What Does a Pastor Do?
1 Thessalonians 3:1-10
What Does A Pastor Do?
When we could stand it no longer, we thought it best to be left by ourselves in Athens. We sent Timothy, who is our brother and God’s fellow worker in spreading the gospel of Christ, to strengthen and encourage you in your faith, so that no one would be unsettled by these trials. You know quite well that we were destined for them. In fact, when we were with you, we kept telling you that we would be persecuted. And it turned out that way, as you well know. For this reason, when I could stand it no longer, I sent to find out about your faith. I was afraid that in some way the tempter might have tempted you and our efforts might have been useless.
But Timothy has just now come to us from you and has brought good news about your faith and love. He has told us that you always have pleasant memories of us and that you long to see us, just as we also long to see you. Therefore, brothers, in all our distress and persecution we were encouraged about you because of your faith. For now we really live, since you are standing firm in the Lord. How can we thank God enough for you in return for all the joy we have in the presence of our God because of you? Night and day we pray most earnestly that we may see you again and supply what is lacking in your faith.
"It must be really easy to be a pastor." The speaker, a young woman to whom I had been introduced moments before responded to the introduction. "After all, you only work one day a week." I confess that the thought of a position requiring only a few hours of work weekly is attractive. However, pastoral work does occupy somewhat more time than may be seen by the casual observer, and much of the investment of time can never be known to the uninformed.
What does a pastor do? Does pastoral work require countless hours straightening paperclips or drinking endless cups of coffee? I will not detail the moment-by-moment day of a pastor, much less what I accomplish in a given day, but I do think it important to address pastoral work through review of the life of a model pastor, the Apostle Paul. It is important to provide this review for several reasons. First, it is good for people to know something of the unseen responsibilities of a pastor so they can appreciate the labours of their pastor. Second, it is possible that God is raising up from among us someone with a pastor's heart. By knowing something of the pastoral burden that one may be enabled to clarify the call of God. Again, by understanding the pastoral service, each of us will be equipped to multiply the pastoral ministry. These are not inconsequential reasons for knowing the answer to the question –
What does a pastor do?
A Pastor Instructs the Flock [3:1-3a]. Paul was deeply concerned for the spiritual welfare of new-born believers. He states that he feared that the tempter might have tempted them, rendering his efforts useless. He feared that the Word which he had sown was perhaps snatched away as would be seed cast along the path and which the birds might have eaten [cf. Matthew 13:4]. Preaching always demands a response in the listener. The message is delivered with a view to instructing people in the Faith and with a view to challenging faith in the heart of those listening. As the pastor preaches the Word, faithfully delivering the message the Spirit of God has given, he rejoices as the invitation is extended to see people respond to the call of the Gospel. As men and women respond to the invitation to confess Christ as Lord, to identify with Him in baptism, to unite with the church, the heart of the godly pastor nearly bursts with joy.
Yet the moment is always bittersweet, for some, though wishing to be saved, have nevertheless received the Word in soil which is shallow. They are susceptible to turning back before ever the message takes root. Other some hear the Word, and though it lies heavy on the heart the heart soil is not fertile, it is hard and Satan snatches it away. Before you leave today, some of you will have decided against believing the Word as Satan convinces you to continue as you always have. With a pastor's heart I confess that I grieve for those of you who come near to belief and yet fail to act. I sorrow for you who say, “Later. There will be plenty of time later.” Now is the time of God's favour, now is the day of salvation [2 Corinthians 6:2b].
In the face of such worries for the spiritual welfare of the professing church, the Apostle determined to act with dispatch; and the first action taken was to send to them a preacher. Paul identifies Timothy as our brother and God's fellow worker in spreading the Gospel of Christ [verse two]. No finer description of the work of the pastor could ever be provided than this. First of all, a pastor is to be God's fellow worker in spreading the Gospel of Christ. Though we have come to a day in which the act of preaching has fallen into disfavour, it is still Jesus' method of winning the lost and building the church.
Preaching is folly to modern minds. "Don't preach to me!" is the watchword of the day. Our society is trained to think visually, to accept uncritically statements presented as authoritative, to turn the mind quickly from one thought to another, to avoid thinking deeply about spiritual matters, to react emotionally instead of thinking intellectually. Preaching is not a visual experience, nor is the preacher often seen as an authority figure. Anyone sitting in the congregation knows more than the preacher does. At least that is the message I receive on a disheartening number of occasions.
