If you are the only pastor-elder in your church, and don’t want to be the only pastor-elder in your church, I know your pain all too well.
I was a solo pastor of a church plant for six years, and then a solo pastor of a declining church for almost five (really long) years before we installed our second pastor (who was not on staff). When I started identifying and training men for ministry, it wasn’t only because I believe Scripture tells us to do so (it does!) — it was for survival. God doesn’t mean for men to lead a church alone. By God’s grace, a team of five pastors (two vocationally) now leads our church.
The New Testament presents a consistent pattern for a plurality of pastors in local churches. These leaders will give an account for their oversight of the members’ souls to “the great shepherd of the sheep” (Hebrews 13:17–20). Many churches, however, have a shortage of pastors bearing the burden, which often causes the solo pastor to overextend himself in ministry. I’ve said to myself and my wife too many times, “This is just for a season.” That kind of season, of course, can easily turn into years.
“God doesn’t mean for men to lead a church alone.”
For our churches to become more healthy and fruitful, God calls us to identify and invest in faithful men who will, in turn, become teachers themselves (2 Timothy 2:2). So, pastor, who are the faithful men in your church? And if you can’t identify any now, what would have to happen for one or two able men to become faithful?
Lessons in Raising Pastors
I first saw this vision of a thriving church — identifying, training, and commissioning men to lead — up close as a member and short-term pastoral intern of a healthy church. The church had previously been declining for decades. I arrived fourteen years after the church began its reform, and the congregation was overflowing with fruit, including multiplying leaders who are now pastoring other congregations.
Our own church has been reforming for nearly seven years now and has yet to send out a man to pastor, plant, or revitalize elsewhere, as we are praying for. Nevertheless, God has given us a handful of men who pastor our church, and even more men who can faithfully preach Christ from the Scriptures in our pulpit. So, after more than a decade of identifying and developing leaders for the church (and with lots of room to learn and grow), here are some valuable lessons we’ve learned so far.
1. God has already answered prayers.
The Lord Jesus said, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest” (Matthew 9:37–38). Christ instructs us to pray for God to raise up and send out laborers into the harvest. So, pray and look to God to answer that request even as he equips you to play your part.
To encourage you in this kind of prayer, remember that you are where you are, in part, because others before you prayed for God to send a laborer like you. Years ago, our church had two members regularly stop by our church building to pray after work for the future of the congregation. Our pastors today are part of God’s answer to prayers prayed years before we came. When we consider our own ministry from that perspective, how much more confident can we be as we join them in praying for more laborers?
2. God intends the (slow) process for our joy.
We may erroneously think the primary joys in ministry are found in the church thriving and bearing obvious fruit. They’re not. Christ our God is our greatest joy — and not only in “good” times, but also in the difficult and lonely ones (Psalm 73:25–28). This Christ-centered, God-exalting joy will sustain patient ministry.
Furthermore, this joy is precisely what we want to reproduce in those who would disciple others. Enjoying Christ as both central and supreme stabilizes us so that we can pour ourselves out for the church, those we disciple, and our neighbors, without depending on any of them for our contentment and peace (Philippians 4:4, 11–13).
3. People are our commendation.
In a day when we often look for validation from a social media following, website visits, podcast downloads, books written, academic degrees, or obvious fruit in our churches, Paul refreshes our vision for validation when he writes, “Do we need, as some do, letters of recommendation to you, or from you? You yourselves are our letter of recommendation, written on our hearts, to be known and read by all” (2 Corinthians 3:1–2).
We pour ourselves into the lives of ordinary, slow-growing saints because they are the certificate and diploma proving our credentials as servants of the Lord Jesus Christ. Every member matters. And together, they are our joy and crown (Philippians 4:1; 1 Thessalonians 2:19–20). Such is the God-centered, others-oriented validation behind the apostle John’s striking sentiment: “I have no greater joy than to hear that my children are walking in the truth” (3 John 4).
I, for one, can testify to a unique delight in watching men I have discipled serving, loving, leading, and investing in others in ways that spread a passion for Christ’s supremacy.
4. Multiplying yourself requires sharing yourself.
Many schools operate today by setting up repetitive systems that don’t require as much teacher effort per student. In some ways that approach to education is fine, but the quest for efficiency often undercuts effectiveness. The apostolic pattern for discipling many and raising some to be leaders is “to share . . . not only the gospel of God but also our own selves” (1 Thessalonians 2:8). Paul taught Christ not only publicly but from house to house, often through tears and trials, considering his life of no value in order that he might finish his course and ministry (Acts 20:18–24). If we’re going to help people grow and change, we have to share our whole lives with them, open our homes to them (Romans 12:13; 1 Timothy 3:2), and be willing to be regularly inconvenienced and vulnerable, confessing sin and modeling repentance (Psalm 51:12–13; Luke 22:31–32; James 5:16).
