ministry

“A Bow Always Bent Will Break”: Reflections on the Vocation of Pastor

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At the beginning of my pastoral career, an elderly pastor shared two key points with me: “Your vocation is unlike most. Your latter years of life can be your most effective ones.” I’m now forty years away from this conversation, which proved to be invaluable to me. He unpacked his two key points by way of four goals and a promise.

Four Goals

1. Guard your heart.

Above all else guard your heart for it is the wellspring of life. (Proverbs 4:23)

When pastors don’t keep their hearts alive to God, they won’t be successful in what they do for him, and their churches will suffer for it. If pastors don’t make their relationship with God their personal and highest priority, do they really believe in the product they present to others by the gospel? Do they effectively and truthfully promote and declare it to others by way of their words and deeds? I touched further on this idea in a previous blog post.

2. Find a mentor.

Find at least one pastor who’ll mentor you — not a friend and peer, who is a pastor, but rather a more experienced pastor than you. I also began to read books on pastoral ministry.[1] These pastors provided vital, timely advice for me. Pastoring is like parenting: by the time you’re fully qualified for the job you’re unemployed. As kids age or ministry dynamics change, each new season brings new opportunities, new joys, new heartaches, and new challenges.

Pastoring is like parenting: by the time you’re fully qualified for the job you’re unemployed.

3. Love your family well.

The apostle Paul states, “If anyone does not know how to manage his own family well, how can he take care of God’s church?” (1 Timothy 3:5) To date, my most rewarding and impactful discipleship opportunity has been as a husband and dad. Two cautions are in order. The needs in ministry are endless. Secondly, many young pastors desire to do something “big” for God — often at an expense God is not asking them to pay. The pastor who consistently ignores either of these cautions “does not know how to manage his own family well.”

4. Physically take care of yourself.

Rest one day out of seven, eat and exercise correctly, and intentionally nurture those few relationships that refill your tank. When weighed by the scales of eternity “bodily exercise profits little” (1 Timothy 4:8) and godliness “is not a matter of eating and drinking, but of righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit” (Romans 14:17). For me, however, a healthy diet and regular exercise have contributed to my overall wellbeing. The pastor who shared the above goals had recently suffered a major heart attack that significantly hampered him. He cautioned me to not follow his path of no exercise, poor eating habit, and nonstop work.

Pastoral ministry has its hectic days and seasons—ones filled with very long hours and taxing mental and emotional situations. In an apocryphal story, the apostle John, when amusing himself with a tame partridge, was asked why he was currently engaged in “frivolous” amusement. John replied, “The bow always bent will break.”[2] Pastoral ministry is not a full out sprint — day-in and day-out, month-in and month-out. With profit I habitually, but not legalistically, take a day per week to more fully engage with my LORD and my Christian family, from whom I gain perspective and life. Unlike most vocations, this Sabbath day is crucial for my performance as a pastor.

As part of this Sabbath regime, I also usually take a segment of each day and an extended period per year with the same Sabbath-day goals in mind. Each of these three different “times of rest” (viz., daily, weekly and yearly) uniquely function as an oasis in the midst of my pastoral calling. God uses these three repetitive, time specific but not legalistically maintained periods to replenish and strengthen my continual relationship with him, my wife, my family, and my community of faith. They help me daily walk in God’s Sabbath-rest promised to me.

Many young pastors desire to do something “big” for God — often at an expense God is not asking them to pay.

A Promise

By way of a promise and a lament this elderly pastor concluded our conversation with these thoughts: Pursue these four goals well! Many who began to pastor when I did are now unable to experience what could’ve been their most viable years for God. In my case, I’ve more wisdom and passion for God than I’ve ever had, but my body is failing. Some of my peers now regret not being more attentive to the privilege of discipling their kids and nurturing their relationship with their spouse. Others are bitter, inflexible and angry—at God and people. Others, now at the height of their influence and capabilities, are tired and burnt out. Many of my peers in ministry, I am thrilled to say, now experience what God promised everyone:

The righteous will flourish …. They will still bear fruit in old age, they will stay fresh and green, proclaiming, The LORD is upright; he is my Rock, and there is no wickedness in him. (Psalm 92:12a, 14, 15)

Key leaders in the business world must keep up with both the energy of the young and the latest innovations; if they cannot, their value is often questioned. The reverse can be true for a pastor and especially so if that pastor has stayed with a church for a long period of time. In the church, people aren’t widgets in a corporate machine that are easily and best replaced by someone who’ll work harder for less money. Longstanding, healthy relationships are central to the well-being of a church. Pastors typically have invaluable perspective with respect to these relationships. They’ve been there for people’s baptisms and marriages as well as their peaks and valleys. They’ve become skilled at mentoring people as well as working with difficult ones. They’ve also learned the art of knowing when to be quiet and when to speak up, when to remain still and when to act. They’ve additionally developed a deep reservoir from which to write, teach, mentor the young and give vital guidance and leadership to the church. These characteristics, among many others, are why a pastor’s latter years can be their most effective ones.

As pastors age, their position on the church’s organizational chart may shift significantly. Nonetheless, the knowledge and wisdom they’ve accumulated can still be a priceless, efficacious gift from God to others. Of course, someone who retires from the corporate world can still be effective for God; however, only some of their professional skills will fit these retirement years. Contrastingly, pastors who intentionally pursue the above four goals won’t disqualify themselves from further ministry. Indeed, they may still have their most effective years for Christ ahead of them, at a time when the lifelong work of others their age, who worked secular jobs, is no longer valued.

I’m glad I followed this pastor’s advice and hope you’ll consider how his challenge to me may also help you. My pastoral career has been far from flawless, but God consistently did his perfect work from my imperfect attempts. As you pursue your pastoral calling, which can last a lifetime, may our Lord bless you and keep you. May his face shine upon you. May he cause your ways to flourish.

[1] E.g., Eugene Peterson’s. The Imperfect Pastor by Zack Eswine contains similar concepts about pastoral ministry as Peterson’s, albeit for a new generation of pastors.

[2] Alfred Plummer, Epistles of St. John with Notes, Introduction and Appendices (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1890), 26.

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Peter Dubbelman

Peter Dubbelman serves as the senior adults pastor at Apex Baptist Church. He has been a pastor for 40 years and served at Apex BC for 20. He and his wife, Brenda, have been married for 37 years; they have four children and five grandchildren. Peter is Ph.D. candidate at SEBTS; his writing interest in this endeavor lie with the book of Romans in general and spiritual formation in particular.

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