Practice these things, devote yourself to them, so that all may see your progress
1 Timothy 4:15
In October 1986 I opened J. Oswald Sanders's book Spiritual Leadership and was leveled by first page. The title of the chapter was “An Honorable Ambition,” and the lead quotes were 1 Timothy 3:1 (NEB), “To aspire to leadership is an honorable ambition,” and Jeremiah 45:5a, “Should you then seek great things for yourself? Seek them not.”
At the time I opened Spiritual Leadership, I was speeding toward a career in the business world. I had only recently completed a degree in chemistry, and I was in the middle of an MBA. A few months later, and in spite of a mediocre academic performance, I would be working for one of the top research companies in the world. Yet because of how God was at work in my life, and even though I might not have admitted it to myself, when I read that chapter title and those two Scripture verses, I knew that I was headed towards pastoral ministry.
Of course, believing one is called to pastoral ministry is one matter—knowing what the stretch of road looks like that leads to a particular local church is something entirely different. When I read Spiritual Leadership, I didn’t realize that it was the first of thousands of books, two more graduate degrees, and hundreds and thousands of hours in preparation. Certainly, I didn’t picture myself preaching in nursing homes, leading missions trips, or being the program director for a Christian camp.
Surely some who read this are in the same place that I was in 1986. Both objectively and subjectively, you understand that God is calling you to pastoral ministry. Maybe you’ve read Edmund Clowney’s highly recommended book, Called to the Ministry, and you are increasingly open to the pastorate. Perhaps you are near the completion of a seminary degree. What you don’t know is how to proceed.
To complicate matters, and as was pointed out at the panel discussion I led at The Gospel Coalition's 2011 national conference with Mark Dever, Lig Duncan, and Rick Thompson, today’s ecclesiastical landscape is far more complex than the one I faced. How do pastoral candidates move forward in this day when the blogs they read may tell more about their theological identity than where they attended Bible college or seminary?
The one-verse answer I would give to those wondering how to be placed in pastoral ministry is 1 Timothy 4:15: "Practice these things; devote yourself to them, so that all may see your progress." Notice that Paul encourages Timothy with (1) a strategy to pursue and (2) a result to expect.
The Strategy to Pursue
Paul encourages Timothy to “practice these things; devote yourself to them.” In context, “these things” includes both growth in godliness and devotion to preaching and teaching.
Hopefully the emphasis on godliness is obvious to you. The road to landing in a particular pastoral ministry must include being increasingly conformed to the likeness of Christ (1 Tim. 4:10, 2 Cor. 3:18). Journal. Fast. Pray. Grow in grace. Here I heartily recommend The Discipline of Grace by Jerry Bridges.
Along with growing in godliness, Paul also tells Timothy to sharpen his skills in handling the Word. “Until I come, devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to exhortation, to teaching" (1 Tim. 4:13).
Specifically, if you believe God is calling you to pastoral ministry, you might:
(1) Memorize Scripture. By God’s grace, when I was preparing for ministry, there was a period of several years where I tried to memorize one verse per day. Twenty years later I continue to review those verses. This is not nearly so difficult as it sounds. It only requires a system and a few minutes a day.
If you need more convincing of the value of Scripture memory, listen to John Piper share his testimony. Nothing can be more strategic in being actually called to the pastorate of a Word-centered church than memorizing Scripture.
(2) Complete all the formal training you can. I understand that Spurgeon didn’t go to seminary. I know that too much weight can be assigned to the value of a master of divinity. But if you have the opportunity, take advantage of a seminary curriculum designed to give broad preparation for the pastorate. It is worth living in a 500-square-foot apartment or working at UPS if you can learn from godly professors.
(3) Preach and teach every chance you get. It may be that sometime in the next couple of months Tim Keller will give you a shout and ask you to fill the pulpit for him while he is on vacation.
Then again, maybe not.
Chances are that your early opportunities to preach will be more like mine. The first sermon I preached was at an assisted living center. My wife sang a solo before I preached. About five minutes into the sermon one elderly lady, who was speaking far louder than she realized, said to another, “I wish his wife had just sang another solo.”
Looking back, I understand her pain. The sermon was awful, but it was my chance to give myself wholly to preaching and teaching. Years later, I am comforted knowing that many I preached for were hard of hearing.
Teaching opportunities should also be seized. Much of the time I was in seminary I taught two Sunday school classes. The first was at 8 a.m. and sparsely attended. Although there was no way I could have known it at the time, my diligence in teaching was a vital part of having my first pastoral opportunity.
