If you want to help your church be more faithful and effective in ministering to those with mental illness and overcoming its related stigmas, what do you do? How can churches help, besides referring people to professionals?
Ready or not, the church is the first place many people go when they are in crisis. And if they end up in a counselor’s office, sometimes counselors are sending people back to their churches for complementary spiritual and pastoral help. Based on my research, very few churches are ready to offer this kind of help. All of them should be equipped to offer at least some basics. Here are several things churches can do, ranked in order from what I perceive as most basic to most complex.
1. Get help if you’re struggling.
If you or a member of your family is struggling with your mental health, seek professional help. You cannot effectively minister to a congregation without addressing your own needs. And your first ministry is to the family God has entrusted to your care. Overcome your own fears and prejudices; your suffering or your family member’s suffering is not cause for shame. Seek answers to your theological questions. Facing a mental illness doesn’t have to destroy your faith. On the contrary, it’s more evidence of biblical truth: our fallen world and the creation that groans under the weight of our sin.
2. Tell your own story.
If you or someone you love has struggled with mental health, talk about your experience. One pastor told other pastors, “Be vulnerable from the pulpit. Be as vulnerable as you possibly can about your own hang-ups and your own weaknesses. If the lead communicator of God’s Word is vulnerable about his or her brokenness, it creates an atmosphere where everybody can be honest about their brokenness.” And what is the church if not a place where everyone can be honest about brokenness? What are grace and healing worth if no one needs them?
3. Get educated.
Educate yourself. Unless your congregation consists of mannequins or life-size cardboard cutouts, you can’t afford to be clueless about mental illness. You need to understand the people you’re ministering to and the types of problems they might have. It’s also important to have a basic understanding of the differences between various types of disorders and some of the indications to watch for.
Make a determined and intentional effort to rid your church of the stigma and shame associated with mental illness. Talk about it. Acknowledge the struggles of people you’ve known—and your own struggle, if applicable.
5. Talk about mental illness.
In my conversations with them, some pastors talked about the importance of avoiding labels and keeping secrets to keep from stigmatizing people in their congregations. While it is important to honor individuals (and the law) by keeping medical information private, we can discuss mental illness openly. This kind of healthy openness is what we need. The hush-hush approach actually reinforces and lends credibility to the stigma by suggesting that mental illness is something to be ashamed of.
6. Encourage relationships.
When I asked my parents what the church has done right in ministering to them, they both focused on the open and genuine relationships they have had with a handful of people in the church. Questions about what it’s like to be on medication or attend group therapy might seem intrusive, but for my mom, they open the door to genuine conversation with people and provide relief from feelings of isolation. Because these are her everyday experiences, they are easy for her to talk about if someone shows interest.
7. Ask what you can do to help.
You may not be a mental health professional, but that doesn’t mean you can’t help. Be especially attentive to the people who are caring for or living with a mentally ill person. They may be better able to communicate what’s really going on and what they need. And like anyone who loves and cares for the suffering, they are suffering themselves.
8. Be present.
This sounds simple, and “ministry of presence” might be cliché, but it’s powerful. When an individual is struggling with mental illness, and when that person’s family is in crisis, the earth can feel as if it has torn loose from its orbit. People need something stable to help them keep their bearings, and they may need you to help them keep their faith. A Christian leader or friend who refuses to abandon a family in crisis may be a powerful symbol of the truth that God has not abandoned them either.
9. Radiate acceptance.
Refuse to reject the person or family in crisis. Don’t wash your hands of a family because you’ve given them a referral to a mental health professional. Like others in crisis, people affected by mental illness need to know that you care. Ask questions: Are you managing your illness? Are you caring for yourself? Is the family healthy? Are your family members caring for themselves?
10. Be patient.
Mental illness is not resolved overnight. Much mental illness is never “resolved” but can be managed. For many people, success means learning to function well most of the time despite a formerly debilitating illness. One man put it this way: “I don’t think churches can say, ‘Well, by next year we’ll have this thing solved.’ No, you’ll never have it solved, so just deal with that right now. It’s like saying we’ll eradicate sin from our congregation. I don’t think so.”
11. Help with practical needs.
Most churches have a plan for providing meals and other practical assistance to families in need, but many overlook the needs of individuals and families affected by mental illness. When they are in crisis, they need meals. When they are adjusting to new medications, they need rides. In the hospital, they can benefit from short visits. Sometimes they need a quiet place to go or someone quiet to come to them. And they very likely need help covering the expenses of medications, hospitalizations and therapy.
12. Draw boundaries and stick to them.
Just because someone is mentally ill, you don’t need to suspend standards of morality, biblical theology or respectful behavior in your church community. Overlooking inappropriate behavior or beliefs is destructive to your congregation, and it does no favors for the mentally ill. Regardless of how they respond to social expectations, mentally ill people do need structure and boundaries to grow in independence, understanding and management of their illness. They need healthy people around them to give them objective feedback and an example of mental health.
13. Know when you are in over your head.
As one Christian counselor said, “Pastors should not fool themselves into thinking they can handle everything.” Sometimes you need to call in a professional to either handle an immediate crisis or provide long-term care. If you suspect a person in your congregation is struggling with mental illness, refer him or her to a professional counselor or psychiatrist.
14. Use resources.
Even if you know next to nothing about mental health and the therapeutic system, you have more resources at your disposal than you may realize. Take advantage of them.
15. Start a support group.
If your church is ready to make a deeper commitment to support people affected by mental illness, consider whether you are equipped to start a support group. As I mentioned earlier, your community probably has a variety of resources—including support groups—to help people with mental illness. However, most of those groups are not faith-based and will leave matters of faith out of the discussion. Perhaps your church could fill the gap. Or you might partner with other churches to create a support-group ministry to a larger community.
