An Open Letter to a New Pastor in His First Charge

Arthur Fox

Extracted from Ordained Servant vol. 4, no. 2 (April 1995)

My dear brother, may the Lord of the Church bless and keep you as you begin your service to him! You have indeed been given the greatest privilege ever granted to mortal man, the privilege of proclaiming the Gospel of Jesus Christ to the world and the whole counsel of God to his Church. It is my privilege to call you a fellow-laborer for the Lord.

I hope you do not find it too bold for me to write you as I do. After all, as of this date I am only in my sixth year of ministry and only my fifth year of active service in the pastorate. But perhaps my experience can be of some help to you, as I share what little insight I have. What I hope to accomplish is to give you some suggestions that I wish I had followed in my first charge. I lay them before you, not as one who knows it all but as one who has learned these things through trial and much error. Some things will seem painfully obvious, but don’t dismiss them! I would have, and in some cases did, to my own hurt and that of the dear people of God in that first charge. But God is kind and able to use man’s foolishness to his own glory and the good of his people. So I give you the following counsels:

1. Study the Scriptures to see what your job actually is. Look up in a concordance and then study each passage that uses the terms shepherd, pastor, preach, teach, elder, overseer, bishop, prophet. If you do you will find, I think, that your first task is to feed God’s people the Word of God. Yes, you are to preach the Gospel and seek the salvation of the lost, but if you do not feed the saved they will not remain healthy sheep for long. You must do both. That is why Paul says, in 2 Timothy 4:1-3, “I charge [thee] therefore before God, and the Lord Jesus Christ, who shall judge the quick and the dead at his appearing and his kingdom; Preach the word; be instant in season, out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort with all long-suffering and doctrine. For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine; but after their own lusts shall they heap to themselves teachers, having itching ears.”

Paul means for his young colleague to preach the Word. In fact you could not do better than to set aside a whole day early in the first month of your work in which you will fast and prayerfully study the epistles of Paul to Timothy and Titus and take notes!!! You need a good eyeful of what God expects you to do. That will set the tone for the rest of your ministry.

The second thing you will find your job entails is prayer (Acts 6:4): prayer for yourself, your family, your fellow elders, your deacons, your trustees, the congregation, the direction of the Church, the work of the Holy Spirit as you preach, and you get the idea! Set up a prayer list containing every member of the congregation, your family, and every other concern of the Church. Pray especially for your fellow officers and their families.

In point of fact, your whole ministry, your whole job is defined by these two activities, the ministry of the Word of God and prayer. “What about Session meetings and Presbytery and visitation and...?” Listen, dear brother, these are all things that flow out of the ministry of the Word of God and prayer, and if they don’t, you aren’t doing them right! How can you serve Christ without knowing what he has to say (the Word) and how can you preach or teach or lead your elders without the Word of God and prayer? I urge you to set aside all day Tuesday and every morning you can in your work week as time in the study for these two items.

And please remember that you have no apology to give for preaching the Word with authority. You are Christ’s mouthpiece, his prophet—not in the sense that you receive direct revelation, but in the sense that you are telling God’s people what God says and they are responsible to hear you and obey what God says through you! You speak for Christ.

2. Develop an unbreakable bond with your fellow elders. You are part of a session, and if you don’t know what that means just ask the other members of the session. Make it a rule from the very start that you will not do anything with regard to the Church, not even rearrange your office, without at least discussing it with one elder, if not the whole session. Don’t allow anything to leave your typewriter/printer to the public (except for sermons) without the session at least approving it in advance, better yet give each man a copy and sit on the letter till you get feedback! Ask permission to attend conferences, ask permission for vacation dates and don’t hide the fact that you will be absent during that yearly Church ground hog day marathon if you are on vacation at that time! Most Session members are too gracious to say no to some of your desires, so tell them what the pros and cons of their saying yes will be. Learn to protect yourself by having the ability to say, “The Session agrees with what I am doing.”

Be sure to ask the Session on a regular basis how you are doing. Ask them to be critical of your preaching and pastoral work. Ask for suggestions as to how you can preach more effectively, what people need to hear, if they have heard any criticisms from the congregation—no matter how slight! You may need to encourage them to speak up, for the godly ruling elder loves his pastor too much to hurt his feelings. Tell them you want your feelings hurt! Tell them not to spare you, for in being hard on you in the Session meeting, they will be extending your time of useful service to the Church. And then, use whatever they tell you if you can possibly do so, no matter if it seems as trivial as changing the way you pronounce a biblical name. If once they see you are open to constructive criticism they will be very willing to continue helping you and you will find your burden much lighter.

Above all else, rid yourself of the notion, here and now, that you are in charge, and the success of your pastorate is on your shoulders alone. It is not. You are part of a Session; act like a part of your Session. Tell them often how much you appreciate them. Send them notes saying so, and don’t forget to regularly verbalize appreciation to their wives who sit alone while their husband does the work of an elder.

3. Preach the Word. Pretty obvious, right? Well what I mean is this: major in preaching extended portions of Scripture. Take a Psalm or two, or an epistle, or the Sermon on the Mount, or an historical book of the Bible and preach it from start to finish. It doesn’t matter if you go verse by verse or chapter by chapter—just be sure you go thought by thought! Do this for one service. At the other service (if you have one) use the Westminster Shorter Catechism as your schedule of preaching and preach it doctrine by doctrine—don’t preach the Catechism but use the proof texts the Catechism gives or related texts and feed your people the whole counsel of God for as long as it takes to get through it all. I have just completed one year here at this Church and I am up to question 30. Obviously I took important things, like God’s attributes, one at a time. Other questions can be combined.

