“We often let the big ideas, the majestic vistas of salvation, the grand visions of God’s work in the world, and the great opportunities for making an impact in the name of Jesus distract us from taking with gospel seriousness the unglamorous ordinary.”
Eugene Peterson in Practice Resurrection: A Conversation on Growing Up in Christ
There were four of us in the car when Collin Hansen asked, “What is something you would like to see more of that we could put on The Gospel Coalition’s site?” I cannot remember if my response was immediate. But my first thought was, What about something highlighting the work of the ordinary pastor? The conversation then turned to the unique contribution of Memoirs of an Ordinary Pastor: The Life and Reflections of Tom Carson, Don Carson’s book about his father.
In the evangelical world I live, move, and breath in, this book is, well, unusual. Weird even. We celebrate the extraordinary feats of ministry performed by the prominent pastors. Their interviews go viral. Perhaps it has always been this way. But I read Carson’s book as a much-needed shot of encouragement for the vast majority of pastors who will never speak to more than a few dozen in out-of-the-way places.
This initial conversation took place the day before C.J. Mahaney’s talk for the Together for the Gospel conference in April 2010. The title alone, “Ordinary Pastors,” interested me. But his call for faithfulness and encouragement to those who minister in obscurity was a moment of providential bliss for me. So I am not alone in seeing this need, I thought.
Having no clue Collin was actually interested in this proposal, I forgot about it for The Gospel Coalition. But I must admit, I did nurse the desire to think deeply about the faithfulness of unknown, ordinary pastors, who serve in a culture that honors the celebrities. But Collin was serious. He and I both thought—think—there is a real need to encourage and honor ordinary pastors. Why? We tend to equate importance with fame. The net effect, then, is that thousands more pastors harbor a sneaking suspicion that they are not really doing anything of lasting importance.
The ordinary pastor is not alone in his discouragement. Overburdened and overworked, famous pastors must also deal with discouragement. But they have fans. And fan pages on Facebook. Their discouragement draws interviews and grabs the attention of book publishers. All this turns into an encouraging opportunity altogether foreign to the experience of the ordinary pastor.
So TGC’s new Ordinary Pastors Project is an effort to say, “Be encouraged.”
Be encouraged. Be encouraged in the midst of ministerial duties that are mind-numbingly mundane. Be encouraged in a world drunk on the sweet nectar of the spectacular. Be encouraged when you preach the gospel clearly. Be encouraged after years of faithfulness, even if you don’t have numbers that impress conference organizers. Be encouraged in the tedium. Be encouraged when you see the same faces week-in and week-out. Be encouraged as you marry and bury, counsel and speak at the local lodge’s spring pancake breakfast. Be encouraged.
Be encouraged when dreams of thousands have careened against the retaining wall of reality with hundreds. Or dozens, even. Be encouraged when no one has heard of you, your church, or your town. Be encouraged in the midst of decline. Be encouraged when you must stop preparing your sermon to clean the bathrooms. Be encouraged, because you stand before God redeemed and loved because of Christ’s righteousness credited to you. Be encouraged, for this right standing before God is not based on the success of your ministry, loved no less because it is ordinary. Be encouraged, ordinary pastor.
Be encouraged when growth is slow and measured by generations. Be encouraged when guilt, fear, and the specter of failure form an unholy alliance against you. Be encouraged when young men grown fat on the feast of podcasts question your every move. Be encouraged when no one knows your name; it is written in blood in the book of life. Ordinary pastor, be encouraged: Your faithful labor in the darkened forest of obscurity is heroic.
This is not mere rhetoric. And it’s not romanticizing. This is the reality. Carson writes:
Most of us, however, serve in more modest patches. Most pastors will not regularly preach to thousands, let alone tens of thousands. They will not write influential books, they will not supervise large staffs, and they will never see more than modest growth. They will plug away at their care for the aged, at their visitation, at their counseling, at their Bible studies and preaching. Some will work with so little support that they will prepare their own bulletins.
They cannot possibly discern whether the constraints of their own sphere of service owe more to the specific challenges of the local situation or to their own shortcomings. Once in a while they will cast a wistful eye on “successful” ministries. Many of them will attend the conferences sponsored by the revered masters and come away with a slightly discordant combination of, on the one hand, gratitude and encouragement and, on the other, jealousy, feelings of inadequacy, and guilt.
By encouraging ordinary pastors, we do not intend to merely turn the tables and slight the God-anointed ministry of revered pastors with extraordinary gifts. Rather, we seek balance, contentment to be faithful before God and counted among the ranks of the ordinary pastors, even as we learn from those who move in the circles of the celebrated. All who have been called to serve the body of Christ ultimately find their fulfillment in God and his glory.
Really, the phrase “ordinary pastor” is a misnomer. For all who pastor by the power of the gospel do extraordinary work: preaching the Word, comforting the hurting, baptizing, and administering the Lord’s Supper. It is all extraordinary. After all, “we have this treasure in jars of clay.” This way, “the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us” (2 Cor. 4:7). No wonder, then, the extraordinary is in the ordinary.