General practice pastors: the foundation of ministry

There always will be the solo pastor to conduct the bulk of the church's business. Such pastors must be competent in several areas of church ministry.

Willie Hucks is the Associate Editor of Ministry.

Our three-and-a–half-year-old son was ill. Although illness is common for small children, this sickness was more worrisome than usual.

It all started on a Friday afternoon when I picked him up from day care. His caregiver told us that our son had slept all afternoon, which was unusual. His mother and I treated his fever just as we always had done, and he felt a bit better by that evening. But the next day his fever raged more furiously, and his energy level was significantly lower.

Being new to the area, we were unaware of medical resources. Someone told us that a doctor lived across the street who wouldn’t mind if we called on him regardless of the time. So, in those less than ideal circumstances, we introduced ourselves to him and asked for help.

Our son, Kendall, had a restful Saturday night and good Sunday morning. We were convinced that the crisis had passed. Late that morning, to our surprise, Dr. Robert Miller stopped by the house to see how Kendall was doing. He did, indeed, have a good night, we said, and his energy level was much higher.

However, by mid afternoon Monday it was clear that more medical intervention would be necessary. Dr. Miller fit Kendall into his office schedule for late afternoon. Off we went to his family medicine practice, where we learned that Kendall had pneumonia, and the quickest path to recovery would be hospitalization.

Over the next four nights and days Dr. Miller continued his general practice in the daytime, but every night he was at the hospital dutifully attending to our son. Our relationship with him continued, and he became our family practice physician. Whether it was my annual physical examination or the quick stop by his house for advice, he was always dependable and cordial.

Unfortunately, some parts of the United States will face a serious shortfall of family physicians by the year 2020. Since the late 1990s there has been a precipitous drop in the number of medical graduates who are opting for family medicine, choosing instead specialties with higher pay and more control over work hours and work environment.1 According to Peter Landless, M.Med., associate director for health ministries of the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, this has become more than an American phenomenon. He states, “There is a shortage of well-trained, all-around family physicians worldwide—partly because of inadequate numbers of people being trained as physicians, but significantly because of the pull of specialized medicine.”2

Wanted: more good pastors

Why this story and statistic? Because I fear that some young pastors are pursuing the same route—looking for the day when they can “specialize” in youth ministries, chaplaincy, or some administrative position. In other words, they dream, perhaps, of the day when they don’t have to spend their time in the activities of general-practice pastoring, such as board meetings, church school issues, and multichurch stresses, just to name a few.

Dean R. Hoge and Jacqueline E. Wenger isolated seven main motivations for pastors who left congregational ministry and determined that at least 27 percent left to pursue a specialized ministry.

Because of other potential factors, Hoge and Wenger suspect the number may be as high as 35 percent.3 These pastors left congregational ministry for chaplaincy, seminary work, and mission work, just to name a few options.4 Furthermore, of those who left for any of the seven motivations, these pastors were the happiest and felt that they had previously received the greatest support from administrators and lay leaders.5

Are specialties in ministry needed? Absolutely— just as much as in medicine. Many years ago when I had an impacted wisdom tooth, my regular dentist was unable to help. I needed a specialist—an oral surgeon. And the surgeon couldn’t operate without an anesthesiologist, another specialist.

We need specialists in church life, too. We need administrators on every level. We need individuals who focus primarily on worldwide evangelism. We need youth directors who have that special connection with young folks and who can train others to be leaders. We need counselors who specialize in grief counseling and marriage counseling— the list goes on. Yet I fear that some view pastoral ministry as a stepping-stone to a “higher” calling.

Earlier I touched on some of the reasons why some may shy away from pastoral ministry as a long-term calling: the mere thought of board meetings and business meetings, bearing the greater burden of visiting the church members, year-round evangelism, and financial pressures. Unfortunately, the focus appears to be placed on the negative side of these items. The attraction for many current and future pastors seems to be toward ministries outside the local church setting, such as chaplaincy or the attraction of being a part of a pastoral staff—in which case the burdens of ministry become divided among several professional equals.

