Interview: 40 Questions on Pastoral Ministry with Phil Newton
I hope my journey’s biblical, theological, historical, and practical reflections will serve pastors for years to come.
In my work as a pastor and as a writer/editor whose work is often aimed at pastors, I receive a steady stream of new books on ministry, from preaching to leadership to a pastor’s walk with the Lord, it seems that I see most works on pastoral ministry that emerges from evangelical presses. Some are mediocre. Some are not even mediocre. Many are very good. A select few are exceptional—and those are the ones I usually want to commend to our readers.
In this new volume, 40 Questions about Pastoral Ministry (Kregel), longtime pastor Phil Newton provides much sage wisdom for current or future pastors. I think this volume is particularly useful for men in the first five years of ministry—years that sometimes filled with uncertainty and see a man walk away from ministry before he really gets warmed up.
I interviewed Phil, who also happens to have been an intimate friend for many years.
When you started in pastoral ministry all those years ago, how unfathomable would it have been to you at the very thought of writing a book on pastoral ministry? What was the early days of ministry like for you?
Forty-three years have passed since commencing my first solo-pastorate—1978 is a long way chronologically and experientially from writing a book on 40 Questions About Pastoral Ministry. I began serving a very rural church in south Mississippi during seminary. In that setting, I started learning what the seminary classroom couldn’t teach—the ins and outs, ups and downs, the satisfying achievements and the heart-breaking difficulties of pastoral ministry. A life of questions about pastoral ministry emerged with that first Sunday, March 26, 1978.
Although I had considerable preaching experience, it wasn’t with the regularity of preaching twice on Sundays and leading a mid-week gathering. What was I to preach? How could I keep freshness in my spiritual walk and ministry? How could I shepherd my family while struggling to shepherd the church? How was I to lead this little congregation of forty towards spiritual maturity when I was not so spiritually mature myself? How was I to work through disputes, jealousies, and resentments that existed in the congregation long before they extended a call to serve them? How was a 24-year old to lead the two deacons in their sixties? How could I lead the church to catch a glimpse of God-centered worship, biblical evangelism, global missions, and body life? A few questions found answers, but most didn’t at that point. Only years of pastoral ministry could fill the gaps.
Does a pastor ever stop learning about ministry? How did this book come about and what was the process like?
The years have passed with more questions, and by the grace of God, more answers in how to shepherd the church. With God’s grace and ample patience from the four churches that I’ve served as pastor, I’ve continued to be a learner. I’ve asked countless questions about pastoral ministry and received lots of good counsel along the way. As my ministry experienced aged, other pastors asked me questions about ministry, too. So, when a chance came to give back through collating some of the more pertinent questions about pastoral ministry, and then taking a look at them biblically, theologically, and practically, I jumped at the opportunity to write 40 Questions About Pastoral Ministry. In God’s providence, that opportunity came during a crisis in my life.
Two weeks after completing five days of round-the-clock chemotherapy for mantle cell lymphoma, and enough time to resume a modicum of stamina and mental energy, I sent an outline of the book to the 40 Questions series’ editor (Benjamin L. Merkle) and publisher (Kregel). We had discussed the topic for a few months during my initial immunotherapy and monthly, four-hour chemo infusions. Now I faced months of isolation with no chance for active pastoral work. Questions I had asked and those asked of me poured onto my notepad. We settled on five sections to frame the book’s forty questions. With a green light from the publisher, I spent the next three months focused on devotions, chemo, recovery, and writing about pastoral ministry. After years of pastoral work, I relived many things that have now become second nature. And I learned as I read and studied, benefiting me when I returned to shepherd the congregation that I had served for over thirty years.
We both know there are seemingly an infinite number of questions surrounding pastoral ministry, so how did you settle on the 40?
Although I have asked and heard a lot more than 40 questions about pastoral ministry through the years, the questions I landed on seemed to be the most pressing. Basic questions like, “What is a Pastor?” and “How does Jesus’s Life and Ministry Mark the Pastor?” and “What Essential Qualities Must be Present in a Christian Pastor?” caused me to rethink my practice as a pastor. Yet those foundational considerations (Part 1) must not be neglected. They set the trajectory for pastoral effectiveness and longevity. Pastors need to understand them if they’re to serve the church with humility and graciousness.
Specifically, how are you seeking to help young pastors with the book?
Regularly, I have conversations with pastors on pastoral development and health (Part 2), as they struggle with navigating the difficulties in ministry. This led to questions about the pastor’s spiritual health and disciplines, his marriage and family life, and even his need to be pastored. How do pastors deal with discouragements and how do they endure in pastoral ministry? God’s Word and a host of insights throughout Christian history are not silent in these questions.
The nitty-gritty of pastoral practices (Part 3) touches every pastor’s work. Knowing what the first year of pastoring should look like keeps a newly minted pastor on track. Understanding the aim of pastoral ministry keeps him focused. But pastoral practice meets congregational personalities at every turn, even opposition and ministry dangers, meaning that the pastor needs to learn from Jesus on how to shepherd the flock without crushing those who lack maturity or who seem to never quite ‘get it.’
You’ve been preaching for decades, so how do you deal with that in the book?
At the heart of pastoral ministry is pastoral preaching (Part 4). Maybe the most important lesson that I’ve learned through five decades of preaching is how pastoral preaching differs from simply preaching a sermon. Part of pastoral preaching means that the pastor consciously expounds Scripture in a way that the church is exposed to the breadth of biblical revelation. My questions in this section investigate preaching through books of the Bible, selecting the right book at the right time, and leading the church in worship. Along the way, preaching will take on different hues with funerals and marriage ceremonies; I offer some counsel to contemplate.
The longest section, eleven questions, considers the church and pastoral ministry (Part 5) by thinking about what the church is, what kind of authority Scripture gives to a pastor, and how effective pastoral ministry is tied to healthy ecclesiology. Timing in making changes to ministry, polity, and leadership structures can be pivotal to a pastor’s leadership and continuation. How does he lead in church discipline or in reforming membership practices or revitalization? How does the pastor help the congregation face suffering, an inevitability in ministry? What about transitioning to another ministry? How do you know when it’s time to move on? Finally, why should pastors aim for long pastorates?
The book won’t answer every question about pastoral work. But it does shed light on a four decade-plus journey of one learner learning from many about pastoral ministry. I hope my journey’s biblical, theological, historical, and practical reflections will serve pastors for years to come.