A new pastor can feel as overwhelmed as a new parent since having people under your care and responsibility is something for which no training can fully prepare you. Jason Helopoulos’s book is designed to help new pastors facing this scary realization, not so that one’s ministry will be easy but so it will not be filled with “unnecessary trouble” (p. 20) through learning from the experience of others. Helopoulos, Associate Pastor at University Reformed Church (East Lansing, MI), recognizes that he might not be the most likely candidate to write a book on pastoral ministry, as he is fairly young and not a famous pastor (see p. 20). Yet in some ways his relative anonymity (he has blogged for The Gospel Coalition and written A Neglected Grace: Family Worship in the Christian Home) gives added credibility, as he is an “average” pastor sharing what he has learned from others and from his own experience, meaning his insights should be relevant for fellow “ordinary” pastors.
The book is divided into five parts of uneven length. The first part has three chapters dealing with calling and candidating, and the second part features four chapters discussing types of positions (senior/solo pastor, assistant pastor, youth pastor, church planter) to which a new pastor might be called. These would be good chapters to read before one enters his first pastorate, as it helps one think through if he is called to ministry and the challenges and opportunities of various positions so that one can determine how to approach finding the right call.
The bulk of the book is the third and fourth parts, which focus on encouragements (chs. 8–31) and pitfalls (ch. 32–44), respectively. The encouragements broadly move from priorities to practical matters, as Helopoulos kicks off the section by noting that ministry is “nothing more than loving Christ, loving his people, and loving the Word” (p. 58) and concludes with issues such as weddings and funerals (ch. 29), hospital visitation (ch. 30), and meetings (ch. 31), with topics such as reading (ch. 10), care for one’s self (ch. 13) and family (ch. 11), giving responsibility to others (ch. 16), and handling complaints (ch. 23) interspersed between. A focus on loving people stands out in these encouragements, as Helopoulos speaks about the need to study the history of your people (ch. 12) and care for the person right in front of you (ch. 21), noting that the pastor is to “love [his] people and love them well” (p. 59) and to “cherish the people of God” (p. 113) because they “are a gift—a gift to you” (p. 120). The section on pitfalls reveals tensions in ministry, as one can take oneself too seriously (ch. 35) or not seriously enough (ch. 36); one must not give academic lectures as sermons (ch. 41) but also must not have sermons dominated by illustrations or applications rather than the biblical text (ch. 42); and one must expect disappointment (ch. 40) but avoid discouragement (ch. 34). It is unclear if there is a particular reason for the order of the chapters, as at times neighboring chapters seem thematically linked (e.g., the chapters on taking yourself too seriously and not taking yourself seriously enough), while elsewhere chapters on similar topics are dispersed (e.g., time management in ch. 14, busyness in ch. 22, “dual purposes” of activity in ch. 26). The present order, however, allows for key topics to be addressed from multiple angles (e.g., the importance of the Word [ch. 9] and preaching [ch. 18]; envy [ch. 44] and desire to move to a new position [ch. 38]; silent suffering [ch. 24], discouragement [ch. 34], and “devastation” by people [ch. 40]).
The book ends by highlighting the joys of ministry in the four chapters that comprise the fifth part. Helopoulos reminds pastors that they are called by God to study his Word and enter into the lives of his beloved children, which causes us to grow in knowledge of our sin and experience of his grace. The closing words about perseverance in the face of difficulties come on the heels of this reminder about the nature of this holy work.
This is a valuable book that basically takes the pastoral nuggets one might learn in asides from seminary professors or through a good internship and puts them into one book. The chapters are short, so one could easily read a chapter a day during his first fifty days of ministry. There could be added benefit to reading it in dialogue with an experienced minister at one’s church or in one’s ministry network (e.g., denomination), as the seasoned pastor could reinforce Helopoulos’s insights while offering further wisdom from his own experience. For example, I might push back on Helopoulos’s claim that pastors should expect to work a minimum of 50 hours a week (p. 82); I have been in church settings that have sought to buck the cultural trend of regularly working more than 40 hours a week as a means to better church and family health. I have found a practical way of implementing Helopoulos’s call to have an “open door” in the office while prioritizing study and prayer (ch. 28) in my current setting through a system that indicates if I am praying/studying (and thus can only be interrupted for emergencies). Finally, while Helopoulos rightly points out that one should start slow and not make big changes (ch. 32), there is also a sense in which one should seek to secure some “early wins” to gain trust and confidence in oneself and from congregants.
These suggestions do not detract from a book that would aid seminarians and candidates as they prepare for ministry and start ministering. In fact, it would be a great book for pastors to re-read each year as a reminder of the basics of pastoral ministry that the various challenges in ministry can cause us to forget. It is for new pastors, but can benefit all pastors.