The Imperfect Pastor (book review)

The Imperfect Pastor: Discovering Joy in Our Limitations through a Daily Apprenticeship with Jesus
Zach Eswine
Crossway, 2015
(Partly previously published as Sensing Jesus: Life and Ministry as a Human Being (Crossway, 2013))

Significance in the Ordinary from Crossway on Vimeo.

the_imperfect pastor

This is an extraordinary book. It had some promising endorsements so I was expecting it to be helpful if undoubtedly filled with some gospel-centred buzzwords and a few quotes from Lewis, Edwards etc. Instead it’s a brutally honest take on ministry from someone who was predicted to be ‘the next big thing’ before his pastor-mentor killed himself, his wife left him to bring up 3 young kids and all his ministry dreams started to fade. As a result he was brought face to face with what really matters in ministry. Many assume that it’s about ‘doing large things in famous ways as fast and efficiently as you can’, but is it actually the case that ‘almost anything in life that truly matters will require you to do small, mostly overlooked things, over a long period of time’?

It’s all too easy to end up like James and John, subtly yearning that our ministry for Jesus would provide us with a platform for greatness – whether a call to a more influential church, a writing ministry, a reputation as a scholar or whatever. I know of no other book that even asks the questions that Eswine is asking. What does it look like to ‘remain put while other colleagues seem to advance and move up to more exciting and seemingly influential ministry callings’? ‘What if an elder’s game speed requires us to slow down?’ How did we end up in a place where ‘the brokenness of people actually feels like an intrusion keeping us from getting our important work for God done’? ‘Do I possess a stamina for going unnoticed? Can I handle being overlooked? Do I have a spirituality that equips me to do an unknown thing for God’s glory?’ What if ‘the thought of living and ministering in one or two unknown and ordinary places for fifty years and then going home to be with the Lord feels like death’?

There is much encouragement here for those struggling to keep going in seemingly insignificant callings while colleagues move on to bigger and (apparently) better things. ‘You needn’t repent of doing only a long, small work in an extraordinary but unknown place. Standing long in one place for a while allows the roots to deepen. It allows pastors to become pastors.’ God has planted you where he has for a reason – you don’t have to move to another part of his vineyard to find significance. ‘Obscurity and greatness are not opposites’.

Some might argue that Eswine’s approach is defeatist and an overreaction to his own sad experience. Certainly some could twist what he’s saying into being content with mediocrity. And yet he warns about those who keep going but have inwardly ‘long given up on anything extraordinary being given by God or accomplished through us’. He’s not saying that we shouldn’t seek to achieve great things for God – just that we might need to redefine what greatness means. ‘When did it happen that a life purposing to help ordinary people in their ordinary struggles locate God became too small a thing?’

I can think of no better book to place in the hands of final year theological students as the aspirations that made them put themselves forward for ministry in the first place are perhaps already in danger of turning to pragmatism or cynicism. When the chance to become ‘a medium-sized fish in a small pond’ beckons. When everyone is convinced of the great things you are going to achieve. And when the temptation will soon come to start looking over the shoulders of the handful of people God has given you whom you are meant to love.

But it’s not just for those starting off. Whether you’re already the next big thing, whether you’ve given up on your ministry dreams long ago, or whether you’re just getting on with what God has called you to get on with in relative obscurity, this is a book to read (preferably in paper so you can write all over it) and take to heart. And then get back to work. Because, as Eswine says ‘I have prayers to say for persons you’ve never heard of’.

Thanks to Crossway for a complimentary copy of this book through their Beyond the Page review programme.

The Pastor and Counselling (book review)

The Pastor and Counselling: the basics of shepherding members in need
Jeremy Pierre and Deepak Reju
Crossway, 2015

pastor and counselling

‘If you’ve arranged your pastoral ministry to avoid regular missions into the jagged and rocky places in people’s lives, then you are not shepherding like Jesus’. In light of that conviction, Jeremy Pierre and Deepak Reju have produced this short 130 page primer to give pastors some idea where to start when it comes to counselling – which they categorise as just one of the ministries of the word among many. This isn’t meant to be a comprehensive handbook. They state that their goal is not to equip the reader to handle anything that comes their way – rather the goal is ‘to give you confidence that in the gospel you have the categories you need to navigate the troubles of your people’. They then proceed to walk you through preparation, the initial meeting, subsequent meetings, and how to bring the series of meetings to an end.

