During my senior year in college, I met several times with one of the legends in my denomination. This larger-than-life character pastored a large church, was a noted author, and had an extensive radio ministry. I consciously made him my role model and studied his work habits. I wanted to be as productive as he was.
Once I asked him how he became effective in so many areas of ministry. He told me it came with age and experience.
"The longer you serve, the broader your ministry becomes," he said. "You can't afford to be a specialist when you serve in the emergency room of the soul."
I determined then I was going to excel in everything, just as he did.
Ten years later, I found I had not excelled at everything. I had too much to do and too little time to do it.
Another older pastor who became a mentor offered some advice. If I continued at the pace I was working, he told me, I would soon burn out. He said I should choose whether I wanted to be a pastor or a preacher, and I should make that decision before I turned 40.
"Churches will allow you to be mediocre in both areas when you are young," he said, "but once you're in midlife, congregations need you to excel in one and bring in people to help you in the other." According to him, to be effective in my mature years, I had to choose either pastor or preacher to be my "major" and the other to be my "minor." He had decided to be a pastor, and his ministry gave evidence that was a good choice.
Now I had a dilemma: my two role models espoused conflicting views. One said you can do all things well while the other said you had to be a specialist.
Meet the Reverend Doctor
In America's early days, there was great similarity between the country doctor and the country parson. One cared for the body and made house calls. The other cared for the soul and did home visits. Both doctor and parson were seen as wisdom figures; people stood in awe of their commitment and stamina.
In the last 30 years, the medical profession has shifted in emphasis from the general practitioner to the specialist.
Most pastors, however, must still function as generalists. Yet for most it takes until midlife to become competent in the three key areas of pastoral work: communication, pastoral care, and leadership. And most feel more confident and competent in one than in the other two.
But when I visit with pastors serving effectively in their fifties and sixties, I discover that over time most of them had to develop competence in all three areas.
It is ironic that, just at the point of achieving competence, some ministers are tempted either to focus their ministries on one area or to leave the ministry because the demands appear to be too great.
For me it took almost a decade of work in each area to reach a measure of competence. Now, I am a pastor with three specialties. Finally, in my fifties, they come together and I feel competent as a spiritual "general practitioner."
Stage one: "Preacher-boy"
The church I served during seminary never asked me any questions about my theology or care-giving skills before they asked me to serve as pastor. The congregation did hear me preach four times, however, before they suggested I might become their pastor.
In my denomination, preaching is considered to be the basic pastoral skill and, as a result, I felt the most pressure to excel in that area. I worked diligently on my communication skills during my twenties.
My first church after seminary asked some questions about my leadership ability, but its search committee made it clear that energy and excitement were expected in the pulpit. At that stage, I never wanted anyone to leave the church on Sunday morning saying "he had nothing to say" or "he didn't say it well." I learned to preach without notes, and this discipline alone added several hours each week to my sermon preparation time.