Having both pastored churches for more than thirty years, Derek Prime and Alistair Begg draw on their vast pastoral experience to write, per the book’s dedication, “to the rising generation of pastors and teachers and those who through the grace of God will be called to follow in their footsteps” (3). With care, they lay down their vision of a pastor’s calling and work, providing a highly practical guide for navigating the treacherous waters of pastoral ministry. Seeking greater breadth than depth, the book covers an extensive range of topics, continually weaving back and forth between teaching on basic principles drawn from the Scriptures and detailed descriptions of the authors’ personal experiences and routines. With respect to the latter, their stated aim is that these details would serve “not as a model but as a possible guide and starting point” (13).
Having now spent one academic year as a seminary student studying alongside hundreds of other seminary students, I greatly appreciate the treatment of the pastor’s call. Most of the students I encounter who, like myself, are not already pastoring, seem hesitant to declare that they “aspire to the office of overseer” (1 Tim 3:1). Whether they fear this would be presumptuous, or whether they have not been called to this task, great encouragement as well as correction can be found in the authors’ insistence that the pastor’s call is an “unmistakable conviction” of an “irresistible nature” (18). I believe our current Christian culture has made discerning the will of God overly complicated and mystical. The discussion of a call beginning with a desire (22) and then being confirmed through the affirmation of other Christians (24) is wise advice regarding any calling, whether in ministry or otherwise. It could be said of any Christian facing any significant decision that “it is important that he should willingly submit himself to the judgment of Christians who know him well and who may be relied upon to be completely honest in stating their convictions” (25), for the sin in our hearts is deceitful and must be uprooted through the care of our fellow brothers and sisters in Christ (Heb 3:12-13).
The authors repeatedly emphasize the necessity for every member of the body to see themselves as servants in “the work of ministry” (Eph 4:12), correcting the unbiblical and unhelpful distinctions between “clergy” and “laity” (224). However, joining in the common practice of referring to the role of the pastor as “the highest calling in Christian service” may not serve this aim (17). Be that as it may, I was challenged and helped by their desire to push back on the “office-oriented” tendencies of the church with regard to “the office of overseer” (1 Tim 3:1) in favor of being more “gift-oriented” and viewing it as “the exercise of a spiritual gift” (18). Several sections in the book, including the ones titled “Prepare God’s People for Works of Service” in chapter three (56) and “Principles of Successful Delegation” in chapter twelve (240), stress the importance of pastors making it a priority to lead every member of the body to discover and find opportunities to exercise their unique gifts and abilities, and to not neglect praying daily for members in this regard (57).
Another common thread woven throughout the book is the appropriateness and benefit found in adhering to the biblical model of establishing a plurality of elders in every church, with the pastor being numbered among the elders. Alongside each mention of this need is the insistence that there also be a clear leader of leaders, sometimes referring to this man as “the presiding elder”, “the leading elder”, or simply “the pastor” or “the minister” (237-239). Though there is little to no appeal to the Scriptures regarding this governing structure, the authors convincingly appeal both to their personal experiences and to the universal human experience that “in every team there has to be a leader” and “someone will inevitably come to the fore” (206). In discussing the necessity and practice of delegating responsibilities to others, the authors quote and unpack the account of Moses appointing officials “over thousands, hundreds, fifties and tens” in Exodus 18:13–26 (226). One could appeal to this example to help support the need for a hierarchical governing structure within the church with one pastor leading the way.
In this vein, and against the backdrop of the troubled leadership in so many churches, I appreciate the authors’ repeated insistence that every pastor needs shepherding. A significant portion of Paul David Tripp’s book “Dangerous Calling” is devoted to addressing this blind-spot in much of the modern pastoral culture, attributing many of the ills of the church to this deficiency. In addition to discussions regarding the pastor’s character and the church’s leadership structures, this need for shepherds to be shepherded even finds its way into the discussion of a pastor’s devotional reading and the resulting recommendation to set aside a few minutes each day to read a spiritually nourishing Christian book (94). While this certainly is no substitute for receiving face-to-face pastoral care from another brother (219), the appropriateness of this recommendation helps to highlight the acuteness of this need.
