If we were to be brutally honest, we would have to concede that the failure of many churches and church plants to thrive can be traced to serious deficiences in the character and godliness of the Pastor. Often these deficiencies were part of the pastor’s character before he ever began the plant, and for that reason core groups and mother churches need to be extremely careful in their examination of church planting candidates. It is possible, for instance, that the candidate himself is not actually regenerate and as Gilbert Tennent warned while “…a faithful ministry is a great ornament, blessing, and comfort, to the church of God (even the feet of such messengers are beautiful), so, on the contrary, an ungodly ministry is a great curse and judgment.” More commonly however, the problem is simply that an otherwise sound pastor allowed his great enemies, the world, the Devil, and in particular the flesh to get the better of him and simply slid into some habits that ultimately proved fatal to his ministry. Amongst the more common were to allow his own personal devotions to die out, to become overly proud and arrogant, to become embittered against the congregation, or simply to become lazy and complacent in the ministry and so go from being a minister to a slothful time-server. Church planting is hard work, both physically and spiritually, and Satan – who hates to concede any territory – will do his best (or should I say his worst?) to destroy it.
So with that in mind I want to make materials available that both set forth the dangers and potential consequences of failing to heed Paul’s counsel to “take heed to yourselves and to all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God which He purchased with His own blood” (Acts 20:31). The first of these materials is part of a charge given to a new minister long ago by Abraham Booth. I have shortened it slightly (the old manuscript I scanned it from had some serious water damage near the end) but I am told that it is now available in full in a the book The Christian Pastor’s Manual recently republished by Soli Deo Gloria. To my brother ministers – I beg you, if you take nothing else away from reading this, please take this humbling reflection of Booth to heart:
“Though, if not greatly deceived, I have had some degree of experimental acquaintance with Jesus Christ for almost forty years; though I have borne the ministerial character for upwards of twenty-five years; though I have been, perhaps, of some little use in the church of God; and though I have had a greater share of esteem among religious people than I had any reason to expect; yet after all, it is possible for me, in one single hour of temptation, to blast my character – to ruin my public usefulness – and to render my warmest Christian friends ashamed of owning me.”
BY ABRAHAM BOOTH
From Pastoral cautions: An address to the late Mr. Thomas Hopkins, when ordained pastor of the Church of Christ in Eagle Street, Red Lion Square, July 13, 1785
As you, my Brother, are now invested with the pastoral office in this church, and have requested me to address you on the solemn occasion, I shall endeavor to do it with all the freedom of a friend, and with all the affection of a brother; not as your superior, but as your equal.
The language of divine law on which I shall ground my address, is that memorable injunction of Paul, in his charge to Timothy:
“TAKE HEED TO THYSELF. – l. Timothy 4:16.
Very comprehensive, salutary, and important, is this apostolic precept. For it comes recommended to our serious and submissive regard, as the language of a saint, who was pre-eminent among the most illustrious of our Lord’s immediate followers; as the advice of a most accomplished and useful Minister of the Gospel, when hoary with age, rich with experience, and almost worn down by arduous labors; and as the command of an apostle, who wrote by the order and inspiration of Jesus Christ. This divine precept I shall now take the liberty of urging upon you in various points of light.
Take heed to yourself, then, with regard to the reality of true godliness, and the state of religion in your own soul. That you are a partaker of regenerating grace, I have a pleasing persuasion : that you have some experience of those pleasures and pains, of those joys and sorrows, which are peculiar to real Christians, I make no doubt. But this does not supercede the necessity of the admonition. Make it your daily prayer, and your diligent endeavor, therefore, to feel the importance of those truths you have long believed – of those doctrines you now preach. Often inquire at the mouth of conscience, what you experience of their comforting, reproving, and sanctifying power? When you have been preaching the promises of grace, or urging the precepts of duty, earnestly pray that their practical influence may appear in your own dispositions and conduct. Endeavour to realize the force, and to comply with the requisition of that precept, Grow in grace, and in the knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
In proportion as the principles of true piety are vigorous in your heart, may you be expected to till up the wide circumference of pastoral duty. For there is no reason to fear that a minister, if tolerably furnished with gifts, will be remarkably deficient, or negligent, in any known branch of pastoral obligation, while his heart is alive to the enjoyments and to the duties of the Christian character. It is from the pastor’s defects considered under the notion of a disciple, that his principal difficulties and chief dangers arise. For, my Brother, it is only on the permanent basis of genuine Christian piety, that your pastoral character can be established, or appear with respectability, in the light of the New Testament. – I called genuine Christian piety permanent. Because every thing essential to it will abide, and flourish in immortal vigor: whereas the pastoral office, though honorable and important when connected with true godliness, must soon be laid aside, as inconsistent with the heavenly state.
