Seven rules for pastoral interns

Starting right. Paul said, “I have fought a good fight; I have finished my course; I have kept the faith” (2 Tim. 4:7). Learn how to end your leadership right, by starting it right.

Stanley E. Patterson, PhD, serves as chair and professor of the Christian Ministry department, Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary,
Berrien Springs, Michigan, United States.

An article by Anisa Purbasari Horton, in a recent issue of FastCompany Leadership Newsletter,caught my attention with this introduction: “Entering the workforce for the first time can be a shock to the system. Here’s what you need to know.” That sentence evoked a flashback to my own career entry more than 40 years ago. I was a new Christian. Parallel to my conversion experience was a sense that God was calling me to pastoral ministry. As my calling matured, I took the necessary step of entering college to prepare for professional ministry. Over time, I also developed a vision of what life would be like serving God’s people and leading them forward to accomplish Christ’s mission for the church. It was this dream, and the romantic idealism that shaped it, that set me up for my own experience of “shock to my system.”

I was unprepared for the realities I was facing as a young and spiritually immature pastor—imperfect members, imperfect conference leaders, imperfect churches—each combined to collapse my dream and violate my idealistic picture of life as a pastor. My guess would be that good people likely dropped a word here or there that should have tempered my vision, but for whatever reason, I was unprepared for the realities of serving as a minister of the gospel. My sense of calling was severely challenged by this disillusionment. If not for the grace and patience of a loving God, and the love of His people, I would likely not have survived in professional ministry. I passed through that dark valley, and four decades later I am able to declare, “I would not wish for any other lifework than the blessing of serving God’s people as a minister of the gospel.”

Back to the newsletter article. It shares seven rules and gives a commentary on each. As I read them, I found myself wondering whether I might have benefited from an understanding of these words of counsel as I began my ministry so long ago. Therefore, I am going to list each of Horton’s seven rules and add my own commentary on each, with contextualization to pastoral ministry.

Rule no. 1:

You are there to do your job The first rule begs an important question, “What is my job?” There is no official job description that can serve as the standard by which a pastor can be evaluated. The Seventh-day Adventist Minister’s Handbook 2 serves as a comprehensive guide for the work of a pastor. However, 281 pages cover a lot of territory if you are struggling to embrace the essential work of a pastor at the entry level. Horton states that “the rules that truly matter in the workplace are often not written anywhere—they’re simply things that those who have been in it for a while consider to be obvious.”3 Forty years of pastoral and ministerial work likely qualifies as “in it for a while,” so I will share my list of the essentials:

1. Love your people—unconditionally. Love them to a depth that compels you to say, “If necessary, I will die for them” (John 10:11, 15).

2. Point them to both the Living Word and the written Word—always.

3. Model and encourage the devotional disciplines of Jesus.

4. Walk in the Spirit—with integrity.

5. Give hope and rebuke judgmental attitudes and behavior.

6. Be there—for your family, church family, and community.

This list is not comprehensive, but it reflects the essential elements that come to the surface in my experience. In your search, seek out respected spiritual leaders for guidance in the essential work of a pastor and then embrace the work of ministry with energy and commitment. Respectfully ask your conference leaders for clarity regarding their expectations of your work. In the end, you have to decide what is important. Never allow yourself to fall into a reactive mode of pursuing someone else’s agenda—be vigilant to remain proactive. Know your job, and be faithful to do it.

Rule no. 2: It is up to you to figure things out

The context of pastoral ministry compels me to adjust this rule in order to avoid an individualistic concept of being a leader. “You” are involved in crafting or discovering solutions to the challenges in ministry; but rather than coming up with the solution, you are charged to lead a community process, formal or informal, that addresses the challenges you encounter. This concept is as old as the earth itself. “In the beginning God (plural) created the heavens and the earth” (Gen. 1:1). The suggestion that man be created in the image of God (v. 26) reveals a collective planning process that involves the community of God. This conversational, community-based approach to leadership was incorporated into the organizational structure of the Seventh-day Adventist Church and is revealed in the practice of community or committee-based decision-making. Leaders in the church identify and analyze the challenges and then craft recommendations to the appropriate committee or constituent body charged with making the decisions.

The absence of “terminal authority”4 as a legitimate function of the pastor does not minimize the value of this rule. Your participation in the process of “figuring things out” calls on the ingenuity and creativity of the local church. When properly pursued, it allows for the design and delivery of customized ministry (service, evangelism, Christian education, etc.) suited especially for the context of your community. Such creativity avoids a reactive ministry that depends upon mass-produced ministry models that are not guaranteed to be a fit for your church or community context. The problem and the solution belong to the community you lead.

Rule no. 3: Feedback will not come automatically

Feedback is essential to personal and professional growth. During the educational process feedback happens regularly because it was intentionally built into the process. In the context of pastoral ministry, feedback or evaluation is often scarce, and caution should be exercised in making assumptions based on such feedback. The minister of the gospel has to be proactive in pursuing an agenda of meaningful and carefully designed feedback. A simplistic approach to growth metrics is sometimes applied to describe the pastor’s effectiveness.

For example, to make baptism totals meaningful, the pastor or church must measure evangelism results and discipleship effectiveness by reporting what measures were applied to intentionally grow new members toward maturity. How many remained bonded to the church after six months and/or one year later? This feedback process requires the church to thoughtfully explore the why and how questions regarding retention. Counting and reporting only the raw results of mission efforts without considering ongoing realities results in misleading statistics and lost opportunities to learn and grow. In addition, it degrades the generative duties of the pastor to teach and equip—not just baptize.