Expository preaching, on the contrary, carefully explains and applies a relatively small portion of Scripture, demanding that the listener think and interact with the Word presented. The message of Christ cannot appeal to the self-sufficient mind. The message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing [1 Corinthians 1:18a]. The insistence upon man's sinfulness insults modern minds; the conclusion that we need God's mercy assaults our supposition of self-sufficiency.
Thus a growing number of churches, even evangelical churches, have concluded that preaching is archaic, an outmoded method which will not be tolerated by twenty-first century minds, and the sermon is thus seen as an anachronism. In such modern churches the psychologist replaces the preacher, entertainment assumes an increasingly important role in worship, and the sermon is reduced to a pep talk of a few minutes length. Increasingly, a handful of orators provide spiritual nourishment for ever-larger numbers of believers. Increasingly the old adage is proved true – The hungry sheep look up and are not fed.
Yet I consider the first priority of a pastor is to teach. Writing Timothy, Paul provided guidelines for the selection of pastors. Among those guidelines was a clause easy to miss: [T]he overseer must be … able to teach [1 Timothy 3:2]. The charge is iterated in Paul's second missive to this young preacher [2 Timothy 2:24]. Until Paul could come, Timothy was to devote [himself] to the public reading of Scripture, to preaching and to teaching [1 Timothy 4:13]. To Titus, Paul's direction concerning the elder of the church was that [the elder] must hold firmly to the trustworthy message as it has been taught, so that he can encourage others by sound doctrine and refute those who oppose it [Titus 1:9].
Preaching should be stimulating; no listener ought ever to fall asleep during the sermon. But the content of the sermon, the message presented, is more vital still. Not every preacher can be a Spurgeon, but every preacher can declare the message Spurgeon preached. It is reported that on one occasion Charles Spurgeon introduced his grandfather to the congregation of the Metropolitan Tabernacle. Standing before the vast throng assembled, the old man of God declared, "I may not be as great a preacher as Charles, but I preach as great a message as Charles." There is a wonderful truth in that statement. Perhaps you are not able to sit under a great preacher, but you can insure that your preacher preaches a great message.
Timothy's teaching would strengthen and encourage [the believers] in [their] faith [verse 2b]. The pastor always labours under the knowledge that what he says is more than merely quaint information which is of interest to but a few. The message of the man of God is designed to equip believers to live lives worthy of the Name by which they are called, strengthening them and encouraging them in their faith. There is a sense in which every pastor seeks to work himself out of a job. Every godly pastor labours diligently to prepare God's people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the Faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ [Ephesians 4:12,13]. Every godly pastor thrills as he witnesses men and women assume positions of leadership within the Church, exercising their individual gifts to build up the Body.
A Pastor Warns the Flock [3:3b-5]. We live in a fallen world which necessitates action we might otherwise choose to forego. No parent enjoys instructing a child concerning the dangers arising from modern life. No parent thrills to warn a child against speaking to strangers, about tarrying too long on darkened streets, about the dangers of using drugs or tobacco. An ideal world would hold no danger for the citizens of that world. An ideal world would not require that we warn children of dangers, real or imagined. But this is not an ideal world, so responsible parents provide instruction and warning despite the risk of frightening their children. Should not a pastor likewise provide instruction and warning to the unwary among the flock?
This second task of pastoral oversight is too easily neglected. The sensitive spirit shrinks from issuing warnings which might frighten or intimidate the young believer, knowing that such may be painful. Paul, faithful to the task to which God appointed him, nevertheless shrank from the necessary task of exposing error and warning of the consequences of sinful choices. Timothy, likewise, appears to have been a sensitive soul who resisted being firm when the situation demanded firmness. So his mentor in the Faith found it necessary to encourage him to be firm [e.g. 1 Timothy 4:12-14; 2 Timothy 1:7,8].
A pastor is deeply concerned for the eternal welfare of the flock over which he is given charge. He knows that he must soon give an accounting to the Great Shepherd for that flock. Therefore he must warn the church against discouragement because of difficulties; he must warn the flock not to draw unwarranted conclusions during times of great pressure. It is during such times of difficulty and trial that we believers are most susceptible to listening to errant messages, when we are most susceptible to religious experimentation in an effort to seek relief, when we are most susceptible to questioning why we should experience such pressure. The godly pastor steels himself to do the hard task and to deliver the word of warning to the flock of God.
