Book Review: The New Pastor’s Handbook, by Jason Helopoulos
Jason Helopoulos, The New Pastor’s Handbook: Help and Encouragement for the First Years of Ministry. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2015. 208 pages. $14.99.
About five months in to becoming a pastor, I remember running into a seminary acquaintance at a conference. We had shared a few classes together, and were catching up with small-talk. He also asked what it was like to be a pastor—a question on the mind of many a seminarian. His facial expressions and tone communicated a sense of curiosity and wonder, like a wide-eyed soldier in boot-camp asking a veteran soldier what combat was like.
I replied that I was enjoying the pastorate, and that I had learned many things but was learning still more. I mentioned the surprises, challenges, and encouragements. Yet one can only say so much in five minutes.
His curiosity is common, I believe, to many who consider entering the ministry. We need advice on how to prepare. We want to know what the day-to-day experience of a pastor is like. We want to hear details, even if they are bad, so that we can mentally rehearse in our minds how we’d respond in certain situations. We want practical guidance, theological instruction, and biblical wisdom poured into us so that we might be “equipped for the work of ministry” (Eph 4:12). In short, we want to be able to ask lots of questions and receive lots of answers.
Jason Helopoulos’ new book, The New Pastor’s Handbook: Help and Encouragement for the First Years of Ministry, in a sense, fulfills this desire. His book is like having the opportunity to sit down with an experienced pastor, ask any ministry related question, and receive a sound, concise answer.
The book is divided into five main parts. The first part, “The Beginning,” explores the nature of a calling. What exactly is a “calling”? How do I know if I have been called to be a pastor? How do I candidate for a church? Helopoulos replies with both biblical insight and practical wisdom.
Personally, I am always hesitant to read books or chapters on the calling of a pastor because too often the call to ministry is explained as an overly mystical phenomenon. It’s as though each pastor must have an experience where the Lord calls out his name like Samuel and he responds, “Here I am!” (1 Sam 3:4).
But the New Testament describes a calling to pastoral ministry as beginning with a simple desire (1 Tim 3:1), not a struck-by-lightning experience, and Helopoulos rightly understands this. He tells of his own experience of wrestling with a call to the pastorate, and how some of his friends had given him some common, but unsound advice. He writes, “Some friends suggested that if I could do anything else and remain happy, then I wasn’t called. If that was the case, then Moses, Jeremiah, Jonah, and a host of other biblical leaders wouldn’t have served the Lord as they did. That couldn’t be the answer” (29).
What he came to understand is that any man who is called to be a pastor “should have an internal sense that God has called him to be a pastor (Gal 1:1; Eph 1:1)” (29). Or, in other words, he should simply desire to be one (1 Tim 3:1). Then, a church, having examined his character according to biblical qualifications (1 Tim 3:1-7), should give approval to his desire. And finally, the church confirms him in that calling (28-31).
In the second part, “Starting Out Strong,” Helopoulos turns his attention to offering advice for a strong start in a new ministry position. The positions include senior pastor, assistant pastor, youth pastor, and church planter. Each position has its own unique requirements. For example, an assistant pastor must recognize he is very much in a supportive role. He will have to implement the ideas of a senior pastor, and therefore before accepting the position he must “respect and like the senior pastor” under whom he will serve (43). A church planter, given his position, needs qualities like multitasking, perseverance, and a love for anyone the Lord may put in his path, since he does not determine the demographics of Christ’s church (52-53).
The third part, “Encouragements,” addresses the practical sides of ministry, such as hospital visits, weddings, funerals, emotional aspects of ministry, personal holiness, learning to listen well, and more. This section is very much reminiscent of John Piper’s, Brothers, We Are Not Professionals, in that the emphasis is on exhorting pastors to take seriously their calling and to be faithful in it.
In the fourth part, “Pitfalls of Young Pastors,” Helopoulos’ heart for young pastors is evident. There are mistakes that young pastors make quite frequently, whether out of zeal or ignorance, that Helopoulos wants them to avoid, or at least be mindful of. Probably the most important advice he gives comes in the first chapter of this section, where he says, “Dear pastor, start slow” (144-145). There is no such thing as a perfect church. So naturally, a young pastor will see in a new church areas that need reforming. What too often happens is that in our zeal to reform we forget to shepherd. We run ahead and then turn around and find that the sheep are not even there.
When I became a pastor, I was so excited to preach through the riches of the Bible that I thought it would be a good idea to begin with one of my favorite books: Romans. I thought to myself, “This would be a great book to a lay a solid theological foundation for the direction of the church.” I was not thinking about whether the church was ready for a book like Romans from a pastor they barely knew. Fortunately, an older, wiser believer cautioned me against this, and I am still employed. This is the kind of wise caution Helopoulos offers in Part 4.
Finally, the book ends on an encouraging note of joy. The pastorate indeed has its challenges. It has its moments of sorrow and grief. But it is also a great source of joy. It is a privilege. We labor for eternal fruit. The Master has given pastors a stewardship, and the promise of reward is great. We fight not against flesh and blood, but against “the principalities and powers,” and we are promised that, if we persevere, we will receive “the unfading crown of glory” (1 Pet 5:4).
Because of this, Helopoulos concludes with a final adjective-packed exhortation: “Though the temptation to quit may be strong, don’t give up too easily. God called you to this holiness-producing, soul-demanding, grace-manifesting, truth-telling, righteousness-pursuing, comfort-giving, love-extending, faith-building, joy-filled, and holy vocation. Persevere in it” (203).
This is the kind of book every seminarian, every new pastor, and even older ones should read. It is a book that will help pastors start their ministries well. It will guide them with practical and biblical wisdom to love their people, and it will remind them of the great joy of serving as an under-shepherd of the great Shepherd himself, Jesus Christ.