However, there always will be the solo pastor to conduct the bulk of the church business. In fact, that solo pastor may be the only pastor over several churches. My contention? That these pastors, often unheralded, are the foundation of ministry. Their churches will have staffs, but they will comprise solely voluntary leaders as opposed to paid professionals who lead out. As a rule, pastoral staffs are limited to larger churches.

The challenge

So how do pastors get the idea that they can pastor and not have to bear all the duties of the pastorate or others who believe they can spend the bulk of ministry sharing the pastoral load with other pastors as a member of a team?

Training schools. Of course the problem isn’t the school (certainly not in my case). I recall in my undergraduate and graduate studies taking classes in leadership and church administration. I recall going to church each Sabbath and watching every element of the divine worship service being executed with pinpoint precision. While the emphasis was never overtly upon well-staffed churches as the pinnacle of success, I somehow came to believe that the pastor who did not have a well-staffed church was not successful.

Another factor might be that specialists write most of the textbooks— those who either have or make the time to write. Perhaps they have that time because they are not fully engaged in the general practice of which we presently speak. As a result, in societies with information as king, if the books don’t promote general practice, then general practice will not be a priority.

Society at-large. It seems that the Christian church promotes “bigger is better.” As a child growing up in Dallas, Texas, United States, I recall W. A. Criswell (1909–2002) being the best-known pastor in the city. His First Baptist Church, which he pastored from 1944 to 1995, was reputed to be the largest church in the United States, boasting a membership of 25,000.

His was in the minority—a true megachurch. Today, many churches throughout the world boast memberships in excess of 25,000. And we laud their founders and leaders for being visionary, often growing their congregations from a small start to where they are today. Certainly, such leaders don’t have the time for what we would call “general practice” (indeed it becomes difficult, if not impossible, for pastors with 1,000 members to really know all their members).

I receive advertisements in my mailbox inviting me to professional conventions throughout the world. I read professional journals that contain advertisements for these same conventions. I attend a few of them each year; some have large turnouts, others relatively small. One thing they all have in common, though, is that their presenters are large-church pastors with staffs, or specialists in their particulars fields, or both. The list of presenters includes famous pastors but never the anonymous pastor who regularly engages in “general practice” ministry in Boise or Mexico City or Auckland.

However unintentionally, the atmosphere created develops into one that promotes the desire to be a specialist because that way one doesn’t have to deal with the nuts and bolts of everyday general ministry. The life of the specialist is then considered easy—filled with expense accounts, travel, and glamour, and void of the tedium that supposedly comes with district ministry.

As one who has both pastored and taught, I wonder what can be done to stem the tide that threatens to sweep some pastors and ministerial students away down the river of potential disillusionment. Disillusionment comes easily when one doesn’t have a clear picture of the joys, as well as the challenges, of pastoral ministry.

What can be done?

I again reflect back upon my undergraduate and graduate studies, as well as my time spent as a university professor, and wonder if the key to promoting and encouraging general practice pastoring might not be in what was done then as well as in some other programs providing ministerial training.

Ministerial internships. My wife is an elementary school teacher. As a part of her schooling during her junior year she spent considerable time observing a teacher in her classroom. During her senior year she took the additional step of teaching students under a seasoned teacher. That teacher could encourage her in what she was doing well and also create the environment in which she could ask questions such as, “How would you have handled this situation if you were me?”

The same kind of interactive training should be included in university ministerial training. Often universities require one year of such internships, and some schools make it optional (others, unfortunately, do not offer any). Two years should be required. Consider the following:

•Two years allows for a greater variety of experiences in a pastoral setting. Too often a one-year assignment can expose the intern only to that immediate setting, whether a small church or a large. A two-year program allows for the intern to have two separate assignments. The first year could be at a large church and the second at a small church. Or the first can be in a single church district and the second at a multichurch district. Such variety lessens the temptation to prefer what might appear to be the easier or preferable road to travel by exposing the intern to the best in a variety of settings. Having been exposed to a variety of ministries, that intern also develops an appreciation for the wideness of ministry more than a disdain for certain elements of ministry. As such, the intern can better avoid the early desire for specialization, opting for the joys of general practice.

