Why Every Pastor-in-Training Should Read Ed’s Book: An Interview with Michael Lawrence
9Marks: Is it true? Does Capitol Hill Baptist Church require every pastoral intern to write a paper on Ed Welch’s book When People are Big and God is Small before they arrive for the internship? What’s the assignment?
Michael Lawrence: It’s true. After we formally accept an intern into the program, we send him a variety of books that they must read before the program begins. One of those books is Ed Welch’s. By the time the internship begins, they must write a five-page paper where they use the book to reflect on their own life: Where do they see “fear of man” in their life? How does it work itself out and what should they do to respond to it?
That’s what the book is about: the “fear of man” versus the “fear of God.” We think the fear of man has huge ramifications for the rest of their ministry. It’s not the only issue that pastors face, but it’s a huge one and will have an outsized impact on the faithfulness and the shape of their ministry.
9M: Why do you have them read this book at the beginning of the internship and not the middle or the end?
ML: We have them read this book at the beginning because we want them to realize right up front that the tendencies in modern evangelicalism that we’re going to critique in the internship are not just issues that other people have. The same fears and issues reside in our own hearts. It’s easy to critique pastors who are fixated on “numbers.” But what’s the root issue there, and where does it show up in my heart?
Also, over the course of the internship program we’re going to repeatedly put them in situations that will provoke the fear of man in them, including occasions in which we offer critique. Yet we don’t want to teach them how to please us, but to seek the Lord’s pleasure, even as they learn to humbly receive critique from us.
9M: Why is this book so important both for pastors and for those training for the pastorate?
If I am living and working for other people’s approval of me, I’m going to be sorely tempted to trim my sails, to adjust my message. For instance, I might refrain from rebuking a brother or sister in Christ when love calls me to do so because I’m afraid that they aren’t going to think I’m a “great guy” any more.
If I want to be respected in my community, I will be driven to build and measure my ministry in terms that the community will respect and value. And that will lead me to subtly import some of the world’s values and measurements into my ministry.
Another fear that Welch deals with is the “fear of exposure.” This is the fear of being exposed as a fraud, or as someone who doesn’t know what he’s doing, and who shouldn’t be where he is. That’s going to lead a pastor to structure his ministry in ways that are defensive. It will cause him to play only to his strengths—those areas where he feels confident that he won’t be exposed. So he won’t take risks; he won’t be someone who’s living by faith. He will live by his wit and by his skills.
The fear of exposure will cause a pastor to be the kind of leader who will be hesitant to encourage and raise up other leaders, especially those who look like they could challenge his position or credibility. As soon as somebody comes along who looks like he might be a better preacher, counselor, or whatever, that person becomes a threat to me. That person may expose me. So I’m not going to encourage them. I’m not going to build a team of elders or staff that pursues godly faithfulness and excellence, because it’s all too threatening.
And this might lead the pastor to become quite authoritarian. It might lead a pastor to discourage others out of fear, rather than encourage and build up as he ought.
Welch’s book is very biblical and practical in terms of how to respond to the fear of man. He calls us back again and again to the sufficiency of Christ, the gospel, and the glory of God as the only things big enough to dispel the fear of man. As we grow in an appropriate fear of God, that puts the opinions of people in a right perspective.
Welch takes something that exists in all of our lives and drags it out of the darkness and into the light. That’s the thing about fear of man—it hides. It makes itself look respectable. Welch does a great job of pulling off its masks and helping us see it for what it really is.
9M: What if I’m a pastor and I realize that I have structured my ministry to cater to my strengths? What are some practical things that you’ve seen that could help leaders?
ML: I certainly would encourage pastors to read this book with their elders and staff. But then the pastor has to lead the way in acknowledging and bringing into the open the ways in which he struggles with fear of man. That’s the way you are going to begin to put it to death.
One thing we do at Capitol Hill Baptist Church is to hold a regular weekly opportunity for giving feedback to everyone involved in public ministry: godly encouragement and godly criticism. On Sunday evenings after the public services, all the people who participated in the services walk through them together to offer one another feedback. It’s not just Mark Dever with the senior staff, but everybody down to the newest intern participating. Mark leads the way by subjecting himself to this feedback. At that moment, Mark models the opposite of a defensive, cult of personality, untouchable approach to ministry.
Building that meeting into our weekly rhythm has been extremely helpful in corporately cultivating a culture of humility.
One of the other things that we do is to try to cultivate a culture in which it is normal to be involved in each others lives. We actively encourage the formation of real relationships of depth in which it’s expected that you’re going to be asked: “How are you really doing?” or “How are you struggling?” Pastoral interns, pastors, and every member of the congregation must learn to take a risk in relationships for the sake of growth in grace and godliness. That doesn’t happen overnight. But it is a culture that can be encouraged, modeled, and cultivated.
It doesn’t happen perfectly in our church, but it’s the goal we’ve set for ourselves and it’s bearing good fruit.