So, if you’re like most people and you have been unsure how you can help, besides referring people to professionals, take heart and realize that churches and their leaders can do a lot to help heal and support individuals and families affected by mental illness. It’s actually easier than you might have thought. You don’t need to feel a burden to “fix” or “treat” people. You can start by being a friend and helping to meet their basic needs. You can work with mental health professionals to support their treatment. And where true healing from illness is elusive or impossible, you can demonstrate the kind of love God has for all of us—the kind that doesn’t waver, no matter how hard we are to live with.
Video with Amy Simpson
Watch this video to learn more about Simpson’s heart behind her book.
Amy Simpson is a speaker, editor, leadership coach, and author of the award-winning books Blessed Are the Unsatisfied, Troubled Minds: Mental Illness and the Church’s Mission, and Anxious. An acquisitions editor for Moody Publishing, she has previously worked in publishing for organizations like Tyndale House Publishers, Group Publishing, Gospel Light, Standard Publishing, LifeWay, Focus on the Family, and Christianity Today. Connect with her at her website.
Bob and Barry are two preachers you admire. You want to seek their wisdom on preaching, so you individually invite them out to coffee. You promise to pick up the tab as long as they’ll be open to your questions. They agree. You meet for coffee with both men excited to fire off your questions, only to leave confused because they offer seemingly opposite advice.
Bob tells you to use a manuscript for every sermon. “Write yourself clear,” he says. He tells you to never enter the pulpit unprepared because God’s people deserve better. He reminds you that writing is the pathway to clarity, and every preacher must be clear. He tells you about the Greek word for labor in 1 Timothy 5:17, and how much of the labor comes from writing. Write a full manuscript, read it aloud at least 5 times, and then bring it with you into the pulpit.
Barry tells you to never use a manuscript. The people who hear you preach want your eye-contact; it’s a sign of affection. By looking at your manuscript while you preach you’ll be doing a disservice to the people of God. Barry also tells you that sermon delivery is just as important as sermon content, and a manuscript will only hurt your delivery. “Study yourself full,” Barry says. Fill your mind with as much content on the text and when you preach, just let it all out. He assures you that you’ll be fine.
Bob tells you that he loves biblical commentaries. He says that scholars dedicate their lives to studying the Bible, and we should take advantage of the fruit of their work. He also sees sermon prep as a time for his own personal spiritual growth, so he doesn’t mind using 8-10 commentaries for his sermon, even if he won’t use 1/4th of the content he reads. He tells you about a website that you can find the best commentaries and why you should be building your theological library right now.
Bob affirms the usefulness of commentaries. But when he attended a Bible study as a kid, the group leader told him to “start with the Bible, not with the commentaries.” The Bible study leader encouraged him to do his own exegetical work and not to be lazy. That’s stuck with him ever since. Now when he does sermon prep, he doesn’t consult the commentaries until Friday, and still feels guilty when he does so.
“Application is overrated,” Bob says, enthusiastically. He tells you he’s tired of all these “worldly” preachers who claim to do expository preaching but spend so little time in the actual text. He reminds you that it is the Spirit’s job to apply the passage to the heart of your hearers, not yours. Why would you try to do the Holy Spirit’s job? You’re not stronger than him, are you?
Barry has a different outlook. He says that if you don’t provide a sermon application, you haven’t preached. That “old-school” way of mostly exposition in a sermon would have worked 50 years ago, but not today. Exposition without application is merely a public Bible study. People need to know, “Now what?” after your sermon. It’s your job to tell them. You love them, don’t you?
Bob tells you to exclusively do expository preaching if you want to preach the whole counsel of God. “Topical” preaching is for those who care more about what they have to say than what God’s Word actually says. Preach through books of the Bible, verse-by-verse. That’s it. There’s no other option if you want to be a faithful Bible preacher.
Barry likewise loves expository preaching and tells you about how he just finished a two-year sermon series in the Gospel of Matthew. Instead of picking another book of the Bible to preach from, he’s going to do a quick sermon series on prayer. Just four weeks, he says. He feels like his congregation needs to grow in prayer, and it’s his job to lead them. He tells you that he doesn’t mind doing a topical sermon series every once in a while, and that true expository preaching is not merely about preaching through books of the Bible, but about ensuring that the main idea of your text is the main idea of your sermon; you can preach expositonally by doing a topical sermon series.
Bob says contextualization is overrated and encourages you to focus on the text only; Barry says contextualization is extremely important and encourages you to know both the text and your culture. Bob starts his sermon prep on Monday morning since it’s the most important work of his ministry; Barry waits until Wednesday before starting sermon prep because he wants to “live in the text.” Bob warns you not to “leapfrog” to Jesus as Jesus is not literally the main point of every text; Barry says you must preach the gospel in every sermon, and Jesus is the entire point of the Bible. Bob says he finds sermon illustrations to be silly; Barry says a good sermon illustration can change someone’s life.
And on and on they go, giving you opposite answers to the same questions.
You thank both men for their time and quietly exit to your car. You wondered if you made a mistake by setting up these appointments; you wonder if God is even calling you to preach.
What do you do?
On Taking Preaching Advice
The answer to the question “What do you do?” is this: Do what works for you. Take the preaching advice that’s useful, and ignore what’s not.
I bring this up because this is something I’ve gone through. As one who preaches regularly and often reads about the craft of preaching, I often leave confused when two men I admire give me the opposite advice. I’ve learned over the years that when you get varying perspectives on preaching, the remedy is not to discern who’s right and who’s wrong but to figure out what works best for your specific ministry context.
Reading good books on preaching is crucial. Listening to sermons is helpful. And best of all, asking a wise sage for his advice is gold. Learn from others. But remember: you’re not them. What works for them may not work for you. You are free to accept what you like and ignore what you don’t.
Our church is about to go through the fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22-23). One resource I will use for this series is Cultivating the Fruit of the Spirit by Christopher J.H. Wright. I’ve read and enjoyed multiple Wright books in the past so I’m eager to jump into this one. In the introduction of the book, I was struck by a prayer that Wright shares; he says John Stott used to pray it every day.