•The intern’s exposure over those two years includes pastors with varying leadership styles and temperaments. This, of course, implies that interns are placed under experienced pastors who have the gift of mentoring. And in districts with more than one church, it does not become the job of the intern to pastor one of the churches, for that defeats the purpose of the internship program. The intern must be exposed to all the variables in the smaller churches or multichurch district settings as well as in larger church settings.

Early stages of ministry.Upon graduation, these young pastors need to again be placed in churches that have seasoned pastors. The signifi cant difference between this proposal and what was proposed earlier is that at this stage the emphasis for the young pastor should be in the smaller church or multichurch district setting.

This admittedly runs contrary to the traditional approach of automatically placing young pastors in large churches. Nevertheless I propose this approach for two reasons: First, such an approach implies that young pastors can be mentored only by pastors who have attained senior pastor status in large settings. Second, it can create in the young pastor who serves in this church an unconscious disdain for having to eventually move to a smaller setting. Furthermore, these pastors usually are assigned to a specifi c ministry within that particular church, and although they are exposed to a variety of ministries within that local church, they are encouraged to focus more on one or two particular elements. And therein may lie the seeds of specialization.

Admittedly such an approach calls for a balancing act. Young pastors can learn a lot in large-church, single-church settings that they can eventually incorporate in smaller church settings; on the other hand, it may be that their being placed in smaller church settings can lead to frustration—especially if their gifts are suited to larger church settings.

I certainly am not advocating that one must slowly climb the ladder from “entry-level” positions in ministry. I believe that it becomes quickly evident that some are destined for larger churches just as some are for conference administration. These opportunities must not be denied; indeed, they should be encouraged. I also believe that some are ideally suited to spend the larger share of their ministries in rural settings, in smaller settings, in multichurch district settings. It requires a special calling to pastor in such settings, just as it requires a special calling to serve in administrative posts (or any other posts, for that matter).

Highlight the general practice pastor. As stated earlier, much ink is spent on detailing the accomplishments of well-known pastors, evangelists, preachers, and administrators. But how many two- or three- or nine-church pastors are widely commended for their efforts? These often bear their burdens in the heat of the day, and while in some parts of the world these pastors may have an extensive and well-trained set of elders and other leaders, they nevertheless still do not receive recognition and praise like those who have the greater number of church members.

Benefits for the general practice pastor

Having spent two-thirds of my ministry pastoring (almost all of that time in multichurch districts), I have discovered many incentives that entice one to relish the general practice ministry. In my current ministry I still enjoy some of these benefits, but certainly not to the degree as the pastor who joins with the same congregation every Sabbath, during prayer meetings, and in their life journeys (be they joyful or sorrowful).

It creates a more complete pastor.I define pastor in the sense that the Greek term connotes: a shepherd. The shepherd spends more time with the flock than others do. Being the shepherd of a congregation, however, does not obviate the need to delegate responsibilities to elders and others. Church members nevertheless need a pastor actively involved in ministry to the flock at times other than Sabbath and during prayer meeting. The pastor who possesses skill—though not necessarily a thorough competency—with a variety of issues in a variety of settings is, in many senses, more rounded than the specialist. As Ken Crawford so eloquently wrote, once one leaves pastoral ministry, there are several downsides for which the pastor finds it difficult to compensate, and those downsides create challenges for the one who has moved on to some specialty area of ministry.6

It engenders more long-term confidence. As I mentioned earlier, I went to a specialist when I had an impacted wisdom tooth. However, when it comes to my oral hygiene, I have never had any other reason to visit an oral surgeon. Normally I see my regular dentist, whose job includes monitoring my dental health to make sure that everything is as it should be, and if not, he will either take care of the problem or refer me to a specialist.

