Of all the honorific titles I have, nothing compares to the satisfaction I feel when someone simply calls me “pastor.” The word conjures up bucolic scenes of an affectionate shepherd and his trusting flock, of verdant pastures and tranquil waters, of shadowed places of rest from the sun’s unrelenting rays. On the other hand, as one who grew up in a pastor’s home and has been a pastor for most of my adult life, the word suggests other things, too: tensions, counseling, business meetings, pressures of preaching, leadership challenges, and unrealistic expectations.

Serving as a pastor is at once the grandest blessing and the highest calling with the deepest valleys and the greatest challenges of any Christian ministry. I have spent my life serving as a pastor and thinking about how to do it. I have mentored others in this ministry even as I have learned it myself. I have read practically every book written on pastoring over the course of my life, yet I have discovered a few essential principles that are, for the most part, either assumed or ignored.

1. Pastoral ministry has to be based on the Word of God.

Many other pastors have convincingly told me this principle, but then tacitly denied it as their churches become known for everything but the preaching and teaching of the Word. We search across conferences, catalogs, and consultants for the latest key to church growth or church finances or church mobilization as though the Bible is great to have as a foundation, but we think we need something else, some strategic innovation or discovery to get us past our current plateau and help us reach the next level. 


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Programs and leadership principles have their place, but never doubt that the church is formed and developed by the Word of God. When our efforts at evangelism are failing, the solution lies in the Bible. When we need greater harmony in the church, that unity is found in the Bible. When our people have too much affection for worldly things, true value is discerned by knowing the Scriptures. You may need to learn some things in addition to the Word — I had to learn a lot about church construction, for instance — but you will never go beyond the Word of God. The more you saturate your people with the Scriptures, the more they will grow in every aspect of life and family.

Do not succumb to any temptation you may feel to supplant the Scriptures with the latest Christian book or video series. Use every available outlet — the pulpit, the classroom, summer camp, Vacation Bible School, youth ministry, or whatever to saturate your people with the Word of God. Teach them the big story metanarrative and the individual stories of potentates, prophets, priests, and apostles. Teach them to find their story in the grand sweep of God’s redemptive work. You can be a motivational guru, a civic leader, or an inspirational speaker without the Bible, but a pastor cannot feed or lead without God’s Word in everything he does.

2. The success of your ministry depends on the strength of your calling.

Pastoral ministry is not merely a Christian-helping profession. To be a pastor, a man must be specifically called by the Holy Spirit and approved by the church as one who has demonstrated the gifts and calling of God sufficiently to be set aside for the work of the ministry. At some point, every pastor faces such difficulty and trouble that his flesh wants to find something else to do, some other opportunity to make a living in a far more placid and financially feasible way. When that inevitable moment comes, a definite sense of calling is the only thing that will keep a pastor in the turmoil and turbulence. The pastor who is employed but not called is a hireling and will cut and run. 

If you are going to pastor the Lord’s church and walk through life with his people, you had better be certain that he told you to do it and that, like Jeremiah, you cannot keep silent because there is a fire in your bones.

3. Your personality is never an excuse for anything.

Preachers often call me for advice, and when I give them my counsel they often say, “Well, that’s just not me. I can’t do that.” I will usually ask them to explain themselves and from there the conversation follows a certain trajectory. They explain that they are an introvert/extrovert and that their personality is too strong/timid and that they just don’t feel comfortable doing X. 

Whether preaching, leading, being a dad or a husband, or whatever the task to which God has called someone, I simply cannot use my personality as an excuse for anything. In fact, I have to admit that usually my personality is the problem. Sanctification is the process by which the Holy Spirit overcomes my personality and shapes me to be who he wants me to be, which is always reflective of Jesus. I am not naturally patient, but I am never welcome to say to the church, “You have to tolerate my impatience, because that’s just who I am!” I am not naturally meek, but Jesus clearly teaches us to be meek like him.

The fruit of the Spirit is not natural, but it’s not optional either. As I yield myself to Christ, being filled with the Spirit as I feed on the Word and submit to it, then the Holy Spirit produces in me that which is not at all natural to my personality: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control. I don’t want the members of my church exempting themselves from obedience to Christ due to their personalities, so I have to let them see how the Holy Spirit transforms me.

4. Being a pastor means loving people.

Good marriages learn how to forgive and overlook quirks and annoyances, but great marriages grow not even to notice them. They so come to idealize one another that they are able to see and to show the absolute best in each other. Great pastorates are no different. It’s truly a holy romance between pastor and congregation. 

