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Outsourcing Our Job Description? A Plea to Fellow Ministers

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"Given all the demands on my time every day, it's really hard to invest a lot of hours in preparing my sermons." I hear this sentiment a lot out there these days. It's expressed in a series of clips for a new service. The ad invites pastors to take advantage of an energetic team of researchers who help do a lot of the legwork for sermon-writing. Explaining "what we do," the site offers the following services: "(1) Research Briefs (stories, statistics, quotes, connections to culture, theological insights, exegetical analysis of Scripture)"; (2) book summaries: "content you need to know but don't have time to read"; (3) book projects, including "research, editing, and collaboration."

I understand the challenge. There are many demands on a pastor's time—even distractions that are part of the legitimate calling of a minister. However, are we turning to a Wikipedia-style of ministry? Some pastors in recent years—even in our own circles—have been brought up on charges of "borrowing" sermons verbatim from well-known preachers. I suppose this new service isn't as bad as outright plagiarism. But what does all of this mean for the ministry?

I've been asking that question as I run into aspiring pastors who don't think they need a seminary education. After all, there are so many on-line resources. Apparently, we're way beyond that now.

It's not just that people think they can teach themselves the languages, the art of biblical interpretation and biblical, systematic, and historical theology, or the practical insights from God's Word in how to preach and apply God's Word. You can even refer to the Hebrew and Greek of a passage without ever having actually studied the languages. Ironically, we teach students to study a passage in the original languages without showing their work in the sermon; increasingly, ignorance is being passed off as skill. It's one thing to Google-search a figure or date; quite another thing to write a doctoral dissertation as a web-surfer. You wouldn't go under the knife of a surgeon who learned medicine from Youtube clips. Why would you entrust your knowledge of God and his truth from someone who didn't actually know how to "rightly handle the Word of truth" for himself?

The deeper question is this: What has become of the pastoral office when many who hold it seem to think that they are too busy to study, pray, read, and deepen their own understanding of God's Word so that they have more to dish out?

Do we really believe, as the apostles and the reformers did, that the church is the creatura verbi—"creation of the Word"? That faith comes by hearing the Word of Christ as it is proclaimed by those who are sent? That the heart of sanctification is the renewing of the mind by the Word?

Pastors would never tell their congregations to outsource their discipleship to others: to pay someone else to pray, read the Bible, and witness for them. Why do some think that it's fine for them to do this, especially when—unlike their parishioners—pastors are called to devote their full time to this work?

The tragedy is that pastors are often overwhelmed even by important things that are nevertheless subordinate to their ministry of the Word and the sacraments. Too often, elders are taken from the ranks of leaders in business, industry, and other professions, even if they lack the qualifications in 1 Timothy 3. Not surprisingly, the church is run like a corporation, with the pastor as the CEO. Or in other contexts, the pastor is the young and independent entrepreneur—more like Mark Zuckerberg than St. Timothy. He has to keep reinventing himself and his ministry and this requires enormous energy. But what really matters?

Amid these obvious extremes there are the faithful pastors who are wearied by parts of their job description that are in fact mentioned in Scripture. They may have godly elders who rule well and generous deacons who look out for the temporal needs of the sheep. Yet even with such blessings it's difficult to avoid the constant interruptions.

What are those "other things" that have pastors so busy? Are those other things as explicitly mentioned in the job description laid out by Christ and his apostles? Or are we—even in "gospel-centered" and "Bible-believing" circles—coming to recast the office in terms more aligned to the managerial, entrepreneurial, or therapeutic styles of leadership that our culture prizes? A minister friend recently quipped, "The most embarrassing question you can ask a group of pastors in our circles today is, 'What's the latest book you've read?'"

Last week, after explaining my symptoms, I asked my doctor about a prescription that I saw advertized. The ad sold me. Sounded like my symptoms and promised to solve them (with the appropriate qualifications at the tail end). My doctor said he had prescribed that very medication many times, but after reading a ground-breaking report he was taking all of his patients off of it. I'm glad he keeps reading.

Imagine your pastor exhorting the congregation next week to stop coming to church and simply visit websites to become "self-feeders"? Well, perhaps that's a bad illustration, since it's actually happening today.

It takes a long time to become a craftsman, a skilled expert, and a wise steward of natural gifts. If pastors expect Christ's sheep to "grow in the grace and knowledge of our Savior Jesus Christ," then are they exempt from first-hand study? Who are these people writing up the quotes, cultural connections, and even theological points and exegesis? Are they seminary-trained? According to the site I saw, yes—they have Master of Divinity degrees or more. If so, then why not attend their church instead of the one where the heavy-lifting is farmed out?