What is the point of all of this? Point one is that in our day many are biblically illiterate and if you don’t show them how to study the Bible accurately and carefully, one book at a time, one doctrine at a time, they will never learn—or worse yet, they will do a faulty job on their own or learn faulty doctrine from someone else and fall into serious error and possibly into sin. It is that serious. Point two is that you don’t know as much about the Bible and Reformed doctrine as you think you do, and this will ensure you stay a few steps ahead of most of your people. Will they get bored? Only if they have no love for God’s Word! And that will give you a counseling ministry—do you see how this sets up visitation opportunities? It should also save you some counseling time as the Holy Spirit applies the Word to their lives and they see they have business to do with God.

4. Apply the Word with Grace. Don’t just tell them what the Word says, what the doctrine teaches, tell them how to use it! Don’t tell them to forgive, tell them how to do it—step by step. Don’t tell them to have daily devotions, tell them to read the Bible every day and pray about what they read. Don’t tell them they need to be saved, tell them they must trust Christ’s death for sinners alone in order to be saved, that they have to ask Christ to save them.

And please, please, follow the advice a godly elder gave me: assume the people of God are intelligent and willing to obey God. Tell them you know they love Christ and want to do the right thing. Tell them you struggle with the same sins you are decrying, that you and they are all in the same battle together. Tell them you love them, and mean it! Prepare them verbally for hard words from the Bible, tell them you would rather have something cheerful to say, but also tell them that you need the same word and you love them too much to keep any part of God’s Word from them. Love Christ’s sheep with his Word.

5. Find a Mentor. Become friends with a fellow pastor whose opinion and counsel you trust and value. Ask him to be your counselor and tell him that you will listen carefully to what he says, though you may not always do as he says. And call or write to him on a regular basis for prayer and feedback. You don’t have to be alone when the world seems to be caving in. But be sure your Session knows you will be doing this, and be sure you violate no trusts.

6. Visit the home of every member as quickly as you can in your first year. You are not aiming to be profound or to rebuke (unless you have to) on this visit. This is your “I am me and who are you?” visit—where you simply get to put names and faces together, not to mention finding out that Anna really likes to be called Ann and no one calls Romulus by his given name—he wants to be called “Chip”! I cannot tell you what good will this stores up for you both! They know you care and you know more exactly how to preach to them! You will learn why the last fellow had to slip out of town at night and how to avoid his mistakes—without even asking!

(But don’t encourage them to talk about his faults or anything negative about him—make it clear as casually and yet firmly as you can that he is a beloved fellow-laborer and that you really respect the time he spent there before you. Find out from the Session what his strong points were and focus on them with your people.) Ask them what their favorite memories of the Church are and what one thing they would like to see changed (make it clear you are not promising change). Ask what they would like to hear a sermon on. Get to know them (but please get permission to visit first unless you have been told to just drop in). And make one promise, and keep it, that you will not change anything in the Church for the first year unless it is a doctrinal issue or there is sin involved.

Which brings me to the last point I want to raise.

7. Settle it in your mind this instant that there are very few emergencies in the pastorate. What I mean is this: though there may be potential heretics residing in the pews, much of what the people of God need is careful instruction so that their thinking will be accurate. OK, so there are things that make you wince at the loose approach to Reformed theology. Remember, you once knew less than you do now. Make a point of preaching accurately, and you will be amazed at how this difficulty can change in subtle ways! So the Sunday School students don’t know what reprobation is, they can’t even spell it! What are you there for but to teach them? And what if it is the case that they don’t know Robert’s Rules of Order? Do they need to know them? Can’t you run a meeting a little less formally?

Sins you will uncover, real problems there will be on occasion, funerals, divorces, serious illnesses—all of these will take more of your time than you want. But the vast majority of your challenges will be best handled following 2 Timothy 2:23-26. “But refuse foolish and ignorant speculations, knowing that they produce quarrels. And the Lord’s bond-servant must not be quarrelsome, but be kind to all, able to teach, patient when wronged, with gentleness correcting those who are in opposition, if perhaps God may grant them repentance leading to the knowledge of the truth, and they may come to their senses [and escape] from the snare of the devil, having been held captive by him to do his will” (NASB). Careful and patient instruction is what Christ used with his erring disciples for 3-3 1/2 years, and even then Paul had to confront Peter! How much do you still have to learn? Can’t you be patient with the things you see need straightening out? Your people will listen and they will learn if you will love them enough to be a patient instructor and see that the real enemy is the devil who has ensnared them in error. If you patiently teach them, they will learn and your real enemy will be defeated. They are not stupid sheep, they are the people of God who want to learn and will be grateful if you will patiently teach them. And don’t forget to pray for them to learn!

My dear fellow-laborer, you face a future bright with promise. Don’t let your hard times in the pastorate get you down. Call upon God to bless your labors and his people, reverently and humbly insist that he do so in keeping with his promise not to allow his Word to fall to the ground or return to him void. Be faithful in your labors. I close with a final word of counsel to deal with the ever-pressing concern of Church Growth (numerical)—I borrowed it from Hollywood but I think it is true as I put it with regard to the ministry of the Word and the attraction of visitors and new members:

If you preach it, then if God blesses it, they will come.

May God keep you as you serve him.

Sincerely in Christ,
Arthur Fox

Arthur Fox is pastor of Calvary Orthodox Presbyterian Church, Middletown, Pennsylvania.