The pastor must warn the flock against the danger of straying from the paths which God has assigned and against following teachers who destroy through spreading error or heresy. God, speaking through Moses, warned long years ago against following errant prophets who appear powerful, against listening even to loved ones who seek to induce the people of God to accept error, against heeding even large groups which may have embraced error [Deuteronomy 13:1-18]. The message proclaimed is all-important and we are given an infallible guide by which to judge the message we receive. The pastor must at once insure that his own message is aligned with that which is eternally situated in heaven while refuting every message which is presented in attractive garb to lure the unwary and to delude the unthinking.
In Bible study on one occasion, I commented that it was appropriate that Christians should be compared to sheep. The context in which I spoke was in reference to the necessity of warning believers against the danger of falling prey to those teaching false doctrine. Present during that study was a woman who strongly protested that sheep are not dumb. However, the observation stands. I made the further observation that it is not without reason that the pastor, literally the shepherd, as outlined in the Shepherd's Psalm, carries a rod as well as a staff. The one is for guidance and care of the flock; the other is for defence and protection of the flock.
I sense the great weight of this awesome responsibility that as a pastor I must give answer to Him who appointed me. Of the overseers of the church the author of Hebrews has stated that [t]hey keep watch over you as men who must give an account [Hebrews 13:17b]. May I state as an aside that we ought to be careful not to casually set apart any man for the pastorate. May I likewise caution each listener against too quickly seizing responsibility in the church because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly [James 3:1b].
A Pastor Loves the Flock [3:6,7]. Timothy brought Paul news about the love the Thessalonians had for him, and he in turn speaks of his longing to see them. The Apostle loved the saints deeply. Throughout his letters he speaks often of his deep love for those to whom he writes. To the Corinthians Paul wrote to let [them] know the depth of [his] love for [them] [2 Corinthians 2:4b]. He addressed the Philippians as those whom I love and long for [Philippians 4:1]. Nor is the love of which the Apostle writes mere affection; it is deeply sacrificial love which motivates him to spend himself for their benefit.
I confess that I have my struggles in this area. The flock is not always loveable; moreover, I am not particularly disposed to loving others. Before you leap to an unwarranted conclusion consider the fact that many of you share in this peculiar malady, for human nature by virtue of its fallen condition tends to focus first on satisfying self. Were there no divine intervention we would neither express love to another nor would we ourselves be particularly loveable. This is the emphasis iterated throughout John's first missive.
Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love. This is how God showed His love among us: He sent His one and only Son into the world that we might live through Him. This is love: not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another… We love because He first loved us [1 John 4:7-11,19].
Did you catch the import of that tenth verse? You and I are unable to love until transformed by the love of God. Until we have experienced the love of God in Christ, we are restricted to pale imitations of love. We may experience affection, we may have an emotional experience, but we will never know what it is to love sacrificially until we have ourselves known such love; and the only source of such love is God, for God is love [1 John 4:7,8,16].
While every Christian is to be a lover, of all believers the pastor especially must love deeply. He ought to be more mature in Christian character, and this would be reflected in love. He must be patient with the flock, revealing the love of God for the younger believers through his own love. He cannot teach others to do what he himself is incapable or unwilling to do. Therefore, of all believers, the pastor must take care to love … deeply from the heart [1 Peter 1:22].
A Pastor Rejoices in Victory [3:8,9]. For now we really live, since you are standing firm in the Lord. How can we thank God enough for you in return for all the joy we have in the presence of our God because of you [verses 8,9]. The victories which the Thessalonians experienced became the source of great rejoicing for the missionaries. Their joy was akin to that which parents experience when their children succeed at a task or in life.
I remember hearing of graduation exercises conducted while I was in residence at the Einstein College of Medicine. Though the moderator of the commencement exercise cautioned the audience to refrain from clapping or giving in to loud demonstrations of joy until all had received their degrees, he might as well have commanded the wind to cease blowing. The first candidate to cross the stage had only grasped the sheepskin in his left hand when a woman's voice shrieked out in the audience, My son, the doctor! Her exclamation was the signal for every mother in the audience to wildly announce her joy at the success of her son or daughter and pandemonium reigned as parents rejoiced in the victories of their children.
