Dear new elder,
I am encouraged by the work God is doing in you and through you in calling you to serve as an elder. As the apostle Paul wrote, “Anyone who aspires to the office of elder desires a noble task” (1 Tim. 3:1).
Noble indeed, but also dangerous.
I use those phrases “in you” and “through you” intentionally, for when God raises up a man for pastoral ministry, he never leaves him in the condition he found him. He cannot. God must mold you into the right instrument to wield for building his body. God has called you, and I am certain he is fitting you for the task.
I cannot improve on Paul’s words to a young elder named Timothy in 1 Timothy 4:6–16. Based on these paragraphs and various other writings of his, I offer five lines of encouragement for you.
1. Don’t be daunted by youth and inexperience.
God has called you. He will equip you and lead you. Just as a soldier learns the best strategies of warfare on the battlefield, so your seasoning will come in the trenches of ministry. Before long—through study, experiential application, meditation, prayer, failures, sufferings, and hard-won victories—you will grow into your vocation as a vessel fitted for the Master’s use.
You will learn to be a shepherd by tending sheep. And no matter how many years God gives you in ministry, you will ever be enrolled as a student in his ministerial academy.
2. Immerse yourself in the things of God, especially the Bible.
This may sound trite, even condescendingly obvious, but you will be tempted to plunge yourself into other things. But you are a minister of the gospel, and as such, you must know the good news and every truth related to it—much as one working at the federal mint masters the attributes of currency.
To paraphrase John Piper, “When Twitter is gone and Facebook is forgotten, you will have your Bible. Master it.” God’s Word must be the cornerstone for your ministry, for it will form the substance of all you preach and teach. The Puritan Richard Baxter famously exhorted young pastors to “preach as if never to preach again, as a dying man to dying men.” You are a dying man, called to proclaim the Word of life to dying men.
Nothing will change hearts and renew minds like the Bible. Read it. Memorize it. Pray it. Preach it. Cherish it. God’s Word is also the coal that fuels the engine of your own transformation. So hide it in your own heart, asking God to empower you to submit to its glorious demands.
3. Keep a close watch on your life and doctrine.
Again, Paul’s words elsewhere are applicable here and, if you ponder their implications, they will sober you: “But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified” (1 Cor. 9:27). Read God’s Word again and again. Memorize it. Pray for illumination. Read all 66 books each year if possible. Nevertheless, don’t mistake theological knowledge for ministerial competence.
Set a guard on the walls of your thought life, too. Proverbs 23:7 reminds us, “As a man thinks, so is he.” Learn sound doctrine. Teach sound doctrine. Live sound doctrine. How important is this? Heaven and hell hang in the balance: “Persist in this, for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers” (1 Tim. 4:16). A strategic battle for you in this ongoing inward war is your own preaching. Preach your sermons to yourself before you enter the pulpit and preach them to others. Be careful not to traffic in unlived truth.
A key theater in this battleground will be your home. You must pursue reformation in your own family before you do so in God’s. What you do with your little flock at home has potential to either enlarge or undermine your influence among the larger flock (1 Tim. 3:4–5), and it provides a vital training ground for your service in the church. Your wife and children constitute the first congregation for which you must give account to God.
4. Set an example of godliness for other believers.
Local church ministry puts you under a microscope. This is to your benefit. As Paul instructed Timothy, “Set the believers an example in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith, in purity” (1 Tim. 4:12). This is simply another way of saying you’re a man in the middle of his sanctification, so pursue it with gritty determination. In this way, you will serve as an example to those under your ministry. Pursuing holiness will ensure that you become a man of prayer, for only through the watering of God’s grace will sweet fruit germinate.
Moreover, pride will be your most resilient enemy. Humility is essential for a Christian, yet in ministry you will find it the most elusive virtue. You must pursue it above all else, for it is the tributary from which all other graces—love, joy, peace, patience—flow. A strong aid in the pursuit of humility is unceasing prayer (1 Thess. 5:17). In prayer we admit our weakness and our constant need of grace. God must act on our behalf if anything good is to happen. Your need is constant, hence the admonition to pray constantly. This will help keep you in your place, and God in his.
5. Prepare for the Calvary Road of suffering.
In a thousand different respects, ministry is a death sentence. This too is a good thing—your old man must die if you are to be effective in Christ’s cause. He died and so will you. If you are to be raised to walk in newness of life, you must first die.
When Paul speaks of training for godliness, he compares ministry to preparing for rigorous athletic exertion. You will suffer much to get in shape for a marathon. You will run along a winding, obstacle-strewn course if you hope to reach the finish line. So it is in ministry. Scripture’s verdict thunders forth with the clarity of ice-cold water: There is no crown without a cross. Suffering for the pastor is normal. Sometimes he suffers at the hands of his own people, sometimes at the hands of a fallen world. Either way, God will use it to conform you to the image of his Son. As John Bunyan put it, “The Christian is to be like a great bell—the harder you strike him, the more clearly he rings.”
Paul suffered. Jesus suffered. Calvin and Luther suffered. Edwards suffered. Spurgeon suffered. You will suffer. How? I don’t know; as an old divine said, God does not break every man’s heart alike.
So immerse yourself, body and soul, in the things of God. Realize you cannot grow the church—that’s God’s business, which he’s promised to do (Matt. 16:18). Rest in this and strive for holiness and faithfulness, and God will sharpen you into an instrument deployed for his kingdom and glory.