An advertisement for a trip to Yellowstone National Park

I know people who, like my neighbor’s 5-inch-tall dog named Willy, think they are “big dogs” when they are not. And yes, I find them amusing.

This column could be about barking church members, denominational leaders or political leaders, but I would rather focus on ministers.

Training doesn’t make us big dogs.

A master of divinity degree provides a solid foundation for ministry; it does not ensure competence in ministry.

Occasionally a pastor will complain, “Ron, a good number of seminary graduates are green as can be. They are not ready for ministry.” 

To which I normally reply, “Yeah, I find seminary graduates overconfident and barely competent – just like when you and I graduated from seminary in 1977.”

The issue of a seminary graduate’s preparedness for ministry on graduation is a really old song. 

However, recent seminary graduates are better prepared for ministry than those in my graduating class. 

Some of us “old dogs” have forgotten how unprepared we were back in the dark ages, fresh from seminary.

Through mission immersion experiences, required internships and a host of profoundly practical courses, today’s seminary graduates are better prepared for ministry than their counterparts from the 1970s. And frankly, this is not a close call.

Something has changed: the complexity of ministry. When I began ministry (full-time) in 1977, ministerial groups met weekly. 

Every Monday, pastors gathered at the area Baptist associational building for coffee, conversation and a program. The Monday morning pastors’ gathering is no more. Why?

The pace of congregational ministry has dramatically changed in the last 30 years. 

The old adage used to be, “Well, the minister only works one day a week!” While the remnant of that accusation still echoes, for the most part it is not repeated nearly as often as it used to be. 

Ministers are really busy these days. Many ministers think of ministry as a treadmill. With shrinking church receipts over the last 30 years (inflation adjusted dollars), ministers are taking on a wider variety of tasks.

Ministry today is far, far more complex than when I began in 1977. I encourage students to think of seminary education as a foundation.

It takes 10 years of experience to make a really good minister these days; yes, the modern job is that complex.

Ordination, position and title don’t make us big dogs.

It is rewarding to become a church’s new pastor, especially if you are young! In rural areas you might even get a “pounding.” 

For the young folks, that’s when laity show up as you move in your new home with all sorts of food to stock the pantry (Thanks be to God). It is affirming when people call you “pastor.”

Regardless of what people say, it is important to remember that in your first month the only person who truly believes you are “pastor” is the guy named Marquee, who stands out in front of the church building. 

It happens slowly. You get the “pastor” title the first day of work, but you truly become the congregation’s pastor in the next few years.

And it is a decade before most ministers own their calling in the deepest recesses of the soul. 

Most of us begin doing pastoral things, but it is only eight to 10 years later we find ourselves doing the work, not because we have to but because it is just who we are. 

It’s like catching your second wind in running. In ministry there is a moment when you think to yourself, “I am not making myself do ministerial things anymore. I am a minister. This is what I do!”

Ordination, position and title are the beginning of a journey, not the end.

Service to others unwittingly makes us big dogs.

For a decade, Cecil Sherman taught “The Life and Work of the Pastor” course at Baptist Theological Seminary at Richmond. I have his notes. 

A theme in his teaching was the notion a pastor earns “chits.” Hospital visits, shut-in visits, funerals, weddings, steady leadership and hard work earn a pastor “chits” with the congregation.

You “cash them in” when you ask the congregation to begin a new ministry or when you ask the congregation to change in some way. 

The church follows because they trust the minister; she or he has demonstrated they can be followed because he or she has some “chits” in the bank.

Most churches will follow a worthy leader. We prove ourselves in selfless service.

Big dogs rarely bark.

I remember the story of a daughter looking through the preaching notes of her deceased pastor-father. In one margin was written, “Shout, weak point!”

There is a general rule of thumb in ministry: Inexperienced ministers tend to bark, huff and puff – a lot. Older ministers just change things.

As you might expect, we have a number of dogs in our neighborhood. One of the biggest dogs I have ever seen lives two streets over. And he rarely barks; he just shows up, and everyone seems to notice.

Ron Crawford is president of the Baptist Theological Seminary at Richmond. This column first appeared on his blog.

Share This