I sat across the table from my friend and mentor Tom Ascol enjoying a morning coffee at a local restaurant. He was the Senior Pastor of Grace Baptist Church. I was approaching 30 with seven years of pastoral ministry in my rearview mirror. After reading a book Tom edited on pastoral ministry, I pestered him routinely, asking for time to sit down and talk doctrine, church, and shepherding. On this particular morning, after some conversation, he slid a sheet of paper across the table which had been neatly sitting face down beside him. It contained terms of a call to serve Grace as an Associate Pastor. After taking a minute to scan the document, I looked up and Tom said, “Have you made up your mind yet?”
Ah, there is a bugaboo of life. We have to be making up our minds about things. And I was being forced to choose between good options. I eventually decided to accept the call to serve as an Associate Pastor at Grace. My decision came with great joy mixed with the sorrow of departing the church I loved and fellow pastors with whom I served. But what went into my thinking? I will detail a few points of consideration that led me to become an associate pastor in hope that other men might be helped when they’re faced with making up their minds. At the outset, I should mention that the decision was made with much prayer, much wise counsel, and the full support of both the church that sent me and the church that called me. I, also, certainly do not commend these points as an argument that all men in their 20’s and 30’s should serve as an associate. Rather, I hope these points will simply serve as small bits of counsel for those, especially young men, deciding where to go and serve the church of the Lord Jesus Christ.
The value of learning from a long-term faithful pastor is exceedingly great. The man whom I now serve alongside as an associate has served the same church for over 30 years. I often tell others, “When I was 1 year old waddling around in a diaper, he was pastoring this church!” The thought still wows me. I haven’t done anything for 30 years except breathe and walk. There are lessons that can be learned from books. But there are some that can only be learned by breathing the same air as a man who has been in the saddle for decades. Paul said, “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ” (1 Corinthians 11:1). He said to Timothy, “You, however, have followed my teaching, my conduct, my aim in life, my faith, my patience, my love, my steadfastness” (2 Timothy 3:10). It has been good to follow the good example of a pastor who has been at it in the same church nearly as long as I have been alive. If you are young, thinking about where to serve, consider finding and following a man who has labored long and hard faithfully.
The blessing of experiencing a long-standing healthy church is exceedingly great. There is no perfect church. But God has helped Grace in identifiable ways. We have a clear doctrinal commitment. We possess a serious understanding of church membership including a commitment to regenerate church membership expressed in baptism and church discipline. There is healthy leadership in the elders and deacons. We are committed to expository preaching and persistent discipleship. There is a devotion to the continual cultivation of a culture of evangelism and a zealous ambition for the glory of God in missions.
These things were evident in the culture of the church. And just like any culture, you learn it by living in it. There are structures and patterns in the church, including elders meetings, members meetings, Lord’s Supper meetings, and more that serve to foster this healthy culture. Leading in a church that has this culture thoroughly established positions a man well for a lifetime of ministry. Seminary can provide theological education, and that is vital, but rightly grasping the outworking and application of that theology requires seeing it alive in a local church.
It was a fitting role while I finished seminary education. I had a year or two left on a doctoral degree when I accepted the call of Grace. Serving as an associate at a church that cared deeply for doctrine assisted me as I worked to finish that degree. I completed my Masters of Divinity and Doctor of Philosophy degrees while in full-time ministry. This was far less common only a few short years ago. I have never experienced the model of going to seminary before engaging in full-time ministry. But, I have greatly benefited from studying while doing the work. With changes in the culture and the high cost of seminary education, I encourage young men to find a church committed to developing pastors theologically, and serve faithfully while you study.
Assisting a strong and godly leader is zealous kingdom work. Young men are often full of zeal and in need of wisdom. Faithful older men are full of wisdom but might have grown a bit world weary. I encourage young men to remember that assisting an older and godly leader itself is a zealous endeavor. God may call you to assume a senior or lead pastor position as a young man. If so, by all means heed Paul’s counsel (1 Timothy 4:12) and go brother go. But, if you have not yet been called by a church, consider linking arms with an older brother who has been on the battlefield for many seasons. I have done so and found that my zeal for the name of Jesus has not been pent-up, but has had much room to be released in gospel ministry. Here are some things I’ve found in my fellow pastor and encourage you to do the same.
Find a man who does not consume all the work, but works so hard that he produces all kinds of work for you to do. Find a man who has led his family and the church through seasons of trial by taking God at His Word and preaching it with stubborn resilience. Find one who has the humility to ask you, a younger man, for your counsel and critique of his sermons and shepherding. Find one who hates sin, loves Christ and His gospel, and treasures the church purchased by the blood of our Lord. Lift up his arms, intercede for him in prayer, serve the church as his dear companion and you’ll have a zealous work on your hands.
An associate position focused on the ministry of the Word and prayer is where you want to be. Administration will need to be done. Meetings and events will need your oversight and organization. But, find a church that knows that a pastor’s job is to devote himself to the Word of God and prayer. If the church simply needs more deacons or a church secretary, then encourage them to find that. But if the church has a growing desire and therefore a growing need for the ministry of the Word, then saddle up. I found opportunities for preaching, teaching Bible studies, discipleship, counseling, leading small groups, and teaching theological education. And I saw that the congregation had a general demeanor of expecting their pastors to watch the flock and the doctrine closely. I encourage other men who desire to care for the church of God to pursue serving a church that values the Word of God and pastors who are faithful to minister it.