Ministry Is Never Just a Job

Advice for Young Pastors

Some years ago, a young pastor kindly asked me for advice as he was launching into ministry. I proposed to him three commitments that will not fail to give any pastor strength for the journey.

Man with a Calling

First, every man needs a calling — not just a job.

A church does not hire a pastor. A church calls a pastor. The Christian ministry is more than a job offered by an organization; it is a calling given by God: “He set me apart before I was born” (Galatians 1:15). A church then recognizes the divine call upon a man and invites him in as their pastor. And here’s my point: The calling upon that pastor is not primarily to serve the people of that church. At a deeper level, his calling is to serve the Lord among the people of that church. “What we proclaim is not ourselves but Jesus Christ as Lord, with ourselves as your servants for Jesus’s sake” (2 Corinthians 4:5).

Sadly, some pastors offend people foolishly. But every faithful pastor, who is really serving his Lord, will offend some people inevitably. The wise apostle Paul said, “I try to please everyone in everything I do” (1 Corinthians 10:33). He was, in a good and limited sense, a people-pleaser. But he was the Lord’s people-pleaser. He boldly said, “Am I now seeking the approval of man, or of God? Or am I trying to please man? If I were still trying to please man, I would not be a servant of Christ” (Galatians 1:10). When Paul had to choose between pleasing himself and pleasing others, he chose to please others. But when he had to choose between pleasing others and pleasing the Lord, he chose to please the Lord, confident that his brave choice would best serve everyone.

A real pastor will serve his people with a heart like the Lord’s own heart, “gentle and lowly” (Matthew 11:29). But he will not prostitute himself, just to keep a job. He will pray and preach for the glory of his Lord to be displayed with reviving power. And God will honor his faithful pursuit of his sacred calling.

Man of the Book

Second, every man needs the Bible — not just handy tips.

In the age of the Internet, we are swamped with opinions and pronouncements and the latest whatever. But a Christian minister must set himself to be, as John Wesley put it, “a man of one Book.”

I hope you will live all your life as a reader. I hope you will read widely – novels, biographies, poetry, and more. But far more, I hope you will master the Bible. You will find more of Christ there. As Jim Elliot said, the Bible is “Christ in print.” So, I am thinking now of more than your preaching from the Bible. I am proposing to you a lifetime of daily immersion in the Bible.

For starters, read the Bible through, from cover to cover, annually, for twenty years straight. You will change. You will see the flow of the whole biblical drama, and you will start seeing the whole of reality with new eyes.

I also suggest you choose one Old Testament book and one New Testament book and drill down deep. Make those two books your special projects for the rest of your life. For me, it’s Isaiah and Romans. They are addictive. I have read them many times in English, I have read them in the original text, I have gathered commentaries and articles about them. And I am so glad I jumped in at the deep end. Both Isaiah and Romans function in the Bible like theological intersections, where the traffic of biblical thought flows in and flows out. These two books broaden my understanding of everything in the Bible. But you choose your two, and get after it!

Finally, if you can, read through the entire Hebrew Bible and the entire Greek New Testament. If you do not read Hebrew and Greek, don’t worry about it. The English Standard Version is, for all practical purposes, the original text put plainly before you. But if you have studied the languages, do not lose them!

What percentage of Christians in the last 2000 years have been given the privilege of reading biblical Hebrew and biblical Greek? After Jerome died in A.D. 420, for the next thousand years you could almost count on one hand the number of Christians in the West who knew Hebrew and Greek. But today, you are among the privileged few? You should get down on your knees and thank God! And then read, read, read your Hebrew Bible and your Greek New Testament.

I cannot imagine a pastor coming to the end of his days with regrets that he knew the Bible too well. And I have never heard a church member complain that their pastor knows the Bible too well. But I did hear a minister in the Church of Scotland tell me that a group of Muslim clerics, visiting the ministers there years ago, came away saying, “Your holy men do not know their holy book.” That does not have to be you, dear brother. Make your plan. Work your plan. And by God’s grace, you will reap endless rewards.

Man among Men

Third, every man needs brothers — not just acquaintances.

When Jonathan saw David’s faith in action — it must have been quite a sight as David lugged Goliath’s severed head back to the Israelite battle line — “the soul of Jonathan was knit to the soul of David, and Jonathan loved him as his own soul” (1 Samuel 18:1). Jonathan saw in David the bold faith and courageous manliness that thrilled his own heart, and he thought, “I want that godly giant-killer in my life!” They became close brothers, lifelong friends, bold allies.

Every pastor needs inspiring men of faith who long to see what only God can do, men of sincerity who really love one another, men whose souls are knit together with a gutsy commitment. It costs. But the Lord is in it: “The Lord shall be between me and you, and between my offspring and your offspring, forever” (1 Samuel 20:42). These men were “all in,” because Christ himself is “all in.”

Have you too pledged yourself to other men of God? Have you formed so sacred a bond that self-centered calculations are driven out by the sheer joy of brotherhood? If you don’t take this bold step, your ministry will not bear the fruit it could. It won’t deserve to. You might even find you cannot go the distance.

The last time David and Jonathan met together, the Bible says, “Jonathan, Saul’s son, rose and went to David at Horesh, and strengthened his hand in God” (1 Samuel 23:15). David’s back was against the wall, so Jonathan rushed to help him. And here is the noble promise Jonathan made to David: “You shall be king over Israel, and I shall be next to you” (1 Samuel 23:17). Jonathan gave up his claim to the throne, handed it over to David, and pledged his support at David’s side.

I wonder how often in later years, after Jonathan had died and David was ruling as king, David stopped and thought, Jonathan, my dear brother, how I wish you were here! But you are here, in my memory, strengthening my hand in God yet again! I wonder how many of the psalms echo the encouraging voice of Jonathan from years before: “David, the Lord is your shepherd. You shall not want.” Perhaps that comforting word came down to us in Psalm 23. Or, “David, the Lord has searched you and known you. You are not overlooked!” Perhaps that invigorating word came down to us in Psalm 139. You too can be a strengthening presence, even after you leave this world. And your words can still resonate, even after your voice falls silent. Here is how. By faith in Christ, make a selfless commitment to a brother!

At this point someone might think I am talking about accountability. But “accountability” can become coercive and bossy. What I am proposing is grand. Gather together Christian men you deeply respect, men who have the courage to become brothers. And you pledge your life to them for the glory of Christ, and let them pledge their lives to you for the glory of Christ. Become “blood brothers” as in the days of old, and refuse to allow anything ever to drive you apart.

What a power for good in this generation and the next! To quote my dear dad, who showed me true friendship, “Live a little dangerously, and give your heart away!”