This excerpt adapted from Jason Helopoulos’s new book The New Pastor’s Handbook: Help and Encouragement for the First Years of Ministry (Baker Books, 2015). Used by permission from Baker Books, a division of Baker Publishing Group.
I graduated from seminary and was looking to pastor when a church invited me to candidate. They asked me to preach a couple of times, and a week later inquired whether I would be their pastor. Unfortunately, the previous pastor had introduced theological errors into the life of the church, and it was embroiled in theological heterodoxy. The congregation and elders were still trying to decide where they stood on these vital issues. To make matters more difficult, this church was at odds with its denomination’s teaching.
I wasn’t sure what to do. I wanted to pastor a church, and here was a local body of believers who wanted me as their pastor. But it was a church brimming with problems. By God’s grace, an older pastor in the faith gave me some helpful advice: “Jason, don’t get entangled in controversies early in ministry. Devote your first years to learning the Scriptures above all else.” This was good and godly counsel.
I took his advice and told the church I wouldn’t become their senior pastor. I made one of the best decisions of my life.
The apostle Paul writes, “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work” (2 Tim. 3:16–17). As pastors we must resolve to study, live, and teach the Scriptures. They need us to have a daily encounter with the living Christ through his Word, since it is from this Word that we have something to give them. We teach, reprove, correct, and equip on this foundation. Apart from knowledge of the Word, in other words, we have no competence in ministry.
One of my seminary professors once said, “Above all else, know your English Bibles.” As a proud young man, I rolled my eyes. I knew Hebrew, Greek, theology, ethics, and the basics of counseling. I assumed knowledge of the English Bible was secondary.
But this professor was exactly right. Knowledge of the English Bible provides a foundation for everything else.
- I won’t ultimately help a grieving mother with my counseling techniques; she needs the comfort of the Word.
- I won’t ultimately persuade a skeptic with my apologetic skills; he needs the truth of the Word.
- I won’t ultimately strengthen a congregation with my pulpit presence; they need the authority of the Word.
It is the Word of God we must know, for it alone gives life to our people. We have nothing to offer if we are not grounded on, saturated with, and focused on its truth and beauty.
Proficiently Reliant Pastors
Many things will demand your attention in those early days of pastoring, yet nothing is more vital than getting to know God’s Word thoroughly, accurately, and confidently. Therefore:
- Immerse your soul and mind and heart in it.
- Spend hours reading it.
- Steal away moments to meditate on it.
- Engage in the hard work of memorizing it.
- Read an entire book in one sitting.
- Memorize an outline for each of the 66 books so that you know what they contain.
- Discover where in the Scriptures you would point the skeptic, the doubter, the inquirer, or the backsliding Christian.
- Know where you would turn for someone struggling with depression, anxiety, marital conflict, lust, greed, or pride.
- Familiarize yourself with what Scripture says to the person doubting the reign of Christ, the essence of the gospel, the hope of the resurrection, or the nature of the church.
- Be able to point people to the passages that have formed your convictions on church polity and the sacraments, and your understanding of the decrees of God.
Your people need to know the Word of truth, and they need to know you speak with authority because you’re rightly handling it (2 Tim. 2:15). And you need to know it so you can minister with confidence.
I don’t offer this advice so the young pastor can be puffed up in pride or win the church Bible trivia contest (though it does feel good to defeat the high schoolers). The essential thing is to be proficiently reliant on God’s Word in all aspects of our ministry. It is our foundation (Eph. 2:20).
Work or Leave
A ministry filled with biblical truth is a ministry worth having. If you don’t know the Word and aren’t willing to work at it, then you should find another vocation. Spare the church and spare yourself.
You will never regret the time you spend early in your ministry years establishing a thorough knowledge of Scripture. You will draw on it for the rest of your days, even as you continue to grow in your knowledge of and love for it.