The temptation of many new ministers is to inflict their good ideas on an unsuspecting church. Over the course of seminary and internships, these well-meaning newly ordained pastors have constructed a house of cards that includes all of their theology, their critique of other forms of ministry, and their belief that God has given them a unique role to play in rescuing the church from whatever problem that currently plagues it. Once called to a church and given a measure of authority, these new ministers arrive with their carefully honed philosophy of ministry, their plans for revival, and their list of non-negotiables in tow. Pity the elders, deacons, or lay leaders who stand in their way!
Although failure might teach these new pastors a valuable lesson, it could irreparably harm the small, struggling churches that are more likely than most to call such unexperienced men to be their pastors. A better solution would be an older minister who could walk alongside the young pastor and give him advice based on his own decades-long experience in the church. If no such pastor is readily available, Charles Wingard’s book, Help for the New Pastor: Practical Advice for Your First Year of Ministry, is a worthy substitute.
Wingard is associate professor of practical theology at Reformed Theological Seminary (Jackson, MS), where he also serves as the seminary’s director of field education for students preparing for pastoral ministry. This focus, paired with service in five different churches across the country, shines through in his winsome and very practical book.
I doubt that the author would mind my saying that there is nothing earth-shattering or surprising in his advice. Instead, he patiently works his way through the main headings of ministry life (preaching, counseling, church administration, and so forth) giving the kind of sage counsel new ministers crave. Most helpful, in this regard, are the chapters on home visitation, hospital and hospice care, funerals, and denominational duties. Many new pastors are not fully introduced to these areas of ministry prior to taking their first call. These chapters function as a sort of guidebook, giving play by play instructions for how to conduct oneself. I found his chapter on church administration less helpful: working with elders, handling financial reports, and interacting with staff can be dangerous waters for a new pastor and more could have been said.
My one significant regret on reading this book is that Wingard did not continue to explore a theme he raised in his introduction: “My goal is to encourage you to focus on a few things, learning both to love them and do them well.” An earnest student of his book, however, would come away with many things to do, and I fear that most new pastors would fail to do them all well. Perhaps an afterword with a kind of “100-Day Plan” for a new call would have helped here: among all the things that a pastor will do, what must he focus on in those first few months of his new call? A “troubleshooting” chapter might have also been helpful: what do you do if there is declining attendance, conflict in the church, lack of zeal? What one or two things must a new pastor give his time and attention to—perhaps even sacrificing other goods in ministry in order to right a listing ship?
Despite this shortcoming, I would hope all new pastors would receive a copy of this book–perhaps upon graduation from seminary, completion of their ordination exams, or even as part of their new call from a church. This book is a gift that will keep on giving through many years of ministry. As I read it, I often nodded along, remembering some challenge in my early years of ministry.
If nothing else, this book gives comfort to the pastor—new or old—who feels lonely in ministry, without mentors or trusted colleagues. He can turn to this book and measure his words and actions against a tried and true ministry. He can save himself the frustration and ministry of “not knowing,” as the author puts it, because with this book he has a wise teacher who represents a wonderful stream of pastoral ministry that has been the hallmark of Reformed and Presbyterian churches for generations.
Eric Landry is the executive editor of Modern Reformation and senior pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Austin, Texas.