The prayer is Triune. It addresses the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and goes like this:
“Heavenly Father, I pray that this day I may live in your presence and please you more and more.
Lord Jesus, I pray that this day I may take up my cross and follow you.
Holy Spirit, I pray that this day you will fill me with yourself and cause your fruit to ripen in my life: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.”
Wright goes on to say that many people who knew Stott personally said he was the godliest person they ever met.
That really inspired me. I want to grow in godliness and one way to do that, I think, is to pray a version of the prayer Stott used to pray daily.
I wonder how much stronger our churches would be, and I wonder how much more satisfied our lives would be, if we took up this prayer and started praying something similar to it on a regular basis. We desperately need the Holy Spirit to produce the fruit of the Spirit in us. Let’s cry out to him and ask him to do so.
I’ve been asked this a lot lately. When asked this question, I feel a mild sense of pressure to share a hyper-spiritual experience that will captivate my listeners and validate my calling. After asking the question, the inquisitor leans in with great interest to hopefully hear about that time I was on a holy mountain where I suddenly heard from the sky, “David, I’m calling you into ministry. Quit your job and go to seminary.” Christians love this kind of stuff. Ministry, after all, is a sacred calling, and therefore, the actual call to ministry should have been validated by a cool and spiritual experience worth telling, right?
No, not usually.
Instead, the process is typically more simple than we make it out to be. The imperfect verbiage I use is:
1. What does God say? 2. What do you say? 3. What do others say? 4. What does providence say?
I’ll briefly elaborate on each one.
1. What does God say?
No, I’m not talking about hearing an audible voice from the sky. Instead, I’m talking about hearing God’s voice through his Word. If you want to be a pastor, you have to have godly character; this is both a prerequisite and a non-negotiable. Paul lists these character prerequisites in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1, among other places.
A pastor must be:
The husband of one wife
Able to teach
Not a drunkard
Not violent, but gentle
Not a lover of money
He must be able to manage his household well
Keeps his children in submission
Must not be a recent convert
Must be well thought of by outsiders
Does that describe you?
The only gift required is the ability to teach. If you cannot teach the Bible and apply sound doctrine, you cannot be a pastor. All other requirements, however, have to do with a man’s character. So that means the guy who wants to be a pastor first and foremost must be godly. Not handsome, not cool, not popular. But godly. That’s the first thing you should consider when you consider a call to ministry.
Ask yourself: Does my life align with the biblical prerequisites to be a pastor?
2. What do you say?
Harry Reeder says: “The internal call is necessary to confirm the external call. If there is no internal call, then you must dismiss any and all external calls. In other words, if the Lord is calling you by his Spirit through his church, he will bear witness to that call in your heart.”
“Internal call” is a fancy way of describing inward and irresistible desires to preach, pastor, and be in ministry (1 Timothy 3:1). If other people are saying you should be in ministry, but you yourself don’t have the desire to do so, then you should not entertain any pastoral ministry options. After God, the calling starts with you.
Ask yourself: Do I even have a desire to do this?
The feelings that accompany a man considering the call to ministry are not ones of panic and regret. Instead, they’re more like feelings of excitement and anticipation. It’s not like the child stuck in his room because he’s grounded and wondering if he’ll ever get out. It’s more like the kid on the diving board jumping up and down waiting for the right moment to jump in, and can’t wait until his body hits the water. An inward call should be accompanied by feelings of joy and happiness and a willful desire to be in ministry.
Whenever God calls, God provides. Part of God’s provision is the inward desire to be in ministry. God’s initiative makes this happen.
3. What do others say?
By this I mean getting your calling affirmed by the pastors in your church. This is a crucial step, a step many— especially men in seminary — overlook. Other pastors who know you well should look at your life and gifting and say, “Yep, I can see you being in ministry.” It doesn’t mean you guys will agree on everything, but it does mean the elders in your church have to give you the green light before you move forward. It’s a bad sign when nobody besides yourself thinks you should be in ministry. Get honest feedback from other pastors.
4. What does providence say?
In many ways, this is the hardest one for me to describe. But that’s just the nature of writing about the glories and mysteries of God’s providential government. What do I mean by this? I mean that, in a very real and supernatural way, if you are called to ministry, then the Lord will govern and work in your life and the lives around you to ensure it happens. To make this applicable, what this usually means is that a church wants to hire you.
What to do Next:
You feel called to ministry. Your life matches up with Scripture, you have the desire, others say you should do it, and providence seems to be working in your favor. What do you do next?
Three things come to mind:
1. Tell the elders of your church. Call, text, or email one of them. Set up an appointment for coffee or lunch. Pay for it. Show up on time. After you sit down and take that first sip or bite, look your pastor dead in his eye and say, “Pastor, I feel called to ministry. I want to do what you’re doing.”
OK, maybe it doesn’t have to be that intense or awkward, but you need to tell them.
From there, he will tell the other elders. They will pray for you and put together a game plan to help you move along with the process, which will include character evaluation and serving opportunities. In short, submit yourself to your local elders, and entrust your elders to point you in the right direction.
2. Read a book on calling. I recommend Am I Called?: The Summons to Pastoral Ministry by Dave Harvey. It’s an excellent book. I recommended it to a guy years ago; it confirmed his calling and he is now serving in full-time vocational ministry. It also served me well when I read it several years ago. Consider checking it out.
Hope this helps. Just went through this process myself, so I know what it’s like. I did not enter full-time vocational ministry until about 10 years after I started feeling the inward calling to ministry. The interim between the initial calling until your first start date is often filled with suffering and wondering, but that is part of the process. Trust that God will get you where he wants you on his timing, which is often different from yours.
Note: If you’d like another perspective, you might find this video with John MacArthur on the subject helpful.
What would you say to a young man desiring ministry? - YouTube
If you’re thinking about seminary, below you can find six things to consider to help you choose the right one. I have in mind those interested in the Master of Divinity program.
