The Heart of a Disciple-Making Pastor
What do you think is the essential quality of a disciple-making pastor? Here’s my best shot: rejoicing in others’ ministry.
FLY FISHING WITH THE APOSTLE PAUL
In his book The Art of Pastoring, David Hansen paints a striking picture of this when he describes the parallel between a great “spiritual director” and a great fly fishing guide:
The very best quality of the very best fishing guides is the very best quality of the very best spiritual directors. The very best fishing guides, the top of the heap of that profession, all love to watch clients catch fish as much as they like catching fish themselves. It gets to the point of silliness sometimes the way a truly great fishing guide starts to laugh, even giggle like a grade-school girl, when a client starts catching fish.
Likewise, the characteristic that sets the great spiritual directors apart is childlike joy. Out of pure love they give you their undivided attention, and when you catch your fish, when your net is full, there’s always that smile, that glint in their eye that tells you they’ve just spent the best hour of their day with you.
In keeping with his somewhat mystical, contemplative spirituality, Hansen sees the role of a spiritual director as discerning God’s work in someone’s life and drawing attention to it. I think that’s certainly an element of pastoral discipling, but Scripture goes further. Ephesians 4:11-13 says that Christ gave “…the pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God.”
In other words, a pastor’s job is to equip the church members to do ministry, to build each other up in maturity. To tweak Hansen’s image, a pastor’s job isn’t merely to fish for his people—though that’s certainly part of it—but to teach them to fish. And I’d suggest that a fitting litmus test for a pastor is how much joy he takes in others’ works of ministry, and how well he builds his ministry around that joy.
Think about parenting. It’s important for kids to have tied shoelaces, but it’s far more important for them to learn, in due time, how to tie their shoes themselves. While of course parents do countless things for their children, they should always have an eye on what they can be teaching their children to do for themselves. And parents, for their part, are overjoyed at every new skill their children acquire. So it should be with pastors.
DON’T STOCKPILE MINISTRY, SPREAD IT AROUND
In light of this, pastors shouldn’t stockpile ministry. Instead, they should spread it around.
Don’t Be a Cul-De-Sac, But a Conduit
Caring for people is vitally important to pastoring—no argument there. But if your personal ministry only involves caring, then you run the risk of making people dependent on you rather than equipping them to find care from others and care for others.
And again, preaching, teaching, and evangelism are crucial to pastoral ministry. But let’s say you’re ten years into a pastorate and you’re the only person in the church who regularly shares the gospel, or who can teach Sunday school, or who can preach the Bible. How healthy would your church be?
You don’t want to be a cul-de-sac, but a conduit. You don’t want to hoard ministry, but to fill other people’s plates as full as they can manage, and then help them manage.
Tempted to Hoard
Many pastors are tempted to do everything themselves. For one thing, especially if you’re the only one with the title “pastor,” people will naturally look to you for pretty much everything. But it’s your job to retrain them.
More than that, pastors can be tempted to hoard ministry since there are some things they can do better than anybody else in the church. But it will be far better for your church to struggle through some substandard Sunday school classes and then, a few months or years later, to be fed by a skilled teacher who’s grown up under your diligent training. It will be far better for them to learn to hear and heed other counselors than for you to try to bear their burdens alone.
A Lurking Heart Issue
There’s a heart issue lurking here. Our pride can thrill at a ministry job well done—especially if that job is duly noted by church members. It takes real humility, therefore, to take the spotlight off yourself and shine it onto others. It takes genuine self-forgetfulness to enlist someone else to do something you could do better, for the sake of that person’s, and ultimately the whole church’s, growth in Christ.
If your desire is to equip your church and help it grow to maturity, then you will find as much or even more joy in someone else doing ministry than in doing it yourself. And that joy will be contagious. It will help a whole culture of discipling and ministry training to sprout up in your church.
