The Basics of Successful Pastoring


Pastors who honorably and faithfully stand by the stuff year after year in small pastorates demonstrate a commendable heroism and should not downgrade themselves. But in many cases, as they themselves would be the first to admit, their success is borderline. Their statistics swing narrowly between small minuses and small plusses. No dramatic turnarounds occur in their churches. Deep down they nurse the flicker of a feeling that they have potential for more extensive success–potential they have not learned how to tap.

How can a pastor who is borderline raise the level of his success? First, of course, there must be the humility of the learner. Second, he must have the intelligence to analyze weaknesses. Third, he must have the discipline required for change.

Generally borderline failure hinges not on goodness or badness, or sincerity or insincerity, or even native endowment. It hinges rather on an aggregation of small faults which can be remedied if we determine to remedy them. Surely any normally intelligent person, who applies himself diligently and with resolve, can learn to do the basic things which belong to his high calling, not just passably but well.

He or she can learn

-to speak properly and effectively;
-to look and act like a gentleman or lady (both in the pulpit and out);
-to be friendly and approachable;
-to master the functions of the ministry, such as weddings and funerals;
-to preside over public services and business meetings with poise and competence; -to behave in homes so as to leave behind a holy fragrance;
-to manage finances so as to avoid reproach; -to act like a Christian at home and toward the neighbors;
-to learn to work with people;
-to develop consistent, efficient and effective work habits.

Here are ten components of the pastorate. Serious flaws in any one of them can cast a shadow over all the others. One serious weakness may conceivably be so undermining as ultimately to bring down one’s entire ministerial house upon one’s head. Many pastors are needlessly faulty in several areas, apparently with no awareness of the offending flaws.

To be as helpful as possible, let us zero in on certain of the more crucial areas.


It is elementary that a pastor should know how to look and act like a gentleman or lady, whether in or out of the pulpit. Extreme
faddishness but also dowdiness should be avoided. There should be neither teenage daring in dress nor hobo slovenliness. “Slovenliness,” once said Oswald Chambers, “is an insult to the Holy Ghost.” No one needs to be sloppy, with uncombed hair or baggy clothes.

And it doesn’t take a lot of effort to sit properly when in front of the people. When men slouch in their pulpit chairs, their legs wide apart (spread-eagle), or their legs crossed with a shoe resting on a knee, or wear drooping socks with the bare leg showing, they are advertising themselves as uninstructed, to say the least. If their people act the same, it probably matters little. But if people with some refinement and sense of propriety happen in they will mentally discredit the whole outfit. Professional persons who are with it are more respectful to the house of God, their congregation, and their calling.

This goes for street and town dress as well. One pastor would often amble to the post office of his small town with one suspender clinging precariously and the other dangling. His teenage daughter was embarrassed and the neighbors no doubt amused. And the image of the church was not enhanced.

All other offensive crudities should be weeded out. Not only do haircuts and ties need attention, but bad breath, stubbly face,
unshined shoes, kiddish slang, illiterate speech (“Ya know,” every ten words), and body odor. Such matters seem trifling perhaps, but they are often the very details which make the difference between the borderline man and the thriving pastor.


Every pastor can learn to be friendly and approachable, whether in the restaurant or service station or store or at social events or in church. Persons who are overly reserved, dour, aloof, abrupt, and angular will have a hard time making friends and influencing people (especially if the previous pastor was laid-back, easy, and affable). Open, natural friendliness does not come easily with some pastors. They have to work at it. They do not need to become ebullient or garrulous, but they should learn to take the initiative, lay aside their natural shyness, put out their hand, and talk.

Even one’s own people can unintentionally be held at bay by a detached manner of super busyness, rushing here and there, seemingly unmindful of them as persons. They get the feeling that he is too busy to talk to them. Let the pastor cultivate people awareness. Let him be everyone’s friend and everyone’s shepherd, not effusively or intrusively, but in such a way that people of any age or social status will feel free to approach him. One pastor I knew was so reserved and starchy that a lady member told my wife, “I could never go to him for counsel.”

