In the 1992 vice presidential debate, James Stockdale opened his remarks by asking, “Who am I? Why am I here?” The audience laughed, but his questions were (and are) serious. They concern identity and mission, respectively.
This new year, many pastors are asking themselves Stockdale’s questions. Two years of the politics, pandemic, and protests that have divided the nation have also divided their congregations, leaving them dazed. Longer-term trends such as secularism, privatization of faith, and professional specialization have left pastors confused.
The result is vocational uncertainty for pastors and missional drift for congregations. What is a pastor in a secular age? What do churches do when media influencers preach, psychologists offer spiritual counsel, activists lead social change, and self-help gurus provide the leadership advice even pastors crave?
No wonder many pastors ask who they are and why they are here.
Tom Nelson helps pastors think through these questions in The Flourishing Pastor. He leads Christ Community Church, a multisite Evangelical Free congregation in the Kansas City metroplex, and is president of Made to Flourish, whose mission is “to empower pastors and their churches to integrate faith, work, and economic wisdom for the flourishing of their communities.”
Nelson uses Psalm 78:72 — “David shepherded them with integrity of heart; with skillful hands he led them” — to outline the vocational clarity, holistic integrity, and leadership skill necessary for pastoral ministry.
Let’s briefly look at each of these three points:
Vocational clarity. Pastors often equate vocation with job. They think of ministry in terms of tasks such as preaching, visitation, and administration. Nelson argues that the pastoral vocation goes much deeper.
“At the very heart of the pastoral calling is our indwelling of this ongoing and unfolding story about Jesus — living, loving, breathing, and sharing the good news,” Nelson writes. “The pastor has a lifelong quest not merely to know about God, but to know God personally and to be known by God intimately.”
Relationship with God both comes before ministry and makes ministry possible.
Holistic integrity. Nelson says pastors should resist the temptation to define integrity solely in ethical terms, as “conformity to a set of rules, being honest with others, or even being true to ourselves.” Integrity includes, but is not limited to, ethics.
Integrity encompasses all of life. “Jesus invites everything we are and do to be brought into his yoke, his burden,” Nelson writes, alluding to Matthew 11:28–30. “To keep [Jesus] out of some parts of your life stagnates the whole you.”
Nelson calls this Matthean passage the “Great Invitation.” Pastors are not just disciple makers; they are lifelong disciples. They never arrive at the point where they can disregard Jesus’ command, “Follow me,” uttered at the beginning and end of His ministry (Mark 1:17; John 21:22).
Skillful leadership. Nelson identifies five competencies pastors must develop to lead congregations well: “faithful presence,” “cultivating a flourishing culture,” “connecting Sunday to Monday,” “a new scorecard,” and “finishing well.”
These competencies pertain to the spiritual formation of church members and the stewarding of congregational influence in the broader community.
Nelson says pastors are “called to nurture our parishioners’ souls and to equip them for their callings and contributions in the world” and “must become more attentive to the well-being of our communities” and “the flourishing of the most vulnerable.”
Being precedes doing, and mission emerges from identity. The Flourishing Pastor thus narrows pastors’ self-understanding and broadens their horizon. Spiritual formation is a pastor’s primary task, both personally and congregationally. But the horizon of formation stretches beyond Sunday worship to Monday work.
Nelson writes, “Flourishing pastors are marked by a long resiliency in the same direction.”
As you lead in ministry this year, may you flourish in your love for Christ, and may Christ’s love give you resilience to pastor in an increasingly post-Christian world!
Tom Nelson, The Flourishing Pastor: Recovering the Lost Art of Shepherd Leadership (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2021).
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