Foundations for Success in the Pastoral Ministry


Both Jesus and Paul stressed the importance of foundations. Only obedience to his words, Jesus said (Matt. 7:24-29), would provide a solid foundation for life and destiny. Paul’s emphasis was on making sure that Christ Himself is the foundation for our Christian work (I Cor. 3:11). He meant more than an easy verbal claim. The whole doctrine of Christ must undergird and locate everything we do: our preaching, administration, leadership-our total methodology. This is to say that our entire ministry must be controlled and shaped by everything Christ is and means-His deity, His saviorhood, His headship of the church, His ministry through the Spirit, His principles of operation.

For the pastor the desire to build on Christ must be confirmed by certain supportive conditions. In a sense these supportive conditions are elementary to the foundation itself.


What the Epistle to the Hebrews says about the priesthood can equally be said about the Christian minis- try: “No one takes this honor upon himself; he must be called by God” (Heb. 5:4). But unfortunately some good men-even sanctified men-are self-called. Their very sincerity and zeal have misled them. All soundly converted persons who are of an intense nature, and doubly so when filled with the Spirit, have a passion for souls. They are consumed by a fervent desire to serve God. They yearn to win the world. It is natural, and has happened a thousand times, for this inner fire to be mistaken for a call to preach.

But once in the pastorate they are a round peg in a square hole. Nothing works. They pray and scramble, change locations, try this and that, but still their ministry is flat. They can’t preach. They have no “presence” in the pulpit. In administration they flounder. The blunt truth is they have missed their calling. Yet they are good men, and would make excellent laymen. In spite of wounded pride and acute embarrassment, their wisest course is to admit their error and quietly stand aside and boost and pray while someone else does the job.

Closely akin to the tragedy of the mistaken call is the debacle of being, even if truly called to the ministry, in the wrong place. Both
the calling and the deployment belong to God. Many a person has elbowed his way into a church for which he was not suited. Both the church and the man suffer.

A call of God to the ministry does not mean that success is possible everywhere. Some churches and men are plain mismatches, not made in heaven. What God has joined together let not man put asunder, but what man has “joined” through the finagling of the flesh let God mercifully put asunder, and the sooner the better.

The spiritual and intellectual giant J. Glenn Gould was given as his first pastorate a strong city church. He soon knew he was in over his head. At the end of the year he said to the district superintendent, “I’m not ready for this yet. Give me the smallest and toughest church on the district.” That’s what he got and that was the place of his first success. His intelligent self-appraisal and courageous action were portents of his future stature.

Yet it is possible for some discouraged preacher reading these lines to misapply them to himself. He is having a rough time and the idea that he has made a mistake in accepting this church may seem to offer a logical way out. If he positively knows he disobeyed God in coming, he had better pray for forgiveness and ask God to release him. Then wait for God’s method. If he got ahead of the Lord in coming, don’t let him compound his error by getting ahead of the Lord in leaving. There is a right and wrong way. The right way begins with one’s ecclesiastical superior and following his counsel. To sneak out in the middle of the
night (as has happened) will jeopardize one’s entire future.

But discouraging setbacks may not in themselves be evidences of being out of divine order. Let the pastor review the providence’s and impressions which led him to this charge. If, as he prays and remembers, the sense of call is renewed, let him hold steady. To kick the traces now will be to miss a great personal victory and perhaps miss out on a pastoral breakthrough just around the corner.

Here therefore we have a dual pillar in one’s foundation for success-the certainty of a divine call to the ministry, and the equal certainty that I am right now where God wants me to be.


Every God-called prospective pastor has potential abilities which make success possible. Failure will be his fault, not God’s. But the potential powers must be brought out and developed to a level of effectiveness. This is a lifelong process. At some point along the line of this development it is reasonable to launch the person in a pastorate. But the development, requiring discipline and rigorous application, must go on, or the pastor will hang around the level of mediocrity, teetering on the edge of staying in the ministry or falling out.

A good mind

Illiteracy can be remedied by education, clumsiness by culture, but not much can be done about native dullness. Amazingly enough, in the past even medical doctors have practiced in spite of a low IQ. Certainly some preachers have crashed the gates in spite of mental deficiencies. After the antics of one such, the district superintendent commented to me, “That dear brother has more religion and less sense than anyone I know.” Good religion does not necessarily expand gray matter. Good judgment is born of intelligence as well as good intentions.

Broad knowledge

It is impossible for a pastor to know too much. No field of knowledge in which he has acquired expertise need be wasted; all can be turned to good account. The possible danger in such wide knowledge might be the situation of the preacher who allows his expertise to siphon off time and energy which should be devoted to the church. One of the most brilliant and talented young preachers I ever knew nevertheless failed because he was too expert in his hobbies. He puttered in many things and failed to focus on his main job.