Yet preachers have at times tried too hard to be affable and have ended up being silly. This too can be one of the little flaws which lower a person’s level of effectiveness. In one case the young pastor went so far in clowning at social events that he lost the respect of the men. The Christian men overlooked his kiddish antics because they loved him and believed in him, but several of the unsaved men stopped coming. A pastor should remember that his position is never less than pastor. His people expect him to be manly, discreet, and exemplary at all times-as well as affable. Even teenagers expect this down in their heart of hearts.


Pastors will never get beyond borderline success and reach more fully their own potential unless they learn to get along with people. They must love them, understand them, feel for them. It isn’t enough to work over people; we must work with them. Some pastors are wanting in tact. Their social radar is out of order, manners are missing. Incredible as it may seem, one pastor, when asked by his farm-wife parishioner if he could use a dozen eggs, snapped, “Pay your tithe, and I’ll buy my own eggs.” A misfit from day one, he didn’t last long in the ministry.

A sensitivity to people can be cultivated. A pastor should be an assiduous student of human nature, not just in books but in his own people. He must learn to work with them as they are, not as he thinks they should be. Sister Jones is sensitive about her age. Brother Brown needs time to consider things; he doesn’t handle surprises well. Brother Smith seems to need more pats on the back than others. He will do better if bolstered with generous amounts of affirmation and appreciation. Pastors who do not know how to make people feel good about themselves, but who are always rubbing the fur the wrong way and stepping on sensitive toes, will be finding themselves too close to that borderline for comfort.


Surely a pastor can learn to behave in homes so as to leave behind a fragrance. We are talking now about conduct which contributes to the borderline situation. One pastor would breeze into a home and head straight for the refrigerator. “Got anything good to eat?” He thought that was the way to get next to the people. It wasn’t. Another pastor sticks his shoes on the coffee table. Another picks up a magazine and thumbs through it while talking. Another prides himself on being casual in dress, and ends up being totally unprofessional, an embarrassment if the church member happens to have guests. Another pastor interrupts, argues, and is otherwise obnoxious. Another insists on hugging the little girls, not knowing that many little girls do not like to be hugged, not even by the pastor. Other pastors are indiscreet in timing their calls, in both senses: They come at the wrong time and/or stay too long. Still others are not sufficiently guarded against compromising situations. (Wise is the pastor who listens to his wife!) The consequence of all this is that no one takes these blunderbusses seriously.

A man or woman’s appearance and deportment should at all times be such that if a neighbor should drop in the host or hostess can say with decent pride, “This is my pastor.” The impression on children also should be constructive. To a great extent children form their perceptions of the ministry and develop their attachments (or aversions) during those special times when the pastor is in the home.


A pastor can learn to stand straight in the pulpit and speak with discipline and competence. He can study public speaking, voice
control, mannerisms, and sufficiently improve in these matters that his people will not have reason to feel embarrassed. A pastor owes this much to his members. Proper pronunciation (which can be learned from a dictionary), clear enunciation, pleasant speed and volume, are all qualities which make the difference between a good and a poor speaker, which, in turn, will make the difference between a member’s willingness to invite his neighbors and his reluctance to do so. In how many cases are such simple matters the culprits in the borderline situation?

When Gideon Williamson’ was in his first pastorate, he had two annoying habits: one was sticking his hand in his coat pocket, the other was lifting his eyes above the people while preaching. When these habits were gently called to his attention by his wife, he was inclined to brush it off; surely he didn’t do these things! But Mrs. Williamson cured the first habit by sewing up his pockets.

He soon learned not to reach for them. She cured the second by slipping up to the balcony a Sunday or two, and every time he looked up she waved at him. Breaking that habit didn’t take long either. May we presume that Mrs. Williamson’s alertness and resourcefulness, combined with his willingness to be corrected, might have had something to do with his future enlarged usefulness?

While the advice of Bishop Quayle was given to an earlier generation of preachers, it is perennially timely: “What attracts attention to a minister as being an uncouth demeanor is a misfortune, inasmuch as it distracts attention and brings thought to something other than the business of the hour, which is to worship the Living God.” And he warns against “looking round on the congregation as if one were nervous lest the crowd would not be large.” He must “be above the cheap feverishness of the size of a crowd.”