When I became the pastor of Buck Run Baptist Church, I noticed everything in the church that I considered strange or “hokey.” And I saw a lot of it. In the same way, many church members complained to me that I was nothing like their last pastor (and they let me know that it was a complaint, not merely an observation), and they would make comments about certain faults or character traits of mine. In the intervening 16 years, as we have walked through life together, we have stopped noticing the negatives. I love these people. What’s more, I love every quirky, hokey thing about them. And it’s been years since anyone compared me to my predecessor or remarked on any of my weaknesses. We have grown to love each other immensely. Every time I step in the pulpit, I feel the love between pastor and congregation that energizes and motivates me to give them my very best.

The best way to fall in love with your people is to pray for them. Pray through your church roll or directory. Ask God to stir your heart and give you a contentment with them as they are rather than as you wish they were. Certainly, a pastor has to confront sin, but sometimes pastors are confrontational more because they aren’t ideal. Peter said, “Shepherd the flock of God that is among you,” and that means you can’t waste time fantasizing about a different, bigger, or better church. God hasn’t given you your ideal church; he gave you the one you have! Christ loves those people so much that he died for them, so you had better find a way to love those sheep he entrusted to you.

5. Your marriage will be an asset or a detriment, but it will not be neutral.

For a married pastor, nothing but the Word of God itself will have a greater effect on his ministry than his marriage. Pastors and their wives may sometimes feel that this is unfair, but the Scripture gives a church the right to examine a pastor’s homelife as a qualification for ministry. “He must manage his own household well, with all dignity keeping his children submissive, for if someone does not know how to manage his own household, how will he care for God’s church?” (1 Tim 3:4–5). 

The people who sit under a pastor’s preaching want to know (1) if it’s true, and (2) if it works. The Bible is the evidence of the gospel’s truth, but a pastor’s home should be the confirmation that it works. I know from experience that my marriage is a significant source of my credibility with my church, the crucible of experience in which the Word of God is lived. People are willing to listen to me because they see the love and joy that characterizes my marriage, and they want that, too.

On the other hand, pastors who speak harshly to their wives, who denigrate them or even disregard them, give members of the congregation a reason to question or ignore what they preach. 

Complicating an already difficult challenge is this era of ubiquitous and addictive pornography that destroys relationships and robs them of intimacy and tenderness. I know that pastors are not immune to this crisis. My wife and I frequently counsel with ministry couples who have lost all emotional and physical connection because of it. How will such a pastor lead churches for 30 to 40 years when his own heart is filled with such sin and his own marriage does not model the love of Christ for his church? Church members recognize both intimacy and the lack thereof. Do not think for a moment that you can be an effective shepherd in spite of an empty marriage. That is no more an option for a married pastor than a lack of the fruit of the Spirit.

6. You will have crises.

Jesus said, “In this world you will have trouble” (John 6:33), so do not be surprised that it happens in the church, even in the best of churches. In fact, my experience is that a pastor will have a crisis at certain predictable intervals, namely one year, three years, five years, and nine years. They can happen at other times, but these are very common. 

Pastors need to keep a couple of things in mind. First, each time you make it through a church crisis, you emerge more the pastor than you were before. Some people who were on the fence decided to back you. Others who were a part of the problem left and went elsewhere. Some who were initially against you were moved to get behind you. Crises are never enjoyable, but they are often essential.

Second, a pastor can’t really escape church problems; he can just change the locale in which he experiences them. The problem is that pastors often leave when they don’t have to, often at the year three crisis. Then they start over at another church where they have to face the year one and year three crises all over again. If they keep moving around just to escape the crisis, they find themselves not with thirty years of experience, but with three years of experience ten times.

Do all you can to avoid unnecessary crises, to be sure, but realize that God uses them in your life as well as in the church. Furthermore, the older you get the more you realize that, just like the Israelites in the wilderness experienced, God always shows up and cares for you. You realize that the conversation eventually changes, that people move on, and what seemed like the biggest problem in the world becomes a distant memory. God will be faithful, especially in the crisis.

7. Fear and anger invite problems; calmness suppresses them.

Finally, learn to act on faith, not on feelings. You are welcome to feel anything you want. You are sometimes going to feel fear and anger at people and church situations. What you cannot afford, however, is to show that fear or anger. When the pastor brings tension into the meeting or into the room, he loses both leadership clout and credibility. Showing those emotions rarely do a pastor any good. 

Learn how to speak truth calmly and confidently, not with obvious rage or anxiety. If God has called you and obligated himself to care for you and your family, then you need not fear. If he has called you and promised to vindicate you, then act on what you know rather than on how you feel. Church members find it much easier to follow a pastor who is so demonstrably following and trusting the Lord he preaches.