The book is marked by realism, with the authors noting that at the initial meeting with someone, the pastor is probably more nervous about hearing about someone’s struggles than they are about sharing them. It’s also marked by a strong commitment to the means of grace – the goal is to return the counselee to these ‘regular means of care in the church body’. The public ministries of the word are to be made an explicit part of a person’s ongoing care.

Readers may feel somewhat shortchanged as only the first 100 or so pages actually deal with ‘The Pastor and Counselling’ (the authors even admit that the last couple of chapters might have readers checking the front cover!). The penultimate chapter is on building a culture of discipleship in the local church, which if done well will reduce the need for counselling from the pastor in the first place. They note that ‘A person joining your church should not expect to be comfortable as a Sunday-only member. He is signing away his individualism’. The last chapter is on using outside resources when a problem is beyond you, though it has an American audience firmly in mind.

Overall it’s a useful book, which would be good to have within arm’s reach when counselling situations come up, but readers may be left wanting a bit more.

Thanks to Crossway for a complimentary copy of this book through their Beyond the Page review programme.

Did M’Cheyne really say…? (Part One)

Robert Murray M’Cheyne’s most famous quote is some variation of:

“My people’s greatest need is my personal holiness”

(J. I. Packer, Ajith Fernando, Robert E. Coleman, Kevin DeYoung, Don Carson)
(also cited in commentaries by Dale Ralph Davis (2 Sam; 1 Kings) and Philip Ryken (Exodus))

“The greatest need of my people is my personal holiness.”

(mcheyne.info, Jason Helopoulos)

“The greatest need of my people is my own holiness”

(John Piper)

The only problem is – did he actually say it? None of those listed above actually reference it – and I can’t find anyone that does. Nor can I find it in any of M’Cheyne’s writings or in the biographies of him by Bonar or Smellie.

In his 1994 book The Sacred Anointing, Tony Sargent references “Andrew Bonar, Robert Murray M’Cheyne (London: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1960)” but doesn’t give a page number, though he does for his other notes. It’s as if he thinks it must be in the book somewhere but can’t find it!

I contacted mccheyne.info, but they don’t have a source for the quote.

The earliest use of the quote I can find is Packer’s Rediscovering Holiness (1992 – at least it’s in the second edition in 2009 and I assume it was also in the first edition). It also occurs in a Keller sermon from 1993 and a Faith & Mission article by Stephen J. Lawson in 1995.

As I’ll show in the next post, while M’Cheyne does talk much about holiness, the quote doesn’t seem to appear in his writings or in any books from the time.

The Pastor’s Book (review)

The Pastor’s Book: A Comprehensive and Practical Guide to Pastoral Ministry
R. Kent Hughes
Crossway, 2015

the pastors book

Released just a couple of months after Jason Helopoulos’s The New Pastor’s Handbook, this book has a similar name but a very different purpose. While Helopoulous aims to provide bite-sized encouragements for pastors, this large tome is meant to be a complete go-to resource for pastors arranged under the categories of ‘Christian Gatherings’, ‘Parts of the Worship Service’ and ‘Ministerial Duties’.

While there is some useful material contained within it, the book seems to be aimed at pastors who have never thought these things through – for example the chapter on worship was written for a time ‘when so many churches don’t know why they do what they do’. Much of it is foreign to historic Reformed Christianity, with 54 pages devoted to Good Friday, Easter and Christmas, not including the section in the communion chapter on a ‘Sample Christmas Communion Service’.

While Kent Hughes gets his name in the biggest writing on the front cover, Douglas Sean O’Donnell also contributes quite a bit. His presence means we get two perspectives on baptism, though even the paedo-baptist advice is to leave it up to parents. The chapter on counselling is written by Robert W. Evans and gems like ‘Instruct your assistant to hold your calls’ during counselling sessions fuel the sense that much of the book isn’t relevant for most pastors across the globe.

At nearly 600 pages, the book is big enough that at least some sections of it will help most readers, but unless your convictions on worship closely match those of Hughes and O’Donnell, it’s not worth dropping £30 on.

Thanks to Crossway for a complimentary copy of this book through their Beyond the Page review programme.