The Character and Habits of Effective Ministers
Charles Malcolm Wingard
Associate Professor of Practical Theology
Reformed Theological Seminary, Jackson
This article was originally published as chapter 16 in the author’s recently released Help for the New Pastor: Practical Advice for Your First Year of Ministry (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2018). Reprinted with permission.
Personal piety is an indispensable requirement of godly and effective ministry. But personal piety alone is not enough. It cannot compensate for lack of discipline. In this chapter, I consider both the holy character and the habits you will need to cultivate in your first year of ministry.
Without disciplined habits of study, you will have little new to say. In addition to not nourishing your own soul, your sermons will become repetitive, predictable, and stale. Moreover, your understanding of God’s Word and world will prove inadequate to meet the challenges of ministry in a rapidly changing world.
Disciplined study is a must, so plan your study time. Otherwise, it succumbs to the tyranny of the urgent. Shedd recommends five hours of study at the start of the day. When I began my ministry, respected older ministers advised me to study until lunch and then start visiting. It’s sound strategy, albeit difficult to implement.
Now consider what to study.
Read the Bible
I assume you’re reading the Bible. Although I can point to no commandment written in stone, it does seem prudent for ministers to read the entire Bible at least once a year. I recommend the practice. This is not legalistic. A minister must know the Scriptures, and without a plan to read the Bible regularly and frequently, he won’t. It doesn’t matter which plan you use; it matters that you have a plan and follow it. For most of my adult life, I have used Robert Murray M’Cheyne’s Bible Reading Calendar.
Many men come to seminary without a solid foundation in the Scriptures. They arrive without the benefit of family Bible readings, high school and college Bible courses, and the model of a strong expository pulpit ministry. If this describes you, don’t be discouraged. But do recognize that hard work is ahead of you, and don’t let your Bible reading slack off during seminary. If you have a wife and children, read aloud to them in addition to your own devotional readings.
An additional word about reading aloud: Many young ministers fumble Scripture readings in worship because they don’t practice reading the text. Reading aloud in your study prepares you to read Scripture publicly. Moreover, your understanding of the text will increase, and you will avoid the temptation to skim and hurry through. Give it a try for a month, and see if it makes a difference.
Choose carefully whatever else you read. Quality is more important than quantity. Don’t skim books! You end up with unprocessed information, of little or no use to you or to your congregation.
To read is important; to read with understanding, much more so. Charles Bridges counsels: “No man can read everything; nor would our real store be increased by the capacity to do so. The digestive powers would be overloaded, for want of time to act, and uncontrolled confusion would reign within. It is far more easy to furnish our library, than our understanding.” Therefore, Bridges argues, the quality of what we read is more important than the quantity, and for reading to have its greatest value, it must have as its companions “reflection, conversation, and composition.”
Make sure that your Christian-reading diet is not pop Christian best sellers. Few of these are theologically reflective, and even fewer will stand the test of time. C. S. Lewis was on to something when he advised, “It is a good rule, after reading a new book, never to allow yourself another new one till you have read an old one in between. If that is too much for you, you should at least read one old one to every three new ones.” Some suggestions:
- Study church history. Church history provides a historical perspective on contemporary issues. As you read, you will find inspiring examples of faith and courage, as well as beneficial warnings against pride and declension. Your storehouse of weighty sermon illustrations will grow, too.
- Inspirational stories of Christians and churches are often found in secular histories. For example, the American civil-rights movement is filled with stories of Christian courage, as well as tragic Christian obstinacy, cowardice, and compromise.
- Read the biographies and autobiographies of ministers and missionaries. There has not been a time in my ministry when I have not been reading at least one. As you read, you walk with those who faced the same joys and sorrows, victories and conflicts as you—there is much wisdom and inspiration to gain from them.
- Read systematic theology. One of the best gifts you can give your congregation is an understanding of how the great truths of the Christian faith fit together. As you read the confessional standards of the Reformation and the great systematics that followed, your grasp of theology will continue to increase.
- Seek to understand your culture. Read books and subscribe to journals that offer substantial critiques of American life.
- Read poetry and classic literature—for pleasure, for understanding of life, and for learning the power and beauty of the English language. The most important language for you to master is English. It’s the language you use to preach and teach God’s Word.
- Don’t neglect serious novels. A good novelist takes you into the internal lives of his characters. You will find remarkable insights into human nature and the complexities and mysteries of life.
- Enjoy conversations with other ministers over topics of mutual interest.
Charles Bridges cuts to the heart of Christian ministry when he writes that it “is a work of faith; and, that it may be a work of faith, it must be a work of prayer. Prayer obtains faith, while faith in its reaction quickens to increasing earnestness in prayer.”
I take for granted that you are a man of prayer. You shouldn’t be in the ministry if you’re not. I also take for granted that you pray daily for your family and your church. What I want to encourage here is for you to pray for yourself. Ask God to grant you four virtues that you will need throughout your ministry, especially during your first year:
Pray for patience. Every new minister will find much that he believes needs fixing in his church. So will you. My advice is ^ to be patient and don’t rush. Be patient because it takes time to understand your new congregation and the way change takes place in it. Respect the congregation by taking pains to understand them.
