Reflections on pastoral ministry

Looking back over four decades of ministry

Clayton R. Jepson is a retired minister in Loveland, Colorado.

That Bedford tinker, John Bunyan, in his classic allegory, sketched a portrait of a Spirit-filled gospel minister. It remains to this day a striking depiction of our high calling: "Christian saw the picture of a very grave person hang up against the wall; and this was the fashion of it: it had eyes lifted up to heaven, the best of books in his hand, the law of truth was written upon his lips, the world was behind its back. It stood as if it pleaded with men, and a crown of gold did hang over its head."1

Plainly, John Bunyan's was a high view. It's appropriate to wonder whether such a concept of the ministry is too impractical for our technological society with its computerized lifestyle. Can any mere human, partaking of the depravity characteristic of all mortals, presume to qualify for such divine service? Having lived 40 years in the tensions of such a life, I've come to believe that the grace of God makes a possibility of what we in ourselves cannot do.

Even so, through the years I've suffered self-doubt, conflicts, and role ambiguity crises.2 Discussing this with others, I discovered that I was not alone with such feelings. Pastors must be so many things to so many people; often they feel lost in the maze of manifold expectations.

Concerns about church structure

Among pastors I've also sensed for some time a widespread unease about church structure. One may wholeheartedly accept church teachings and still feel restless about aspects of church organization, leadership, and policies. I love our church and fully affirm its divine calling, but on occasion I've felt disappointed about what seems to be hypocrisy, a lack of integrity, apathy, and self-interest. At such times I've had to remind myself that the church has no existence of itself apart from the people who comprise it. It is people, after all, who are liable to disappoint us.

How do we cope with concerns about the church? One of our old-timers, Roy L. Benton, once remarked to a critic who had left the church: "You know, I'm not surprised at what you are saying. I knew those things were wrong with the church before you were bora."

"You did?"

"Yes, but I've learned one thing. If you want to clean house you can't do it from outside: you've got to be inside." My conviction for years has been that much spiritual work needs to be done inside the church, and this has been a prime objective of my ministry. Some times I've confided to the conference president my desire for winning souls inside the church. One good man, burdened as he was for lost souls outside, would express alarm that I must be op posed to evangelism. But no, I wasn't. On the contrary: if a church is alive, if the members know God and have faith in Jesus Christ as their Saviour, then out reach evangelism will be all the more effective. Members will be living witnesses, and people in the marketplace will be listening.

One hazard of working within a church organization is the ease with which one can flow with the tide. There can develop a kind of organization mentality. Some find it easy to become people pleasers, stifling convictions of their own. I tried to avoid an organization mentality by looking at my job, not as an assignment from the conference president, but rather as a commission from Christ to prepare for His coming. Viewed in that light, every worthwhile project took on spiritual importance and contributed to the spirituality of my congregation.

Overcoming resentment

High on the scale of success factors for ministers stands the matter of interpersonal relationships. Although I could not suppress personal convictions when they failed to reflect the prevailing view point, neither could I afford a rigid in flexibility that refused to recognize merit in others' views. I had to learn to dis agree and remain decent about it.

In the business of pastoring, occasions for encountering resentful feelings are legion. But ill will tends to melt when we look people in the eye week after week, smile, give a cheery greeting, and inquire sincerely about some thing of concern to them. Sometimes an honest apology is in order.

I credit my time in South Asia for many lessons in getting along with others. One supreme challenge came when Bill,3 chairman of the building commit tee, was leading a discussion about bids for construction. The architect was present. Somehow Bill began accusing the architect of receiving financial favors from subcontractors. Naturally, this professional man felt insulted and threatened to give up the project. Bill responded by submitting his resignation on the spot.

It was an extremely delicate moment. I tried to mollify Bill's words and apologized to the architect. After closing the meeting, I sought out Bill and persuaded him to remain on the commit tee. I continued to work closely with him, and as the project moved forward he seemed to place more confidence in me. He also maintained his generous contributions to the building fund.

Finally the edifice was complete. On our first Sabbath service in it, Bill turned to me and remarked: "Pastor, I feel great about our new church. We had a fine architect and a good builder."

Suddenly I felt a great burden lifted and an overflowing gratitude. We had saved not only Bill's continued sizable contributions to the project--at least 15 percent of the total expense--but, of greater importance, his good will and loyalty to the church. I am both proud and humbled by the way God worked through me in that volatile situation.

The notion of promotion

In measuring ministerial success, I believe we often misunderstand the concept of promotion within denominational employment. Some of us perceive that the position of church pastor is but a stepping-stone to "larger responsibilities." 4 As a result, we have struggled to build a cadre of superior pastors and keep them in the field. Some of our most dynamic ministers are drawn into other types of service. As important as those positions may be, nothing is more vital than building vibrant, mature, soul-winning congregations.