In no particular order:
1. The Faculty Factor
Many will tell you to choose a seminary based on the seminary faculty. They say the number one reason in your consideration of choosing a seminary is the staff; choose a seminary with professors whom you like and want to study under.
I think this is mostly right, but it’s unrealistic to think that every prospective seminary student will know tons about every seminary faculty in the world, and it’s unrealistic to think a prospective seminary student has the money (more on that later) to uproot their lives to choose a seminary because they like professor such-and-such. Some do. Some come from money and have the ability to do this, which is a blessing. It’s just not possible for everyone.
In addition, what many mean when they say “choose a good faculty” is “choose a faculty with well-known professors.” We should be thankful that some in the academic world have widespread influence, but personal competence and godliness are more important than credentials (although credentials aren’t irrelevant). Just because a seminary professor isn’t well known doesn’t mean he isn’t worthy to study under.
So should the seminary faculty be something you consider as you consider seminary? Yes. I just don’t think it’s the only issue at hand.
2. The Denominational Factor
You should obviously pick a seminary that aligns with your theology, but you may also want to consider a seminary that aligns with your denomination. At Covenant Theological Seminary, things are taught from a Reformed and Presbyterian perspective (PCA). At Southern and Midwestern seminary, you get the Baptist side of things. At Reformed Theological Seminary, you get a mix of perspectives. Think about this when you sign up for seminary.
I enjoyed a rich seminary experience in a denominational seminary in which I do not currently serve and have never been a part. It was a culture shock, but the exposure was tremendous, and it was useful to study under and along with those who have a different perspective on things. Exposure is one of the most important things you need to put yourself in a position to learn.
So keep in mind which denomination (if they belong to one) a seminary belongs to when you sign-up. It sounds like common sense, but if you go to a denominationally affiliated seminary, that seminary is going to talk a lot about their denomination. Also keep in mind that when it comes to employment opportunities, local churches often go to their denomination’s seminary to find prospective employees. Just something to keep in mind.
3. The Geographical Factor
This was a big one for me. I knew I was not emotionally ready to uproot and move to a different state to study, so in the end one of the biggest factors for me was the closeness of the seminary I graduated from, despite it being affiliated with a different denomination. Of course I would not attend a liberal seminary. But I was privileged to have a top-notch seminary just 15 minutes away from my house. Let’s call that a sweet providence.
Can you uproot your family and move across the state or country to study? Some say yes. Some say no. If you can’t, you may have to consider the online program as an alternative. It’s a big decision, and it sometimes means you don’t get to attend the seminary you want because another seminary that’s just as good is closer to home.
4. The Financial Factor
This is a big one. Raise support. Save money. Try your best to get a scholarship. Most seminary students get some sort of scholarship. While taking out a loan and going into small debt will be an option for most, I don’t think you should go into debt for $40-50k for the sum of your seminary tuition without trying to get something paid for. You’d be amazed at how many scholarships are out there, and how many people would be willing to help if you just ask.
5. The Future Plan Factor
By this I mean your future plans. What are your vocational ministry desires? What do you want to do?
I know some will disagree with me, but let me say this: speaking strictly of the Master of Divinity program — unless your desire is to be in full-time vocational ministry— I encourage you to either consider a different degree or to consider a different option all together.
Seminary is brutal. It’s emotionally draining, personally difficult, and financially taxing. Yes, it’s totally worth it for full-time pastors, if you can make it happen. But it’s not for everyone.
If you just like to study theology but are not serious about finding full-time employment in the local church, you’re probably barking up the wrong tree. Still, some attend seminary because it’s a “safe” option and they don’t know what to do with their lives. If full-time vocational ministry is not your aim, there could be another option.
On the flip side of that, consider that many churches in a few denominations have it in their church constitution that you cannot get a job in their church as a full-time pastor without an MDiv or a functional equivalent. Getting an MDiv will make you way more employable in the church, but you need the desire and internal calling to be employed!
6. The Family Factor
This is similar to the geographical factor. What does your spouse say? Can you uproot your kids? You shouldn’t make this decision alone. If you’d love to go to seminary, but your wife despises the thought, you should think twice before moving. Of course God can change her heart over time. I’m just encouraging you not to bulldoze your family into something they are not emotionally ready for. Shepherd your family well in the process.
Seminary was helpful. It wasn’t easy. And at times I wanted to quit. But I’m glad I did it. If you’re considering seminary, I hope these considerations help you.
I have braces. As a result, I must see an orthodontist every month. My conversation with her goes something like this:
She asks me how’s it going. I tell her it’s not going well. She asks me why. I tell her I’m not seeing any results. She affirms me that I am. I affirm her that I’m not. She points out areas of growth, and tells me to be patient. “See you next month,” she says. I leave.
Next month arrives.
She asks me how’s it going. I tell her it’s not going well. She asks me why. I tell her it’s the same as last month — I’m not seeing any results. She affirms me that I am. I affirm her that I’m not. She points out areas of growth, and tells me to be patient. “See you next month,” she says. I leave.
Next month arrives.
She asks me how’s it going. I say — you know, I think I’m starting to see some results, to which she replies, “I told you so!”
Is this the exact wording of our conversation? No. I am exaggerating to make a point, and my point is this: growth in life often happens at a frustratingly slow pace.
Such is the case with the fruit of the Spirit.
Paul speaks of the fruit of the Spirit (Gal. 5:22-23). Those of us with fruit gardens know that fruit grows slowly, and often takes much time and thoughtfulness. When Paul uses this metaphor, he is reminding his audience that spiritual fruit is similar to physical fruit: both grow slowly.
As others have pointed out, your growth in the spiritual fruits should not be measured day-by-day, but year-by-year. Consider your growth, for example, with the fruit of patience. Do not ask yourself: “Am I more patient today than I was yesterday?” If you do, you are bound to be frustrated.