For example, I have watched pastors cripple their ministry by changing the order of worship right out of the starting gate. This is poor judgment. First understand how the church came to worship the way it does. Ask questions and listen carefully.
Also be patient because your assessment of the situation may change. That has happened to me many times. For example, the pastoral prayer is an important part of worship, and I prefer to offer it. It paves the way for the preaching of the Word, and helps put me in the right frame of mind. When I took a church where the elders insisted on offering that prayer, I chose not to make it an issue. I put myself in the prayer rotation, taking my turn when it came up. Later I planned to ask for change and to assume sole responsibility for the pastoral prayer.
Over time, however, I began to appreciate the church’s tradition and eventually supported it. Many male visitors to the church commented that it was impressive to hear men like them offering rich, biblical prayers. Had I acted immediately and pushed for change, I would have deprived the congregation of the nourishing prayers of its elders. Moreover, I would have set the stage for potential conflict.
You will also need patience because people must be led, not pushed and shoved. It takes time to build trust. Begin by respecting the church’s leaders. If you have an idea that you believe will advance the work of your church, put it on the agenda for an elders’ meeting. Make your case. Let your brothers discuss it. Don’t get in a hurry and demand a decision. Give them time to buy into your proposal. If they don’t, now is not the time. Be willing, too, to be persuaded by your brothers.
You and your wife will need patience in making new friends. Sometimes a pastor and his wife fit right in with their new church. They like you, and you like them. You feel like you have known them forever.
In another church, you might find people reserved, hesitant to engage you in meaningful conversation, and seemingly indifferent to you, your family, and your ministry. Why?
You could conclude that you have fallen into the hands of the most calloused congregation in Christendom. There are, however, more likely explanations. There may be an age gap. Especially in small, rural churches, you may serve where there are not many members your age. That was my case early in ministry. There was no one my age in any of the six churches I served as a student pastor. Three positives emerged:
First, I learned to enjoy the companionship of older believers. Intergenerational friendships contributed to my maturity, and forced me to listen to people I would not have chosen to spend as much time with if peer friendships had been immediately available. Some young pastors and their wives have found much-needed second “parents” in their first church, as older couples helped them navigate the early stresses of pastoral ministry, marriage, and raising children.
Second, I formed friendships with pastors of other denominations. My denomination is one small branch of the Christian family. Enjoying the fellowship of brothers in other Christian traditions is something I might have missed but for the need of friendships outside my own congregations.
Finally, lack of peers made me step up my outreach game. In one church, I invited two young men to attend. They did, and became among my closest friends. For a time, I even took up that most frustrating of sports, golf, in order to enjoy their companionship. They became a part of my congregation.
Going to a place where friendships don’t come easy is difficult to take, especially if you and your wife have always been popular. Previously, you selected your friends based on mutual interests, values, and goals. Now you find yourself mixing with people who are very different from you, many of whom you would never have shared time with, much less developed close friendships with. For the first time in your life, you must learn the art of building friendships and of learning to value and prize the companionship of people who will bring perspectives to your life that would never have been yours otherwise.
As you strive to become a more patient man, don’t forget that some problems are impervious to solutions. That’s the way life is in a fallen world. Bear in mind the words of Cyprian: “Let a man mercifully correct what he can; let him patiently bear what he cannot correct, and groan and sorrow over it with love.”^
Pray for contentment. French Protestant pastor and poet Antoine de Chandieu (1534—91) warned against the worldly spirit that is never satisfied:
Never having and always desiring,
Such are the consequences for him who loves the world.
The more he abounds in honor and riches.
The more he is seen aspiring for more.
He does not enjoy what belongs to him:
He wants, he values, he adores what other people have.
When he has everything, it is then that he has nothing.
Because having everything, he desires everything still.
Learning to be content with your salary may be a challenge in your first church. The pay may be poor. My annual pay was $6,000 before taxes at my first four churches, which were congregations I served simultaneously as a student pastor. Even for a single guy in 1980, that wasn’t much. So I worked a man’s tobacco field and slopped his hogs in exchange for room and board. It wasn’t the way I had planned to start my ministry. Quickly I became friends with the farmer’s wonderful family and, in a community of farmers, earned a modest degree of respect. It wasn’t the path I would have chosen, but the Lord provided just what I needed.
Churches are assemblies of God’s dear people, not stepping-stones. Don’t look on them as nuisances on your way to a better position. If you do, your ministry is likely to end sooner rather than later—and in disappointment.
Pray for the power to forgive. A good pastor is in close contact with his flock, and this provides many opportunities for careless words, severe judgments, conflict, and hurt. Many times when there is a change in pastoral leadership, the new pastor arrives to find that some folks won’t give him a chance. In one of my churches, a woman told me matter-of-factly that she and her husband considered me a step down from the intellectual caliber of the previous pastor, and that they would be transferring to another church. It’s easy to get angry. Add to the mix your sins and shortcomings, and things can swiftly go awry.