PRACTICAL OUTWORKINGS OF THIS POSTURE
What are some practical outworkings of this posture of joy in others’ ministry? Here are three.
Give Ministry Away
First, always be looking to give ministry away. Of course anyone to whom you entrust teaching, preaching, or counseling should be godly, theologically sound, and show promise and interest in that ministry. But don’t set the bar impossibly high. Be willing to spend capital with the congregation in order to train them to embrace ministry done by “amateurs.” In the long run, that will be far better for your church than a one-man show.
To mention only public teaching: if your regular week is jam-packed with teaching and preaching, consider how much of it you might be able to gradually siphon off to other elders, potential elders, or other younger men who show an interest in ministry. Or, if your church has relatively few teaching points, consider how you might be able to multiply teaching times in order to create a context for developing more teachers. Perhaps a content-driven, topical set of Sunday School classes would do the trick.
Affirm and Encourage, as Well as Critique
Second, affirm and encourage others’ efforts, however halting. Remember that what you’ve done a thousand times, your disciplers- and teachers- and counselors-in-training are doing for the first time.
Your encouragement is empowering and live-giving, so be generous with it. Celebrate even the smallest successes. Show your church members that you delight in all the spiritual fruit they bear, even if they themselves are discouragingly unimpressed by it. If you want some inspiration on this front, read Sam Crabtree’s excellent little book Practicing Affirmation.
Of course you need to provide critical feedback as well. So learn how to do so both graciously and precisely. If you want your people to bear fruit, don’t just plant the seed and water it, but pull out the weeds and tie the young plant to a stake to help it grow upright.
Think a Step Further Out
Third, always think a step further out. Don’t just think about who you’re ministering to, think about who they are, or soon will be, ministering to. Consider what Paul says in 2 Timothy 2:2: “…and what you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses entrust to faithful men who will be able to teach others also.” There are four “generations” of Christians in this one verse: Paul, Timothy, “faithful men,” and “others also.” Like Paul, a disciple-making pastor is always thinking about the next rung out on the relational chain.
So ask the person you’re discipling, “Who are you discipling?” Consider how your yearly preaching schedule might be used not only to edify your flock, but also to raise up other preachers in your congregation. Find ways to fold others into ministry you’re already doing. Ask yourself, “How many ‘generations’ of Christians is my regular ministry reaching? Am I just putting out spiritual fires, or am I training a whole unit of firefighters?”
Personally, I went from being paralyzed by fear of man to being a fairly competent contact evangelist just by coming along with a friend and listening as he struck up gospel conversations on our college campus. Discipling certainly involves exposing others to your own character so that, by God’s grace, they will imitate it. But it should also involve exposing them to your ministry competence so that they will imitate that competence to the extent that God gifts and enables them.
Of course, the vast majority of ministry that church members do will not be public or easily quantifiable. Still, you want to encourage and delight in all the Spirit-enabled ministry that your church members do, from cleaning the church bathrooms to bringing a meal to an elderly member. And you want your joy in their growth to translate into their joy in others’ growth. You want to disciple all your people into being disciple-makers themselves.
NOT ADDITION, BUT MULTIPLICATION
Pastors who delight in others’ ministry will soon find that their ministry consists more in multiplication than addition. If you give ministry away, encourage others’ efforts, and constantly think a “generation” or two further out, you will, by God’s grace, raise up disciples who make other disciples. And that’s just the beginning.
So I pray that, like a great fishing guide and a loving parent, you would find joy in your members’ ministry. And I pray that God would grant you to find ways to cultivate that joy in the soil of your daily schedule.
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 David Hansen, The Art of Pastoring: Ministry Without All the Answers (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1994), 157, emphasis original. Hansen’s book is a mixed bag theologically, but it’s an insightful pastoral memoir nonetheless. For a book that turns the basic point of this article into a full-blown philosophy of ministry, see Colin Marshall and Tony Payne, The Trellis and the Vine (Sydney: Matthias Media, 2010).