The minister of the gospel as a professional must implement feedback loops on all aspects of ministry—evangelism, discipling, preaching, finance, plant services, and so on. Intentional feedback, evaluation, and processes that allow for the adjustment of methodology will strengthen the mission profile of the church.

Rule no. 4: Attention to detail is extremely important

My perception, after many years of being a minister of the gospel, serving pastors and teaching pastors, is that many pastors are not detail-oriented by nature. Many years ago, as my ministry challenges became more complicated, I began to have a recurring dream that involved my answering the phone and hearing a person ask, “Where are you?” to which I responded, “At home. Why?” Only to have the person on the other end of the line respond, “You are supposed to be at the funeral chapel. We are waiting on you!” After which I awoke in a sweat but grateful that it was only a dream. But in reality, it was not only a dream; I had reached the limit of my ability to intuitively manage my time and ministry events. I solved it by disciplining myself to use a calendar and log, and the anxiety disappeared along with the bad dream.

The interdependent nature of the church allows us to benefit from one another’s gifts. We become whole, collectively, because the Holy Spirit has promised that outcome. My experience has produced a testimony that allows me to confess my lack of giftedness in the area of detail. Graciously, the Holy Spirit has always provided persons in my life who handled the details wonderfully well as long as I maintained clear and open conversation with them. We have also been blessed with incredible technology that enhances our abilities to address details well beyond our natural ability. Both of these resources make it possible to stay on top of the details of organizational leadership.

Rule no. 5: Understanding how you fit in the bigger picture goes a long way

The pastor is a part of a managed organization (conference or mission) that was created by the church community to enhance the effectiveness of its mission. The organization includes supervisors and employees who are subject to lines of authority. The pastor, subject to the authority of the conference administrators and executive committee, is sent to lead a church or district, neither of which is designed for being managed—but is rather, a group of free individuals who can come or go as they please. The minister of the gospel has no legitimate control authority over the members of the church. Consequentially, a way must. be discovered or developed that allows responsible leadership behavior with the conference, associated church organizations, and the local church. A clear sense of this reality and the need to develop relationships at all levels is critically important if the pastor is to successfully address all aspects of the portrait of the church.

While relational leadership is the only legitimate option in the local church, the development of healthy relationships at the conference level and beyond allows the managed nature of the organization to take a back seat to quality, respectful relationships between pastor and conference leaders. In turn, it is incumbent on conference leaders to treat pastors as professionals rather than as employees. Working toward a healthy collegial relationship creates a positive context for the growth and effectiveness of the pastor and the churches served.

Rule no. 6: Companies are not obliged to consider your needs and interests

“As an employee, your job is to bring value to the company, and at times, that might mean putting their needs ahead of yours.”5 This is a delicate rule! Our conference organizations should be compassionate and caring toward their pastors. But are these organizations “obliged to consider their needs and interests”? The needs and interests of all ministers of the gospel are addressed by policies that attempt to establish parity among those who serve the organization, but this is not so different from the secular corporate context from which I borrowed these seven rules. There are occasions when leaders in the secular corporate context make exceptions to policy. They address unique situations on behalf of the employee and grant exceptions if they believe doing so would be in the best interest of the organization. But this is true also for the conference and those who serve the church in a professional capacity. These exceptions should be seen as an act of grace or kindness, not as an entitlement.

I was the recipient of such grace by a conference many years ago when I was passing through a dark and difficult valley in my life. I remain amazed and humbled by the generosity they extended to me and my family. I feel that I would cheapen their gift to me if I thought the exception was an entitlement. It rests upon each of us to be careful stewards of our lives and resources. Again, such an attitude is intended to be mutual or reciprocal. The application of the fruit of the Spirit (Gal. 5:22, 23) rests upon the corporate church as much as upon the pastor and should influence the quality of the relationship.

Rule no. 7: No one will care about your career as much as you

Unmet expectations are the tinder of disappointment and bitterness. If this is true, then we should be careful to build our expectations upon a solid foundation. Pastoral ministry is a unique career path. My early disappointments in ministry were very much influenced by the faulty expectations I conjured up in my imagination. It was unwise of me to assume that my leaders would be perfect Christians in all their leadership behavior or that my members would be consistently cooperative and encouraging. If my maturity had been fully formed, I would not have included such in my vision. Expectations must first address personal responsibility. If a pastor assumes that the church organization should be taking care of her or him from the cradle to the grave, there will likely be disappointment.

The pastor’s stewardship of self and family is impacted by their specific calling of God. Ministry has more than one career path, and that decision is not the responsibility of the conference. Decisions of whether to move or not are always difficult, but the ultimate decision remains with the pastor, and so do the consequences. Home ownership, retirement strategies, investments—all fall upon the primary steward of self and family. Build your expectations upon the reality that you are the steward.


These seven rules provide a skeleton upon which to build a life in professional ministry. There are likely “bones” missing that you feel should be addressed. Reflect on it and add them. My purpose in this exercise, using Horton’s framework, is to contribute ideas that might positively impact the early experience of a minister of the gospel and beyond. Press forward, and enjoy all that God has prepared for you in service to Him and His people.

1 Anisa Purbasari Horton, “New Graduates: These Are the Unspoken Rules of the Workplace No One Tells You,” FastCompany Newsletter, May 12, 2017,

2 General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, Seventh-day Adventist Minister’s Handbook (Silver Spring, MD: The General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, 2009).

3 Horton, “New Graduates.”

4 Stanley E. Patterson, “Terminal Authority as a Function of Community,” in Called: A Digital Magazine for Clergy (Spring 2016).

5 Horton, “New Graduates.”

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Stanley E. Patterson, PhD, serves as chair and professor of the Christian Ministry department, Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary,
Berrien Springs, Michigan, United States.

November 2017

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