. When they sought to hire him as their associate, the head minister pointed out that Tom was already doing everything in the job description and more.
The book challenged me because it made me question my devotional life: my prayers and my attention to Scripture. These last months have been hard beyond measure and the harder they have gotten, the more I seem to have abandoned the rock on which my faith was built. So I have been challenged to really return to that—and I have and I have been reminded just how sweet the Lord is (Ps 34.8)
Finally, it is called the “Memoirs of an Ordinary Pastor” because of what D.A. learned about his father after he died. People showed up at the funeral and told remarkable stories about Tom; things he had done for them, visitations made at just the right moment, a word shared exactly when it was needed—and none of these events showed up in Tom’s daily journals or even in his list of visitations. As D.A. Carson observes, “Some of these visits are briefly alluded to in his journals, but one would never guess from the entries what had gone on. Why should such matters be reported? Tom was simply serving as an ordinary pastor.”
I am currently now working through J. Graham Machen’s Christianity and Liberalism. My primary goal here is to familiarize myself with Machen through this classic work. If there were any take away I have learned thus far in reading it, it would be that ministers of the gospel must not be afraid to take a stand when it comes to the purity of our doctrine and the centrality of the cross.