What Makes a Good Pastor?

"What Makes a Good Pastor?" The answer might surprise you. Let's look to the Scriptures in 1 Timothy 3:1-7 and let God tell us. July 22, 2012.

            A study of Lutheran pastors reported that 30 percent “expressed substantial joy and satisfaction with their work. They described their ministries as tough, challenging, and fulfilling, with a constant demand for creativity and flexibility. They thrive on these challenges. Another 30 percent expressed mixed feelings about their work but were moderately satisfied. For them ministry is ‘a roller coaster of highs and lows,’ ‘a balancing act of extremes of fulfillment and frustration.’ Of the remaining 40 percent, the researchers described half of them as moderately depressed and approaching burnout. The other half…were severely depressed and in advanced stages of burnout.”[i]

            Would you speculate that a survey of church members might result in about the same percentages? 30 percent of people in the pew approve of their pastor with joy and satisfaction for his work, 30 percent express mixed feelings, and the remaining 40 percent of church members think of their pastor and, well, feel depressed.

            These statistics about pastors beg the question: What Makes a Good Pastor? How can more pastors consider their own ministry a good one, “noble,” rewarding and beautiful? How can more people consider their pastor a good one, “noble,” enriching, fit for such a divine calling? The answer might surprise you, and you’ll find it in the Bible here in 1 Timothy 3. Even though the Bible refers to the pastoral ministry as a “noble task,” what makes the task noble isn’t so much the work, or the skills practiced like a professional tradesman. Rather, the Bible instructs us that as an overseer the pastor “must be…” and then continues with a list of 13 qualifications for a pastor who wants to watch over souls. Of the 13 qualifications, only one of them describes a skill of the trade, the other 12 overwhelmingly present the “being” of the pastor compared to the “doing” of the pastor. In other words, who a pastor is on the inside, what makes him tick, his beliefs and values and identity, his spiritual, emotional, physical, and intellectual health contribute as much as, or more to, a good ministry than how skilled he is. As a matter of fact, a healthier “being” will consequently improve the tasks and skills of his “doing.”

            Let me give you an example of what a healthy pastoral “being” looks like. I’ll share an email I received from another pastor speaking with a small group of pastors (whose names I’ll change for anonymity, with his permission). We’re all part of a larger network of pastors committed to helping each other’s “being.”

“Brothers, while with Jesus in his Word and prayer this morning, I thought of each one of you. Tom—your prayer for slowing down during devotion has helped me because I keep that thought in my mind. I now have a sign on my door that says I am in Bible Study and do not disturb. That helps me to keep the world out for a little while. John—your prayer for more prep time is helping me to think about scheduling time for long-term prep. Next week I am getting away for two days just to focus on worship and Bible Class prep.    Aaron—your prayer to read the Bible twice a day encourages me. I now keep my Bible open right on my desk and seek to read something regularly in between other duties.

This weekend, while [leading the] liturgy [and] singing the song of praise from Word and Sacrament, the phrase ‘you make us pure and holy in your sight’ just struck me. Wow—God has made me pure and holy. I knew that but isn’t it interesting how little things just flash out on us at different times? Why am I beating myself up with guilt when God looks at me as pure and holy? What power! What victory! What motivation!

Yesterday I had the opportunity to call three brothers and offer them encouragement as they face some difficulties. The thoughts and encouragement I have received from my network buddies are what I use to encourage others.  So, I thank the Lord for you this day.”

            You don’t need to be a pastor, or part of a learning and sharing network, to appreciate that. Pastors are prime targets for Satan’s attacks. Makes sense, doesn’t it? If the Evil One can trip the leaders, the followers will trip over them and the whole church collapses. How are we doing at protecting pastors from being men who “fall into disgrace and into the devil’s trap.”? Research[ii] reveals that 1,500 pastors leave the ministry each month due to moral failure, spiritual burnout, or contention in their churches. Almost 40 percent of pastors polled admitted to an extramarital affair since beginning their ministry. 80 percent of pastors’ spouses wished their spouse would choose another profession, and the majority of pastor wives surveyed indicated that the most destructive event that ever occurred in their marriage and family was the day they entered the pastoral ministry. Is this the same profession that the Bible calls a “noble task?” It is indeed, and it is noble, and good, and beautiful. But like other gifts of God we make it ugly, wicked, and even a mockery that slaps God in the face instead of a ministry that serves him. Pastors do it. People in the pew do it. The devil laughs. And Jesus weeps. He lost one of his own 12 disciples, and now is losing many more.

