The Strategy to Pursue
Paul encourages Timothy to “practice these things; devote yourself to them.” In context, “these things” includes both growth in godliness and devotion to preaching and teaching.
Hopefully the emphasis on godliness is obvious to you. The road to landing in a particular pastoral ministry must include being increasingly conformed to the likeness of Christ (1 Tim. 4:10, 2 Cor. 3:18). Journal. Fast. Pray. Grow in grace. Here I heartily recommend The Discipline of Grace by Jerry Bridges.
Along with growing in godliness, Paul also tells Timothy to sharpen his skills in handling the Word. “Until I come, devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to exhortation, to teaching” (1 Tim. 4:13).
Specifically, if you believe God is calling you to pastoral ministry, you might:
(1) Memorize Scripture. By God’s grace, when I was preparing for ministry, there was a period of several years where I tried to memorize one verse per day. Twenty years later I continue to review those verses. This is not nearly so difficult as it sounds. It only requires a system and a few minutes a day.
If you need more convincing of the value of Scripture memory, listen to John Piper share his testimony. Nothing can be more strategic in being actually called to the pastorate of a Word-centered church than memorizing Scripture.
(2) Complete all the formal training you can. I understand that Spurgeon didn’t go to seminary. I know that too much weight can be assigned to the value of a master of divinity. But if you have the opportunity, take advantage of a seminary curriculum designed to give broad preparation for the pastorate. It is worth living in a 500-square-foot apartment or working at UPS if you can learn from godly professors.
(3) Preach and teach every chance you get. It may be that sometime in the next couple of months Tim Keller will give you a shout and ask you to fill the pulpit for him while he is on vacation.
Then again, maybe not.
Chances are that your early opportunities to preach will be more like mine. The first sermon I preached was at an assisted living center. My wife sang a solo before I preached. About five minutes into the sermon one elderly lady, who was speaking far louder than she realized, said to another, “I wish his wife had just sang another solo.”
Looking back, I understand her pain. The sermon was awful, but it was my chance to give myself wholly to preaching and teaching. Years later, I am comforted knowing that many I preached for were hard of hearing.
Teaching opportunities should also be seized. Much of the time I was in seminary I taught two Sunday school classes. The first was at 8 a.m. and sparsely attended. Although there was no way I could have known it at the time, my diligence in teaching was a vital part of having my first pastoral opportunity.
(4) Endure as many humbling critiques as possible. If you’re going to get better, sparks need to fly (Prov. 27:17). Find someone who truly understands homiletics and teaching to help you grind off the rough edges.
If you find the right person to critique you, it’s sure to be humbling. I vividly recall the first time I preached in front of Haddon Robinson. I didn’t necessarily expect him to be converted under my preaching. But I thought perhaps he would nod in approval. It wasn’t happening. He just turned to the others in my doctoral class and said, “I just don’t think it worked. Did any of you think it did?” No one rushed to my defense. Indeed, my cohorts solemnly agreed with Haddon.
Fortunately, what I also remember is Haddon explaining why my sermon didn’t work. His input continues to help my preaching every week. As I have recounted in vivid detail, my first attempt at writing theology met with an even more epic failure: “D-.” I still cringe. Oh the humanity! But I made much progress in giving myself wholly to preparation for pastoral ministry.
Become a student of what constitutes biblical preaching. One of my goals with the book When the Word Leads Your Pastoral Search was to equip pastoral search committees to evaluate preaching. Perhaps you could ask one of the elders in your church to read through the chapters on what to look for in biblical preaching and use the evaluation form to critique one of your sermons or lessons. If you get an “A” he was probably too nice. Find someone else.
From Gospel Coalition