I'm not immune to such rejoicing. Coming into my office one Wednesday morning after my daughter Rochelle had participated in a mission trip I was greeted with a message on the recorder from her. Dad, the message announced, Dean Emerick has just received word from the missionaries in Jamaica that over six hundred people have professed Christ as result of our mission trip this spring. Over one hundred of those are already in one church alone and many others are in the other churches. Do you suppose that I discounted this message or somehow downplayed it? No! I rejoiced that my daughter shares my heart for souls and that she wants to see many people won to faith. I still rejoice that she is making an impact on her world and that she is experiencing victory in Jesus. I rejoice in her calling to missionary endeavour and to service for Christ.
I tell you that a pastor rejoices whenever he learns that members of the congregation are experiencing victories in their lives. I have exulted in the victories of church members as they defeated some particular sin, moving heavenward. I have exulted in the victories of church members as they prayerfully presented Christ to another dearly loved soul and saw that someone come to faith. I have exulted in the victories of church members as they began to minister in the Name of Christ, seeing their service have an impact for good. I have exulted in the victories of church members as they grasped some difficult principle of the Faith, implementing it in life to the advancement of their own faith. A pastor does not feel envy and anger when members of the flock win victories! A pastor rejoices with them in each victory.
I want to be good and wise pastor, teaching you the Word and building you in the Faith. I want ours to be a great church. I take you into my confidence by telling you that I cannot build a great church alone. A great church must be built by a great people; a great church will be populated with great people. The members of a great church will share a great vision; they will serve a great God; they will carry a great message. You need me and I need you. We need one another if we will reflect Christ fully. Together we will seek victory in every facet of life. Together we can rejoice in multiplied victories.
There is another, darker side of pastoral ministry which is not often seen nor frequently considered. The capacity to rejoice means there must be the capacity to grieve. A pastor grieves at defection from the Faith … grieves at spiritual loss and at injury for members of the flock. Paul spoke of the weight of pastoring in his letters. You will no doubt remember those concerns. Besides everything else, I face daily the pressure of my concern for all the churches [2 Corinthians 11:28]. Again, we can sense the agonising weight which attended his message to the churches of Galatia. My dear children, for whom I am again in the pains of childbirth until Christ is formed in you, how I wish I could be with you now and change my tone, because I am perplexed about you [Galatians 4:19,20]!
A silent parade of faces flits across the landscape of my memory. They are the faces of men and women who succumbed to spiritual bitterness or surrendered to moral error. Each of these individuals was wonderfully gifted and represented a hope of richest blessing to the people of God. Yet they each one surrendered to the siren call of pride or gave in to sinful pressures; I still grieve over some of them though years have intervened. Offsetting the sorrow experienced because of these, however, is my joy in sharing in the success of others.
I think of Clemente and Pia Quitevas who without adequate support and despite ill health, established over twenty churches in the barrios of Illacos Sur in the Philippines. Their victory is my victory and Clemente has now returned to the Philippines to take up where he left off. I see Tony Aria who despite deep disappointment in his family has persevered to encourage many through service as an usher in a great church in the town to which he moved. God was gracious to give him a good wife who shares his vision of service. I think of Richard and Maryann Kitchens who have blessed many through providing music and hospitality to the churches where they served. I think of Mike Zieman who despite family injury has persevered to provide strong leadership to a multi-ethnic congregation in a difficult location. I see David Ma who seeks to walk with God and honour Him despite parents who do not yet share his faith. And the victories of these are as much mine in my own heart because God permitted me to share in their lives at a critical juncture. I rejoice in their victories, claiming part of each success, though the struggle was theirs in each instance.
A Pastor Prays for the Flock [3:10]. Night and day we pray most earnestly affirmed the Apostle, revealing a side of ministry not often seen but which is absolutely vital. I confess that the most difficult aspect of pastoral ministry is prayer. To bear the burden of the congregation on the heart requires discipline and constant effort. It is so very easy to say the words, I'll pray for you! in response to a request voiced at the conclusion of a service, yet few things are more demanding, more difficult, than truly praying for the people. Why? Because prayer demands more than mere form.
