Reviewed by Kirk Wellum
This handy little book of 208 pages is a ministerial gem that should be read and re-read by everyone who is called to serve as a preaching-teaching elder in the church. The title of the book indicates that it is written for new pastors but that understatement can obscure the usefulness of the book. While new pastors are its primary audience, the book should be read by new and old pastors alike, and once you start reading the reason is not difficult to discern. This book is written by someone who knows what it is like to a pastor, not in a merely theoretical sense, but in the tumultuous world of real pastoral ministry.
At the time of writing, the author, Jason Helopoulos, was the associate pastor at University Reformed Church in East Lansing, Michigan. Ordained as a minister in the Presbyterian Church in America, he had previous pastoral experience in three churches as well as experience speaking at conferences and retreats, and blogging. But regardless of his paper credentials, as I read the book I was very aware that it was written by a man who has been there, in the trenches, and he knows of what he speaks.
The New Pastor’s Handbook is composed of opening and closing words on pastoral ministry as a holy calling and perseverance in the ministry, respectively. In between the book is divided in 5 parts where Helopoulos looks at issues surrounding the beginning of ministry, starting out strong, encouragements, pitfalls of young pastors, and last but certainly not least, the joys of ministry. Taken together the opening and closing words along with the 5 parts compose 50 chapters, but fear not, one of the things that makes the book so readable and useful is the fact that most of the chapters are between 3 to 4 pages in length. This makes reading the book effortless and it also enables one to return to it and easily locate sections that may be of specific interest and practical help.
The purpose of this review is to familiarize the reader with the main subject matter of book in the hope that it will be widely read and as encouraging and edifying to others as it has been to me. To this end the introduction reminds those of us who are called to serve in this way that the Christian ministry is a holy calling. One thing I very much like about the book is that it is not written by a celebrity pastor! While I am sure that they have their own share of struggles oftentimes they seem removed and insulated from the difficulties of mere mortal pastors! This book, thankfully, is written by a mortal who has learned from experience that ministry is difficult and much of what we do goes unrecognized and celebrated, and yet God works through us to accomplish his high and holy purposes in his church.
Part 1 tackles two important questions: What is a call? And how do you know whether you are called? Before it offers some helpful suggestions when it comes to candidating. The answers to the questions posed in this section are reliable and consistent with a traditional understanding of a call to ministry as compromising an internal and external component. The chapter on candidating is helpful to anyone who must go through that process and gets the reader to think about practical concerns that he might otherwise overlook in midst of discussions about more esoteric doctrinal or denominational matters. Personally, I wish I had read such a chapter before I sat down with my first pulpit committee.
Part 2 is comprised of 4 chapters that discuss the senior or solo pastor, the assistant pastor, the youth pastor, and the church planter. Again, I am not familiar with many books that tackle these sorts of issues. In part, this is because some of these distinctions are more recent and would not have been categorized as such in previous generations. Still they have emerged in our day – and I do not see this as a problem, but permitted, within the view that in these ecclesiological matters God gives us freedom within boundaries – and therefore need to be addressed. Each pastoral position has unique demands that a young pastor needs to consider before putting his name forward. Although the four kinds of pastors mentioned may reflect more wealthy western churches who can afford this kind of specialization, there are lessons that apply more generally to syncing our ministry responsibilities to the level of our personal experience and maturity, and the particular calling of God on our lives.
Part 3 is the longest section of the book with 22 chapters. All of the chapters are good but there are some real gems among them. What I enjoyed about this part of the book is the overall sense of balance as you survey the topics that receive attention. There is something said about our personal development as ministers, encouragements to make the most of our time, and advice about weddings and funerals. In a day when there is a tendency to make everything unnecessarily complicated – as if pastors are CEO’s of a large religious corporation – these chapters are a breath of fresh air that call us back to what is most important. Here we are reminded of the simplicity of a biblical ministry, the need to keep our focus, to read, to pursue holiness, and to be leaders. As pastors, we do not have all the answers, we need to keep learning and growing, to make sure we listen to our people, and not just order them around. Delegation is a skill we must cultivate, along with the grace of recognizing that we cannot do everything.