Instead, ask yourself: “Am I more patient today than I was five years ago?” If you walk with and obey Christ, the answer will be yes. The Holy Spirit is the One who grows these attributes in you; growth is inevitable as you obey him.
God is 100% committed to your sanctification. Play your part by appropriating the means of grace; healthy fruit does not grow with an irresponsible gardener. But don’t become restless when your growth doesn’t happen as soon as you’d like. The best fruit often arrives from a long season of tenderness, care, and patience on the part of the gardener. But the end result is worth it. Growth takes time.
There’s been a lot going on lately. As much as I dislike writing about my personal life on my public blog, I want to give a quick update to inform readers of this site about some life changes. This personal update mostly consists of two things: a degree and a pastoral ministry call.
For those who have been keeping track of my seminary journey, here’s an update: I’m officially a Master of Divinity graduate of Covenant Theological Seminary. I graduated with honors which, of course, is only possible by God’s grace. I give glory to God for the opportunity to formally study Christian theology at an amazing institution.
My time at Covenant was life-changing. I know that sounds like hype in a world filled with exaggerative descriptions, but that first sentence is true. I have grown so much in my personal sanctification, self-awareness, preaching, counseling, biblical knowledge, and theological acumen. While seminary cannot possibly give me everything I need for a lifetime of faithful Christian ministry, I certainly have a strong foundation to build upon.
That said, it was hard. Probably the hardest thing I’ve ever done. I’m exhausted. Seminary is not a theological and personal paradise as some make it out to be. It is financially, mentally, and emotionally exhausting; it’s hard on you and your family.
But I suppose this is the perfect formula for formal ministry preparation.
Speaking of ministry . . .
A Pastoral Ministry Call
I am thrilled to announce that I have accepted the call to serve as associate pastor of Bethesda Evangelical Church here in St. Louis, Missouri. With over 100 years of history, Bethesda is a wonderful congregation that is a part of the Evangelical Free Church of America (EFCA). Pastoral ministry is something I have prepared for and worked toward for a long time, and now it’s finally here. What a feeling. I’m excited to serve the Lord and his people in this role. Today June 3rd is my first full-day in vocational ministry. If you think about it, I’d appreciate your prayers.
Sometimes people commented on how I was able to keep up with this blog during my seminary career. I had to write papers, exegetical notebooks, sermons, read voraciously, and prepare for a myriad of tests and exams. How was I able to post something new almost every week? It was tremendously difficult. But I think I was able to keep up with it (and hopefully will still be able to) because I love to do it. It’s not the clicks or links that propel me to keep going, but the sheer love of blogging and the opportunity to provide godly edification for a few lives.
Special thanks to those who helped chip in for my seminary books. Nobody is self-made. Every accomplishment is the product of many hands and hearts, which includes you. Many blessings to you and yours.
I’ve spent the past couple of years reading difficult books. Most of them have been rigorously academic. They can be tough to read, but if you learn how to read them well, there’s gold on the other side.
But why read a difficult book?
Why Read Difficult Books
The goal is to read hard books that are profitable. Just because a book is written by an academic who uses a lot of big words doesn’t mean that it’s good. You also want to avoid reading a hard book for the sake of intellectual pride.
Here are a few reasons why these sort of books are worth reading.
1. Because they challenge your assumptions. We think we know more than we do. When we read hard books, especially by those of whom we disagree, our assumptions are challenged. We need humble pie.
2. Because they challenge your intellect. Of course, one of the goals of reading hard books is to grow in knowledge. It’s hard to do this when you only read books that affirm your convictions and never challenge you. Challenging books stretch your intellectual capacity.
3. Because they make you slow down. Patience is not my strong suit. I’d much rather fly through a book, say I’ve read it, and move on to the next one. But this is not always beneficial. Books should be read with highlighters and pens in hand; active reading is the goal. Notes should be taken as this will help you to remember what you read. Difficult books make you slow down, and this is almost always a good thing.
4. Because they have stood the test of time. As an aspiring author, one thing that scares me is the thought of writing a book that no one cares about in 50 years. Who writes not to be read? And who doesn’t want their work to last? But the reason why Christians are stilling reading Calvin’s Institutes, Luther’s The Bondage of the Will, and Jonathan Edwards’ The Religious Affections hundreds of years after they’ve been published is that they’ve stood the test of time. And they have stood the test of time for a reason: because the content has proven to be helpful, truthful, and transferable to every generation.
5. Because they make you grow. Imagine the guy at the gym who only works out one muscle group and does the same exact exercises every time. He’ll see some results at first, but over time, he won’t. He’ll plateau. He won’t see any more growth. This is also true for those of us who always read the same kinds of books. If you want to grow, you’ll have to read things that challenge you.
These are just a few reasons as to why we should read difficult books.
How to Read and Understand a Difficult Book
OK, now that we know why we should read difficult books, we need to know how to read difficult books. Again, after doing this over and over again, here are some thoughts that come to mind:
1. Understand the author. Who is the author? Have they written books before? Are they an Anglican or Baptist or Presbyterian? What are some of their theological views? Many authors are misinterpreted simply because they’re misunderstood. Authors deserve better than that. While we may not be able to do this every time, we should seek to know a few things about the author before we read his or her book.
2. Understand the thesis. Sometimes you can’t find the thesis because there isn’t one. Sometimes you don’t find the thesis because you missed it. If you find the thesis statement, you’ll do a much better job of keeping track of the author’s argument.
3. Understand how to skip certain parts. You don’t have to read every single word of a book to say you’ve read it. Don’t feel guilt and shame for not finishing a book. Some books should be read all the way through; most should not. Books were made for man, not the other way around. You have to learn how to pick out the good stuff and overlook what may not be particularly relevant.
An example of this is Calvin’s Institutes. In the two-volume edition that I have, before Calvin gets to chapter one, he writes a 20+ page prefatory address to King Francis I of France. You can read this if you want, or you can just skip it and come back to it later. Better yet, you can just start with volume 2 where Calvin writes his magnificent work on prayer. The point is, you shouldn’t feel anxious about reading absolutely every word in every book. Read and skip what you want to.
