What must a pastor know, be, do, and love in order to thrive in ministry? In the first essay of this two-part series, we emphasized that pastors must know God, know themselves, and know his word. The second area we focused on was being: who we are is at least as important as what we know. In this essay we look at the remaining two non-negotiable foci of pastoral training—doing and loving.
Few vocations require as rambling a range of skills as that of the shepherd. A pastor must pray, mediate, counsel, admonish, lead, teach, comfort, defend, evangelize, exegete, mentor, refute, officiate, preach, plan, entreat, exemplify, and any number of other tasks—doing it all with eyes to heaven and laughter in his heart.
The massive doings of ministry are often covered in what are considered the “lighter” classes in pastoral training. This is not an unjust assessment. Hebrew can be a beast, and I still get the cold sweats just thinking about Dr. Thomas’s New Testament Introduction class. Pastoral ministry courses, in contrast, rarely call for students to break out the antacids. But because these classes are lighter does not mean they are less essential. If we tick all the “knowing” boxes but do not impart skills, then the flock will languish under the ministrations of knowledgeable bunglers. Therefore, we—the ones tasked to equip them for ministry—should take responsibility for the gap between their knowledge and skills.
So how are these skills best imparted? Imparting the theory works great in the classroom. But what better place to observe, imitate, and practice than the local church? Indeed, some schools have a direct, organic connection with a church or denomination, and this brings with it some tremendous advantages. But there can be downsides. As encouraged as we may be in grounding the practicum in the local church, we still need to be realistic. Pastors are normally very busy men. And for the first few years when interns are being trained, they are often a net drain. It is a sober decision for a pastor to reduce the breadth of his ministry in his local church in order to disciple a future pastor. So sometimes mentoring fails because the pastor who agrees to invite the student alongside, though well-intentioned, is himself overwhelmed. But with some thought and creativity, schools and churches can design mentoring programs together that truly are symbiotic. The students get real investment from pastors, plus experience. And the churches gain extra hands to make the work lighter.
Most necessary skills can be acquired in the context of a purposeful internship program. But because preaching and pastoral counseling are of such central importance to shepherding, these two areas need special comment. Preachers have justly been fodder for clichés and tropes. There is the dry-as-dust academic lecturer, droning on about the textual apparatus on the bottom of his Greek testament. There is the firebrand who is all heat and no light. There is the political activist pulpit. And then there is the pastor preaching “sermonettes for Christianettes.” A few rare pastors are able to become excellent expositors without conducting a preaching class, but most who try this stunt make their congregants wish they had not. Preaching is too important not to take pains to see it done well. It drives the church, and thus the culture. So students need plenty of instruction, practice, and—as always—feedback. Students should be taught to receive this feedback eagerly.
As for pastoral care. Hebrews 13:17 reminds us of a coming accounting. We must answer to the Lord for those whom he has entrusted to us, and this is hard to do when we do not know their names. So we must seek to train pastors who love the sheep as individuals, who are comfortable providing counseling for most cases, and who love to live in and among those whom they shepherd. A shepherd has an earthy job involving barnyard smells and dirty work. Pastors must not shrink back from this loving labor, though at times the same people asking for help can give stiff resistance when it is given. Pastors should feel comfortable and competent to counsel.
If we are training men properly and imparting the necessary knowledge, character, and skills, why must we even discuss something as basic as cultivating the right loves? As we’ve already addressed, love is part of a pastor’s being and doing. But the reason I have singled it out for emphasis is that there is such tremendous pressure in our culture not simply to tolerate but to encourage others in any spiritual endeavor that strikes their fancy. But this is not loving or kind. It is not courageous. And it certainly is not faithful.
The first and second greatest commandments show us that who we are and what we do flows from what we love. Our emotions, affections, and loyalties are all matters about which God cares deeply. These affections are not just of the “sunshine and light” variety. They also embrace storm cloud and driving rain. In other words, loving and hating go together. As bracing as it may sound, scripture implies that if we do not hate rightly, then our love is tepid. “Let love be without hypocrisy. Abhor what is evil. Cling to what is good” (Romans 12:9). Everyone loves love. But few recognize the connection between love and hate. Can someone who loves justice also love bribery? No, to love the one is to hate the other.
“The first and second greatest commandments show us that who we are and what we do flows from what we love.”
This is antithesis, and antithesis rings through both testaments. There is no neutrality. Jesus himself will not abide fence-sitting (Matthew 12:30; Mark 9:40), and loyalty’s preferences are always shaken out in life's details. Loving what is true entails rejecting what is false. Loving what is beautiful means hating what defaces it. Loving what is good means opposing every expression of evil. So it is not possible to only love, and forego hating. “God so loved the world” (John 3:16), and yet simultaneously “hates the doers of iniquity” (Psalm 5:5). Thus David, aware of his own iniquity, knows his only path into God's presence is through God's own abundant mercy (Psalm 5:7; hesed). If God's attitude toward sin was mere shrugging non-preference, then the cross would never have been necessary. But he hated sin, and so he gave his beloved son.
Those who are forgiven much love much (Luke 7:47). This love breeds loyalty, and loyalty breeds courage. And courage is necessary in pastors now more than ever. Now, when more Christians are suffering persecution than ever before. Now, when the gospel is penetrating some of Satan's staunchest strongholds. Now, when the world demands we call evil good, we need our pastors to have that steadfastness which can only be anchored in love. No, we do not want to train pastors who are cranks and curmudgeons. We want them jolly as hobbits and steadfast as stone. But these uncommon character traits can only reside in the same man if that man’s loyalties are rightly tuned.
What we are talking about, then, is cultivating conviction. How are convictions shaped in pastoral training? They are imparted through our example and through careful exegesis of Scripture. They are imparted in the intangibles of school ethos, values, and traditions. They are imparted by what we celebrate and mourn. And above all, they come as a result of prayer. May God save his church from pastors without conviction, and from those whose convictions are not shaped by the brutal necessity of the cross. We focus on loving because we desire to graduate men of conviction.