According to Prime and Begg, whether the man serves as a “ruling elder,” a “teaching elder,” a “lay elder,” a “staff elder,” a “senior pastor,” an “executive pastor,” a “worship pastor,” or an “associate pastor”, every pastor needs to be involved in hands-on pastoral care, as “the shepherding aspect of the ministry keeps us in touch with reality” (31-32). Appealing first to the connection in Ephesians 4:11 between “shepherds and teachers” denoting a single office (31), the authors also turn to the examples and instructions of both Jesus and the apostles. Unfortunately, this is a necessary corrective to the growing trend for pastors to justify the abdication of certain aspects of their calling by appealing to pragmatic arguments about what hierarchical structures and allocation of responsibilities have proven effective in both the business world and in thriving mega-churches, as well as by appealing to what best fits their personality type and natural bent. While one pastor’s context and gifting may lead him to spend more or less time providing in-depth pastoral care than another, a complete neglect of either shepherding or teaching cannot be supported from the Scriptures and is certain to hinder that pastor’s effectiveness in the other areas in which they labor (143).
With respect to pastoral care, much of the book places a strong emphasis on the importance of personal pastoral visits, whether in people’s homes, the pastor’s home, the pastor’s church office, or hospitals, or through the means of telephone conversations or written letters. It appears that Derek’s practice and expectation is for the majority of the pastor’s time to be spent making pastoral visits. This practice seems to be built upon the example of Paul in Ephesus, as recounted in his parting remarks in Acts 20:20 that he “did not shrink from declaring to you anything that was profitable, and teaching you in public and from house to house” (51). While the authors make a point to note that there are “cultural differences between Edinburgh and Cleveland” (162), theses examples are still eye-opening and challenging for the average American Christian, myself included.
In discussing the need for the pastor to recognize his own limitations in pastoral work, the authors assert that, “in counseling, we do not aim to compete with the doctor or psychologist or psychiatrist” (160). I appreciate the thrust of this section and the humble heart behind this assertion, but I would have liked for this to be accompanied by a caution against the dangers of the unbiblical, atheistic, humanistic worldview at the heart of so much of both secular and Christian psychology and psychiatry. The same tempering and qualification would be appropriate when the advice to refer people to medical professionals appears again in a later chapter, though that section seems to imply that a spiritual problem could underlie what would otherwise appear to be a psychological illness (174).
Of all the demanding exhortations and intimidating examples presented in the book, I was most challenged by the discussion on prayer being the pastor’s “principal and main work” (65). It’s not that I was surprised to find a lengthy discussion on the importance of the pastor’s practice of private prayer, or that I was taken aback by the reference to the priorities of the apostles as defined in Acts 6:4, but the explicit placement of prayer before all other pastoral activities helped me to recognize that prayer is not always at the top of my list of the duties I expect of a pastor. I’m struck by how frequently the apostle Paul mentions his laboring in prayer for the churches to whom he writes, and thus it is fitting that Prime and Begg describe private, intercessory prayer for the flock as being “the principal part of our pastoral care” (68). In wrestling with what I often find to be an insufficient love for others, both in my feelings and in my deeds, I’m encouraged and quickened to action by the authors’ recounting of the benefit of intercessory prayer in fostering greater concern and sensitivity for the needs of others. Similarly, I am also stirred by the quoting of William Burns’ prayer for the Lord to grant him “to experience more pure and tender love for the lambs of the flock” (70).
Even before the “Authors’ Note” and their “Introduction”, a tone is set in the foreword with R. Albert Mohler’s sober testimony that “On his own, no man is up to this task” (9). This message reverberates throughout the following fourteen chapters and is well summarized on the last couple of pages of the book with these words: “If we feel out of our depth in the ministry, that is good, for we are. We are then in a position to depend upon God from whom competency to minister comes” (291). This may well be the most important truth these seasoned pastors share, having been gleaned both from the Scriptures and from personal experience. Knowing some measure of the depths of my own sin, I’m certain I’m going to need frequent reminders of this penetrating wisdom.
Some preparing for ministry may find lengthy discussions detailing two men’s daily and weekly schedules to be unremarkable, but I find concrete examples helpful for illuminating and ingraining abstract principles. If, Lord willing, I’m appointed to be a pastor of God’s people, I intend to reread this book periodically throughout my ministry, as I anticipate it will provide fresh insights and refinement with each reading.
Soli Deo gloria!