The Family Practice Pastor
Gifts, Graces, and Specialization
I, like most pastors, am the solo pastor of a small church. In other words, I am senior pastor, teaching pastor, discipleship pastor, youth pastor, children’s pastor, visitation pastor, and, God help us, executive pastor. I’m blessed to have some wonderful part time staff to wear some of these hats, but most of you don’t. And the roles you fill you are expected to fill with expertise. Congregations tend to expect pastors to excel in preaching, counseling, evangelism, organizational management, conflict resolution, pastoral care, apologetics, hospitality, small group dynamics, and (shudder) fund raising.
I’ve tried in recent posts to remove the expectation that pastors respond to every cultural crisis and have a take on every public issue because most of us are already overwhelmed by the simple expectations present in our own local congregations. If we are not driven to quit by these expectations, we may try so hard that our children begin to wonder what their absent parent looks like.
We have lost sight of the fact that pastors are generalists, not specialists. We are not meant to be good at everything and, that is okay.
If pastoral ministry were a medical field you, pastor, would be in family practice. You would be what used to be called a general practitioner. A family practice doctor has knowledge of and insight into a broad range of maladies and is well-equipped to guide her patients into overall health. But no one expects her to execute a heart transplant or to fix a cataract.
Some churches do function as a large practice with multiple specialists. A friend is an employee in a large church where his primary role is middle school youth social director. It reminds me of the orthopedic surgeon who replaced my wife’s right knee. I told her that she’d have to see someone else for the left knee. Most churches don’t, can’t, and maybe shouldn’t function in that manner. Most of us wear all the hats. We are generalists.
Certainly there are core competencies that pastors need to have. But when we expect pastors to excel at every skill, to preach like Piper, to write like Keller, and so on, that will crush us. Dr. Tom may not have been able to perform brain surgery. That was not his job and no one expected him to do so. But he could stitch the cut on my daughter’s head just fine. And the way he showed interest in me during my annual physical made me feel valued, and that was important.
A generalist can do many things, but not all of them as well as a specialist. And this is okay. What a pastor may lack in any specialized skill, the good pastor makes up for in genuine character. That is not always appreciated, of course. Former president George H. W. Bush was eulogized at his death for being both humble and imperfect. What makes a wonderful eulogy is often skewered in office, for both presidents and pastors. But perhaps churches need to appreciate pastors who are humble and imperfect.
Tim Keller helpfully distinguishes between pastoral “graces” and “gifts.” Gifts are the skills highly prized in our churches. Gifts define the performance criteria churches use to measure pastoral competence. Gifts are things we can put on our resumes. Graces, on the other hand, are character attributes, often hidden, such as wisdom and kindness and patience. We prioritize the gifts over the graces. But Keller suggests we are wrong to do so.
A Christian leader leads from character before skill. Character is far more important than skills in Christian leadership.1
I don’t say this to discourage pastors from growing in their skills. But we do need to understand that who we are may matter more than what we do.
Perhaps you may not be a great preacher. But as your people find you accessible and sense your honesty they learn that one need not be perfect to live the Christian life. That matters.
Maybe you struggle to delegate, and your meetings are too long. But your presence by the hospital bed of the one who recently had surgery or in the home of the family who just lost a child is the closest that those families may come at the moment to experiencing the presence of God in their valley of the shadow of death. That matters.
Your church may not be growing, and you may not be able to remember the last person, if any, converted under your ministry. But maybe your home and your dinner table are known to be safe places for those battered by the world. That matters.
You are a general practitioner.
Come to think of it, that is a specialty all its own.
Excel in that.
Timothy Keller and Edmund Clowney, “Preaching Christ in a Post-Modern World,” class notes from Reformed Theological Seminary, 2001, page 120.