Earlier this year a Floridian man was found practicing medicine without a license. Or a degree. Of any kind.
He was 18.
“I’m not trying to hurt people,” the young man stated. He had started a practice “to do some good in the community. If that is a negative thing,” he continued, “we have a lot more work to do in the community than to single out me.” He added, “I value my practice skills which include great communication skills as well as timely and prompt care.”
Unfortunately for him, the local sheriff’s office saw things differently. In a tweet the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office declared, “Just because you saw a season of Grey’s Anatomy doesn’t mean you could practice medicine.”
And, when it comes to providing medical care, who would want to disagree with that? (Aside from this teen with very good intentions and great communication skills.)
But what about when it comes to providing pastoral care?
Anyone can do that, right?
The late Peter Drucker, who is regarded as “the father of modern business management theory” by elite business schools around the world and who, for over 50 years, was a “consultant to some of the largest corporations in the U.S.” (so his 2005 obituary in The Guardian), said that leading a church was the single most difficult and demanding job he knew of.
And yet, completely unlike the medical field, pretty much anyone can declare themselves a pastor. Like the above 18-year-old Floridian, simply because they’re trying “to do some good in the community” and because they have “great communication skills,” they believe they’re ready to enter vocational ministry.
This has led to an untold amount of spiritual carnage. For all parties involved.
Laypersons deeply wounded. Pastors whose lives, marriages, and families are irrevocably damaged. And the name of Christ disgraced.
American evangelicalism, historically a populist movement (see George Marsden’s Fundamentalism and American Culture), has said very much about the cross of Christ and yet very little about the community of Christ–and, specifically, its clergy.
To use technical jargon, evangelicals have been all about soteriology (salvation stuff) and not about ecclesiology (church stuff).
Returning to the 18-year-old Floridian for a moment, let’s assume the best concerning the sincerity of his remarks: he really was trying to do some good; and he really did have exceptional communication skills, etc.
But at the end of the day he was a quack, a fraud, a fake. And what’s so scary is that his patients didn’t know it.
It raises the question: how can a faithful follower of Christ distinguish between a faithful pastor and a fake one? Never mind that a pastor may truly be a nice person who wants to help and/or who has incredible skills (or “gifting” as it’s sometimes called).
In answering that question, I will try to make these criteria as concrete as possible. That is, I’ve tried to answer the question: what does true pastoral ministry look like?
In this post, we’ll cover only the first criterion:
Prayer is the epicenter of a faithful minister. It is the epicenter of a pastor’s personal life, family life, and ministry life–the backbone of his preaching, liturgical planning, leadership, pastoral care, and evangelism. Everything.
Read Luke’s gospel.
There we find Jesus is always praying (3.21; 5.16; 6.12; 9.18; 9.28, 29; 11.1; 18.1; 22.32; and see John 17). In Luke 18.1 we read, “Then Jesus told his disciples this parable to show them they should always pray and not give up….” Or consider 6.12, where just before Jesus chooses 12 men from among his followers, we read that “he went out to a mountainside to pray, and he spent the night praying to God.”
Read Paul’s letters.
In ten of his 13 letters the apostle tells his audience that he’s praying for them and usually what he’s praying for them. It’s often one of the first things he says in the letter. (See Rom. 1.10; 1 Cor. 1.4; 2 Cor. 1.3; Eph. 1.16; Phil. 1.4; Col. 1.3; 1 Thes. 1.2; 2 Thes. 1.11; 2 Tim. 1.3; Phlm. 4). Here’s just one example: “God…is my witness how constantly I remember you in my prayers at all times” (Rom. 1.10).
The faithful pastor’s life, in all its dimensions, is fueled by a full-bodied, multi-dimensional communing with God.
There is deep reverence, heartfelt conviction and confession, vivacious celebration, hearty thanksgiving (for things great or small), heartbroken lamentation, humble and disciplined zeal, earnest and faith-filled expectation of the unimagined and impossible, an intimate familiarity with things ancient yet freshly and originally articulated (vs. a dry rehearsal of the latest “best” preacher or quasi-Christian therapist). He loves both the wondrous deeds and the wise directives of Israel’s God and of his Christ.
All of this manifests itself in a joyful and resolved obedience–not an inactive cynicism, an agreeable superficiality, or a sterile systematic theologizing.
But along with this full-bodied communion with God is ongoing kingdom intercession. Like Jesus and Paul, the faithful pastor prays for God’s people and for God’s world.
But just how important is prayer to the faithful pastor?
Consider Acts 6. There we learn that within the fledgling Christian community in Jerusalem some of the widows were being overlooked in the daily distribution of bread. Elderly women with no other support structure weren’t getting enough food. Ummm… that’s kind of a big deal.
When informed of this, the apostles’ response is startling. In short, they say: “Let’s get someone else to take care of that, because we need to keep praying and preaching.” What?! Really?!
The faithful pastor prioritizes prayer not only out of a sense of his own neediness and a(God-exalting) self-enjoyment in communing with God but also out of an awareness that, for whatever supposedly amazing “gifting” that he and/or his congregation may have, ministry is simply impossible.
