Start Small, Step Up, and Fail Well

How to Pursue Pastoral Ministry

The road to the pastorate is filled with men who had hoped to arrive a long time ago. Many years have passed since they first felt the seed of a desire to shepherd Christ’s church. But for any number of reasons — life circumstances, personal immaturity, the need for training — no church has called them as shepherd. Not yet.

I think of one friend whose aspiration has quietly burned for over a decade. I think of another man, barely out of his teens, who recently started pursuing the pastorate and likely has years ahead of him. I think of my former self, traveling that road through my entire twenties. Such men may feel ambitions as big as Paul’s — but then remember, with a sigh, that they are not even a Timothy yet.

What can a man do on that road, especially when he can’t see the end of it? Well, quite a lot. Bobby Jamieson offers a couple of dozen ideas in his helpful book The Path to Being a Pastor. My colleague Marshall Segal boils those down to seven worthy ambitions. But lately my mind has been focused on a passage from Paul to Timothy. Timothy was already a pastor at the time of Paul’s writing, but he was a young pastor, not far removed from the road of aspiring men. And Paul’s counsel applies wonderfully to those preparing to join him.

“Do we enjoy Jesus before we preach him, and preach him because we enjoy him?”

We might capture the heart of Paul’s burden in 1 Timothy 4:6–16 with the words of verse 15: “Practice these things, immerse yourself in them, so that all may see your progress.” Let them see your progress, Timothy. Don’t grow discouraged. Don’t remain stuck. Instead, by God’s grace, gain ground. Hone your character. Develop your competency. Become more godly, more fruitful, more zealous, more skilled. Make progress — the kind of progress that others can see.

To that end, consider a two-part plan: Train privately. Practice publicly.

Train Privately

Most of Paul’s commands in 1 Timothy 4:6–16 focus on Timothy’s public ministry. “Command and teach” (verse 11); “set the believers an example” (verse 12); “devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to exhortation, to teaching” (verse 13); and so on. At the same time, Paul knew just how easily public ministry could outpace private piety. He knew how tempting it could be to “keep a close watch on . . . the teaching” without keeping a close watch “on yourself” (verse 16).

It is frightfully possible to preach in public what you disobey in private. It is sadly common for men, even pastors-in-training, to lose delight in God’s word, and neglect the prayer closet. So, behind, before, and alongside Timothy’s public ministry, Paul says, “Train yourself for godliness” (verse 7). Explain publicly what you have experienced privately. Let all your teaching be plucked from the orchard of your soul. Remember that all God-pleasing progress in public flows from God-centered progress in private.

Enjoy His Words

“Train yourself for godliness”: the command takes us into an athletic spirituality, a pursuit of Christ that doesn’t mind the uphill climb, that relishes some sweat, that is willing to beat disobedient feelings into submission. Give yourself, Timothy, to the long, gradual, difficult, joyful process of becoming more like Jesus — or what some Puritans called “the great business of godliness” (The Genius of Puritanism, 12).

Such training may take many forms, but Paul leaves no doubt about the central content of Timothy’s regimen: he would progress in godliness by “being trained in the words of the faith” (1 Timothy 4:6). Reject “deceitful spirits and teachings of demons” (verse 1); sidestep “irreverent, silly myths” (verse 7). Instead, give yourself to God’s word.

If there is a secret to public progress, surely it lies in private soul-dealings with the God who speaks. I for one have felt chastened lately by Andrew Bonar’s description of the young Robert Murray M’Cheyne, who would often ride outside town “to enjoy an hour’s perfect solitude; for he felt meditation and prayer to be the very sinews of his work” (Memoir and Remains of Robert Murray M’Cheyne, 56). Meditation and prayer are the sinews of ministry. Without them, we may have the muscle of charisma and the bones of orthodoxy, but the body hangs loose and weak; we stagger rather than run.

In one way or another, the depth of our private dealings with God will become evident in public. Our faces will shine like Moses’s — or they won’t. Our spontaneous speech and conduct will “set . . . an example” (verse 12) — or it won’t. We will hand others the ripe fruit of our own meditations — or we will deal in plastic apples and pears.

As aspiring leaders, we know God’s word forms the soul and substance of our public ministry. But over time, has our private life come to betray that conviction? Do we still read God’s word with anything like athletic obsession? Do we enjoy Jesus before we preach him, and preach him because we enjoy him? Do we treat meditation and prayer as the indispensable sinews of ministry?

Examine Your Soul

As Timothy devotes himself to “the words of the faith,” Paul calls him to turn his attention inward as well. “Keep a close watch on yourself,” he writes (1 Timothy 4:16). Timothy was an overseer of souls, but the first soul he needed to oversee was his own.

