Pastoral priorities are deeply imbedded in the matters of ministry philosophy and pastoral resolve. The question of priorities has been the substance of ecclesiological concern since the formative years of the early New Testament church. In the second chapter of Acts we find that the church was devoted to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship – the breaking of bread prayer.[1] As the church grew, the pastors came to realize that it was not right that they should give up preaching the word of God to serve tables.[2] In many ministry contexts it seems like the congregation expects the pastors to do the work both of pastor and of deacon. While serving tables is certainly not a bad thing, it possesses the potential to distract from the pastor’s primary focus and work. Prioritizing ministry focus can be one of the most effective ways that pastors can maintain personal health and ensure faithfulness to true effective gospel ministry. In the contemporary church setting, a congregation’s expectations of pastors can cause one to be exhaustingly busy and unfocused. By implication, this can lead to lack of clarity in the overall mission of the church. With so many programs, committees, and events, it is hard to prioritize what is most important to focus time and energy on.

First, it’s quite possible that different people in the congregation view the pastoral role as having different functions. The expectations of the people can range from CEO, personal therapist, entrepreneur, purveyor of religious goods, conflict resolution counselor, and the list goes on. With so many responsibilities vying for a pastor’s time, what should take precedence? Second, it is also possible that there are differing opinions within the congregation as to what is most important when it comes to the ministry of the church. When I read the bible it seems that the primary purpose of pastoral ministry is not merely to run the church, but to care for the spiritual well-being of the congregation. To use the vernacular of Scripture, pastors are to function as leader, shepherd, teacher, and equipper.[3] The chief call of pastoral ministry is gospel proclamation with the primary goal of spiritual formation in the church. Therefore  pastors are to shepherd the people by reflecting the power of the gospel to those around them. Unfortunately, the implications of this call are rarely teased out in pastoral leadership and practice.

Pastors need to consider how to lead the church as it is gathered and scattered. Theologians have long differed as to the name and number of the essential ministries of the church. Edmund Clowney describes the church’s activities in terms of service: “The church is called to serve God in three ways: to serve him directly in worship; to serve the saints in nurture; and to serve the world in witness.”[4] It is very possible that several pastors can disagree on how ministries are carried out, and more specifically, what ministry should look like. Pastors need to consider that priorities are demonstrated in how the ministry functions. Also, priorities are communicated in how pastors lead, shepherd, teach, and equip. This is often taught and learned explicitly and implicitly in the patterns of church life. James Smith thinks that ministry patterns of the local church “shape and constitute our identities by forming our most fundamental desires and our most basic attunement to the world. In short, our practices form us into certain kinds of people by shaping what we love”. [5] Prioritizing what the pastors lead the congregation to do and clearly defining how the church is to do it is very important in communicating the mission of the church. Also, what we do and how we do it implicitly shapes our people, forming their ideas about Christian living and revealing what it means to be a healthy Christian.

People in the congregation will have different opinions on what is most important for the church to focus on. Many times these ideas are fed by the individual’s experience in previous churches or their own personal giftedness and passion. Pastors must come to terms with, and teach others that, “everything we do in obedience to Christ should not be understood as part of the church’s mission.”[6] In other words, pastors need to lead the congregation in setting ministry priorities. Ministry priorities allow the church to establish a framework by which they can assess the respective importance of ministry activities. One explicit way ministry priorities can be established is by a church writing it’s mission statement and core values. To begin, pastors establish ministry priorities by what gets the most attention within the church family. Simply put, the church needs biblical direction and ministry vision. How does this help pastors in prioritizing the ministry of the church?

First, consider how priorities shape overall ministry philosophy. There are a lot of ministries, programs, and events that are unnecessary in most churches. It is tempting to leave these things alone. However, the unnecessary often gets in the way of the necessary.[7] For example, consider that someone in the church family has a passion for the performing arts and feels that there is an urgent need for such a production in the church. Just because there is a passion for this it does not mean that the entire church should come together to put on a full length musical. One person’s sense of urgency should not necessarily drive the mission of the entire church. Endeavors such as musical productions require time, money, and the precious energy and attention of volunteers. While a musical is not bad in and of itself, perhaps it’s not the best use of time and the most effective means of ministry for that particular congregation in its particular community. Truly, this is a difficult issue. Since this is not a moral issue, there is no right or wrong answer concerning this dilemma. However, this remains an important issue that must be addressed.

If the pastors prayerfully decide that producing a musical is not in line with the church’s calling and gifts, it could lead to an emotionally charged conversation. Having a strong sense of calling as it concerns the church’s mission and vision will allow the pastors to have a humble, but confident, attitude when talking with this member of the congregation. It is also important to shepherd the individual into using that gift for the glory of God. Perhaps the pastors can encourage them to get involved in the local art scene. If there is no art scene, encourage that individual to find others with a similar passion and establish such a ministry out in the community. Prayerfully, as pastors establish strong boundaries around what matters most, the church family will come to greatly respect those boundaries.[8] This will also help shape the people’s understanding of ministry and set up a predictable pattern of response as it relates to what the church will and will not do.