“Take some risks in letting men lead the gathering, lead a ministry initiative, or even preach publicly.”
Sharing yourself also means sharing your responsibilities in such a way that those you disciple feel the pressure to serve in situations where much is on the line. Leaders of ingrown ministries tend to wrongly keep the big-pressure responsibilities for themselves. Take some risks in letting men lead the gathering, lead a ministry initiative, or even preach publicly.
5. Patience comes from perspective.
I have often heard Mark Dever say, “Young men tend to overestimate what they can do in one or two years, and underestimate what they can do in ten.” The Bible talks about seasons of sowing and seasons of reaping. Ultimately, God gives the growth, so all glory belongs to him. “I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth” (1 Corinthians 3:6–7).
But there is a smaller lesson here too: planting and watering takes time. Seeing deep change and more effective ministry takes too long for the impatient and unbelieving. We can’t microwave faithfulness. Many still try, to their own disappointment and frustration. When we lack the perspective that growth and maturity take time, we give up too hastily on others and are drawn to the “missing secret” of effective ministry.
6. Wisdom comes through feedback.
God made us for fellowship and learning from others. In spending time with other pastors, I’ve noticed that some pastors don’t have mentors or other voices to both commend and critique their discipling and leadership practices.
- “Where there is no guidance, a people falls, but in abundance of counselors there is safety” (Proverbs 11:14).
- “Without counsel plans fail, but with many advisers they succeed” (Proverbs 15:22).
- “By wise guidance you can wage your war — and in abundance of counselors there is victory” (Proverbs 24:6).
Creating channels for regularly communicating critical feedback is crucial to effectiveness. We are too easily offended. But “faithful are the wounds of a friend” (Proverbs 27:6). Wise pastors invite critical feedback and evaluation from other pastors so that they can improve their perspective and adjust accordingly.
7. Something is better than nothing.
One may have large dreams to do great things for Christ. Well and good. But not being able to do everything you want doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do something. Jesus himself said, “One who is faithful in a very little is also faithful in much, and one who is dishonest in a very little is also dishonest in much” (Luke 16:10). Don’t spend too much time dwelling on what might happen down the road; ask what small step you can take this year, this month, even this week, and then take it.
At our church, the pastors strive to raise up men for ministry intentionally and consistently. We work toward this goal generally in the life of the church, and intensely through our pastoral internship program.
Generally, we call all members, men and women, to faithfully exercise their personal responsibility for the spiritual growth of the church. Then, among the men in good standing, we consider candidates for leading our Sunday gathering (welcoming from the front and leading the congregation through elements of the service). In addition, different men are invited to give the fifteen-minute sermon-devotional in our weekly Sunday evening prayer-and-praise gathering. Some of the men we did not foresee excelling in these ministries have surprised us, and we’ve found God raising them up to be pastors (Acts 20:28; Ephesians 4:11).
We also offer a part-time, non-paid pastoral internship program for a small group of men aspiring to some form of pastoral ministry. The men read several books on historical and current ecclesiology, pastoral ministry, and general Christian living. They write papers on each reading, and we discuss their papers every week for two to three hours, along with other questions they have about life and ministry. They repeatedly sit in our six-week membership class for church guests to refine and solidify their vision for life as a member of a local church.
At the end of our Sundays — after Sunday school, our Sunday-morning gathering, and our Sunday-evening gathering — we get together for a one- or two-hour Sunday review, where the brothers give and receive godly encouragement and criticism on the teaching, leading, praying, preaching, Lord’s Supper, and any other aspect of ministry that day. All of this means Sundays can be physically taxing and emotionally draining — a big sacrifice for the wives and children. The high level of commitment certainly makes a healthy rhythm of weekly rest and recovery more challenging for everyone involved.
We have more than a handful of men aspiring to be pastors in our modest-sized church, and many of them are well on their way. By God’s grace, we have reached the point where I was finally able to take a three-month sabbatical, completely disconnected, while the church continued on without me.
Joys of Multiplying Myself
Almost seven years into pastoring our church, it has been a joy to see two men who were faithful members without an initial pastoral aspiration become faithful pastors. It was a taste of God’s goodness to see two former pastoral interns submit themselves to the long process and eventually become full-fledged pastors as well. To say the least, it has been edifying, humbling, and life-giving to have several men, pastors and non-pastors, initiate, teach, and lead, including challenging me and calling me to account when needed.
Raising up others as spiritually mature disciple-makers is a joy and privilege. At times when we are discouraged, it may seem impossible, but trust that the Lord of the harvest is working while you plant, water, and wait. He loves to raise up new laborers to meet needs in his church.