In recent years, I’ve personally interacted with hundreds of current and recently graduated seminary students, and not just at Southeastern Seminary. These brothers and sisters in Christ are committed to serving God in all kinds of ministry contexts. In the five years I’ve been teaching, I’ve observed an interesting trend, especially among students in their twenties and thirties. Simply put, it’s increasingly rare for me to hear a student say he feels called to be a pastor.
Now before you wonder what in the world we’re training students to do at Southeastern, rest assured a large majority of our students are preparing for pastoral ministry and other paid local church leadership. And that’s my point-most students want to be pastors, but they almost never explicitly say that. Instead, many say they want to be “church revitalizers” or they want to lead a church in biblical reformation or renewal or (insert the synonym of your choice here). When I hear this type of language, I’m often tempted to respond, “Great! I’m glad God’s given you a desire to be a pastor. I hope he confirms your gifts and opens doors for you to serve.”
Remember when it was okay to simply say you wanted to be a pastor? When I was a seminary student (less than a decade ago), most of us were wrestling with whether or not we thought God was calling us to be pastors. Of course we recognized there were different types of pastors-senior/lead pastors, associate pastors, student pastors, church planters, etc. But with the possible exception of those who wanted to be church planters, almost no one said, “I want to revitalize/reform/renew a church.” We simply said we wanted to be pastors of some kind or other.
I think I know why the language has changed. There are some very prominent ministries out there that talk a lot about “revitalizing” or “reforming” churches, much like an earlier generation made much of “reviving” churches. There are also some great and godly pastors who regularly testify as to how God has worked through them to “revitalize” or “reform” their churches. These ministries are often very helpful, and these pastors are frequently great role models, so it’s no surprise many students are picking up this terminology from these types of sources. But I’m still troubled by the language, or at least its pervasiveness among my generational peers.
To be clear, I think there are churches out there that are in need of biblical reformation, revitalization, renewal, revival, and any other “R” word you want to choose. And I’m thankful that God is giving young men a desire to pastor these churches. But that said-and I want to tread carefully here-I don’t think our pastoral agenda ought to be to reform or revitalize churches. That just sounds too arrogant-like we are professional diagnosticians and Calvary Baptist Church is our special project. I think our pastoral agenda is to be faithful shepherds who equip the church to love God and neighbor and do the work of the Great Commission. If we do this well, with the Lord’s help those churches will become healthier-whatever that might mean in any given context.
If you are reading this and you believe God may be calling you to pastor an existing church, even the type of church you would consider to be dysfunctional or unhealthy, I hope you will be cautious in the language you use to describe your ministry desires. The church is not a problem to be solved, but the Bride of Christ for whom he died. No church is perfect, and some have serious problems. But loving the Lord, loving his church, loving lost people, preaching the Word, and keeping close to the cross is always the right recipe for pastoral leadership, regardless of what state the church might be in when you begin your pastoral responsibilities. Don’t think of yourself as a revitalizer or a reformer-think of yourself as a shepherd, a servant of the Word whom the Lord will hopefully use to help accomplish his gospel purposes in his church for his glory. In other words, just say you want to be a pastor.
(Note: This article was cross-posted at Credo Magazine)