Letter to a New Pastor

Some years ago, a friend of mine stepped reluctantly into pastoral ministry. I wrote this letter on that occasion; perhaps it will be an encouragement to you, too. (Names and other identifying information have, of course, been altered.)

Dear Jack, 

Congratulations again on rising reluctantly to the role of pastor. I thought at the time of the announcement to set down a few thoughts for you, and as is characteristic for me, it took a while to think through what I actually wanted to say. 

It turns out that, upon reflection, most of what I would ordinarily say simply doesn’t need saying. You have always struck me as an intelligent, godly man, and I have every confidence in your ability to rise to your responsibilities with grace and good sense. So I’m going to restrict myself to commending a few oft-neglected spiritual disciplines I have found particularly helpful in pastoral work. These took me a long time to learn, and would have saved me a lot of suffering if I’d learned them sooner. Perhaps I’ll be able to save you some time and anguish.

If you are the sort of shepherd you should be, Jack, people will love you…until they don’t. We are in the trouble business, and one of the features of our work is that people lie about us. You will be lied about, outrageously. You will be surprised at who believes the lies. (And at who doesn’t — not all the surprises will be bad!) It will hurt — especially the first time, but the truth is that I’m not used to it yet, and maybe I never will be. 

You will be tempted to indulge a wide set of variations on the theme “Why me?” Things like “I was helping her!” “I’ve never done anything to him; why is he doing this?” “What are they even hoping to gain from this?” To the extent that these voices represent how you really feel, pour them out to God — He always meets us where we are. To that end, I commend to you the regular reading of the Psalter. Your prayer book [The Book of Common Prayer] has a schedule that will take you through the Psalter in a month, and I would suggest that you keep to it for at least a year. The Psalter teaches us to pray in extremis like nothing else can, and trust me, my friend, you’re going to need the practice.

However, keep in mind that all the variations on “Why me?” are also a temptation to feel sorry for yourself. Exorcise them with St. Symeon’s rejoinder to all self-pity: “The Son of God was tortured to death on a tree, and you want justice?” Remember who you are following; a servant is no better than his Master.

When you are slandered, and you will be, remember Jesus’ instructions: “Happy are you when they castigate and persecute you, and say all manner of evil things against you falsely for My sake — rejoice and be very glad, because your reward in heaven is great — in the same way they also persecuted the prophets before you.” When you’re keeping that kind of exalted company, celebration is in order, and I am afraid that we often hurt ourselves by failing to take Jesus’ instructions seriously. Accept the discipline of rejoicing: go out and buy a bottle of 18-year-old Macallan (or your comparable drink of choice), have a few friends over, and celebrate. Drink your whisky, and get happy. Jesus said to. And besides, celebration is a weapon against which the enemy of your soul has no defense — nothing squelches self-pity and bitterness quite like unfettered joy

It may help to realize that most of the people who attack you won’t have anything against you personally. You’re just in the way, means to an end, and a year or two after the incident, they won’t have any particular feelings about you one way or the other — however much damage they might have done you. On rarer occasions, you may acquire an actual enemy — someone who will continue to go out of their way to hurt you as opportunities arise. I have accumulated five such enemies over the years, and I have accepted two disciplines into my life regarding them. Both have done me a world of good, and I commend them to you. First, pray regularly for God to bless your enemies. We are Christians, and that’s what we do — but it’s alarmingly easy to let six months go by in which you have not blessed your enemies, so it’s wise to be intentional about it. Second, a couple times a year, take an inventory of your enemies, and ask yourself if there’s something you might do to bring peace that you have not yet done. In my experience, if I’ve been conducting myself well to start with, the answer is usually no — but I change, they change, and circumstances change; every once in a while, something comes up. Being cursed, we bless — so keep an eye out for opportunities. God may well send you one, and it would be a shame to miss it.

My final encouragement to you requires a little biblical background. Please bear with me; I am still enough of a seminary professor to insist on setting this up properly. In Ephesians 4, Paul lays out the fivefold ministry — apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, and teachers. We often think of these as spiritual gifts, and content ourselves with having a sense of which of these big-box categories we belong in. Knowing our place in the fivefold ministry can certainly be instructive, as far as it goes, but Paul is actually teaching us something far subtler. In chapter 3, he describes his own ministry: “To me, the ‘leaster’ of all the saints this grace was given: that I should proclaim among the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ….” Paul is not just an apostle, although he is that. The grace of God given to Paul is to be the apostle to the Gentiles — not just a gifting, but a specific calling. Paul then explains early in chapter 4, “To each one of us grace was given….” It is not just the rock stars like Paul who have a specific calling. We all do.

So you are a pastor, clearly. But of what sort? To whom? To what purpose? As God shows you answers to these questions, attend to them. They are the grace given to you — and the grace given to you will be unique to you, just as the grace given to Paul was unique to him.

Therefore, my last piece of unsolicited advice is to hold all advice lightly. We are all of one Author and we are all one volume, as Donne wisely said, but the fact remains that the Spirit blows all our scattered leaves to some very different places before He brings us all back to be bound into the Book of Life together on the last day. The Good Shepherd Himself is your teacher, and He does not train us all to be the same kind of pastor.

When I reflect on the men and women who trained me, and the “best practices” they taught me for being a pastor…well. I break many of those rules, often. I’m not at all what they hoped I would be, and it’s not because I didn’t want to be. The truth is, I would have been content to be just like them, and if God had let me be in charge of my career, that’s what would have happened. But God had other plans, and so I’m afraid I’m the black sheep of my nondenominational, cessationist Bible church tribe these days, which has had the happy effect of thoroughly mortifying my pride and ambition. An early Puritan described this as “learning to live in the high mountain air of public calumny.” It encourages me to know that however weird my path may be, others have passed this way long before me. 

The point, my friend, is not that you should be like me. God led me along a path that was perfect for me, and in the process he shaped me into something quite unexpected, something for which my friends and mentors could not have prepared me, and which I would not willingly have chosen. But it’s good, and He didn’t put me out there alone. Others have gone before me — and wherever He takes you, others will have gone before you, too.

He will undoubtedly lead you along the best path for you, however different that might be from what others envision for you. Trust His heart for you and choose your models according to the grace given to you. You may serve in one church fulfilling your expected role for decades, and be exactly the shepherd God is calling you to be. You may find yourself forced to step widely out of bounds in order to fulfill the grace given to you. The one path is no better than the other, and the ease or difficulty is never the point — the only thing that matters is Who you’re following. Stick by the Shepherd; His heart is always for your blessing, and all His ways are good. 

I have no doubt that your pastoral service will be a deep blessing to many. For what my private wishes are worth, I hope God keeps you here so I can see your ministry flourish for myself. In my experience, we all at times profit from reaching outside our customary circles, especially when things are tough. If you should feel a need, please call on me; I would be honored to hold you up in prayer. I can’t promise you sage counsel — although you’re welcome to it if I happen to have any lying about — but I will pray with you and for you. And I’ll buy the first round of drinks, so that’s something. 

If there is any other way I can serve you, please don’t hesitate to ask; your church and her people remain very dear to me.

May Christ the Sun of Righteousness shine on you, and scatter the darkness from your path.

Your fellow servant, 

Tim Nichols

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