Book Review: The Flourishing Pastor, by Tom Nelson
Tom Nelson, The Flourishing Pastor: Recovering the Lost Art of Shepherd Leadership. IVP, 2021. 248 pages.
Tom Nelson’s book The Flourishing Pastor is a helpful diagnostic tool for church leaders. It’s like a thorough examination at a doctor’s office; it’s good for you, but it may also make you uncomfortable at times and reveal some trouble spots. However, in the end, it delivers some helpful advice for thriving in pastoral ministry.
Nelson builds his case for pastors as shepherd leaders from the Psalms, especially Psalm 78:72, “He shepherded them with a pure heart and guided them with his skillful hands.” The first two parts of the book, The Shepherd and Integrity of Heart, deal with the internal/unseen life of the pastor. The third and final part of the book, Skillful Hands, is about the public ministry of pastors.
In part one, Nelson deals with what he calls a calling in crisis. He writes with urgency, warning church leaders of the “great perils” and “painful ironies” of pastoral ministry. Some of the perils that Nelson mentions are celebrity pastor culture, the visionary leadership model, and lone ranger pastors. He is careful to show that leaders in any context and any church size can fall into one of these snares.
Regarding celebrity pastor culture, he writes, “A mega pastoral ego is not only found in some megachurch context. They can be found in all sizes of churches. Big frogs live in small ponds too.” Nelson argues that the way forward—the way toward an effective and Christ-honoring ministry—does not go through pragmatic worldly leadership practices, but through the humble shepherd leadership found in the Bible.
Part two deals with cultivating the inner life of the church leader. Nelson is clear that being a pastor is not a skill position; rather, pastoral ministry arises out of who you are.
What I found encouraging is Nelson’s call to seek integrity of heart with others. He writes:
“Pursuing the integral life is not a solitary enterprise. As leaders, we become more integral beings within a highly relational community… We will need to avoid at all cost the impoverishment of isolation and remain relational. This will require courage and intentionality, embracing a lifestyle with the margin of time and emotional energy required for deep relationships to thrive and grow.
This happens best in the context of a local church. With God’s help, this can be achieved by giving priority to being present with the church each Sunday and showing hospitality to people in your congregation.
Part three deals with the skills needed to faithfully shepherd God’s flock. He urges pastors to wisely navigate the ever-changing culture by being attuned to their external environments. He writes:
Discerning our particular times will require us to read historically and widely, listen attentively, and observe carefully shapers of the broader culture such as education, economics, media, movies, technology, art, and politics. As shepherd leaders we must read the Word and read the world.
One of his strongest points is that the work done on Sunday should have legs so that it walks on Monday; the skillful shepherd will guide God’s flock to flourish in their own vocations.
Due to Tom Nelson’s rich experience counseling pastors and long ministry in his local church, this book would be profitable for anyone in pastoral ministry. It may, however, provide the greatest benefit for those who have been in ministry for at least five years. The Flourishing Pastor is a helpful assessment for the pastor with some good experience under their belt. By God’s grace, I have served as a lead pastor for fourteen years. The book was at times deeply affirming and, at other times, quite penetrating.
My one critique of The Flourishing Pastor is that it focused so much on pastors in vocational ministry and not enough on elders in general. A key to having a flourishing pastor is having flourishing elders. But overall, pastors would do well to imitate Nelson’s example of shepherd leadership in the local church.