Every pastor can learn to lead his people in public worship. This is more than proper posture and good speaking. It is spiritual
leadership. This kind of leadership requires, first of all, good management of the service itself. If people are to worship, the service must be protected from haphazardness. An atmosphere of worship can be created when the service flows and each part is coherent with the whole. Angular, jerky distractions prevent worship. Other distractions include:

a). Special singers clumping up from the back of the sanctuary to the mike.
b). Loss of precious time manipulating the sound system.
c). Excessive choreography and theatrics (we are here to worship, not watch).
d). Asking for ushers at the last moment; or, “Jim, where are the plates?”
e). Interjecting forgotten announcements (once heard between the “special” and the sermon: “Oh yes, I forgot to announce the basketball game Monday night”).
f). Offertories that weaken the ceiling plaster (this goes for loud sound systems in general).

Many such forms of general disarray and noise “assault and battery” make it virtually impossible for the congregation to come into any real sense of the divine Presence. Let there be form without formality and reverence without starchiness. Warm amens and fervent testimonies do not hinder worship-they are elemental to it-but claptrap does. A plethora of novelties-sudden twists and turns, with surprise packages-will do the job very well of preventing worship. Of course if the purpose is entertainment and excitement, fine. Keep them guessing and watching.

Some pastors are overly afraid of ruts. A washboard road may prevent sleep, but after awhile it can become just as tiring as a rut. And if by “ruts” we mean a reasonably regular order of worship, the rut will not be the cause of deadness, only the accompaniment. And spiritual vitality is not recaptured by stunts and novelties.

This warning, however, should not be interpreted as meaning that no effort should be made to conduct a worship service in a lively and spirited manner. But the Spirit must be in it as well as spirit. “There is a difference,” observed a wise old pastor, “between being spiritual and merely spirited.” And awkward ineptness must be weeded out so that the Spirit will not be insulted or hindered.

Admittedly much of this depends partly on the other participants-the musicians, song leader, choir, special singers, ushers; but the pastor is in charge, and is in the long run responsible for achieving that degree of smoothness and finesse which makes worship at least possible.

Forms and approaches greatly vary. But some men are doing it these days with skill. Announcements are often given before the service proper begins. Music and prayer and offering and choir numbers are woven together into a beautiful tapestry. People find it easy to lift their hearts and minds in praise. They are carried along by a mood of receptivity and openness. They are ready for the preaching of the Word.

Required is careful training of all persons involved, meticulous planning for every detail of every service, and a harmonious spirit of teamwork between pastor and everyone who has any part at all in the hour.

But beyond organization and planning for worship lies a requisite so vital that without it the finesse will achieve little. The pastor,
himself, must worship, both in front of his people and with them. This is difficult because of the burden of conducting the service. It becomes possible only (1) if the detail has already been worked out so that the service flows almost by itself; and (2) if the pastor is so prayed up that he is in a worshipful frame of mind. His own heart should be aglow with love for God. Otherwise his “worship” may be a charade.

I was once under the ministry of a young pastor who could take any limping service and make it leap with a sense of God’s presence and power. No outlandish stunts or tricks. Few services he led failed to be experiences of renewal, with people going home feeling that they had touched God. But he was emotionally involved, not tackily but tastefully. He worshiped, often with tears on his cheeks. And he had a rare ability to sense just what a service needed at a particular moment. Need it be said that he came from the place of prayer?

The pastor who would conquer the borderline malaise must learn the art of conducting meaningful public worship services.


Certain functions peculiar to the pastoral ministry must be learned well. Primarily at this point I am thinking of weddings and funerals. Details of form and procedure can be studied in various manuals available. Since details of funeral and burial practices vary in different parts of the country, local customs can be learned from other pastors, sometimes from morticians. If the pastor is not sure, he should not hesitate to ask. A wise move would be to attend a few funerals in the area to observe anything unique about the procedure.