I am fearful that a man can continue to preach acceptably for some time while operating in the flesh. To some extent preaching is an art form and the construction and delivery of a sermon may be reduced to mere technique. Likewise, I suppose that anyone can administer the work of a church and do an acceptable job for a time. You see, the requirements of oversight at the level of administration are not strictly spiritual. One must have something of a business sense. But to pray is to enter into a realm which is strictly spiritual and one cannot pray until the heart is made right with God. Prayer demands that the individual struggle against mere technique. Prayer demands that the one praying labour, fighting against the tendency to merely recite a list of requests, pleading for the welfare of those for whom he prays. The labour of a pastor is the labour of one who struggles before the Lord in prayer.
Dr. W. A. Criswell used to relate how Dr. George W. Truett, his predecessor in the pulpit at First Baptist Church of Dallas, was wont to say I have sought and found the shepherd's heart. I confess that I wondered about that statement when a member of that congregation and sitting under Dr. Criswell powerful ministry. Later I would ponder that statement as God employed me in the revival of dormant churches and in the planting of new churches in British Columbia. Labouring as a church planter I often said to a close friend, I'm not a pastor; I'm just a preacher. There is a distinction between the two responsibilities.
But a change took place without my knowledge and I discovered God had likewise given me a shepherd's heart as I tended the flock. No longer was I content to merely insure that my sermons were doctrinally sound and homiletically correct. No longer was I content to struggle to draw the people into the excitement of the Faith. I grew deeply concerned that my messages should build up my listeners, that they would address the hurts and sorrows of God’s holy people by giving hope. I laboured to insure that the messages brought before the people were not mere theological esoterica. Without my knowledge and by His mercies God had given me a shepherd's heart and I was changed. No longer would I wonder about Truett's statement, for I also had found the shepherd's heart. I daresay that every God-appointed pastor will exhibit the shepherd’s heart which will lead him to do the hard tasks even as he grieves over the hurt.
A portion of that shepherd's heart is a willingness to pray for the welfare of the flock. How can a member of the flock experience trial and the shepherd's heart not be moved with compassion? How can a member of the flock hurt and the shepherd's heart not be wounded with the member? How can a member of the flock struggle against sin or discouragement and the shepherd not be moved to labour alongside the member? I have known what it is to be awakened during the night to pray for some someone struggling within the congregation, to pray for the whole assembly, to pray for a request which had been made the Sunday previous. I know others pray and I commend more prayer still. But I am saying that the shepherd must ever and always pray, remembering the needs of the people.
God forbid that I should be content to simply speak about prayer; I long to be a prayer. Prayer demands accountability. Should you request that I pray for you, ask me as well at some later time whether I did pray, whether I remembered before God's throne of mercy your request. Ask me whether I laboured in prayer for you. And when God gives an answer to our united requests, please tell me so that I may rejoice with you. We should labour to have time as a congregation for prayer, and we should expect accountability for our prayers.
Perhaps you think the message today is merely theologically obscure drivel, that there is no practical purpose to this review of the work of the pastorate. There is reason for the message, however. First, the passage occurs in our preaching through the book of 1 Thessalonians. That alone is sufficient reason to deal with the matter. Again, it is valuable for you to understand the work of the pastorate so that you may strengthen your pastor in that divine labour through encouraging him to invest his time wisely in the work. It is valuable for you to understand the work of the pastorate so that you may defend that ministry against the subtle assault from a modern world which fails to consider that pastoral service is work. It is valuable for you to understand the work of the pastorate so that you will be equipped in decisions which may come your way in future days when you must seek to add pastoral staff or to issue a call to someone to fill that pastoral role.
Yet there is another and a greater reason to present to you the ministry of the pastorate, and that is that perhaps God, through the message, will speak to one someone, you, calling you to this great work. Perhaps you will give yourself to a life of preparation for such service and the preparation begins with your open declaration of God's call here in this church. Again, though you might never attend a seminary in preparation for that work, you will know that He has laid His hand on you nevertheless. Though you might perhaps never formally declare that the pastorate is your occupation, you will know that it is your calling. Has God ceased calling men and women to service for Him as missionaries? As teachers? As servants filling varied roles? Has God ceased calling men to fill the pastoral office? Perhaps He calls you, and if He does will you not answer today, saying, "Here am I, Lord, send me." Amen.