I feel grateful that throughout my ministry I resisted opportunities to be "promoted" from the pastorate. I felt I had already reached the top while serving in hamlets, towns, and cities, both in this country and abroad. My most cherished memories are of individuals I've helped come to Christ and grow up in Him.

Doing it over again

Without reservation, if I could turn back the clock and hear again the call to proclaim the gospel, I'd tell the Lord: "Here am I; send me!" Looking back over four decades of ministry, there are some things I'd do differently.

Many things I'd do the same. Here are some I would consider especially critical:5

/ would serve the church, not exploit it. The trusting regard people develop in their pastor is too precious to be taken advantage of. It's easy for ambitious ministers to pull strings and use people for their own ends, but the cause of Christ suffers and the congregation is weakened thereby.

/ would look well to my preaching. There are no shortcuts to effective preach ing. The right preparation of a sermon requires continuous preparation of the preacher. I would get all the college and seminary work possible, read heavily in the best books, enroll in refresher courses, and saturate my soul in Bible study and prayer.

I would preach the strong, vital themes of Scripture and relate them to the needs of the audience. The late H.M.S. Richards struck a vital nerve when he taught pas tors that the greatest need in our churches is strong Bible preaching. I would portray clearly the conflict between light and darkness and preach the truth in Christ as Adventists understand it. And like Dwight L. Moody, no matter what my sermon text, I would take the most direct route to the cross and call for action in response.

/ would be pastor of all the people. All pastors are tempted to cultivate the affluent and the influential to the neglect of the rest. But if the pastor doesn't support "insignificant" members, where will they find anyone who will? Those who have but little in resources or talents should be able to say "my church" with as deep a sense of belonging as anyone else. Of course, wealthy and talented people have hurts too. Everyone needs recognition and encouragement.

I would be out among the people. Despite the encroachments of management-type work, I would maintain daily personal visitation. This would include interested people outside the church family. I would set aside for people several afternoons a week as well as odd times morning, noon, and night. Such a pro gram isn't easy, but a pastor can't minister to people's needs from formal church contacts alone.

Who in the flock needs this type of shepherding? The alcoholic needs your visit, and so does the pregnant single woman, the teenager trapped in drugs, the person who lost a job or perhaps a house, the non-attender, the sick, the bereaved, the disillusioned, and the distraught--and even those who are enjoying success in life.

/ would be a part of my community. Like it or not, we live in this world. The ills of society are our problems too. I would urge my people to be active in civic and community affairs. I myself would be involved in the community ministerial association, the hospital chaplaincy program, and health education seminars. I would serve as a volunteer police chaplain, something I never did. I would seek membership in a civic club. I would attempt to influence public opinion by writing more letters to the newspaper editor.

I would guard my attitudes. If pastors hope to encourage Christian attitudes and ethical principles in others, they must take careful stock of their own. Thus I would seek to be Christlike toward people regardless of race, class, or creed.

/ would be loyal to my church. This includes denominational leadership and all fellow believers. At the same time I would speak out against wrongdoing wherever it may be found. I would also seek to maintain ethical behavior toward fellow ministers, the church, and my neighbors.

/ would keep fit in my health and finances. A pastor's health is important to everyone, and I would do whatever possible to maintain it. I would also be honest in the stewardship of money and not leave unpaid bills behind me.

I would avoid professional jealousies. This includes engaging in exclusiveness or competition with fellow ministers. I would seek no special gratuities. I would not be a party to marriage or funeral rackets. I would never embarrass successors by meddling in the affairs of churches I had formerly served.

/ would dare more for God. Most of us apply too much weight to our fears. I would stifle my inhibitions and expect God to see me through in greater plans and bolder enterprises. I would exercise faith more diligently.

Finally, I would depend more upon God. I would bolster my ministry through aggressive prayer and vigorous claims on the power of the Holy Spirit. Since God's purposes may require more time than do ours, I would not be "of those who shrink back and are destroyed, but of those who have faith and keep their souls" (Heb. 10:39, RSV).

1 John Bunyan, The Pilgrim's Progress
(London: J. M. Dent and Sons, Ltd., 1677), p. 32.

2 See Michael G. McBride, "Role Conflict and
Role Ambiguity Applicable to the Local Pastor in
the North Pacific Union Conference of Seventh-day
Adventists" (D.Min. project, Andrews
University, 1984), pp. 17, 18.

3 pseudonym.

4 Robert Spangler, "What's Wrong With Being
a Pastor?" Ministry, June 1982, pp. 26, 27.

5 I am indebted for some thoughts here to F. E.
Davison, / Would Do It Again (St. Louis: Bethany
Press, 1948).

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Clayton R. Jepson is a retired minister in Loveland, Colorado.

December 1993

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