4. Understand the author’s audience. I read a book by a female theologian in which she purposely mentions from the outset of the book that it is written for academics and theology students. This helped me to know that the content may be difficult, and probably shouldn’t be a book that I recommend to those who are not theologically inclined. It also helped me to make a mental adjustment to the hard content before I read it, knowing that it may hurt, sort of like a batter in baseball who sees a one hundred mile an hour fastball coming for his hip. Understanding the author’s audience will help prepare you to read the book well.
5. Understand that this will take time. I quit going to the gym for a period of time. I gained weight, lost muscle, and didn’t feel as good. When I went back for the first time, I felt out of shape, flabby, and weak. But, I stuck it out and overtime lost fat, gained muscle, and got back into shape again. At first, it was extremely challenging and difficult, but over time it became easier, and I saw fruit from it.
This is also true in reading hard books. If you’ve never read one before, of course the first one you pick up will be hard to read. This is where most readers quit. Resist the temptation. You have to be convinced that it’s worthwhile, and you have to be committed to it for the long-haul. And if you stick it out, over time, you’ll see great rewards and fruitfulness from all your hard work and effort.
I did it — I’m officially a Master of Divinity graduate of Covenant Theological Seminary. I walked across that stage Friday of last week, and I feel honored to have been able to formally study theology at a great institution. Don’t get me wrong — I’m exhausted. These past three years have been grueling. But deep down I feel a sense of gratitude and thankfulness to be a seminary graduate; it is a privilege denied to many.
Now that I’m done, I figured I’d share some of the books that were most helpful to me during seminary. These books may not have been the most inspiring or best written, but they made the list because they particularly impacted me.
Carson and Moo are the top two New Testament scholars around, so it’s a special occasion when they tag team a book. I find it amusing that the word “introduction” made the subtitle as this book is over 700 pages long. Nevertheless, this is a helpful resource for a big overview of the NT, especially helpful for pastors and serious theological students.
A book on Christian ethics. Did not read nearly as much of it as I should have (or would have like to), but I want to keep diving into this book. Indeed, this is my first Frame book and won’t be my last. I see now why he is a trusted source for many. This book would be of particular interest to you if you want to see how the ten commandments apply to your life.
Which systematic did we use at Covenant? The answer: Bavinck. This book is the abridged version of his classic, Reformed Dogmatics. Bavinck is a sophisticated theologian worth reading. On the negative side, the book is a little hard to interact with because the font is in bold (or just really dark; either way it’s cumbersome), and there is sometimes missing words on pages. But this is worth the read if you can fight through some of these annoyances.
A book that engages the mind and the heart. Winter’s vulnerability in this book makes him more relatable, and he covers an array of emotions that affect the human experience. I was surprised as to how much I loved the counseling classes while at Covenant, and no doubt Winter played a huge role in my experience.
The first five books of the Bible are important for understanding the rest of the Bible well. One of the benefits of my theological training was a deeper understanding and love for the Old Testament. Books like this made it possible.
Reads like a textbook, but is very clear and concise, and does not regularly belabor insignificant details. This book covers — as the subtitle suggests — around the 16th century until the present. You probably won’t catch me reading general history books (no offense), but I love reading about my brothers and sisters from the past.
A rich and wonderful document. While I don’t agree with everything in it, it is a masterpiece. When it comes to building your theological library, it’s important to read books that have stood the test of time; you must resist the temptation to exclusively buy modern pop theology books. If you haven’t dug too much into the past, the confession is a good place to start (I have the version with the larger and shorter catechisms and Scripture proofs).
Besides reading the Bible, biblical commentaries are my favorite thing to read (If interested, see my guide on how to find the best commentaries). I prefer the technical ones with serious exegesis in the original language, but this devotional commentary by Marshall — if I can put it that way — was a blessing to my soul. It helped clarify some confusing questions I’ve had on the Holy Spirit for a long time.
Before seminary, I had considered myself to be in the know on who to read with respect to Christian authors. After three years of seminary, I realize that I was in the know exclusively in the pop Reformed world. Not a bad thing, per se. But there’s much more to Christian publishing than your favorite conference speaker. Jobes is one of those authors I discovered in seminary, and I have loved everything written by her (including her commentary on 1 Peter).
In a day where the Old Tetsmanet’s validity and authority is being questioned, this book helped me understand how we can understand Jesus through the Old Testament. After all, the OT is what Jesus read, memorized, and obeyed.
Didn’t read the whole thing but loved what I read. I don’t know a single honest Christian who doesn’t struggle with all the killings in the OT. This book will help you understand that part of Scripture. A great apologetic tool, especially for new Christians or skeptics.
I read much of this book by the pool in Mexico two summers ago. It inspired me, so much so that I believe I read Paul’s 13 letters after reading this volume. Few praises for a book are higher than, “Your book made me want to read the Bible more when I finished it.”
Pure gold. Definitely don’t understand everything in this book, but will certainly be a helpful resource in my future ministry context. I try to use it every time I preach from a NT text and every time I do, I’m reminded why this book is simply magnificent.
A helpful book on the covenants that shows how the covenants build on one another. I found Williams’ writing to be engaging and instructive. He unlocks parts of the Bible that you probably previously had never considered or known.
Taught me how to pastor people. Of course, that’s something that you can only truly learn in real life. But if there is ever a book that gives you a close look at how to love struggling people, it’s this one. Schaeffer is kind, gracious, and does a great job of making people feel okay for not being okay.
I used to think that my mission in life was mostly found in the Great Commission. Without downplaying the Great Commission in any way, there are other aspects of our corporate calling as the church that we should seek to fulfill. Indeed, you are blessed to be a blessing (Gen. 12:2), which includes more than evangelism and discipleship. Wright is another one of those writers I discovered in seminary, and I find his work on the Old Testament in general and in this book in particular to be quite useful.