Even after seminary, habits of lifelong study and prayer are essential. Pastors are spiritual craftsmen, not the equivalent of busy guys who buy a Home Depot book to construct their patio. Even the best seminary education can merely equip ministers with tools that they can use and develop in their own ongoing study.

We typically invest our time in things that matter to us, things that we're called to. And we typically appreciate—and patronize—those specialists who focus on the quality of their work. Comedians and other entertainers might have other people write their material. But if we farm out our sermons, aren't we assuming with the world that there is some other story that's more ultimate than the new creation that God is summoning into being by his Word and Spirit?

Isn't there something a little contradictory about shepherds touting the virtues of truth, spiritual maturity, and knowing God through his Word while they outsource their own study? If a pastor is too busy to mine Scripture to distribute Christ's treasures to his people each week, what does that say about the priority of "the ministry of the Word and prayer" that Peter identified as the pastor's primary job description (Acts 6:4)? That's why deacons were appointed: to take care of the temporal needs of Christ's flock.

Paul was absorbed in his calling, which he defined with laser-sharp focus:

Of this gospel I was made a minister according to the gift of God's grace, which was given me by the working of his power. To me, though I am the very least of all the saints, this grace was given to preach to the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ, and to bring to light for everyone what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things, so that through the church the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places (Eph 3:7-10).

What a calling!

The prophets actually served those who now bring the good news, "in the things that have now been announced to you through those who preached the good news to you by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven, things into which angels long to look" (1 Pet 1:12).

Those who labor in preaching and teaching are especially to be honored (1 Tim 5:17), though they are also held especially accountable (Jas 3:1). "Until I come," Paul counsels young Timothy, "devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to exhortation, to teaching. Do not neglect the gift you have, which was given you by prophecy when the presbytery laid their hands on you" (1 Tim 4:14). Don't get entangled in "civilian pursuits," he exhorts. Teach God's Word and then "entrust [it] to faithful men who will be able to teach others also" (2 Tim 2:1-4). "Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth" (v 15).

Bottom line: "I charge you in the presence of God and of Jesus Christ, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by his appearing and his kingdom: preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching...[D]o the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry" (2 Tim 4:1-2, 5).

In his last reported conversation on earth with Peter, Jesus asked solemnly, "'Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?' He said to him, 'Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.' He said to him, 'Feed my lambs.' He said to him a second time, 'Simon, son of John, do you love me?' He said to him, 'Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.' He said to him, 'Tend my sheep.' He said to him the third time, 'Simon, son of John, do you love me?' Peter was grieved because he said to him the third time, 'Do you love me?' and he said to him, 'Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.' Jesus said to him, 'Feed my sheep'...And after saying this he said to him, 'Follow me'" (Jn 21:15-19).

To follow the Good Shepherd as his emissaries is to feed his sheep. It's a calling not to be taken up lightly. If we're going to take it up, we need to prepare for it. And then we need to keep ourselves in his Word and in whatever resources that can help us deepen our own wisdom rather than outsource it to others. Great numbers of pastors out there are fulfilling this calling "in season and out of season" today. Nevertheless, there is a troubling proliferation of preachers who are not so much lazy as distracted by expectations—either their own or those of others—that turn the pastor's study into an office, building their own ministry rather than serving Christ's. Here, as always, we all need to be reminded that Christ is the only head of his church. We didn't write the job description and he knows best what his people—and we ourselves—need most.


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  • Guest - Jeff Love

    Welcome to my world. As a physician I see patients daily who have self-diagnosed from WebMD or other such site. They present to me, not with a chief complaint, but with a med or test request and expect me to fill it. Your comment "the growing sense I get out there that first-hand knowledge and study aren't at the top of the list these days" is exactly right. May the Lord have mercy on us.

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  • Guest - Paul

    "I’ve been asking that question as I run into aspiring pastors who don’t think they need a seminary education."

    As a missionary to third world countries for 33 years I am a bit concerned about this statement. We have seen many men become pastors of small congregations who would never dream of having even a college education much less a seminary one! To insinuate that a pastor must have a seminary education seems like maybe moving in the direction of the priests and bishops of old (pre-reformation) who were the only ones allowed to teach or even read Scripture. I know many goldy pastors who love the Lord and love their people, but have no formal education. And their messages regularly encourage and challenge me. Of course they don't use sermon services or even Google. They use the Bible and other resources that we can supply them, and they spend many hours preparing their messages.

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  • Dr. Horton,

    Thanks for the reply. Very kind of you. I too share your concerns about pastors being able to rightly handle the word of truth. If pastors are too "busy" for these things then that is a huge problem.

    I would encourage reading this post from Jared Wilson from his Gospel Coalition blog. He addressed a similar critique from Dr. Trueman a few months ago.