Here’s my advice: learn to own up to your sins promptly and repent quickly. And when wronged, forgive from the heart— and forgive before you’re asked. Ask the Lord for the power to put aside all wrath and malice and bitterness. You must crucify sinful anger. A pastor can be angry with people, and he can effectively minister the gospel of God’s grace. But it’s one or the other. No man can minister God’s grace effectively while angry with his flock. Seek counsel. Wrestle in prayer. Do whatever it takes to get rid of the anger and get on with ministry.
Pray for gentleness. Paul describes his care for the new believers in the church at Thessalonica: “But we were gentle among you, like a nursing mother taking care of her own children” (1 Thess. 2:7). The nursing mother’s concern is not for herself, but for her child, who is wholly dependent upon her for care and feeding. The child does not serve his mother; she serves him. Paul functioned as a nursing mother among the Thessalonians, seeking their interests, not his own, and pursuing their growth in Christ, not his own glory or financial profit. He devoted himself exclusively to caring for the church—newborn babes in Christ—and to their nourishment in God’s Word.
The key word is gentle. God’s servant must not be harsh, overbearing, or intimidating. Instead, he approaches his flock with “the meekness and gentleness of Christ” (2 Cor. 10:1). Gentleness is a fruit of Gods Holy Spirit that is present in every true believer and especially evident in those who lead (Gal. 5:23). If I could do my ministry all over again, this is what I would wish for the most: more Christlike gentleness at home, among the congregation, and in the courts of the church.
Seize Small Bits of Time
Twenty, ten, or even five minutes are valuable and can be put to profitable use. Don’t look at your watch, see that you have only a few minutes until your next appointment, and fritter the time away by daydreaming or mindlessly surfing the Internet. Small bits of time add up, especially over a lifetime.
With customary bluntness, Shedd writes: “Small spaces of time become ample and great by being regularly and faithfully employed. It is because time is wasted so regularly and uniformly, and not because it is wasted in such large amounts, that so much of human life runs to waste.”
Wherever I go, I carry a book or note cards. The minutes of downtime add up, and it’s astounding how much can be read or written.
When There’s a Pastoral Emergency, Be There
Run to those in need. The shepherd’s eyes are open to the needs of his sheep, especially to the injured, weak, and frightened. Genevan minister Theodore Beza (1519-1605) describes beautifully the responsibilities of the Christian pastor:
It is not only necessary that [a pastor] have a general knowledge of his flock, but he must also know and call each of his sheep by name, both in public and in their homes, both night and day. Pastors must run after lost sheep, bandaging up the one with a broken leg, strengthening the one that is sick. … In sum, the pastor must consider his sheep more dear to him than his own life, following the example of the Good Shepherd.
Take Care of Your Body
Pay attention to rest. Ministry is demanding. You need sleep, breaks from your study, breaks for study, and vacations. I check with my pastoral staff (and that includes spouses) to ensure that they are taking the full allotment of time that the church gives them to be away from the church for rest, refreshment, and study. Attention to this is requisite for long-term success. Solo pastors have no supervisors, so make sure you take care of yourself and your family by getting sufficient rest from your ministerial labors.
Exercise. I don’t mean extreme sports. Only running, walking, swimming, or whatever you do to keep your body fit. Do more, if you are so inclined. But at the very least, take care of the body that God has given you.
Put Your Family on the Calendar
Reserve nights and other times to be with your wife and children. Put your children’s important events on your schedule. Emergencies and crises will come, and you’ll have to be ready to be there for your congregation. That’s understandable; that comes with your call to ministry.
What is inexcusable is to permit routine ministerial duties—committee meetings, pastoral visitation, administrative work, and sermon preparation—to take you away from time with your family. Schedule time to be with family, and when you are, give them your full attention. Put away the computer and smartphone. Focus on the folks at hand—the most important sheep in the flock—your family.
Your first church is the place to establish habits that will increase your effectiveness in lifelong service to Christ’s church. Reflect on the disciplines you will need for the long haul, and make acquiring them a nonnegotiable priority.
- William G. T. Shedd, Homiletics and Pastoral Theology (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1902), 368. ↑
- Charles Bridges, The Christian Ministry: With an Inquiry into the Causes of Its Inefficiency (Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth, 1991), 46–47. ↑
- C. S. Lewis, God in the Dock: Essays on Theology and Ethics (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1970), 201–2. ↑
- For an overview of the American civil-rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s, see Taylor Branch’s magisterial, three-volume history: Parting the Waters: America in the King Years 1954–63 (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1988), Pillar of Fire: America in the King Years 1963–65 (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1998), and At Canaan’ s Edge: America in the King Years 1965–68 (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2006). ↑
- Bridges, The Christian Ministry, 63. ↑
- Quoted in Scott M. Manetsch, Calvin’s Company of Pastors: Pastoral Care and the Emerging Reformed Church, 1536-1609 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013), 189. ↑
- Quoted in Manetsch, Calvin’s Company of Pastors, 98. ↑
- Shedd, Homiletics and Pastoral Theology, 394. ↑
- Quoted in Manetsch, Calvin’s Company of Pastors, 281. ↑