(4) Endure as many humbling critiques as possible. If you’re going to get better, sparks need to fly (Prov. 27:17). Find someone who truly understands homiletics and teaching to help you grind off the rough edges.
If you find the right person to critique you, it’s sure to be humbling. I vividly recall the first time I preached in front of Haddon Robinson. I didn’t necessarily expect him to be converted under my preaching. But I thought perhaps he would nod in approval. It wasn’t happening. He just turned to the others in my doctoral class and said, “I just don’t think it worked. Did any of you think it did?” No one rushed to my defense. Indeed, my cohorts solemnly agreed with Haddon.
Fortunately, what I also remember is Haddon explaining why my sermon didn’t work. His input continues to help my preaching every week. As I have recounted in vivid detail, my first attempt at writing theology met with an even more epic failure: "D-." I still cringe. Oh the humanity! But I made much progress in giving myself wholly to preparation for pastoral ministry.
Become a student of what constitutes biblical preaching. One of my goals with the book When the Word Leads Your Pastoral Search was to equip pastoral search committees to evaluate preaching. Perhaps you could ask one of the elders in your church to read through the chapters on what to look for in biblical preaching and use the evaluation form to critique one of your sermons or lessons. If you get an "A" he was probably too nice. Find someone else.
The Result to Expect
In addition to the strategy to employ, notice that Paul expects one of the byproducts of Timothy’s diligence will be that others will take notice:
Practice these things, devote yourself to them, so that all may see your progress (1 Tim. 4:15).
Here Paul gives the essence of how those who properly aspire to pastoral ministry should envision being actually called to a particular pastorate. Give yourself so fully to godliness and preparation that your qualification gains the attention of others.
The thought of working in a way that causes others to do a “double take” might seem self-serving. And, if your goal is self-promotion, it is. But if God is calling you into pastoral ministry, then you need to prepare in ways that make your progress evident to all. Indeed, you won’t be called to a particular position apart from visible progress.
Again, let me be more concrete. To give yourself in such a way that your progress is noticed you might:
(1) Intern at a church where you can be mentored with leaders who will help you be more visible. This may mean serving in one of the well-known internship programs.
Or you might design an internship program with a smaller local church where you will have more opportunities for visible service. Why not offer yourself as an intern to a local church where you can more rapidly gain experience in preaching and teaching? You cannot imagine how God might use an internship at a small local church not only to prepare you for ministry but also to make your progress evident to all. It does not matter so much if you do an internship under a Gospel Coalition rock star. It is critical that you choose a church with one or more godly, experienced pastors.
(2) Design a website that includes a profile of who you are and several examples of your preaching or teaching. This can be done in a way that is both inexpensive an excellent. It doesn’t necessarily mean that you need to blog on a daily basis. Rather, develop a simple website that outlines your qualification for ministry.
(3) Build relationships with local church pastors. Your time of preparation should be focused in a particular local church. But you should still look for opportunities to meet with other pastors or elders. No need to apologize for asking to meet with a pastor, provided you understand if he graciously declines.
If you do meet with a pastor, then be prepared and be intentional. Beforehand, think carefully about what you hope to accomplish. Listen. Listen. Listen.
(4) Be faithful so that leaders build into your life (2 Tim. 2:1-2). Paul’s admonishment to Timothy was to pour into faithful, reliable men who will also be qualified to teach others. If you make it a goal to be useful in ministry, reliable men will be motivated to build into your life, your readiness for the pastorate will increase, and you will be more visible.
Unique Path But One Thing in Common
Of course, everyone’s journey will be unique. While I was in the midst of writing this post, my 15-year-old son asked my opinion of a recent bestseller. I hadn’t read the book in question, and my son didn’t seem real impressed by my uninformed speculation, so I suggested that he read Tim Challies’s review. Before the evening was over, my teenager had read several of Tim’s other reviews as well. In fact, he soon returned to my study to dialogue about another controversial book.
I reflected on the very different route Tim Challies took to pastoral ministry. Tim shares that when he began blogging in 2002, he had no idea that a few simple posts would lead to one of the most widely read evangelical blogs. He certainly didn’t picture that it would lead to pastoral ministry.
Yet Tim's story shares one thing in common with all who are eventually properly placed in pastoral ministry: He gave himself wholly to “these things” so that his progress was evident.
If God is calling you into pastoral ministry, be encouraged. Christ continues to build his church, and in so doing, he calls some to be given as gifts to the church so that the body of Christ may be built up. Our job is not to know every detail of how we will land in a particular church. Instead, it is our responsibility to practice these things, devoting ourselves to them, so that all may see our progress.