Particularly helpful is the chapter that tells us if we pastor, they will come; or listening to complaints! No one really likes to hear complaints. We don’t mind if people come with complements, but complaints are things we would rather do without. But this is not the way it is in ministry and the sooner we accept that, and learn to deal with it, the better off we will be. Another helpful chapter is one on silent suffering. With so many defections from ministry today this is a topic that needs to be addressed. Here we are reminded of no less than 15 opportunities to grow or to experience the grace of God that we are being given when we suffer for the sake of Christ. Thankfulness is another area of ministerial life that needs careful consideration. As pastors we like it when people thank us for our labors but how often do we thank God for the people he has entrusted to us with all their unique and sometimes challenging characteristics.
Other topics that receive needed attention are administration for the glory of God which wisely recognizes that administration must be done, but not at the expense of the ministry of God’s word. Finding the balance here is not easy because if administrative details are not taken care of chaos results, but if they are allowed to steal time and energy from more basic ministerial responsibilities the congregation will not get the spiritual care that it so desperately needs. The chapter on leaving the door open reminds pastors not to forget the human side of ministry. Sometimes, for a variety of reasons, pastors deliberately make themselves as inaccessible as possible, but this runs contrary to who concept of pastoral ministry that involves interaction between shepherd and sheep. Something as simple as leaving the door open when we did not need absolute solitude, or deliberately acknowledging someone’s presence by looking up from our work, will go a long way to reinforcing the fact that we really care about those entrusted to our care. And, this is especially so for those who speak about divine sovereignty, and so instead of seeing people as interruptions they see them as opportunities to minister the love of Christ that has its origin in eternity. There are many other chapters in this part of the book, but these are some that stand out to me because of their relevance for contemporary ministry.
Part 4, which is entitled pitfalls of young pastors, is just as appropriate for young pastors as it is for old ones, although some of what is covered is more likely found among the young than the more experienced. The chapter on beginning too fast is about the danger of trying to bring about instant reformation, idealistic zeal is about unrealistic expectations, and discouragement about the inevitable result of ministry that forgets the spiritual nature of our work and the fact that results are in God’s hands. In the chapter (34) on discouragement, I thought Helopoulos was wise to specifically identify the temptation “to produce as a way to alleviate our discouragement.” From my observation this is a common problem among those who are competitive, or who long for approval and recognition from others. Instead of spending their time doing the job God has given them they over-organize the church, spend too much time running staff meetings, invent unnecessary organizations, organize superfluous conferences, and the like, so they are busy doing something! Meanwhile, their congregations need shepherding, biblical messages that do more than re-state the obvious, and persistent prayers that ascend from the secret place where only God can see the supplicant. But they are too busy trying to look important, building kingdoms, and doing things that God has never called them to do.
Closely allied to the themes just mentioned are two complementary chapters one on taking yourself too seriously, and another on not taking yourself seriously enough! Then there is are excellent chapters on theological hobbyhorses that come in a variety of forms, and the giraffe syndrome or lack of contentment. These are followed by chapters on the problem of sermons that are lectures, as well as the problem of illustrations and applications that hinder rather than help the understanding of God’s word. I also was thankful to see a chapter on holding people too tightly which can be a snare of the overzealous and the micromanager type pastor, and one on pastor envy which goes a long way to explain so much of what is said on social media and in blogs under the guise of defending the truth.
Part 5 is about the joys of ministry, and all of us who have been called to this task know that for all the problems there is nothing in the whole world that we would rather do. Here we are reminded that it is an eternal work, that we are in a trusted position, that we are getting paid for doing what we would do anyway. And as if this were not enough, we should never forget that as a result of our ministries we get to know our sin and ourselves, and at the same time, we continue to learn more about the Savior who is committed to our complete salvation.
The book concludes with some appropriate closing words about perseverance in ministry. Today many who start out in ministry do not see it through to the end. There are many reasons for this not least of which is the difficultly of the task and the formidable spiritual opposition arrayed against us. In the middle of the battle when the fighting is the most intense we must remember our divine calling and we must persevere in it. To this end, appended to the final chapter are some suggested readings on pastoring, preaching, leadership, counseling, and other helpful resources, that will aid us in the struggle.
As the reader can plainly see I enjoyed The New Pastor’s Handbook immensely from beginning to end. It is a valuable addition to any pastor’s library and a book that should be read by all who are considering the Christian ministry, and then read again once they have more experience in ministry. It is my conviction that years spent in ministry will only deepen a faithful pastor’s appreciation for this wonderful little volume when it comes to serving the Lord Jesus Christ in his church.
Rev. Kirk M. Wellum
Principal, Toronto Baptist Seminary
Buy the books
The New Pastor’s Handbook: Help and Encouragement for the First Years of Ministry