            How can we make it stop? Start right here at Grace by continuing to highly value the pastoral ministry. Then continue to support pastors throughout our synod through the efforts of Pastor Huebner’s work as 1st Vice President and my work in mentoring and coaching. Pray for, encourage, and give generously to our seminary, represented well at Grace by four professors who are members. Let’s look to the Scriptures here in 1 Timothy and let God tell us What Makes a Good Pastor. Note again, that the “task” in verse one is defined by the “must be” of verse two, telling us that the pastor who is a good pastor is first good on the inside, and this is where Jesus Christ dwells, right there inside the pastor just like everyone else. It’s where Jesus Christ has died for sins—yes, the pastor’s sins too—and where he’s risen to new life. It’s an identity, a call first to be a follower of Jesus and child of God. Before your pastor’s name was spoken at his ordination into ministry, it was spoken at his baptism, spoken at his confirmation, and whispered in eternity by his heavenly Father, and breathed by the Spirit when dispensing special gifts for ministry. This is who we are as pastors. First comes our “being.” Then comes our “doing.” Can you please help us remember that? Can you please see us as that and serve together with us as that?

            And, with your understanding, support, and encouragement for our “being” we will strive to be the kind of overseers who watch over your souls (and ours) as ones “above reproach,” meaning that we’re not the subjects of scandal in our Christian life and Lutheran ministry. We will remain faithful to one wife, and may need your understanding that the attractiveness of a congregation of people who need us, come to us for answers, put us in a position of authority, can easily lead a pastor to have an affair with his ministry as the seductive mistress. Please pray that we can balance both a healthy marriage and a healthy ministry, serving faithfully our wife, and serving faithfully our church, without either threatening the other. Help us to be “temperate” and “self-controlled,” keeping our feet on the ground with a balanced approach and sound judgment; allowing us to think before we act. We want to be men who are “respectable,” never getting in the way of people who want to be closer to God, and “hospitable,” warm and welcoming to all without favoring certain groups or individuals. In the final words of verse 2 you see the only skill in this long list of pastoral traits, “able to teach.” While different pastors develop that skill with different success, what makes a teacher of God’s Word excel is first being a student of God’s Word. Pastors cannot give to others what they have not first received themselves—cannot pour out to you what is not already in the container of our head and heart. Thank you for giving us time to study God’s Word, and I mean lots of time. Quiet, closed door, uninterrupted time.

            Now the list returns to the “being” of a pastor by a string of “don’t be’s.” Don’t be “given to drunkenness…violent…or quarrelsome.” Pastors are mature, Christian man who can control their drinking, can control insisting on their own way and even bullying people to get it, and control argumentative words. And we must not be “lover[s] of money,” with a greed that displays lack of contentment and trust, or a materialism that displays preference for the treasures of earth over the treasures of heaven. We are called to manage our own families well, as a test for taking care of God’s family of believers. To do so, we cannot be absent husbands and fathers, and if we become so busy at church that we’re not taking time for family please help us rethink our priorities and be faithful in both arenas. “Recent convert[s]” are not fit for the pastoral ministry, as their maturity in discerning God’s way isn’t yet developed enough to lead appropriately. Finally, don’t feel snubbed when we spend time developing a “good reputation with outsiders.” Sometimes we need to get out of our robes and into jeans and a T-shirt, get out of our offices and head to the golf course or gym, get away from people already going to heaven and mingle with those who aren’t, like Jesus did.

            Quite a list, but in some ways no different than a list any Christian man or woman might compile as characteristics of a life that glorifies God. That’s because the qualifications for the pastoral ministry are not only skill-based, but just as much character-based, value-based, faith-based. And what is of faith is of Christ and his work. Therefore, the pastoral ministry is really less about the pastor and more about Christ. What Makes a Good Pastor? Christ for us. Christ in us. Christ through us. There is great joy in that! Amen.

Preached at Grace Lutheran Church, Milwaukee, WI (www.gracedowntown.org) on July 22, 2012

[i]Carroll, Jackson W. God’s Potters: Pastoral Leadership and the Shaping of Congregations. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co. 2006. 13.

[ii]Pastor Darrin Patrick, from data provided by Focus on the Family, www.barna.org, and “Death by Ministry: Burnout,” by Mark Driscoll.

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