Pastoring and the Art of Balance


God’s promise of a transformed community (Jer. 3:17) comes with a promise of competent pastoral care: “And I will give you pastors according to mine heart, which shall feed you with knowledge and understanding” (v. 15).

The Lord here pictures church officers as shepherds who care for his flock.[1] The phrase “according to mine heart” means obedient to God’s will and conforming to God’s character, in contrast to those who stubbornly follow their own “evil heart” (v. 17). It alludes to David’s faithfulness in doing the Lord’s will in contrast to Saul’s disobedience (1 Sam. 13:13–14; cf. Acts 13:22). These shepherds give to the people the “knowledge and understanding” of the Lord that is the greatest blessing they have in their power to bestow (Jer. 9:23–24). In summary, God promises to give to his people pastors who shepherd them with a beautiful combination of faithfulness to God in both their lives and their teaching.

Pastors and theological students, you must bring to the church both experiential piety and doctrinal truth; your right believing must be adorned with right living. You must embrace this subjective-objective balance in your ministry. As John Murray liked to say, we aim for “intelligent piety.”[2] Your preaching should exhibit the loving heart of God and faithfully expound his unchanging truth.


Your personal ministry should do the same. Whenever a pastor visits someone, whether at home, in a counseling session, or in the hospital, he should say to himself, “I am here to promote the truth and piety of Christ. I am called to be a man after God’s heart who does his will. I am to bring the ‘sweet savour of Christ’ wherever I go (2 Cor. 2:14–15).” Of course, this does not mean that you preach a sermon every time you open your mouth.

However, it’s a travesty of pastoral visitation to engage in nothing more than casual conversation. After listening and learning about what is going on in the lives of the people whom you visit, open your Bible, read some pertinent verses, provide pastoral wisdom and counsel, and pray with them. Go with them to the throne of grace and pour out your heart in holy desires for their temporal and eternal good.

Likewise, if you’re a member of a church, don’t expect your pastor to serve as the president of a social club or the CEO of a nonprofit organization. He’s a man of God, set apart to the ministry of the Word and prayer, called to lead the people of the Word with the Word. Do not resent or resist him when he speaks the Word of God to your personal life or lovingly encourages you to seek the Lord in obedience to God’s commands. He is not putting you down. He is seeking to lift you up to eternal happiness.


The pastors and elders of Christ’s church should learn from the doctrine of revelation that wisdom does not originate from them, but from the mouth of the Lord (Prov. 2:6). Being wise in our own eyes ill suits those who teach and command others to submit to God’s Word. What do we have that we did not receive? When did we become infallible? Therefore, we should always consult the wisdom of God’s Word in our work as the shepherds of Christ’s flock. “Trust in the Lord with all thine heart; and lean not unto thine own understanding” (3:5).

In the Scriptures, God has given the man of God a sacred manual that, if humbly studied and followed, will equip him completely for all the good works of ministry (2 Tim. 3:16–17). The Lord has revealed in his Word how we should conduct ourselves in “the house of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth” (1 Tim. 3:15).

Leaders should have the attitude of Solomon, who weighs the responsibility of service in God’s kingdom and confesses, “I am but a little child: I know not how to go out or come in,” and who therefore pleads for God to give him “an understanding heart” (1 Kings 3:7–9). They should pray for the wisdom from above (James 1:5). It was said of John Cotton (1584–1652), “In his study, he neither sat down unto, nor arose from his meditations without prayer: whilst his eyes were upon his book, his expectation was from God. He had learned to study, because he had learned to pray.”[3]

As the servants of the Lord Christ, we dare not govern the church according to our opinions or the teachings of mere men. We must hammer out our decisions on the anvil of the Word of God and fire them with fervent prayers. When faced with a question, we must ask, “What doctrines, laws, sayings, events, and examples in the Bible are relevant to this matter? What has God said about it?” We must focus our eyes upon the goal of doing God’s will—not maintaining our personal comfort, keeping our people happy, or attracting the largest number of people. Ezra is our model of true ministerial success: “The good hand of his God” was “upon him,” for he “had prepared his heart to seek the law of the Lord, and to do it, and to teach in Israel statutes and judgments” (Ezra 7:9–10).[4]

Emergency situations may require immediate action, but more commonly pastors have time to pray, read, meditate, and confer with other godly people. Do not let prayer become a mere formality to open and close the assemblies of the church, but develop a pattern of extended times of prayer. Docket times of prayer among the various items on the agenda. For weightier matters, you might call for a fast. We honor God as the Lord of the church when we search his Word and pray for his illumination. Through such means, God guides and provides for his people (Ezra 8:21–23; Acts 13:1–3).