As with my doctor from a few years ago, and as with my dentist today, and because I have spent the most time with these men who know my medical and dental histories respectively, they have earned my confidence. I know that they will not give me bad counsel and that they have my best interest at heart.

My relationship with my doctor and dentist illustrates the relationship that church members develop with their pastors. This same relationship I still maintain with church members from years gone by—my infrequent contact with them notwithstanding. But I don’t have that relationship with church members today. Indeed, I can’t. Perhaps I have that relationship with individual members, but with large groups of church members that privilege belongs to my senior pastor and his associate pastor. Why? Because they spend more time with the members of the congregation than I ever could spend. As such, they have earned the long-term confidence of their church members.

It creates a greater potential for the pastor to develop roots in the community. It would seem to be the opposite for the general practice pastor because so many other issues tug for attention. The ability to grow roots in the community is directly tied to the long-term confidence of people in the pastor because success arises out of a connection that creates confidence. The general practice pastor, as exhausting as the calling can be, has to personally touch both the congregation and the community.

Brian Rhoades pastors the Arlington and Fairfax churches in northern Virginia just outside Washington, D.C. He told me about his churches’ partnering with George Mason University and Marymount University, operating a health ministry in their churches’ communities, which has created an opening to meet the physical and spiritual needs of those neighborhoods. He states, “The health approach to community services is the best because people are thus more receptive.”7

Unless one’s specialty takes them to the community, it is difficult to touch the community. Very few specialists are able to succeed in both. General practice pastors may not be expert in both but neither are they called to be. General practice pastors may not be widely known but are known where it most matters: in the churches and communities for whom they labor.

It leads to a longer-term impact. Without a doubt, church members are still most impacted by the local pastor.

As a young teenager, my wife was impacted by her pastor and his wife, Pastor and Mrs. Van Runnels. Imagine her surprise and delight when, on her fifteenth birthday, they baked a cake and brought it to her house.

Several years later, when I was starting in ministry, Pastor Runnels took me under his wings and gave me counsel that has stayed with me to this day. It was an easy decision for Kathy and me to make as to who would officiate our wedding. He remained our counselor and advisor until his death in 1995.

Conclusion If you are teaching in or supervising a training program for future pastors, are you affirming the beauty of general practice pastoring? Are you encouraging men and women to “have an interest in all that relates to the welfare of the flock, feeding, guiding, and defending them. . . . manifest[ing] a tender consideration for all, especially for the tempted, the afflicted, and the desponding”8?

If you are preparing for a lifetime of pastoral ministry, or if you are already engaged in congregational ministry, are you committed to being “shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care . . .eager to serve” (1 Pet. 5:2, NIV)?

General practice pastors worldwide, like general practice doctors, perform the most vital elements of ministry.

Despite all the pressures that accompany the call, general practice pastors enjoy the long-term satisfaction of long-term relationships with the real engine of the church: members who live, love, and labor at the grass roots level. And the body of Christ is richer as a result of all that they do.

1 Associated Press, “Shortage of Family Doctors Predicted by 2020,” MSNBC, September 27, 2006, (accessed January 4, 2007).
2 Peter Landless, in an interview with the author, February 20, 2007.
3 Dean R. Hoge and Jacqueline E. Wenger, Pastors in Transition: Why Clergy Leave Local Church Ministry (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2005), 50.
4 Ibid.
5 Ibid., 51.
6 See Ken Crawford, “Descending Into Administration,” Ministry (February 2007), 9–11.
7 Brian Rhoades, in an interview with the author, February 20, 2007.
8 Ellen G. White, Gospel Workers (Washington, D.C: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1948), 190.



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Willie Hucks is the Associate Editor of Ministry.

April 2007

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