“The gifts of God are not only given, but cultivated; not only bestowed, but honed.”

Paul had spoken such words to pastors before. “Pay careful attention to yourselves,” he told the elders in Ephesus (Acts 20:28). And he had good reason to warn: “From among your own selves will arise men speaking twisted things” (Acts 20:30). Pastor or not, if a man does not keep a close watch on himself, he will lose himself. He will not only fail to progress; he will regress, sometimes beyond hope. And Timothy was no exception.

So, Paul says, keep a close watch. Regularly tour the city of your heart to see if any enemies have breached the gate and now threaten the throne. Stand sentinel in your soul; know the weak spots on the walls, and study the enemies you are likely to face. Pray and then patiently review in God’s presence your speech, conduct, love, faith, purity (1 Timothy 4:12). As you read God’s word, ask him to search you and save you, to reveal you and rescue you (Psalm 139:23–24). “Lord, discipline me, correct me, expose me, confront me — and whatever it takes, keep me from destroying myself.”

True, we do not make much progress in godliness by looking inward. But we may notice the enemies that keep us from progress — enemies that, unmortified, would ruin all our progress up till now.

Practice Publicly

If private progress relates mostly to our character, public progress relates mostly to our competence. And in our passage, Paul cares about Timothy’s competence a lot. When he writes, “Practice these things, immerse yourself in them, so that all may see your progress” (1 Timothy 4:15), “these things” refers mainly to “the public reading of Scripture, to exhortation, to teaching” (verse 13). Timothy was already “able to teach” (1 Timothy 3:2), but Paul wanted him to become more able, to increasingly look like “a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth” (2 Timothy 2:15).

Paul recognized in Timothy a pastoral gift (1 Timothy 4:14). But Timothy’s gift was not a static endowment: he could “neglect the gift” he had, or he could “practice” and improve it (verses 14–15). For the gifts of God are not only given, but cultivated; not only bestowed, but honed. And here men like us find hope. However gifted we may feel (or not), we are not at the mercy of our present attainments. We can handle God’s word with more care. We can apply it with more power. We can develop a greater readiness “in season and out of season” (2 Timothy 4:2). That is, as long as we practice.

Embrace Unspectacular Opportunities

Few men receive a ready-made gift of teaching, a gift with no assembly required. God’s kingdom has its occasional Spurgeons, of course, who preached better as a teenager than I ever will as an adult. But most of us become proficient only through repeated practice over years, and then most of us progress further only through more practice still. And if we’re going to practice as much as we ought — as much as Paul’s “immerse yourself” suggests (1 Timothy 4:15) — then we likely will need to embrace opportunities that seem pretty unspectacular.

We might, for example, lead a group of guys in middle-school ministry. We might pour more thought into family devotions. We might find a lonely, suffering saint, listen to his heart woes, and practice the complex art of pastoral counseling. We might gather a few men committed to exhorting and encouraging each other. We might spend time with the sermon passage before we hear it preached, developing our own ideas and applications, drafting our own outline. We might snatch up every realistic opportunity to open the Bible and say something about it.

Perhaps we feel tempted to despise these small, unspectacular opportunities. But small, unspectacular opportunities form, for most of us, the indispensable path toward progress. There is no progress without practice — and practice sometimes feels utterly ordinary.

Fail Well

Those who practice enough, of course, eventually discover an uncomfortable truth: with practice comes not only progress, but failure. Open your mouth often enough, and you’ll say something foolish. Exhort others enough, and you’ll damage a bruised reed. Counsel enough, and you’ll speak too soon or too late. Preach enough, and you’ll leave the pulpit disheartened.

In the aftermath of such moments, we may feel like practicing a little less; rather than immersing ourselves in ministry or devoting ourselves to teaching (1 Timothy 4:13, 15), we may feel like retreating to a safer place. We may want to dig a hole and bury our talents in the dirt of our failures.

Yet precisely in such moments, we need to hear Paul’s word to Timothy in verse 14: “Do not neglect the gift you have.” Yes, your effort ended in embarrassment, but do not neglect the gift you have. Yes, taking another public risk feels daunting, but do not neglect the gift you have. Yes, to fail again like that would feel shameful, but do not neglect the gift you have. In some cases, of course, repeated failure may suggest that we don’t actually have the gift we thought we did. In so many cases, however, the failure was just part of the practice.

So, hold your failures in open hands, and learn all you can from them. Remember “the words of the faith” that have been your private strength, your secret delight. Take courage that if “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners” (1 Timothy 1:15), he can certainly restore and use failures. And then get back in the pulpit, back before the small group, back on the streets, back wherever your ministry lies, and use the gift that God has given you.

And in time, all will see your progress.