The church has many ministries that address the social or physical needs of people, but it must remember that its core calling is the ministry of the Word. God entrusted to the church this unique gift: his special revelation in its authority, clarity, necessity, unity in Christ, efficacy, inerrant veracity, and sufficiency. Like the apostles, pastors and teachers today must not “leave the word of God, and serve tables,” but resolve to give themselves “continually to prayer, and to the ministry of the word” (Acts 6:2, 4).

Paul’s exhortations to Timothy reflect the high priority of preaching and teaching the Word:

  • “If thou put the brethren in remembrance of these things, thou shalt be a good minister of Jesus Christ, nourished up in the words of faith and of good doctrine, whereunto thou hast attained” (1 Tim. 4:6).
  • “These things command and teach” (1 Tim. 4:11).
  • “Till I come, give attendance to reading, to exhortation, to doctrine” (1 Tim. 4:13).
  • “Meditate upon these things; give thyself wholly to them; that thy profiting may appear to all. Take heed unto thyself, and unto the doctrine; continue in them: for in doing this thou shalt both save thyself, and them that hear thee” (1 Tim. 4:15–16).[5]

Our priority must be informing the mind for training in godliness. The goal of the ministry is love, a good conscience, and a sincere faith (1 Tim. 1:5). We reprove lawless acts that are “contrary to sound doctrine” (v. 10). We teach the “sound words” of biblical truth so that people might cling to them “by the Holy Ghost which dwelleth in us” (2 Tim. 1:13–14). Even in academic classrooms, we prepare theological students not just for tests on paper, but for tests that come in the form of fiery trials and powerful temptations. What is at stake is not their grades or degrees, but their eternal reward and that of their hearers.


Whether we teach the catechism to children or systematic theology to graduate students, we must foster a merging of truth and godliness, Word and Spirit. This holy blend begins with the humility of the teacher. Do not present yourself as a master of the Word, but as one who longs to be mastered by the Word. If someone asks you a question that you cannot answer, do not be too proud to say, “I don’t know.” Enter the pulpit or classroom with the fear of God in your heart, and leave as one humbled under the majesty of the Word. Everyone who aspires to be a teacher of the Word should remember the warning posted by James: “My brethren, be not many masters, knowing that we shall receive the greater condemnation. For in many things we offend all” (James 3:1, 2).

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[1] Both “pastors” and “feed” in Jer. 3:15 translate forms of the Hebrew verb for the work of a shepherd (ra‘ah).

[2] Cited in the introduction to Murray, Collected Writings, 4:vii.

[3] John Norton, Abel Being Dead, Yet Speaketh; or, the Life and Death of That Deservedly Famous Man of God, Mr John Cotton (London: by Tho. Newcomb for Lodowick Lloyd, 1658), 27.

[4] On pastoral priorities, see Joel R. Beeke and Terry Schlachter, Encouragement for Today’s Pastors: Help from the Puritans (Grand Rapids, MI: Reformation Heritage Books, 2013), 107–20.

[5] See also 2 Tim. 2:2; 4:1–2; Titus 2:15; 3:8.

Editor’s note: This article is an adapted excerpt from Reformed Systematic Theology: Revelation and God: Volume 1 by Joel R. Beeke and Paul M. Smalley, ©2019. Used by permission of Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers, Wheaton, Il 60187,

Joel Beeke

Joel Beeke is President and Professor of Systematic Theology and Homiletics at Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary and a pastor of the Heritage Reformed Congregation in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Paul Smalley

Paul Smalley is a teaching assistant to Dr. Beeke at Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary and a bivocational pastor at Grace Immanuel Reformed Baptist Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

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