Why have I written this book? That’s a good question. There are a host of reasons, but two in particular merit mentioning at the outset.
First, I’ve written this book out of concern for the church’s diminished appreciation of pastoral ministry. I realise this assessment might come as a surprise to some, but I’m convinced that even a casual glance at today’s evangelicalism supports it.
The fact that pastors act on Christ’s behalf seems to rest weightless upon the church, including many pastors. What could be more important than shepherding the ones Christ purchased with his blood? What could be more crucial than watching over Christ’s bride?
High and holy calling
What could be more essential than caring for Christ’s body? Contrary to much of what we see and hear, pastoral ministry isn’t a career choice. It’s a high and holy calling.
‘The church’, writes John Stott, ‘lies at the very centre of the eternal purpose of God’ (see John Piper’s, Brothers, we are not professionals: a plea to pastors for radical ministry; Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 2002); ‘it’s the instrument by which God glorifies himself in this world. That makes pastoral ministry of utmost importance’ (John Stott, The living church; Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity, 2007).
Second, I’ve written this book out of concern for the church’s clouded perception of pastoral ministry. This condition has arisen — at least in part — from our failure to differentiate between success and excellence. In simple terms, success is based upon status: an elevation of our importance in society’s eyes.
How does our society gauge success? It looks at things such as power, prestige, privilege, and prosperity. That view of success is ultimately rooted in pride. Sadly, today’s church seems incapable (or perhaps unwilling) to acknowledge this tendency in its midst, and many insist on adopting the world’s standards of success, thereby skewing notions of — among other things — the nature of pastoral ministry.
What we must grasp is that excellence stands in marked contrast to success because it isn’t determined by status, but by faithfulness. In a word, it’s based on an unwavering resolve to please God — no one else.
As such, it’s rooted in humility. Now, here’s the thing that’s incomprehensible (even scandalous) to large segments of today’s church: excellence is often unsuccessful. The church needs to recapture a sense of that reality. It must recapture a sense of what’s truly excellent in God’s sight.
Among his last recorded words, the apostle Paul summarises his ministry as follows: ‘For I am now ready to be offered, and the time of my departure is at hand. I have fought a good fight, I have finished my course, I have kept the faith: henceforth there is laid up for me a crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, shall give me at that day: and not to me only but unto all them that love his appearing’ (2 Timothy 4:6-8).
It’s difficult to read these verses without my eyes clouding with tears. Paul sits in a prison cell in Rome. His eyesight is failing and his mobility is declining. He’s probably in his early 60s, but likely aged well beyond his years as a result of the multiple beatings, imprisonments, shipwrecks and other hardships he has suffered during 30 years of ministry.
As Alexander Whyte so movingly writes, Paul is ‘forsaken, lonely, cold and without his cloak, chained to a soldier, waiting on one of Nero’s mad fits for his martyrdom’ (Alexander Whyte, Bible characters: The New Testament; London: Oliphants, 1952; 282).
As Paul waits, what does he say? To begin with, he talks about the present — a death worth dying (v. 6). He describes himself as ‘ready to be offered’. What does he mean? At this point, the English Standard Version is helpful. It translates Paul’s words as follows: ‘For I am already being poured out as a drink offering’.
For the context, we turn to Numbers 15, where we learn that the priests in Old Testament times poured the drink offering over the burnt offering, in order to complete the sacrifice. Paul’s point is that he has lived his life as a burnt offering to God. Now, it’s time for the drink offering to be poured out — it’s time for him to die.
Secondly, Paul talks about his past — a life worth living (v. 7). He provides a threefold description of his ministry: he fought the fight, he finished the course (or race), and he kept the faith. In other words, as he surveys 30 or so years of ministry, he’s confident that he has been faithful. He has pursued excellence. Above all else, he has laboured to glorify God.
Thirdly, Paul talks about his future — a crown worth receiving (v. 8). He’s able to embrace martyrdom, for he knows that Christ awaits him. He’s confident he will receive ‘a crown of righteousness’. He fully expects to hear his Master say, ‘Well done, thou good and faithful servant’ (Matthew 25:21).
My desire is to see a generation of Pauline pastors — men with a clear sense of their calling, coupled with an insatiable desire to please God. In other words, my desire is to see a generation of pastors committed to the pursuit of excellence.
With that end in view, what can you expect in the pages that follow? The book is divided into two parts. Part 1 consists of a series of pastoral priorities. I discovered these close to ten years ago, tucked away in a largely forgotten book — The Christian man’s calling.
The author is George Swinnock — a seventeenth-century English Puritan and Nonconformist (meaning he was ejected from the Church of England in 1662).
In his book, Swinnock includes a small section titled, ‘A good wish about the calling of a minister, wherein the several properties and duties of a conscientious pastor are epitomised’ (George Swinnock, ‘The Christian man’s calling’, in The works of George Swinnock; 1868; reprinted, Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1992; 1:319-29).
Here he articulates his heartfelt desire for his own pastoral ministry by way of 16 ‘wishes’ (i.e., prayer requests). In each chapter, I include one of Swinnock’s wishes (edited for the modern reader), and then expand on it with a few thoughts of my own.
Head and heart
Part 2 consists of a sermon (also edited for the modern reader) by George Swinnock: ‘The pastor’s farewell’ (Works; Banner of Truth; 4:53). He preached it upon his departure from St Mary’s chapel in Rickmansworth, Hertfordshire, where he had served as pastor for 11 years.
In the dedication, he remarks, ‘There are two things which I have always judged chiefly requisite in a pastor — labour and love. The former is a work of the head, the latter a work of the heart: faithful labour will speak his love, and sincere love will sweeten his labour … both together — as soul and body are the essential parts of a man — are the whole of a minister’.
In this sermon, Swinnock’s love for his church serves as an encouraging example for all pastors who desire to love their people in Christ.
Swinnock’s insights have proven to be an invaluable guide to me over the years. My prayer is that the Lord will bless them to you — for the equipping of his ministers, the strengthening of his church, the coming of his kingdom, and the honouring of his name.
J. Stephen Yuille
This extract is from the Introduction of the author’s A labor of love — Puritan pastoral priorities, published by Reformation Heritage Books, Grand Rapids, Michigan; 152 pages, $15.00; ISBN 978–1-60178–266–3,