I wrote a little about this book in a post entitled, The Five Key Factors to a Long and Fruitful Ministry. You have likely read the statistics on how frequently pastors burn out. A lot fewer pastors would burn out if they read and applied the concepts in this book.
Now in its third edition (which I ordered the other day), Bryan Chapell’s Christ-Centered Preaching has been a staple for expositors for a long time. While technical and at times dense, this book introduced me to a whole new world of expositional preaching that I had not previously known. Prior to seminary, I preached several times on Sunday morning and in other contexts as well, but here’s the thing: no one ever taught me how to preach. People assumed I can preach because I am a capable orator, but deep down I always wanted someone to walk me through step-by-step on how to be a faithful Bible preacher. Preachers need technical skills and cannot merely rely on talent alone. This book gave me the skills I was looking for. It was the best book I read in seminary.
One of the best things you can do in the job-search process is ask questions. I have created some of the questions below from scratch and others I’ve adapted. I’ve organized them by categories so they’re easier to use.
Before you read them, here are a few things to keep in mind. First, the questions are malleable. Some questions may not fit your context until you tweak them.
Second—and I want to stress this—the goal isn’t to ask every question. That would be painful for both church and candidate. The goal is to ask questions that seem appropriate for the stage of the process you’re in. Early on, you might ask questions like, “What are some hobbies among the staff?” or “What are the expectations for a pastor’s spouse?” Then, later in the process, you might ask about putting the compensation package into writing. If you switch the order, at best you could seem cold and insensitive. At worst, you might not make it to the next round where you could have asked more difficult questions.
Finally, as you look at the list, keep in mind certain questions must be addressed to certain people. Some questions are better for the search committee, some for other staff members, some for people in the congregation, and some for the elders. For example, in a meeting with the current staff, don’t ask if someone on staff needs to be terminated. However, if you’re interviewing for the role of senior pastor, it’s a question you might privately ask the elders near the end of the process.
131 Questions to Ask a Potential Church EmployerGeneral
Can you give me a brief history of the church?
How long have you been planning to fill this position?
What are the circumstances that created the need for this role?
What is the sequence and timeline of the hiring process?
When do you expect to call references?
When do you hope to have someone in place?
How many candidates are still in the running?
As I read the job description, I’m wondering how much time you expect to be allotted to the various items listed. Could you help me understand what a typical week might look like?
If I am called to your church, what sort of things would make you say, “Wow, this is a great fit” after a year or so?
What, if anything, made my resume/application stand out? Why do you think I will help this church?
In what ways, if at all, do you think my age might affect my reception both in the church and among the leadership?
May I have an unofficial visit to your church to see what things are like before the official interview/candidating weekend?
Your website states _______. What does that mean?
How does a person move from random attender at your church, to member, and then to leader?
If exciting things were happening at your church (and they likely are), what would they be?
What are some of the hobbies of the other staff? What do you do for fun?
Do you regularly take staff and/or elder retreats? What are they like?
May I have a copy of a recent newsletter? Church bulletin? Financial statement? Congregational meeting minutes?
Does your church have a policy manual? May I have a copy?
Can you please describe your worship style?
How would you evaluate a successful worship service?
What qualities did you appreciate about the person who had this role previously?
In which ways are you similar to other churches in your community? In which ways are you different?
Generally speaking, do you think people in the community have a positive or negative view of your church?
Which ministries in your church seem to be most successful? Why?
When did the most recent round of new members join?
How many members do you have vs. how many people attend regularly each week?
When was the last time the membership rolls were pruned of people who no longer attend?
What do visitors often comment on?
Who is responsible for putting together the order of service?
Who is responsible for the website?
Does your church have expectations for pastors regarding social media?
This is hard to predict, but approximately how many weddings and funerals might the pastor be expected to officiate in the next year?
What missionaries and parachurch organizations does your church support?
Theology and Practice
What is the church government structure?
Does the church have a statement of faith? How was it created?
Is your statement of faith ever re-worked? If so, what is the process?
Does your church have an official position on the end times? God’s sovereignty and human responsibility? The charismatic spiritual gifts? The age of the earth? Alcohol? Divorce and remarriage?
What is the church’s view of male and female roles?
How is baptism practiced at your church (frequency and format, who leads, who can participate)?
How is communion practiced at your church (frequency and format, who leads, who can participate)?
Are you open to making changes to how baptism and communion are practiced?
Let’s say I move here, and my neighbor wants to check out our church. He is gay. What will his experience be like? Or what would you hope it to be?
Does your church have a favorite Bible translation? Do you prefer one to preach from?
How do you prefer to preach/teach the Bible: expositionally, topically, book studies, another method?
If a pastor at your church was asked to officiate a wedding, can you see him ever saying no? What circumstances might bring that about?
What doctrines excite the leaders of your church? What doctrines do you prefer to avoid?
How would you counsel a person who accepts Christ but remains in a sinful lifestyle?
Are there particular authors and pastors you admire? Who?
What theological trends, broadly speaking, create concern among your church and leaders?
How much should a pastor address political issues?
Does your church have a history of endorsing candidates and political parties?
How many Sundays would you expect me to preach each year? [Worship and youth pastors can ask something different but related.]
Can you provide me a list of songs your church has sung in the last month? What are some of your church’s favorites?
If someone were to show up to the church office asking for gas money to get home (or to make some other benevolence request), how is this request processed?
Have all your teachers read and agreed to teach in concert with your doctrinal statement?
Church Health and Planning
May I please have a copy of the annual budget and some information on monthly giving from the last year?
During this recent change of pastors, has a self-study been done by the church, either formally or informally? If so, may I please see the results?
Did the leadership of the church conduct an exit interview with the previous staff member who did this job? If so, may I see notes from the interview?
Are internal candidates being considered for this role? If so, who?
