I once preached the funeral of a dear family member with another pastor who was nearing retirement. After the funeral, we were discussing the recent retirement of another local minister who had faithfully served his church for over 40 years, the kind of pastoral tenure that is most unusual in our day. The thing I remember most about our conversation was the other pastor’s remark that this recently retired minister had stayed far too long at his church and that ministers needed to move every few years in order to remain effective in their congregations. He said something to the effect of, “In four or five years you’ve told them everything you know so it is time to move on.”
I was new to pastoral ministry at the time but that statement did not sit well with me. I thought it terribly sad that a man was so shallow and stagnant in his own walk with God that he could share everything he knew of our infinitely glorious Creator and Redeemer within the space of five years. A pastor must be constantly growing in his own understanding and experience if he is going to truly help those who are under his care. Without this kind of depth our ministry degenerates into pat answers and clichés that do little more than apply band-aids to the problems that people face. I have learned that pastoral ministry is hard and that what you see on the surface of a person’s life is rarely the true problem.
David Powlison describes this difficulty and why I believe we must cultivate depth in our ministry when he writes,
It is hard to shepherd souls, to combat intricate moral evil, to help people walk through pain and anguish. Gregory the Great called it the art of arts in his great treatise on pastoral care. He thought the task of guiding souls far more difficult than the tasks performed by a mere medical doctor. Think about that. The body is relatively accessible. It is often explicable by cause and effect reasoning and treatable by medication or surgery. But ‘the more delicate art deals with what is unseen,’ the irrational madness in our hearts (Jeremiah 17:9; Ecclesiastes 9:3). When you consider the challenge, how is it that most churchly counseling seems slapdash, pat answer, and quick fix? A good MD spends a lifetime in acquiring case-wise acumen. A mature psychotherapist pursues continuing education. Can a pastor be content with one-size-fits-all boilerplate?… People are not served when the Christian life is portrayed as if some easy answer will do – a pet doctrine, religious strategy, involvement in a program, spiritual experience – and presto!, case solved. Again, hear Gregory’s words: ‘One and the same exhortation is not suited to all, because they are not compassed by the same quality of character….In exhorting individuals great exertion is required to be of service to each individual’s particular needs.’ A pastor’s work is the art of arts.
Brothers, may God so deepen our growth in his infinite wisdom that each passing year makes us more effective shepherds of Christ’s flock and more skillful physicians of men’s souls!
(Quote excerpted from, “The Pastor as Counselor” in For the Fame of God’s Name: Essays in Honor of John Piper, pg. 428)