Take heed to yourself, lest you mistake an increase of gifts for a growth in grace. Your knowledge of the Scriptures, your abilities for explaining them, and your ministerial talents in general, may considerably increase, by reading, study, and public exercise: while real godliness is far from flourishing in your heart. For, among all the apostolic churches, none seem to have abounded more in the enjoyment of spiritual gifts, than the church at Corinth: yet few of them appear to have been in a more unhappy state, or more deserving of reproof. I have long been of opinion, my Brother, that no professors of the genuine gospel have more need to be on their guard against self-deception, respecting the true state of religion in their own souls, than those who statedly dispense the gracious truth. For as it is their calling and their business, frequently to read their Bibles, and to think much on spiritual things – to pray, and preach, and often to converse about the affairs of piety they will, if not habitually cautious, do it all ex officio, or merely as the work of their ministerial calling, without feeling their own interest in it.
To grow in love to God, and in zeal for his honor, in conformity to the will of Christ, and in heavenly-mindedness, should be your first concern. Look well, therefore, to your internal character. For it is awful to think of appearing as a minister, without being really a Christian; or of any one officially watching over the souls of others, who is habitually unmindful of his own immortal interests.
In the course of your public ministry, and in a great variety of instances, you may perhaps find it impracticable to enter into the true spirit of a precept, or of a prohibition, so as to reach its full meaning and its various applications, without feeling yourself convicted by it. In cases of this kind, you must fall under the conviction secretly before God, and pray over it with undissembled contrition: agreeably to that saying, Thou that teachest another, teachest thou not thyself? When Ministers hardly ever make this practical application of their public admonitions and cautions, as if their own spiritual interests were not concerned in them, their consciences will grow callous, and their situation, with regard to eternity, extremely dangerous. For, this being habitually neglected, how can they be considered as walking HUMBLY with God? which, nevertheless, is of such essential importance in the Christian life, that, without it, all pretences to true piety are vain. Hence an author, of no small repute in the churches of Christ, says, “He that would go down to the pit in peace, let him keep up duties in his family and closet; let him hear as often as he can have opportunity; let him speak often of good things; let him leave the company of profane and ignorant men, until he have obtained a great repute for religion; let him preach, and labor to make others better than he himself; and, in the mean time, neglect to humble his heart to walk with God in a manifest holiness and usefulness, and he will not fail of his end.”
Take heed that your pastoral office prove not a snare to your soul, by lifting you up with pride and self-importance. Forget not, that the whole of your work is ministerial; not legislative – That you are not a lord in the church, but a servant – that the New Testament attaches no honor to the character of a pastor, except in connection with his humility and benevolence, his diligence and zeal, in promoting the cause of the great Shepherd – And, that there is no character upon earth which so ill accords with a proud, imperious, haughty spirit, as that of a Christian pastor.
If not intoxicated with a conceit of your own wisdom and importance, you will not, when presiding in the management of church affairs, labor to have every motion determined according to your own inclination. For this would savor of ecclesiastical despotism; be inconsistent with the nature and spirit of congregational order; and implicitly grasping at a much larger degree of power, and of responsibility, than properly falls to your share.