In another case a pastor brought into the ministry unusual skills both as a carpenter and as an auto mechanic. In unwise kindheartedness he came to the rescue of his church members in their handyman and automative needs to the extent that his study was neglected. The result was a negative vote in three successive pastorates-voted out by the very people who called on him to fix their cars or mend their roofs! This is not what I mean by saying that all kinds of knowledge can be assimilated into the pastoral and preaching ministry. While a pastor who is a good mechanic is not smart to be forever tinkering with cars, he is wise to use his knowledge as illustrations for his sermons or as a point of contact in pastoral calling.

A pastor should know theology. In fact he should have a good theological foundation before he presumes to pastor a church. If he is incapable of acquiring this knowledge or too lazy to do so, please let him continue digging ditches or selling real estate. How can a man preach the gospel if he doesn’t understand it? And let no pastor betray his own ignorance by despising theology and making derogatory wisecracks about theologians. At bottom every important question is a theological one. Every person who thinks enough to ask the big questions and tries to answer them is theologizing-even if he professes to be an atheist. So a pastor cannot escape being a theologian any more than a physician can escape being a medical man. If it is a crime for a doctor to trifle with the bodies of his patients by willful ignorance, it is a double crime for preachers to presume to deal with judgment-bound souls, when “they do not know what they are talking about” (I Tim. 1:7).

Furthermore, a pastor who would hope to succeed needs some reasonable understanding of people. He should be a lifelong student of human nature, first from the Bible, second from life, and third from the study of psychology and related disciplines.

As far as possible, he should know science, pedagogy, history, and literature. He should acquire a mastery of his own language so that he will not advertise himself as illiterate every time he opens his mouth, but most of all so that he can better convey the magnificent truths with which he is entrusted. The oratorios of Handel deserve something better than a tin horn or a broken fiddle.

The pastor should have some competency in business, economics, sociology, law, and political science. These fields should not consume the lion’s share of his time or attention. But he should be sufficiently informed that he can administrate his church and serve his community without embarrassment; and perhaps even speak to one of the local civic clubs.

“The long run”

The acquisition of knowledge and related skills we call education. Most denominations require a prescribed level of preparation before they will entrust a man or woman with ordination. Ideally, this should be obtained via liberal arts college and seminary. However, a called person may in some groups become ordained by the route of a home-study course or a Bible college. Other things being equal, the chances of success, over the long haul, are greater if the slower, longer route of training is chosen. If nothing else, the greater discipline, effort, and sacrifice required augurs well for the increased stature needed for the job. J. B. Chapman’s little conversation with his wife is well known. After serving fruitfully as a self-taught evangelist for several years and with a wife and several children, he said, “Do you believe that if I took time out to attend college for four years I would accomplish more for God in the long run?” She said, “Yes.” And so they did because he added, “It’s the long run we are on.” Succeeding in the pastorate is hard enough at best without jeopardizing our chances in advance by skimpy and shallow preparation.

Overcoming odds

However, there is another side to this coin. Seminary is not a surety of success nor the home-study course of failure. Many have succeeded with only the home-study course, while scores of bright seminary graduates have miserably fizzled. In tipping the scales three factors far outweigh formal education: character, prayer life, and study habits. If the husband and wife are made of the right stuff and can demonstrate courage, persistence, patience, a right spirit, and a true service motive, and if they truly love God and people, they will have an unerasable impact for God in spite of limited education. Then if the pastor is a man of prayer, God can help him make maximum use of what resources he has and in the process add to them.

The third factor is a habit of lifelong study. The pastor who continues to study will keep growing even into his golden years;
whereas no matter how many degrees a man earns in the beginning of his ministry, if he relies on that intellectual capital he will die “at the top.” Intellectually stagnating, he will become both bored and boring and an easy prey to some diverting enticement by the time he reaches middle age.

A classic example of making optimum use of limited education is the case of the preacher we shall call Jones. With only a three-year Bible institute education beyond high school, he felt inferior on his district. Finally, after several years, it suddenly dawned on him that really his fellow pastors and his parishioners were not half so concerned with his educational pedigree as they were with his productivity. Emancipated, he threw himself into the work with new commitment and enthusiasm. He wrote out his sermons. He read and studied. He worked hard. He became a powerful preacher, a great leader, a skilled administrator-reaching before retirement the district superintendency and membership on the general administrative body of his denomination. Later when a new dean was to be installed at his denominational seminary, guess who was asked to do it. The moral? Limited education may be a disadvantage but not fatally so. It is the man that counts. A thirst for knowledge, a love of books, a teachable spirit, a passion for improvement, a servant’s mind-set, a willingness to work, and a disciplined lifestyle will overcome almost any initial
educational handicap.