Weddings may require special study and practice. Some pastors find weddings the scariest thing they do. Other pastors glory in the wedding. Only the bride is more regnant. If the scared and perhaps awkward and unsure pastor will determine to master weddings and funerals until he feels at home and can perform competently (though perhaps never without an occasional faux pas), he will greatly bless his people and extend his reach into the hearts and homes of the community.


This is my second discussion of money, but the subject is so crucial that further attention is justified. For failure here is a frequent
contributor to the borderline situation. A parsonage couple must learn to manage their financial affairs. If they do not they will live under the pressure and harassment of debt, fail to give their best in service, and possibly bring reproach on both themselves and the church.

If a couple just starting out in their first pastorate and even before school bills are paid simply must have the best of everything-sterling silver, fine china, fancy car, etc.-they had either better pray for the demise of a rich uncle or start looking around for some other vocation. Spiritual depth will condition a couple to be willing gladly to live sacrificially in order to fulfill their calling.

It is not always the size of salary that makes the difference. Often it is management. Some couples make it fine (or at least “make it”) on small salaries; others are perpetually in debt even on generous salaries. A couple should rigorously bring their spending urges to heel. They should fast and pray if need be until God helps them exercise discipline; and they should talk and talk until they can work out a viable management plan, then together work the plan. Let them not be ashamed to seek professional help in setting their financial house in order. It is absolutely imperative that they guard their credit and the good name of the church. A small used car is no disgrace. Unpaid bills are.


Most pastors feel worked to death. In actuality, they may not know the first ABC’s of good work procedures. This too contributes to the borderline peril. These pastors accomplish little because they are not organized, not disciplined, and not knowledgeable in the management of time. They putter here and there, burn up a lot of gas, go through a lot of motions, but have little solid accomplishment to show for their busyness.

A president of a holiness college hired a middle-aged pastor as business manager. The pastor brought into his new position his
customary casual off-and-on work habits. In contrast the president was at his desk every day from 8:00 to 12:00, and from 1:00 to 5:00. Everything else was as systematically under control as was his time. The disorganized pastor began to follow suit, though it was for him a new regimen. Gradually his productivity climbed. After some years he said to his boss, “I’m leaving. Now that I have learned to work, I want to take one more pastorate before retirement and see what I can do with my new ‘know-how.”

Admittedly there are demands in the pastorate that cannot always be compressed into a neat daily pattern. No one needs to be more flexible than the pastor. Yet most pastors could improve their productivity out of sight if they learned to work more efficiently. One successful pastor said, “I push my work; I don’t let it push me.”

Milo Arnold was sixty-four years of age when he was tapped by a new Bible College to be professor of pastoral theology. At that time he was pastor of a strong church. He had the verve, the commitment, the excitement, the enthusiasm of a man in his first pastorate. Since he had a daily devotional session on the local radio station he had nine talks and sermons per week to prepare. Yet he was faithful in calling, took part in the fun things, was attentive to his wife, enjoyed life, and in addition wrote books! But he took six 4 x 6 cards each Sunday afternoon and mapped out his hourly tasks: the calls that should be made, errands to be run, meetings, study sessions, for each day of the week. On Monday morning he took Monday’s card and started out. Simple. Of course he had interruptions. But he would get right back on the track, and had the time of his life doing it.

Sound work habits include wise priorities as well as a disciplined schedule. An elder recently confided to me that his last pastorate of ten years was so wobbly, in spite of hard work, that he stepped aside to secular employment, but began attending a church where powerful preaching and strong teaching are building a strong congregation. Quietly he said, “I see now that I did not really feed my people. My priorities were not in order.”

Gordon Wetmore, when a Kansas City pastor, explained his priorities to a young seminarian. He said, “They are Prayer, Preparation, and People.” Even people must not be allowed to infringe on prayer and preparation. For if prayer and preparation are neglected, the people themselves will be deprived.

These are some cliff-hangers in the pastoral ministry. Some pastors are not producing as they know they should and could because they have not given sufficient attention to these crucial areas. If they will resolutely study themselves and their weaknesses, map out a plan for improvement, and persistently follow through with their plan, they will discover that they have turned a corner and entered a new and exciting ministerial world. Bon voyage!