Nor, if this caution be duly regarded, will you consider it as an insult on either your ministerial wisdom, or your pastoral dignity, if now and then, one or another of your people, and even the most illiterate among them, should remind you of some real or supposed inadvertency or mistake, either in doctrine or in conduct; no, not though it be in blunt language, and quite unfounded. For a readiness to take offence on such occasions, would be a bar to your own improvement; and, perhaps, in articles, relatively considered, of great importance. Nay, in such cases, to be soon irritated, though not inconsistent with shining abilities, nor yet with great success in the ministry, would, nevertheless, be an evidence of pride, and of your being, as a Christian, in a poor feeble state. For, to be easily shoved out of the way, pushed down, as it were, with a straw, or caused to fall into sin, by so feeble an impulse, must be considered as an undoubted mark of great spiritual weakness. Because the health of the soul, and the vigor of the spiritual life are to be estimated, not by our knowledge and gifts, but by the exercise of Christian graces, in cheerfully performing arduous labors; in surmounting successive difficulties; and in patiently bearing hardships, for the sake of Jesus. Yes, and in proportion to the degree of your spiritual health, will be your meekness and forbearance under those improprieties of treatment, by one and another of your people, which you will undoubtedly meet. On examining ourselves by this rule, it will plainly appear, I presume, that though many of us in this assembly might, with regard to the length of our Christian profession, be justly denominated fathers; yet, with reference to spiritual stature and strength, we deserve no better character than that of rickety children. Think not, however, that I advise you always to tolerate ignorant, conceited, and petulant professors, in making exceptions to your ministry, or in calling you to account for your conduct, without reason, and without good manners: but endeavor, with impartiality and prudence, to distinguish between cases of this kind. Then the simple and sincere, though improperly officious, will not be treated with resentful harshness; but with some resemblance of what is beautifully denominated, the meekness and gentleness of Jesus Christ. But alas! How poorly we imitate our Perfect Pattern!
It is of such high importance, that a pastor possesses the government of his own temper, and a tolerable share of prudence, when presiding in the management of church affairs, that, without these, his general integrity, though undisputed, and his benevolence, though usually considered as exemplary, will be in danger of impeachment among his people. Nay, notwithstanding the fickleness and caprice of many private professors with regard to their ministers, it has long appeared probable to me, that a majority of those uneasinesses, animosities, and separations, which, to the disgrace of religion, take place between pastors and their several churches, may be traced up, either to the unchristian tempers, to the gross imprudence, or to the laziness and neglects of the pastors themselves.
Take heed to yourself, respecting your temper and conduct in general. Every one that calls himself a Christian should fairly represent, in his own dispositions and behavior, the moral character of Jesus. The conversation of every professor should not only be free from gross defects; it should be worthy of general imitation. But though each member of this church be under the same obligations to holiness, as yourself; yet your spiritual gifts, your ministerial office, and your pastoral relation, suggest a variety of motives to holiness, which your people do not possess. Make it your diligent concern, therefore, to set your hearers a bright example, formed on that perfect model, the temper and conduct of Jesus Christ.
Yes, my Brother, it is required that Pastors, in their own persons and conduct, especially in the discharge of ministerial duties, give a just representation of the doctrine they preach, and of him in whose name they dispense it. But, in order to do this, though in an imperfect manner, what integrity, benevolence, humility, meekness, and zeal for the glory of God; what self-denial and readiness for bearing the cross; what mortification of corrupt affections and inordinate desires of earthly things; what condescension and patience; what contempt of the world, and heavenly-mindedness, are necessary; not only the Scripture declares, but the nature of the thing shows.
