What is it that defines success in pastoral ministry? While some would point to membership growth or baptism numbers, many would rightly point to one trait as the sole indicator of success: biblical fidelity—faithfulness to the Word of God in one’s life and ministry. Fundamentally, pastors are called to a life of faithfulness to the Scriptures. Remaining faithful to the Word, regardless of outward appearance or the size of one’s church, is success. In contrast, neglecting the Word—no matter how popular your ministry might appear—is a thing to be pitied, not celebrated as success.
If faithfulness is the goal of ministers, it follows that those aspiring to ministry should be cultivating faithfulness in their preparation for service. I want to share with you five areas where aspiring ministers should be cultivating biblical faithfulness.
Seminary is an exciting time of learning, a time when aspiring pastors are filling up their toolkits for pastoral ministry. Your mornings may be filled with hammering out Greek paradigms while the afternoon is spent discussing the finer points of ecclesiology. But there is a serious danger in theological education. It’s possible for your knowledge of the Bible to grow exponentially, all the while your spiritual health is deteriorating. Personal holiness is a prerequisite for pastoral ministry, not necessarily a product of it.
We can buy into the lie that once real ministry begins, sermon preparation will automatically nourish our faith, but that’s obviously not the case. Thousands of sermons have been preached by men who would eventually shipwreck their faith. Pastoral ministry can be—and almost certainly will be—lonely and trying. It’s foolish, then, to assume that we can wait until we are serving a church before giving ourselves to the spiritual disciplines and growth in Christ. A soldier does not wait until he is in the throes of battle to begin serious training, and neither should the soldier of Christ.
It is vital for those desiring to serve in vocational ministry to give attention to their souls as an integral part of their preparation. To not do so is to set up yourself and your future congregation for deep pain and misery. Even now, we must be those diving deeply into the riches of the Word and swimming in the streams of the gospel. How can we in good conscience labor in pastoral ministry without pursuing Christ as our first love?
Faithfulness to one’s family is imperative for future ministers. The apostle Paul says as much in 1 Tim. 3:4, “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?” The pressures placed upon the pastor’s family can be immense. While only the man is formally recognized as a minister, the entire family will shoulder some measure of the ministry’s burden.
Aspiring ministers would be wise to minister to their families before the hectic schedule of church ministry begins. Do the work of cultivating your marriage now, not so that it can be sacrificed on the altar of pastoral ministry later, but so that it will stand firm when Satan seeks to harm the church through a fractured marriage.
This is a special struggle for seminarians, those who can easily forsake their families for the classroom. Brothers, however pure your motives, this is sinful, and things will only grow more difficult as you are given the weighty task of shepherding the souls of a congregation. Love your family above school and above your ministry. Your callings as a father and husband are much more important than your call to pastoral ministry.
Before serving the Church as her pastor, it is important to serve her as a faithful member. There is a nasty tendency for those training for ministry to be the very ones who neglect their duties as covenant members. Rather than settling down into the nitty-gritty life of a congregation, many seminarians opt to skip around to various churches, never finding one that meets their standards of perfection. It’s sadly ironic for those studying the nuances of ecclesiology to only ever experience the gift of Christ’s body at a superficial level.
You will not be a good shepherd of God’s flock until you have come to love the Church, and you will not truly love the Church until you have seen and felt the blessing it is to belong to a community of faith. If you are preparing for pastoral ministry, then, commit yourself to a local congregation. Serve and be served. Submit to the church leaders. Build relationships with other members. Humbly receive wisdom from the 70-year-old man who didn’t even graduate from high school.
Don’t let arrogance disguised as theological maturity keep you from being a part of a church. Besides this being a biblical command and important for your own soul, it will also benefit your future ministry. Seminary gives you ideals about how a church should function. But we don’t live in an ideal world. Ministers are imperfect men laboring in imperfect churches. It’s easy to get bitter and impatient if your congregation won’t happily accept the changes you want to implement. If you are serving as a faithful church member, though, it will help cultivate a love and patience for the overall health of the church.
Some guys spend their seminary years already serving in vocational ministry, and I’m not trying to discredit that. Part of my theological education was spent in that very situation. But I believe there is immense value in spending time pouring into a local church as a church member before seeking to serving as a pastor.
This category is actually more of a sub-point that applies to the previous three, but its importance is paramount. The heart of God’s redemptive mission for the church is to make disciples. After all, Christ’s parting words to His disciples were to make disciples of all nations (Matt. 28:18–20). As a result, this should be a trait of those who desire to serve in pastoral ministry. If your desire is not to disciple others, what is the point of entering into ministry?
A young man bent on practicing discipleship shows that he truly desires the messy work of pastoral ministry. Disciple-making is not glamorous. Rather, it requires love and a perseverance that is intent on seeing another Christian grow, often slowly, in the image of Christ. The same is true for the pastor of a church, which demands love and patience to see a church grow in unity and grace.
It’s easy for the aspiring pastor to focus exclusively on the pulpit. The public proclamation of the Word is much more glamorous, especially in our age of megachurches and celebrity pastors. But pastoral ministry is fundamentally about disciple-making, and the bulk of our time each week will not be spent behind the pulpit. If we desire to faithfully shepherd the flock, our time will be spent meeting with brothers over coffee to discuss their spiritual disciplines, praying with church members over lost family members, and sharing a meal with a church family to demonstrate how you seek to shepherd your family. That is discipleship, and that is the lifestyle of a man who desires to truly serve the church, not just use the church as a source of glory or personal gain.
Seminary is not a necessity for faithful ministers. There have been and are many pastors who served Christ well without having a seminary degree. But it is a helpful tool for those who would spend their lives preaching the Word and leading a church. In seminary, you can potentially learn skills that you will utilize for the next sixty years or so.
Some, though, view schooling as a mere stepping stone, a necessary drudgery keeping them from doing the real work of ministry. As a result, these men don’t give their full effort to classwork. Instead, they do just enough work to get a decent grade.
Pastors are the shepherds of God’s flock, and we do this primarily by teaching and preaching the Word of God. A significant portion of our duties, then, involve the intellect. For example, protecting the church from false teachers necessitates that you can identify and combat heresy. If this is the case—and it is—aspiring ministers would be wise to zealously pursue their studies, knowing that a well-trained mind is a valuable tool for the pastoral toolbox.
Beyond the future benefits of taking school seriously, it is also a matter of stewardship. We are commanded to do all things to the glory of God, and this includes school. Are you being a good steward of the time and intellect that the Lord has graciously given you? If you’re a C+ student, don’t settle for a C-. If you’re an A+ student, don’t settle for an A-. Let us steward our God-given gifts well.
Christ, the ultimate faithful One, has called pastors to faithfulness. May aspiring pastors be those who pursue faithfulness even now as they prepare for a lifetime of serving the King.