Jesus reminds Nicodemus, Israel’s teacher, “Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit.” And the Apostle Paul, otherwise characteristically (even frustratingly!) terse, nevertheless repeats himself emphatically to the Romans, “The mind governed by the flesh is hostile to God; it does not submit to God’s law, nor can it do so. Those who are in the realm of the flesh cannot please God.”
(And in wealthy Western contexts, affluent churches all the more need prayer, for “how hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God!” In response to his astonished disciples’ question, “Who then can be saved?!”, Jesus famously says, “With man this is impossible, but not with God….”)
The faithful pastor prays when he discerns that an impossible task can be done by a God for whom all things are possible–“who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine” (Eph. 3.20).
But–and this is so crucial–not only does the faithful pastor pray, he teaches and urges both his fellow leaders and his congregation to pray (see Luke 11.1; 18.1). Why? For a multitude of reasons–here are three: (1) he doesn’t want them missing out (!); and (2) awesome things happen when God’s people pray (just read Acts; see 1.14; 2.42; 3.1; 4.24, 31; 12.5, etc.); (3) we, God’s people corporately, are commanded to pray (e.g., Eph. 6.18; Col. 4.2; 1 Thes. 5.17; especially 1 Tim. 2.1; and, um, Psalm 1-150); and his commands are a gift.
Overwhelmingly, however, over the past 20 years (serving in numerous churches as a layperson, then an intern, and now as a pastor) I’ve witnessed a dearth of prayer, especially in churches that are more affluent and educated–filled with very “capable” people and led by “impressive” orators (see above about wealthy Western contexts; see below about “impressive” orators).
So how do you, a layperson, discern if your pastors are faithful with respect to prayer?
First, simply listen to their prayers (and, if in your Sunday service there are only brief, obligatory prayers–if it’s just “music and a message,” then that says volumes). Do their prayers reflect the characterization given above? Are their prayers boring, sappy, safe, scrambling for something sacred to say?
Second, just ask them, “What does your prayer life look like? When do you pray?” But especially ask them, “When do you gather the church’s leaders to pray?” If the answer is less than weekly, alarm bells should be going off. If the answer is “once a month for 15-30 minutes at a leadership meeting,” that is utterly insufficient.
Third, look at your church’s (formal or informal) calendar: Have venues been created for prayer? Are there regular times and places when God’s people are, with much grace and much gravitas, invited to gather for prayer, where the church’s leaders are present, leading God’s people in adoration, confession, and intercession, and warmly inviting congregants, “bruised and broken by the Fall,” to come and have their leaders pray for their needs, fears, and dreams–e.g., illness, unemployment, unaddressed conflict, loneliness, indebtedness, etc.? Though timid at first, most congregants simply love to have 2-3 leaders lay their hands on them and pray over them, if even for 60-90 seconds.
Faithful follower of Christ, understand this: a pastor may be very amiable in person (they just “love people”). Or a pastor may be impressive in preaching. (A brief interjection here: In the world of downloadable sermons, “impressive” yet fraudulent preaching is pervasive and deeply damaging to a pastor’s soul. Such softcore plagiarism is identifiable by a stark contrast between a pastor’s eagerness and aptitude for preaching and his eagerness and aptitude for pastoral counseling: why is it that he has insight when behind the pulpit but not when present in person? When one-on-one, such pastors lecture on and on out of fear, rather than listen deeper and deeper in faith. Almost anyone can be “pastoral” for 30-45 minutes on a Sunday morning, safely behind a pulpit, just like actors can imitate real doctors in a way believable only to the untrained eye.)
But even if they’re amiable in person or impressive in preaching, if they are not eager and experienced in prayer–and proactively encouraging and equipping both leaders and laity in the same, they are not being faithful.
They are fakes.
Shortly after a pastor-friend of mine came on staff at a good-sized suburban church, just after a Sunday service one of the congregants with whom he had only an initial acquaintance took a big risk and shared with him that he had just been laid off after faithfully serving his company for over 25 years. Barely knowing the man, the pastor simply asked if he could pray for him.
The man readily acquiesced. What this pastor did next was, in his mind, next to nothing. He put his arm around him and prayed for him. That was it. He then moved on to greet other laypersons.
Some time later the unemployed congregant contacted the pastor and profusely thanked him for his prayer. He said that he had gone to this church for many years, had attended the service each Sunday faithfully, going to Sunday school and to a small group. “And in all that time,” he said, “I’ve never had a pastor pray for me. You were the first. I’ll never forget that morning and what an encouragement you were to me.”
Again, the pastor really hadn’t done anything. In fact, he barely remembered his prayer for the man.
But God did. And so did this man.
“On reaching Jerusalem, Jesus entered the temple courts and began driving out those who were buying and selling there. He overturned the tables of the moneychangers and the seats of those who were selling doves…. And he began to teach them, saying:
‘Is it not written: “My house will be called a house of prayer for all nations“? But you–you have made it “a den of robbers.”‘
The chief priests and the teachers of the law heard this and began looking for a way to kill him, for they feared him, because the whole crowd was astounded at his teaching.” – Mark 11.15-18
“Epaphras, who is one of you and a servant of Christ Jesus, sends greetings. He is always wrestling in prayer for you….” – Col. 4.12
Is this all that it means to be a faithful pastor? Hardly. But it’s the heart and soul. In the next post, we’ll discuss a second essential ingredient of what it means to be a faithful pastor.