Do you have a small-group ministry? If so, how many people are currently in small groups? What percentage of the church is this?
If it were decided more people could be reached for Christ by changing the name of the church, would you be open to that?
Do you own your church building/property?
Is there adequate funding in the church budget for your leaders and staff to accomplish the tasks placed before them?
Where do you see the Spirit of God working in your church?
Are there regular times of prayer among the staff?
What mechanisms are in place to help the staff avoid burnout?
What are the demographics of your church?
How reflective are your church demographics of the local community?
If your church continued to grow for the next five years, what changes do you anticipate?
Regarding ministry style, can you give an illustration of another church you are trying to model your church after?
What ways do you see teamwork taking place among the staff?
In which areas would you say your church is understaffed?
How long have the other employees worked here?
Besides calling a pastor, what other items are top priorities in the next year?
Has the interim period been healing? In what ways?
Could you tell me about other healthy churches nearby? Describe your relationship with them.
Are the church facilities in good shape? Is there any work to the building that needs to be done right away?
What is the seating capacity of the sanctuary?
Is there adequate office space? Classroom space?
What is (or would be) a limiting factor in church growth (e.g., parking, office space, sanctuary size, children’s classrooms)?
What is the community like around your church (e.g., commercial, industrial, residential, rural, urban)?
Do many people from the surrounding community attend your church?
How far does the typical churchgoer have to drive to get to your church?
Have there been any construction projects (upkeep or expansion) that have been put on hold? If so, why? Are there plans or hopes to do this work in the future?
Does the church owe money on the property? If so, how much? What convictions does the church have about debt?
Leadership, Structure, and Conflict
In what areas was the previous pastor specifically gifted? What areas were more of a challenge?
What has been the most controversial thing in your church during the last year?
What issues have regularly caused friction in this church? Among staff? Among the elder board?
Do you have weekly staff meetings? If so, what do they look like?
Do accurate job descriptions exist for each staff member? May I see them?
What is your church polity? Are there elders, deacons, ministry leaders, etc.? How do they relate to each other?
From the perspective of authority and structure, what is the relationship of a staff pastor to the elder board and congregation?
Does your church have an organizational chart? If so, may I see it? Could you explain the relationships to me?
Is this church affiliated with a larger movement or denomination? If not, what are some means and methods to cultivate healthy, structural accountability?
To what extent are the non-staff elders involved in the planning of sermons and sermon series?
Can you recount a time of church conflict that resulted in a form of discipline? Which current leaders in your church, staff or non-staff, are considered indispensable? Why?
Have you had to let someone go in the last ten years? If so, what were the circumstances?
Have any former staff members left ministry altogether?
What happened to the previous pastor or staff person in this role? What were the circumstances for their departure? May I contact them? What are they doing now?
If you could go back and change how a situation was handled in the last year, what would it be and why? What would you do differently?
Are there issues among the current staff that will need to be addressed once the new hire arrives? Are there even staff members who may need to be terminated by the new hire?
How is the annual budget prepared and approved?
Who is responsible for keeping spending in line with the budget?
Do you have any divorced persons in leadership? Can you tell me more about the church’s view on this?
What are the expectations for my spouse?
What roles do the spouses of other staff at the church play?
What are the expectations for my children?
How many nights a week do you expect the person you hire to have work commitments outside the home?
If my children were to attend a youth group at a neighboring church, would that be a problem?
If I had a Christmas party (with neighbors, friends, and church people) and alcohol was served, would that be an issue?
Among families with children, is there a mode of education that is most common (public school, homeschool, private school, Christian school)?
Are there any expectations regarding education of our children?
Is there a certain proximity to the church, spoken or unspoken, in which the pastor should live?
Money and Job-Performance Reviews
On which days of the week is the new employee expected to be in the office?
Is there an openness to doing some work remotely?
Do you conduct performance reviews at the end of each year? If so, what do they look like? And who does them?
Can you please write up the salary package, including things like health, life, and disability insurance; health savings account; continuing education and conference money; funds for ministry tools such as books and computer software; cell phone; moving expenses; paid holidays; vacation; etc.? (For full list see chapter 9, section “Components of a Salary Package.”)
Is there a church parsonage? If the candidate desired not to use it, would compensation be adjusted accordingly?
If in three years I felt called to pursue an advanced degree (e.g., D.Min.), how would that be received? What support, if any, could I expect from the church?
Does your church have a sabbatical policy? If so, what is it? If not, would you be open to creating one?
Does the congregation have a policy of reviewing the pastor’s salary package each year?
How will success be measured, formally and informally? By whom? How often?
If I must move to take this position, what, if any, moving costs are covered?
What are the time expectations in the areas of preaching/teaching, counseling, visitation, and office hours?
Is there any allowance for a pastor to preach/teach off site, whether at another church, conference, seminary, or elsewhere?
If a pastor preaches off site, what support do you offer (e.g., help with travel expenses, time to work on messages)?
How accessible are pastoral salaries to the congregation? Are salaries printed in weekly, monthly, or yearly budgets, or are they only made available to a select group of leaders? Would your church be open to discussing changes to this policy?
If you are not pursuing employment with a church but another Christian organization, consider asking this: Will this employee qualify for the IRS housing allowance available to ministers? (The answer will depend on a number of factors, including the specifics of the organization and the employee’s role within it.)
Is there a severance policy? If so, what is it?
Do you have a policy or opinion on who owns the material produced by pastors (sermons, curriculum, etc.) while employed with you? Would you be open to a discussion about it?
 Some of these questions have been adapted from Umidi, Confirming the Pastoral Call, 127.
 Asking this question about church debt and evaluating the answer are two different things. If you do not have the education and ability to discern what is an acceptable and unacceptable amount of debt (and savings), consult with someone who can help you get clarity about financial matters. As a general rule, one author notes that unhealthy church debt occurs when total church debt exceeds three times the annual budget (Page, Looking for a New Pastor, 27).