Book Review: Memoirs of an Ordinary Pastor, by Don Carson
D. A. Carson, Memoirs of an Ordinary Pastor: The Life and Reflections of Tom Carson. Crossway, 2008. 160 pages.
Some pastors are extraordinary. Like Charles Spurgeon, some are famous for their eloquent preaching. Others, like John Owen, are known for their writing or theological acumen. Even on the Arabian Peninsula, where I pastor, most Christians know the names of Piper, Dever, and MacArthur. Famous pastors are nothing new. Christ’s church has always had men with extraordinary talent in the pastorate—men like Augustine, Calvin, or Lloyd-Jones. In fact, we even find “famous pastors” in the Bible. Paul sent the Corinthian church “the brother who [was] famous among all the churches for his preaching of the gospel” (2 Cor. 8:18).
But most of us will never be famous, extraordinary pastors.
You may recognize the name Don Carson, but do you know his father Tom? Tom was a husband, father, church-planter, and pastor in Québec, Canada. His ministry lasted from roughly 1933–1992, and he pastored during difficult days of persecution. Tom was not a famous pastor, but he was a faithful pastor. In these memoirs, Carson shares lessons we can learn from his dad’s ministry. He reminds pastors “that the God of Augustine, Calvin, Spurgeon, and Piper is no less the God of Tom Carson, and of you and me” (11).
Our church started a pastoral internship to raise up elders for churches around the world. As we labor to train future pastors in the Middle East and beyond, we focus on faithfulness, not fame. Memoirs of an Ordinary Pastor serves our aspiring pastors by celebrating a man who faithfully ministered in discouragement and obscurity. Here are three reasons that pastors should read Memoirs of an Ordinary Pastor.
FIRST, THE CHURCH NEEDS MORE FAITHFUL PASTORS IN HARD, FORGOTTEN PLACES.
The bulk of Tom’s ministry took place in French Canada. With over six million francophones in the 1930s, Québec was primarily French speaking and Roman Catholic. Civil, religious, and educational laws were greatly influenced by the Catholic Church. Yet the form of Catholicism in Québec at the time was more medieval than modern. Indulgences were still sold and crowds of Catholics fell to their knees whenever a Cardinal drove down the main street of the city (20–21). While close to seventy French-speaking evangelical Baptist churches existed at the start of the twentieth century, theological liberalism killed all but a few by the 1930s (22). Not many gospel preaching men signed up to minister in Québec at this time, but Tom Carson committed himself to gospel work in that region.
Tom’s ministry started small. He rode public transport or his bicycle to follow up with people who requested a copy of the New Testament. He corresponded with interested unbelievers by writing letters. He often faced rejection and scorn. Tom didn’t concern himself with whether his location was “strategic” or with the worldly metrics for success. We would do well to follow Tom’s example. Yes, large strategic cities need the gospel, but aspiring pastors should consider moving to smaller places with little or no access to the gospel. Let’s not neglect quiet, unnoticed ministry in forgotten places.
SECOND, THE CHURCH NEEDS MORE FAITHFUL PASTORS WHO PERSEVERE THROUGH DISCOURAGEMENT.
Trials, troubles, and tribulations are normal for Christians, but they abound for the pastor. Are the men aspiring to pastor in your church prepared to suffer? Let them learn from Tom.
The denominational committee that promised funds to buy a building for his new church plant changed their mind just days before the next major installment was due (53). Tom didn’t deserve this treatment, he was simply betrayed by men he trusted. He was forced to borrow the money as a personal loan which was more than half his annual salary. Remarkably the Carson children never heard a word of this drama growing up. His parents committed to only speaking positively about those involved.
Tom also faced a dark night of the soul in the 1960s. The Carson family continually struggled financially, and he felt a sense of inferiority as fellow ministers seemingly eclipsed him in their fruitfulness (68). Eventually Tom resigned from his pastorate at age 52 after not seeing a single conversion in two years. Carson reflects on his dad’s resignation almost five decades later suggesting that his dad didn’t understand his need for rest and pacing. His perfectionist tendencies led him to believe his work was never complete and never good enough.
All ministers will face this same temptation. Our ministry remains unfinished, our sermons need improvement, more members need visiting—ministry never ends. Pastors need to ground all their work in the gospel of grace. We are accepted by God because of Christ, not because of our success.
THIRD, THE CHURCH NEEDS MORE FAITHFUL PASTORS WHO PERSEVERE AND END WELL.
Each of us in ministry wants to finish well, but some of us won’t. Despite Tom’s resignation from a church in Drummondville, Tom persevered in faithfulness until the end. What contributed to Tom finishing his race? Perhaps it was the mornings he spent on his knees in prayer (72). Or it could have been the fact that his mind was saturated with Scripture—much of it committed to memory (73). A few glimpses of grace in his life are worth mentioning.
Tom remained faithful to his commitment to French Canada. After resigning from the pastorate at 52, the Lord continued to use him. Tom got a job as a civil servant and found himself preaching regularly at various churches along with conducting pastoral visits. Tom even lead a group called “La Pastorale,” where he taught young pastors to work through theological and pastoral issues (118).
Moreover, Tom’s greatest act of faithfulness was to his family. He never ignored them for the sake of ministry. When his wife, Marg, was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s he continued to sacrificially serve her. Tom followed his wife into eternity just three years after she died. Would it be enough for you if you never published a book and never preached to thousands, but persevered in faithfulness and obscurity like Tom?
Lord willing, each new class of pastoral interns at Covenant Hope Church Dubai will read and benefit from the faithful, ordinary ministry of Tom Carson. Our hope is that they commit themselves to the fame of Jesus, not their own. Would Tom have dreamed that his life and ministry would influence future pastors in the Arabian Peninsula and beyond? I doubt it. He was too busy being faithful with the few the Lord placed in his care. But God’s grace works in mysterious ways. Your church—and the aspiring pastors looking up to you—would benefit greatly from you taking a few hours to learn from the feet of an ordinary pastor like Tom Carson.