Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Book Review—Dear Timothy: Letters on Pastoral Ministry

by Doug Smith

Dear Timothy: Letters on Pastoral Ministry, ed. Thomas K. Ascol (Cape Coral, Florida: Founders Press, 2004), 384 pp.

(Review copy courtesy Founders Press)

If anything should make you appreciate a faithful pastor, it’s spending time with one. Dear Timothy: Letters on Pastoral Ministry may not place you directly at the side of a pastor, but it will give you the distilled thoughts of 19 seasoned men of God on various aspects of the pastoral ministry.

“Timothy,” like Ira Pointer in Richard Belcher’s series of books that began with Journey in Grace, is a fictional pastor. Unlike Ira Pointer, whose story is filled with other fictional characters, Timothy receives 20 different letters from real-life pastors who encourage and warn him about the privileges and pitfalls of the ministry. Timothy and his wife, Mary, are parents of a two-year-old and are expecting their second child. Timothy is 26 years old, a seminary graduate who has just finished his first six months of pastoral ministry. The book is designed to profit those presently in pastoral ministry and those considering it.

Dear Timothy presents aspects of the ministry that all pastors should heed. The book is edited by one of the contributors, Tom Ascol, and features chapters by a variety of pastors, mostly from Reformed and Baptist backgrounds. Other contributors include Conrad Mbewe, Tedd Tripp, Ted Christman, Andy Davis, Martin Holdt, C. J. Mahaney, Mark Dever, Bill Ascol, Fred Malone, Raymond Perron, Ligon Duncan, Joel Beeke, Roger Ellsworth, Terry Johnson, Steve Martin, Phil Newton, Ray Ortland, Jr., and Geoff Thomas. These men represent over 480 years of experience in the pastorate.

The book includes chapters on priorities, self-examination, loving your family and flock, Scripture memory, prayer, humility, courage, the necessity of personal work, the importance of doctrine and study, reading the Puritans, preaching, worshiping, mentoring, missions, revival, and finding a place to settle. The last chapter is particularly relevant in an age when short pastorates seem to be all too common. Dear Timothy helps one to think through attitudes and practices. It emphasizes the importance of the heart.

Tom Ascol sets a good tone for the book in chapter 1, reminding pastors that they must make decisions based on the priority of the various things they are called to be. Beginning with the most foundational relationship, he lists that a pastor is supposed to be a Christian, a husband, a father, a pastor, and then a helper of others. Commitment to this order of priorities helps one to know what opportunities are best and when to say no. These priorities keep us accountable to God and others and are built upon one another like a pyramid, with one’s relationship with God being essential to fulfilling all the other priorities.

Ascol appropriately quotes Robert Murray M’Cheyne: “It is not great talents God blesses so much as great likeness to Jesus. A holy minister is an awful weapon in the hand of God” (p. 26). Tedd Tripp further underscores what this means for a pastor to properly love his family: “Man-pleasing is impossible, Timothy. It is destructive to yourself and to your family. You and Mary must commit yourself to graciously refusing every effort made by people you serve to set the agenda for your family” (p. 64).

One of the most helpful chapters for me was Andy Davis’ on memorizing Scripture. He gives five reasons to memorize not simply individual verses here and there but entire books of Scripture:

  1. It honors the testimony that Scripture gives about itself . . . God does not waste His breath, so there are no superfluous words in Scripture.
  2. [It] enables you to more readily grasp the central thought.
  3. You will be less likely to take verses out of context as a result of memorizing the whole book.
  4. Your joy will keep increasing, as will your awe at the miraculous infinity of truth in the Scripture, as you continue to discover new truths day after day, month after month.
  5. Finally, memorization of extended portions of Scripture readily lends itself to the best style of preaching for you— expository. (pp. 92-95)

The spiritual discipline of prayer is not neglected in Dear Timothy. Martin Holdt writes that “prayer is our highest work. It is hard work. It is a fight against the adversary. It is a battle against the flesh. It is essential work. The minister who does not pray for his flock is no minister at all. He is proud because he does his work as if he can succeed without God’s power. He shows no pity because he does not realize that his people’s greatest need is the Lord’s divine favors upon them. Be assured of this, if he does not pray, he will pay a high price” (p. 105, emphasis mine).

