Different pastors have different tendencies and temptations. Some are tempted to let urgent relational and practical issues keep them from giving enough time to prepare a solid sermon. Other pastors hide in their study, using sermon preparation as an excuse to keep people and their pesky problems at a safe distance.
This article is far more for the latter than the former, and its point is simple: pastoring is more than preaching. This article is also for men who aspire to pastor, as well as men who do pastor, but who serve as associate or assistant pastors, and perhaps preach less than they’d like.
Not only is pastoring more than preaching, but a key thread connects preaching to every other major part of the job: bringing the Bible to bear on the messy details of people’s hearts, minds, and lives. Pastoring is more than preaching, and preaching is more than dropping truth bombs from a shock-proof height. If you want to be a pastor (or you are a pastor but don’t preach as much as you want), you can grow as a preacher by constantly practicing that triple-B in every other area of your ministry — bring the Bible to bear.
So, in addition to preaching, what else does pastoring entail?
Pastoring Is Discipling
By “discipling,” I mean developing personal relationships in which a primary goal is to help someone else grow more mature in Christ. The way the apostle Paul did this in his evangelistic, apostolic ministry provides a standing pattern for pastors today.
Paul so affectionately yearned for the Thessalonians to come to Christ and grow in Christ that, as he reminds them, “We were ready to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves” (1 Thessalonians 2:8). He didn’t just preach to them in large groups, but, “like a father with his children, we exhorted each one of you and encouraged you and charged you to walk in a manner worthy of God” (1 Thessalonians 2:11–12). Paul didn’t just bring the Bible to bear in a big meeting, but in countless personal conversations.
In the course of a regular week, whom do you personally exhort and charge? With whom do you share not only the gospel but your own self?
Pastoring Is Counseling
Counseling aims at the same goal as discipling, but focuses on more acute sins, struggles, and suffering. Counseling is like an eddy in the stream of discipling; we step aside for a time to help someone re-enter the stream sounder and stronger. And, of course, the difference here is much more of degree than kind. Counseling is a key part of how you “shepherd the flock of God” (1 Peter 5:2), a necessary means by which you fulfill Paul’s charge: “Pay careful attention . . . to all the flock” (Acts 20:28).
What Paul charges the whole Thessalonian church to do applies doubly to pastors: “We urge you, brothers, admonish the idle, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with them all” (1 Thessalonians 5:14). The more severe the malady, the more crucial it is to dispense the right medicine. And the more hours you spend in the counseling chair, the more skilled a spiritual pharmacologist you’ll become.
In my first few years as a pastor, I learned that it can be surprisingly difficult and delicate to turn a counseling session toward Scripture. Someone has come to you with a big issue. Maybe he or she is struggling to trust God or care what he says. Maybe she feels like she’s heard it all before (and maybe she tells you so). Maybe so much pent-up pain and frustration pour out of him that it’s tough to get a word in edgewise. In such situations, patient listening and evident compassion go a long way — but not all the way. Your job includes helping that struggling saint learn to see his or her life the way God sees it, which means you need to find a light from Scripture that can make it through the crack in the blinds.
I don’t know if I’m an outlier among pastors here, but when I’m counseling a member who’s in acute difficulty, it feels like a third of my effort goes to listening and learning, and a third to trying to find appropriate expressions of compassion and encouragement. The last third is claimed by a program running constantly in the back of my mind, silently asking, “What passage or passages of Scripture can offer this person the most help, right now?”
Pastoring Is Leading in Discipline
If you’re a pastor, you don’t need me to tell you that hard cases will find their way to you — cases that might keep you up at night or crowd your mind all day. When a church member’s sin proves so severe that the church may need to act to exclude him or her, it is natural that a church’s pastors take the lead in addressing the erring member, assessing the situation, and recommending how the church respond.
Taking the lead in discipline can bring headache and heartache. It can bring insult and slander. It can threaten fatigue and frustration and distraction. But when you leave the ninety-nine to go after the one (Matthew 18:13–14), when you look others in the eye and confront them with the flat contradiction between their actions and God’s directions, know this: you are smack in the middle of the bull’s-eye of God’s will for your ministry.
God’s love is a holy love, a love that rescues from destructive self-deception, and in that moment you are a vessel of God’s love pursuing a desperately endangered soul.
Pastoring Is Watching Your Own Life and Doctrine
Paul charges Timothy, “Keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching. Persist in this, for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers” (1 Timothy 4:16). You have to put the mask on yourself, and benefit from its oxygen flow, before you can safely serve others. Pastoring presents a standing temptation to professionalize your Christianity, and therefore outsource your piety. As a pastor, you have to study the Bible — for others. You have to pray — with others. You have to meditate on spiritual realities — on behalf of others. But do you still study and pray and meditate for your own soul? If you don’t, you are putting yourself and your flock into a deeply dangerous position.
“Pastoring presents a standing temptation to professionalize your Christianity, and therefore outsource your piety.”
Keep a close watch on yourself. Study Scripture not just to encourage and correct others, but to encourage and correct yourself. Whatever your stated office hours are, I would encourage you to maintain regular devotional habits outside those hours, just like you would expect a teacher or banker to do. And make sure that you are continually bringing the Bible to bear on your own fears and frustrations, your own thwarted ambitions, your own disordered desires. “Jesus, Jesus, how I trust him, how I’ve proved him o’er and o’er!” Are you proving Jesus in private, in ways none of your people will necessarily see, but from which they will indirectly benefit, as your confidence in him deepens daily?
Parlor Preaching and Pulpit Preaching
Maybe you wished you preached more, or you yearn to preach to more people. If you are frustrated about quantity, focus on quality. You usually can’t do much about the former, but you can do a whole lot about the latter. Focus on the quality of your relationship to Christ, the quality of your efforts as a discipler and counselor, the quality of your care for members who are straying into sin. The better a Christian you are, the better a pastor you’ll become.
“The better a Christian you are, the better a pastor you’ll become.”
And not only that, but your investments in all these other, non-preaching areas of your ministry will bear fruit in your preaching. By digging deeper into the depths of individual members’ struggles with sin and suffering, you’ll learn how to apply Scripture with greater nuance and precision. That’s why Richard Baxter called pastoral visitation “parlor preaching.” When you can enter deeply into one person’s struggles, in a way that informs your application without exposing their situation, it’s more than likely that a dozen people will say to themselves as they listen, “How did he know that’s just what I’m going through? Who gave him a readout of my thoughts from the past week?”
Paul exhorted the Thessalonians as a father does his children: one by one, attending to their unique abilities and struggles and situations (1 Thessalonians 2:11–12). The more you do that outside the pulpit, the more effective you’ll be in the pulpit. The more diligently you pastor people throughout the week, the more effectively you’ll pastor them in the pulpit.