Persons who are not acquainted with the true nature and genius of evangelical doctrine, will be always disposed to charge the gospel itself with having a strong tendency to encourage those immoralities which appear in the character of its professors, and especially of those that preach it. Hence an apostle says, Giving no offence in any thing, that the ministry be not blamed. For what can persons, otherwise uninformed, with more appearance of reason conclude, than that the example of those who propagate the doctrine of salvation by grace, through Jesus Christ, is an authentic specimen of its genuine tendency in the hearts and lives of all those who believe and avow it? In the ministry of religious teachers, there is an implicit language, which is commonly considered by their hearers as importing, that what they do and are, if disgraceful, is the effect, not of their natural depravity, or of peculiar temptations, but of their doctrinal principles. Hence the ministers of Christ are commanded, in all things to show themselves patterns of good works. To be examples to believers in word, in conversation, in charity, in spirit, in faith, in purity. Yes, my Brother, the honor and preferment, to which our divine Lord calls his ministers, are, to give a just representation, in their own conduct, of the graces of his Person, and the holiness of his doctrine, to others. For whatever apparently splendid advantages a man may have, with reference to the ministry, if they do not enable him the more effectually, in his Christian course and ministerial work, to express the humility, the meekness, the self-denial, and the zeal of the Chief Shepherd, together with the holiness of the doctrine he teaches, they will redound but little to his account another day.
I will now adopt the words of our Lord, and say, Take heed and beware of covetousness. That evil turn of heart which is here proscribed with such energy and such authority, is, through the false names it assumes, and the pleas which it makes, to be considered as extremely subtle and equally pernicious. It evidently stands opposed, in Scripture, to contentment with the allotments of Providence, to spiritual mindedness, and to real piety. It is an extremely evil disposition of the heart; of which, notwithstanding, very little account is made by the generality of those who profess the gospel of divine grace; except when it procures the stigma of penuriousness, or the charge of injustice. But, whatever excuses or palliatives may be invented, either to keep the consciences of covetous professors quiet, or to support a good opinion of others respecting the reality of their piety, the New Testament declares them unworthy of communion in a church of Christ, and classes them with persons of profligate hearts and lives. The existence and habitual operation of this evil, therefore, must be considered as forming a character for hell. Nor need I inform you, that, for a long course of ages, myriads of those who assumed the appellation of Christian Ministers, have been so notorious for an avaricious disposition, for the love of secular honors, and for the lust of clerical domination, as greatly to promote infidelity, and expose Christianity to contempt.
Take heed, then, and beware if covetousness. For neither the comfort, the honor, nor the usefulness of a man’s life consisteth in the abundance of the things which he possesseth. Let your conversation be without covetousness; and, possessing the necessaries of life, without being indebted to any man, be content with such things as you have: for He who governs the world hath said, I will never leave thee nor forsake thee. For as a man’s happiness does not consist in THINGS, but in THOUGHTS, that abundance after which the carnal heart so eagerly pants, is adapted to gratify – not the demands of reason much less the dictates of conscience, nor yet the legitimate and sober claims of appetite; but – a fond imagination ; pride of show; the love of secular influence; the lust of dominion; and a secret desire of lying as little as possible at the mercy of Providence. I have somewhere seen it reported of Socrates, the prince of pagan philosophers, that on beholding a great variety of costly and elegant articles exposed to sale, he exclaimed, How many things are here that I do not want! So, my Brother, when entering the abode of wealth we behold the stately mansion, the numerous accommodations, the elegant furniture, the luxurious table, the servants in waiting, and the fashionable finery of each individual’s apparel ; with what propriety and emphasis ought each of us to exclaim, How many things are here which I do not want; which would do me no good; and after which I have no desire! For we should not forget who it was that said, How hardly shall a rich man enter the kingdom of heaven!