C.J. Mahaney writes about humility. This chapter reminds the pastor that humility will affect how a pastor handles himself as a sinner, describing the humble pastor as a man characterized by “confession and the pursuit of correction” (p. 125). He further writes: “Timothy, we are not like cordless drills that can go all day on a single charge . . . All day, every day, I need to keep directing my thoughts to God, keep standing close to the cross, keep offering thanks for innumerable evidences of grace and keep casting my cares on the One who cares for me with such perfect love and faithfulness” (p. 131).

Mark Dever reminds the pastor of the need to be intentional for obtaining witnessing opportunities, since he is surrounded by Christians much of the time. He urges the importance of a burden for the lost when he writes that “the God we serve is the God who left the ninety and nine to go seeking for the lost one. Pore over Luke 15 in prayer and ask God to give you a heart for the lost, like that woman had for her coin, like that shepherd had for his sheep, like that father had for his son. Pray that lost people become precious to you. If they do, it will affect the way you prepare and preach. It will affect the way you plan your own schedule and the way you lead your church” (p. 165).

Raymond Perron instructs Timothy on the importance of sound doctrine, including the implications for his own life and the lives of others. He warns on page 186, “How much we need to remain in sound doctrine, avoiding the snare of always looking for new things!” He writes of guarding the flock from false teachers: “Let me remind you, Timothy, that the most efficient way of keeping the flock safe against the cunning and craftiness of wolves and against the various winds of deadly doctrines is to build a fortress of sound doctrine” (p. 189).

Furthermore, Perron gives these sobering words: “It has been said that the value of a thing is measured by the price paid for it. The cost of the souls that our Lord committed to your care was nothing less than the blood of the Eternal Son of God Himself” (p. 189).

Dear Timothy is an excellent and helpful book that whets the appetite for more. The book has an excellent, well-rounded bibliography that includes classics as well as modern works on theology and the practice of ministry. Most chapters include recommendations for further reading (or listening), citing sermons, websites, magazines, journals, and books to help the pastor. However, one hopes that one or more future volumes may be produced along the same lines, perhaps devoting letters to issues such as polity, church discipline, combating false teaching, guidelines for cooperation with other ministries and churches, legal issues, and the pastor’s personal finances.

Dear Timothy would be a great book for your pastor or a man interested in the ministry. It is also a good read if you want to understand what a pastor’s life is like. I believe this book particularly gives us at least three important reminders:

1. Ministry is serious. It is no light thing to serve Christ’s church as a pastor. The dangers and temptations are many, and the discipline and diligence needed is great. Pastors and congregations must see this calling as a sacred trust, and understand that the pastor is not only called to serve the church, but to live a life pleasing to God. This affects the details of our lives. The quality and quantity of time we spend in God’s Word and pursuing Him through the spiritual disciplines is a gauge of how serious we take these matters.

2. Aspiring pastors should build relationships and seek counsel from other faithful pastors, since reading books and taking courses are not sufficient preparation for being a pastor. There is much wisdom to be learned from seasoned ministers. In doing this, aspiring pastors must be teachable and eager to learn, in order to gain the maximum benefit.

3. Pastors should be involved in training others. In obedience to 2 Timothy 2:2, pastors should pass along their learning to other men, who in turn will teach others. The letters in the book remind us that the printed page is one way of doing this. Perhaps a book like this will spark fresh letters from other pastors. The letters may not be published, but they may have a ripple effect upon numerous other lives if one would manage his time and communicate practical, faithful wisdom about being a pastor. Of course, there are other ways of training others as well, such as internships, regularly meeting with pastoral aspirants, and sharing ministry experience with them (whether through supervised opportunities to teach/preach or through having them along for pastoral visits). But the point is, pastors need to take time and effort to do this, as the future of the church is affected greatly by the time spent (or not spent) in training others.

Do you appreciate the pastoral ministry? Spending time reading the letters written in Dear Timothy will help give you a new appreciation for the tremendous responsibility and privilege of being a pastor and should cause you to thank God for raising up faithful shepherds.

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This review is adapted from its original appearance at http://www.sharperiron.org/2006/11/03/book-review-dear-timothy-letters-on-pastoral-ministry/.

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