Secondly, consider the role of priorities in the formation of pastoral resolve. Having rightly placed priorities allows focus on the more important goals of the ministry. It would seem that without priorities pastors have no way of distinguishing between the urgent and the important, namely, the things that contribute to the mission of the church. This means saying yes to some things and no to others. Wilson and Hoffmann are correct when noting that priorities facilitate our ability to lead confidently from “deeply held convictions.”[9] Obviously, pastors do not want to lead with such an arrogant confidence that renders them unable to be rightly challenged or critiqued. Yet, pastors are ones set apart within the body to pray and study for the purpose of shepherding God’s people. Therefore, ministry priority should come from prayerful reflection of the church’s mission and ministry context. A deep and abiding sense of call and vision for the spiritual formation of the people lies as a healthy burden upon the pastors of the church. This comes along with the territory of understanding one’s pastoral identity and purpose.

One could argue that when pastoral resolve is softened it usually reveals misplaced affections or exposes destructive idolatry. Don Carson describes this phenomenon well, “…the sad spectacle of so-called Christian leaders trying so hard for the approbation of peers and parishioners that their focus is devoted from the gospel and from the “well-done!” of the crucified messiah.”[10] In sum, pastors must have the ability to “look beyond the perceived needs of the moment” seeking God’s greater purpose for our church in the community in which God has placed it, also in the world.[11]

Priorities are nothing more than boundaries or guides. Priorities allow pastors to avoid the vanity of blasphemous business. As Eugene Patterson eloquently penned: “By lazily abdicating the essential work of deciding and directing, establishing values and setting goals, other people do it for us; then we find ourselves frantically, at the last minute, trying to satisfy a half dozen different demands on our time, none of which is essential to our vocation, to stave off the disaster of disappointing someone.”[12] Ministry is often messy and has unexpected turns. There are a number of complex factors that push pastors to the limit and affect one’s ability to minister effectively over the long haul. Developing ministry priorities will aid pastors in seeing the bigger vision for the church. Furthermore, it will also equip pastors to make quick triage decisions that affect the health of the church. When developing priorities it is important to consider a few things.

First, make sure that solid biblical theology frames the mission and vision of the church. Mark Dever and Paul Alexander write that “the methods we use to plant and water in God’s vineyard must be subservient to and in complete harmony with the working of God’s growth method…working contrary to God’s processes often means contrary to His purposes.”[13] Understanding the Biblical patterns and rhythms of God’s work among His people will not only have a formative shape upon one’s ministry philosophy, but will also give one confidence in the ministry priorities that are established for the church. The reason for such confidence is found in the fact that faithfulness to the biblical pattern becomes the measure of success, not ministry results. Again, priorities also allow pastors to cultivate a truthful and trustworthy relationship with the congregation because their own pastoral expectations, and the overall mission and vision of the church, are clearly defined. Setting priorities on how pastors macro-lead is of utmost importance. “This includes setting the vision, mission, purpose, and policies of the church. This could be intimidating except that the Lord has clearly outlined the broad purposes of the church in his word.”[14]

Because pastoral priorities are deeply imbedded in the matters of ministry philosophy and pastoral resolve it can be one of the most effective ways for to pastors maintain personal health and ensure faithfulness to true effective gospel ministry. Without setting ministry priorities, pastors are liable to be crushed under the business of urgent matters and the expectations of the congregation. Pastoral priorities place boundaries around how pastors use their energy and time for the purpose of focusing the ministry on the most important things, rather than spreading themselves and the people thin with hundreds of good, but unnecessary things.

  1. [1] Acts 2:42.
  2. [2] Acts 6:2.
  3. [3] 1 Timothy 3:2, 4:13, 5:17; 2 Timothy 2:2; Hebrews 13:17; Romans 12:8; Ephesians 4:11; 1 Peter 2:25, 5:2; Acts 20:28-29; Titus 1:9.
  4. [4] Edmund Clowney, The Church, Contours in Christian Theology. (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 1995), 117.
  5. [5] James K. Smith, Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation. (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2009), 25.
  6. [6] Kevin DeYoung and Greg Gilbert, What is the Mission of the Church? (Wheaton: Crossway, 2011), 63.
  7. [7] See Thom Rainer and Eric Geiger, Simple Church. (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 2006) 80ff.
  8. [8] Smith, Desiring the Kingdom, 146.
  9. [9] Michael Todd Wilson and Brad Hoffmann, Preventing Ministry Failure. (Downers Grove: IVP Books, 2007), 145.
  10. [10] D.A. Carson, The Cross and Christian Ministry: Leadership Lessons from 1 Corinthians. (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1993), 98.
  11. [11] Wilson and Hoffmann, Preventing Ministry Failure, 144.
  12. [12] Eugene H. Peterson, The Contemplative Pastor. (Carol Stream: Word Publishing, 1989), 28.
  13. [13] Mark Dever and Paul Anderson, The Deliberate Church: Building Your Ministry On The Gospel, (Wheaton: Crossway, 2005), 28.
  14. [14] Timothy Z. Witmer, The Shepherd Leader: Achieving Effective Shepherding in Your Church, (Phillipsburg: P&R Publishing, 2010), 157.

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