To say that a preacher who is to succeed must be in a good state of grace is to display an admirable perception of the obvious. But before we start taking too much for granted, we should point out two things.

First, it is possible to have a grand show of success without any grace at all. Able and ambitious men who enjoy the ministry as a vocation can in their own energies be effective speakers, affable friends, dynamic leaders, and skilled administrators. They can fill churches. In another country a young minister confided to a friend, “I have two ambitions-to become the head of my denomination and to become the country’s top Mason.” He reached both goals. There was not a bit of God anywhere along the line. We need to see clearly that splashy statistics are no evidence of spiritual genuineness. Conversely, limited statistics may accompany deep spirituality.

The second observation is more depressing, because closer home. It is possible to be able to pronounce all the shibboleths and still be working in the energy of the flesh. Our doctrine may be correct, and we may be born again yet still be carnally motivated. We may give all the right answers to the examining boards yet be void of the evidence of divine power in our ministry.

The bottom line is that the success which will stand when the world is on fire, which is “gold, silver, precious stones” instead of “wood, hay, stubble” (I Cor. 3:12, KJV), is impossible without the anointing of the Holy Spirit. This means divine power flowing through a pure heart and resting upon a holy life.

“I am convinced,” writes Samuel Shoemaker, “that much of our preaching about Christ consists of well-meant words that lack the authentication which would bring them to life; and that authentication can come only as we ourselves live more profoundly and more consistently in the Spirit.”

In commenting on “Coming Into the Stream of the Spirit,” he says, “The trouble with a lot of us is that we have never been broken.” Later he observes, “There is a death to self in coming into the stream of the Spirit.”

A young pastor who was doing so-so was shocked by his father-in-law who said to him, “You don’t have much anointing on your preaching, do you?” He was hurt at first, even tempted to be offended. But he began to pray. One Saturday morning he stayed on his knees at the church altar until he knew he was “dead” and the Holy Spirit had indeed taken possession. Soon things began to happen in his church. He launched no new programs. He did not double his calling. He hired no new staff members. He made no sweeping changes in his organization. But God began to work. Sinners began to be converted; believers began to seek for heart holiness–and find it. When I was there in a revival I found a rare phenomenon: laymen instructing seekers for holiness and praying them through as skillfully as any preacher. It all began when the young pastor obtained the divine anointing upon his ministry.

But it cannot be said too often: The anointing will never rest upon a man’s ministry unless the blessing of God is on the man. Empowerment presupposes cleansing. Meeting God at an altar means facing up to sin. If we are careless in our morals, shabby in our ethics, quarrelsome at home, petty and pouty with people, we will have no power from God. No purity, no power. This is simply the way God’s kingdom operates.

We are not to conclude that because the divine dimension is so basic the human factors no longer matter. The young pastor was already a good preacher. He was already a good pastor. He was already an exemplary family man. He already had a well-organized church. The machinery was in place; it needed only the power of God upon it at a stepped-up level in order for the machinery to become God’s instrument for doing what God so much wanted to do. So we keep God and man together as God intends. Man’s abilities are naught without the energizing of the Spirit. But the Spirit works through the human and may be either hindered or helped by the degree of man’s submission and cooperation.

In a recent commencement address at the Nazarene Theological Seminary, David L. McKenna, president of Asbury Theological Seminary, said:

Lloyd John Ogilvie tells the story in his latest book, The Other Jesus, of his trip as a young clergyman to New College in Edinburgh, Scotland. He confesses that his relationship to Christ at that time was “bordered north, south, east, and west by Lloyd.” He busied himself doing the work of Christ without ever facing up to his deep need for the transforming power of Christ’s cross. One day in a class taught by Thomas Torrance, he used carefully stated questions to avoid the truth of his professor’s teaching. Torrance saw his need and challenged, “Mr. Ogilvie, you can’t sneak around Golgotha. You must die.” While Torrance explained what it meant to die to self, to pride, and to his own plans, priorities, and personality, Lloyd listened in shocked silence. Lloyd gave his total self to Christ, and with that act, Christ’s death became not only real but his only hope.

Then McKenna added, “I call you this day, along with myself to the radical self-death at the Cross of Jesus Christ by which the infilling of His Holy Spirit can make us Christians with passion, ministering to the needs of those who are hurting in our world of self-interest.”