I said, Possessing the necessaries of life without being indebted to any man. For this purpose resolutely determine to live, if practicable, within the bounds of your income; not only so as to keep out of debt, but, if possible, to spare something for the poor. Supposing, my Brother, that, either through the afflicting hand of God, or the criminal neglect of your people, unavoidable straits approach; be not afraid of looking poverty in the face, as if it were, in itself considered, a disgraceful evil. For poverty is a very innocent thing, and absolutely free from deserved infamy; except when it is found in scandalous company. But if its forerunner and associates be pride, laziness, a fondness for good living, a want of economy, and the contracting of debts without any probability of paying them; it deserves detestation, and merits contempt – is inconsistent with virtuous conduct, and must gradually sink the character of any minister. If, on the contrary, it be found closely connected with humility and patience, with diligence, frugality, and integrity – such integrity as impels, for instance, to wear a thread-bare coat, rather than run into debt for a new one; to live on the meanest wholesome food, or to go with half a meal, rather than contract a debt which is not likely to be discharged; such penury will never disgrace, either the minister himself, or the cause of Jesus Christ. Not the minister himself. Because in the purest state of Christianity, the most eminent servants of our divine Lord were sometimes distressed with want of both decent apparel and necessary food. Not the cause of Jesus Christ. For his kingdom not being of this world, but of a spiritual nature, it cannot be either adorned by riches, or disgraced by poverty. Besides the ministers of evangelical truth must be poor indeed, if in humbler circumstances than Jesus himself was, when proclaiming the glad tidings of his kingdom. It must, however, be acknowledged, that, so far as a faithful pastor is reduced to the embarrassments of poverty merely by his people withholding those voluntary supplies which they were well able to have afforded, and to which, in common justice, equally as by the appointment of Christ, he had an undoubted right the best of causes is disgraced, and the offenders are exposed to severe censure.
Were a pastor driven to the painful alternative, of either entering into some lawful secular employment, or of continuing his pastoral relation and stated ministrations, in a course of embarrassment by debts which he could not pay; the former would become his duty. Not only because we ought never to do evil that good may come; but also because it is much more evident, that he ought to owe no man any thing, than it is, that the Lord ever called him to the ministry, or qualified him for it. But, if necessity do not impel, the following passage seems to have the force of a negative precept, respecting the Christian pastor: No man that warreth entangleth himself with the affairs of this life; that he may please him who hath chosen him to be a soldier. A pastor should be very cautious, not only of entering, unnecessarily, into stated secular employment; but also of accepting any trust, though apparently advantageous, in which the preservation and the management of property are confided to his integrity and prudence. For so critically observed is the conduct of a man that has the management of another’s pecuniary affairs; and so delicate is a minister’s character, that he is in peculiar danger of exposing himself to censure, and of injuring his public usefulness, by such engagements.
Take heed, I will venture to add, take heed to your second-self, in the person of your wife. As it is of high importance for a young minister in single life, to behave with the utmost delicacy in all his intercourse with female friends, treating with peculiar caution those of them that are unmarried; and as it behooves him to pay the most conscientious regard to religious character, when choosing a companion for life; so, when in the conjugal state, his tenderest attention is due to the domestic happiness and the spiritual interests of his wife. This obligation, my brother, manifestly devolves upon you; as being already a husband and a father. Next after your own soul, therefore, your wife and your children evidently claim the most affectionate, conscientious, and pious care.
Nor can it be reasonably doubted, that many a devout and amiable woman has given her hand to a minister of the gospel, in preference to a private Christian, though otherwise equally deserving, in sanguine expectation, by so doing, of enjoying peculiar spiritual advantages in the matrimonial relation. But, alas! there is much reason to apprehend, that not a few individuals among those worthy females, have often reflected to the following effect:
“I have, indeed, married a preacher of the gospel ; but I do not find in him the affectionate domestic instructor, for either myself, or my children. My husband is much esteemed among his religious acquaintance, as a respectable Christian character; but his example at home is far from being delightful. Affable, condescending, and pleasing, in the parlors of religious friends ; but, frequently, either trifling and unsavory, or imperious and unsocial, in his own family. Preferring the opportunity of being entertained at a plentiful table, and of conversing with the wealthy, the polite, and the sprightly, to the homely fare of his own family, and the company of his wife and children, he often spends his afternoons and evenings from home, until so late an hour, that domestic worship is either omitted, or performed in a hasty and slovenly manner, with scarcely the appearance of devotion. – Little caring for my soul, or for the management of our growing offspring, he seems concerned for hardly any thing more, than keeping fair with his people: relative to which, I have often calmly remonstrated, and submissively entreated, but all in vain. Surrounded with little ones, and attended with straits; destitute of the sympathies, the instructions, the consolations, which might have been expected from the affectionate heart of a pious husband, connected with the gifts of an evangelical minister, I pour out my soul to God, and mourn in secret.” Such, there is ground of apprehension, has been the sorrowful soliloquy of many a minister’s pious, dutiful, and prudent wife. Take heed, then, to the best interests of your second-self.
