Several years ago, I received an email from a friend that included this:
I am applying for a ________ position. May I put you down as a minister reference? I still don’t know any ministers at ________ who could give me one since the church is so big.
A part of my reply:
I’ll be happy to be a reference. What a perfect position for you! I’ll say lots of good things.
I hope this isn’t overstepping, but I wanted to say this also… I really hope you don’t need me for a minister reference in the future. You are so incredibly gifted and also have so many places where you could grow if a pastor were investing in you. It’s upsetting to me to know that you’re in a place where you’re not known. To me, that means you’re being under-utilized and under-challenged.
If it’s just a matter of taking initiative, I hope you’ll do what it takes to find someone at ________ who really becomes your pastor. If that’s not a possibility there, I hope you’ll find a place where it is. You have too many gifts and too much space to grow to be without a pastor.
What this is not about:
1) Church size – You can find several large churches that do a great job of connecting pastors to individuals. You can find several small churches that don’t. On the whole, it’s easier to remain anonymous at a large church. You’ll need to take more initiative and so will the church. But size isn’t the only factor here.
2) A paycheck - When I ask who your pastor is, I’m not concerned about a paycheck. That is, your pastor doesn’t have to be on staff at the church. They may be a banker or nurse. But they’re a part of your local church community and they’re your pastor.
What this is about:
1) Pastoral discernment - Who is the spiritually discerning person in your life who is able to see the forest of your life when you have your face pressed up against a tree?
Note: This isn’t just for beginners. The most spiritually mature person needs a pastor, just like Roger Federer still needs a coach.
2) Pastoral authority – That’s an ugly term in our independent society. But it’s needed. We love ourselves too much. Without giving someone else authority to suggest and prescribe things we may not like, we’ll usually choose our own way.
Who has the authority to ask you uncomfortable questions and give you uncomfortable prescriptions?
3) Soul care - A pastor cares for your soul. (S)he works with you toward healing, wholeness, and hope in places of brokenness; works with you to reestablish broken relationships; helps you sustain in times when restoration is impossible or unlikely; and guides you toward growth and wise choices.
In a time of crisis, who is the pastor that will care for your soul? In the places where you need guidance or encouragement, or even a loving rebuke, who is prepared to offer it?
4) Someone in your local congregation - You may list several pastors. They may be scattered all over the place. That’s great! But you need to have a pastor to you in your local congregation. Each local congregation is a unique little body of Christ. It’s not just a venue to sing some songs and hear a sermon. You’re going through something special together as a community. You need a pastor within that community.
You might even ask yourself, when you come to some of those most special occasions of life––a wedding, a funeral, a baptism––will the person sitting with you during those times of celebration or mourning be someone who knows you? Will the person officiating over those most personal of services be someone who knows you personally?
Who’s your pastor?
On Saturday, I attended a memorial service for David Sparks. It was packed with people who had called David their pastor. It was remarkable to see all of those people whose lives are truly different because of the ways that David invested in them––the way he encouraged people to use their gifts, to do more than they had done before, and the way that he was there for them when they had a crisis or failed or screwed up. None of that happens without serious relational investment.
Who’s investing in you like that?
I’ve been formed a lot by several people who couldn’t pick me out of a lineup (e.g. Rob Bell) or who died long before I was born (e.g. John Wesley and Augustine). These have been important teachers for me, and I appreciate them for that. But they weren’t my pastors. They haven’t known me, been there when I needed someone most, or sat across a table to say something I needed to hear––whether a word of encouragement or challenge.
I’m not where I am today without the pastors in my life:
- David Sparks calling, texting, and meeting with me to give words of encouragement.
- Jerry Ernst teaching me to be a Christian leader.
- Aaron Mansfield not letting me off easy.
- Derek Robinette encouraging constantly and rebuking when necessary.
- Paul Brunstetter believing in me before I believed in myself.
- Todd Nelson offering words of wisdom and companionship.
- Mike Powers giving me space to discern calling.
- Paul and Sylvia Cummings teaching me to pray.
That’s far from an exhaustive list. To those many pastors in my life not listed above, thank you…