    I know that the president, Glenn Lucke, would love to interact with you on these issues. I know he too shares your concern about pastor's being "too busy" for the word and prayer. If you talked with him I think he might change your perspective of what Docent actually does for pastors. He is easily emailed from their website.

    In response to your question, "As the demand for such services grows, will our shepherds know for themselves how to feed and defend Christ’s sheep?" My subjective sense, based on the work that I have done, is a resounding "yes". That's my perspective from someone on the inside. I know for a fact that the many pastor's I have worked for are using what I give them as another tool, like the internet, commentaries, Bible reading, conversations with others, etc. They work hard to prepare their messages and it's clear that they are not being spoon fed information by me for the sake of doing other "more important" things. There is not a direct line from my research to their preaching on a Sunday morning any more than there is a direct line from any commentary to a preacher's delivery of a message. Much work is needed in addition to the tool before you are ready to preach. So again, it's not a "replacement" ministry but simply another tool that some pastor's can use. Could it be abused? Sure. Just like anything else, but, again, this has not been my experience in the least and I'm sure if you did some digging around (maybe you already have) with folks who have experience as employees of Docent or pastors who use Docent they might shed some additional light on these issues and perhaps lay some of your concerns to rest.

    Another broad question for all pastors might be, "What is the appropriate use of the tools at my disposal for helping me prepare my messages?" (A blog post response :) ?) For example, we all know that there is a bad way to use a commentary and there is a good way to use a commentary for the sake of preparing a message.

    Just my two cents. Again, I am so thankful for your writing, teaching, and radio ministry. It has benefited me in a huge way. It's been one of the tools that God has used to shape my preaching! :)


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  • Guest - Bill

    I agree with what Denice brought up (lack of study of the word is not something that just applies to pastors but to christians in general). I also agree with what Paul's concern about making a Seminary education a requirement. Weren't most of the apostles uneducated? Fishermen, tax collectors, with no Seminary instruction.

    Now a bigger concern for me is that we have somehow determined that a Minister of the gospel is a full time job. I do think that this should only apply to Ministers like Mike Horton and the hosts of the White Horse Inn who have made it a full time job and they are doing an amazing job as well. Nevertheless, this should not apply to most congregations, and I get the impression the apostle Peter was a fisherman for the rest of his life. He never abandoned the means of earning a livelihood that God gave him. I also think that we need to look closer at church leadership by a multitude of elders instead of one pastor, now these would be paid elders, however they would be compensated not as full time workers but as part time workers. First Timothy 5:18-18 makes the case for this model. And First Corinthians 14:24 clearly teaches that the office of preaching in the church does not belong to one man only (the pastor) because it mentions that all prophesy. First Corinthians 14:26 is clear that teaching is the responsibility of all christians in the congregation.

    I know that what I have written does not match the traditional church model of the full time pastor. I know that both the confessional lutheran and reformed church model also are set against what I wrote. However I am comfortable that I have provided sufficient proof from the scripture that a more democratic church model where the preaching and teaching is shared by many is the model the New Testament prescribes for the local church.

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  • Guest - Bill

    First Timothy 5:17-18 I meant in my last post and not First Timothy 5:18-18.

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  • Guest - Bill

    Now First Corinthians 14:34 excludes women from preaching. But prior to it First Corinthians 14:29-33 make it very clear that the Ministry in the local church belongs to a plurality of men and not to one man. The office of preaching and administering the sacraments is nowhere in the New Testament assigned to one man. The Reformers were on the right track in questioning the authority of the Pope, but did not go far enough by maintaining the single pastor leadership model at the local congregation level.

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  • [...] Outsourcing Our Job Description? A Plea to Fellow Ministers [...]

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  • Guest - Bill

    Did John Calvin go to Seminary? No, he was a Lawyer. Did Martyn LLoyd Jones go to Seminary? No, he was a physician. Did Luther go to Seminary? Well yes, he was part of the catholic church but he ditched everything they taught him at Seminary and this is what made him great. I can probably a hundreds of the best theologians that ever lived that never went to Seminary. As well some of the best pastors in local churhces never went to Seminary either.

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  • Guest - Michael Horton

    Zach, thanks for the push-back. A useful conversation. Bill, I'm not saying that God doesn't use faithful men who aren't seminary trained. However, we should thank the Lord for these exceptions and not make them the rule. BTW, theology was taught in the universities and Calvin went through a rigorous program at the University of Paris. He learned Hebrew and Greek from some of the greatest Renaissance linguists of his day. And he established the Academy in Geneva for the training of pastors and a host of missionaries. God's Word is so clear that its meat can be savored from an English Bible. But it is so rich that it should be served properly by those who are trained to rightly handle it.

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  • Guest - Bill

    Thanks Mike for the clarification. I agree that great Ministers not trained in Seminary are the exception and not the rule.

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