I heard someone once quip that it was wrong for Christian sports fans to say that they were #1. God is first. Neighbor is second. The best they could be was #3. Somehow, I don’t think there will be a big market for foam fingers with three fingers raised and imprinted with “We’re #3.”
It’s not too often in Christian circles that we are enjoined to put self first, but that is exactly what God calls pastors to do—if they would be effective in ministry.
When the Apostle Paul met with the elders from the church at Ephesus at Miletus, he gave them this charge:
“Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood.” (Acts 20:28)
Notice the order for attention by the elders. They were to care first for themselves, then for the flock. Like an adult in a jetliner is instructed to don the oxygen mask herself before tending to her child, so those entrusted with the care of the congregation are to make sure they are in good position themselves.
This is especially important when we realize that the congregation is the “church of God.” Pastors are instruments in God’s hands for the care of His flock. Like a surgeon wants a sharp and sanitary scalpel, so God wants the instruments of His choosing to be suitable for the task. This is what Paul instructed Timothy as a pastor.
“Therefore, if anyone cleanses himself from what is dishonorable, he will be a vessel for honorable use, set apart as holy, useful to the master of the house, ready for every good work.” (2 Timothy 2:21)
The word “vessel” means “implement,” “instrument,” or “equipment.” Pastors are charged with making sure they are apt instruments for the use of the Lord.
How does the pastor go about being the sort of implement God uses? It has to do with his personal walk and ministerial readiness. In the context of Paul’s instruction to Timothy in the broader context of 2 Timothy 2 we find admonitions like:
Prominent in these admonitions is the character of the pastor—public and private. The pastor must “abstain from the passions of the flesh, which wage war against the soul” (1 Peter 2:11). He must keep his conduct pure not merely for the example by which he leads (Heb. 13:7), but for his effectiveness in all aspects of ministry.
The pastor is encouraged (and reminded) that, ultimately, any effectiveness is the Lord’s work and not bound up in the pastor’s efforts. Paul tells Timothy that through his efforts “God may perhaps” grant success. Not only in evangelism but in all ministry, we sow and tend but the Lord gives the growth.
To the bulleted list above, we might add the indispensability of the pastor’s prayer life for making himself a useful instrument. A scalpel might be clean and sharp but it needs to be wielded with wisdom. Not only does prayer ensure that the pastor positions himself in God’s hand, prayer also seeks God’s wisdom for how God would use him in the lives of those entrusted to him by God.
Just as husbands are to live with their wives in an understanding way (versus an abusive way; compare 1 Peter 3:7 about husbands with 1 Peter 5:3 about elders), lest their prayers be hindered, so pastors do not want their prayers hindered as they care for the bride of Christ.
When it comes down to it, a pastor’s first concern has to be self so that he can put others first.
If you are a pastor and the fruit of your efforts is wanting, take stock of yourself as an instrument. Look into the mirror of 2 Timothy 2. If you are a parishioner, make this “pastor’s first concern” a regular topic for prayer on his behalf.