Sinclair Ferguson recently addressed the important theme of “Best Lessons from a Lifetime of Pastoring.” Ferguson has served in pastoral ministry for 42 years. He acknowledges that there are both positive and negative things to learn from ministers of the gospel.
Ferguson identified three lessons, three dimensions of pastoral ministry that he would consider “best lessons” which focused on (1) the church family, (2) the center of ministry, and (3) that which underlies everything about ministry, one’s relationship with the Lord. He did so under the alliteration of “love your people,” listen to our own preaching,” and “living all of life in the presence of the triune God.” I include a summary of Ferguson’s excellent message, but encourage you to listen to the whole of his presentation (19 minutes).
Ourselves and Our People (love your people)
It is fundamental to love the people God with and to whom you serve (1 Tim. 1:5). The end-goal of loving people is the foundational principle of ministry and is more important than anything else, including your gifts. If gifts are exercised without love they become nothing more than a noisy gong or clanging symbol (1 Cor. 13:1). A challenge of the young is to emphasis truth. But often it is done so at the expense of love: truth without love. He notes that with the gospel there is no reality of truth without love. It is love that oils the wheels of our preaching since people know we love them. This is not a virtue that we create or work up on our own but is a work of the Holy Spirit, fruit he produces. A common mistake is that one can say something without a relationship of love. Jesus reminds us to be patient with people (Lk. 24:25). Paul exhorts us to be careful in our teaching with great patience (2 Tim. 2:24-25).
Ourselves and Our Preaching Ministry (listen to our own preaching)
Listen to your own preaching (this does not mean a literal recording of yourself). As you do so, bear in mind that you can never hear yourself like the congregation hears you. John Owen noted that the messages that came most powerfully from him were those that had come to him first in his life, i.e. he heard and heeded the message he was preaching before he preached the message. As you study, prepare and preach, there is no one in the congregation more under the ministry of the Word than you as a preacher. As pastors and preachers, we will never be masters of the Scriptures, but we are to be mastered by the Scriptures. Paul states that as a minister of the gospel we do not preach ourselves but Christ Jesus as Lord, and we are the bondservants of those we serve (2 Cor. 4:5). That is love for the people. When Martyn Lloyd-Jones was asked about preaching in the power of the Holy Spirit, he stated that it happens when you are conscious that you are hopeless, sinful and weak. God desires us to be under the ministry of the Word in which we are engaged. We all sit under the same ministry of the Word that others in the congregation do.
Ourselves and Our Walk with God (living all of life in the presence of the triune God)
We live the whole of our lives in the presence of our triune Lord. As a teenager, Ferguson was exposed to three things that profoundly shaped him. The first was Brother Lawrence’s The Practice of the Presence of God (lived in the 17th century).The second was William Still’s The Work of the Pastor (lectures from the mid-1960s, first published in 1984) through which he was challenged always to keep a sanctuary in your heart for the Lord that is hermetically sealed from everything else, and to let nothing into that sanctuary. The third influential work that influenced him was John Owen’s Communion with God the Trinity (1657). The truth of God’s appropriations, his work focused on the church in which the whole trinity is involved, though one takes a lead, was and is a profound reality. He learned to live the whole of his life with the foundational truth and reality that he is not alone, he is an adopted child of the Creator, he is one for whom Jesus was not ashamed to die and call brother, which is true for all Christians, and his profound awareness that when the Spirit comes he transforms our lives into light in the Lord. It is then that we become pastors.