To this end, except on extraordinary occasions, when impelled by duty, spend your evenings at home. Yes, and at an early hour in the evening, let your family and your study receive their demands on your presence, in the lively performance of social and secret devotion. Thus there will be reason to hope, that domestic order and sociability, the improvement of your own understanding, and communion with God, will all be promoted.
Guard, habitually, against every appearance of imprudent intercourse, and every indelicate familiarity with the most virtuous and pious of your female friends. Be particularly cautious of paying frequent visits to any single woman who lives alone: otherwise, your conduct may soon fall under the suspicion of your neighbors, and also of your own wife, so as to become her daily tormentor; even while she believes you innocent of the great transgression. – In cases of this kind, it is not sufficient that conscience bears witness to the purity of your conduct, and the piety of your motives: for, in matters of such a delicate nature, there should not be the least shadow of a ground, either to support suspicion, or to excite surmise. There is need for us, my Brother, to watch and pray against the greatest sins – even against those to which, perhaps, we never perceived ourselves to be much inclined. For, alas! we have sometimes heard of apparently pious and evangelical ministers falling into such enormous crimes, as not only disgrace religion, but degrade humanity.
Of late, I have been much affected with the following reflection: “Though, if not greatly deceived, I have had some degree of experimental acquaintance with Jesus Christ for almost forty years; though I have borne the ministerial character for upwards of twenty-five years; though I have been, perhaps, of some little use in the church of God; and though I have had a greater share of esteem among religious people than I had any reason to expect; yet after all, it is possible for me, in one single hour of temptation, to blast my character – to ruin my public usefulness – and to render my warmest Christian friends ashamed of owning me. Hold thou me up, O Lord, and I shall be safe!” Ah! Brother, there is little reason for any of us to be high-minded: and, therefore, Happy is the man that feareth always.
Take heed to yourself with regard to the diligent improvement of your talents and opportunities, in the whole course of your ministry. It behooves you, as a public teacher, to spend much of your time in reading and in study. Of this you are convinced, and will act, I trust, agreeably to that conviction. For suitable means must be used, not only in your public ministry, in season and out of season, for the good of others; but with a view to the improvement of your own mind, in an acquaintance with divine truth. Yes, my Christian friend, this is necessary, that your ability to feed the flock with knowledge and understanding may be increased; that your own heart may be more deeply tinctured with evangelical principles; that you may be the better prepared for every branch of pastoral duty, and for every trying event that may occur. For who can reasonably deny the necessity of diligence in the use of means, adapted, respectively, to promote your own ministerial improvement, and to obtain the great objects of your pastoral office; any more than to a rational prospect of success, in the management of secular business? Be, then, as careful to improve opportunities of both obtaining and imparting spiritual benefits, as the prudent and assiduous tradesman or mechanic is, to promote the legitimate designs of his professional calling.
If a minister of the gospel behaves with Christian decorum, possess tolerable abilities for his work, and having his heart in it, be habitually industrious, there is reason to conclude that, in the common course of Providence, he shall not labor in vain. As nobody, however, wonders that a merchant, or a manufacturer, who, having no pleasure in his employment, neglects his affairs, and behaves as if he thought himself above his business, does not succeed, but becomes bankrupt; so, if a minister be seldom any further engaged, either in the study of truth, or in the public exercises of religion, than seems necessary to his continuance, with decency, in the pastoral station, there is no reason to wonder, if his public devotion he without savor, and his preaching without success. The church of which such a minister is the pastor, seems completely warranted to cry in his ears, Take heed to the ministry which thou hast received in the Lord, that thou fulfill it.