When Jesus sent out his twelve disciples to minister the gospel he told them how they should conduct themselves as kingdom servants (Matt. 10:5–15). But he also spoke of the responsibility of the people to receive these ministers as his official representatives. Jesus insists that the way people receive his ministers reflects their relationship with God (Matt. 10:40). He invites God’s people to welcome “a prophet in the name of a prophet” and “to receive a righteous man’s reward” (v. 41).
There is no better time to respond to this invitation than when your church receives a new minister. In the denomination in which I serve, the form for ministerial ordination asks the congregation, “Do you, in the name of the Lord, welcome this brother as your pastor?” That’s an important question. But it is just as important to ask, “How will you welcome this brother as your pastor?” in order to prepare the way for a fruitful ministry.
Begin Well with Your Minister
The importance of the first several days, weeks, and months in a new ministry cannot be overstated. A well-worn maxim suggests that it takes years for a congregation to bond with their pastor. Doubtless, this can be true. But does it have to be? Is it not just as likely that a church has a brief window of opportunity to establish the crucial habits that form a beautiful pastoral relationship?
Though most of Paul’s seasons of ministry were brief, the believers befriended him quickly (e.g., Acts 13:42–44; 16:11–15, 33–34). After Paul’s longest ministry—just three years—the church and its minister had so connected that, when he left, “they all wept freely, and fell on Paul’s neck and kissed him, sorrowing” (Acts 20:37–38). This kind of bond is formed, in part, by the way congregations welcome their ministers actively and early.
Especially if you did not vote in favor of calling your new minister, make every effort to begin your relationship positively. Your reservations will be better handled (down the road) if you establish a healthy rapport with him.
Befriend Your Minister’s Family
The ministry can be terribly lonely. Perhaps because congregants suspect that ministry families’ calendars overflow with social commitments the minister’s family can receive less care than others. A new minister and his family are outsiders trying to enter a closely-knit network. As counterintuitive as it sounds, unless your new minister grew up in your congregation, he is a stranger within your midst. He likely has no local connections and no local extended family members. Remember that “the stranger who dwells among you shall be to you as one born among you, and you shall love him as yourself; for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God” (Lev. 19:34).
Pray with and for Your Minister
In one of the shortest verses in the Bible, Paul pleads with the church on behalf of himself and all Christian pastors: “Brethren, pray for us” (1 Thess. 5:25). My ordination form admonished my church to “pray that he may, in the power of the Spirit, equip [them] in the work of advancing God’s Kingdom for the honor of Christ our Lord.” Let your minister know that you are praying for him. This habit, one practiced by Paul (Phil. 1:3, 9; Col. 1:9), assures those for whom you are praying that they are remembered before the throne of grace.
Communicate with Your Minister
Ironically, ministers can be among the last to know about pastoral needs. When this happens, their ability to fulfill their God-given duties is severely hampered. Paul pleads with his fellow church members to communicate openly and honestly with their shepherds. “We have spoken openly to you . . . you also be open” (2 Cor. 6:11, 13).
Positive communication with your minister means being willing to gently confront him (Gal. 6:1). Of course, you must overlook his sins when possible (Prov. 17:9). When you cannot, you must seek the opportunity to forgive your minister in a timely manner before hurts calcify into grudges. God’s plan for restoration from sin applies also to pastors: “Go and tell him his fault between you and him alone . . . If he will not hear, take with you one or two more . . . and if he refuses to hear them, tell it to the church” (Matt. 18:15–17).
One of the worst ways you can damage your congregation is to gossip about your minister. Gossip is always toxic. It poisons a person’s reputation, sometimes irreparably. But secret criticism against the minister can shake the congregation’s confidence in the minister and jeopardize the entire ministry. “The tongue has the power of life and death” (Prov. 18:21). Use your tongue to talk with your minister, not to gossip about him.
Affirm Your Minister’s Preaching
Pastors don’t necessarily need congregants begging for their preaching (but see Acts 13:42). Still, most ministers are helped by knowing that their people desire the preached word (1 Pet. 2:2).
A welcoming congregation will affirm the preaching during the sermon. Maintaining eye contact and communicating through engaging facial and body expressions can be a huge gift to the preacher. Conversely, those who seem (only God knows the heart) disinterested can deflate any minister. A minister can better preach his heart out when he perceives that people are feasting on the Word.
God’s people should also affirm the sermon after it is preached; not to feed your minister’s ego but to respond to his human need for encouragement. Thank your pastor for his preaching. Ask that nagging question about the sermon. Debrief with family and friends. Of course, the greatest affirmation of the preached word is prayerful, active application.
Follow Your Minister
Even as they pray for leadership wisdom, take to heart the feelings of the congregation, and submit to the oversight of the elders, ministers have a responsibility to lead. They have been trained to lead. The church has approved their qualification to lead (1 Tim. 3:1–7). They have been ordained to lead (1 Pet. 5:1–4). Ordinarily, they spend more time thinking about the future path of the church than anyone else in the congregation.
Church members need to recognize these realities. If you have concerns about the leadership of your minister, talk to him. If you feel that he is leading the church in a wrong direction, write a letter of concern to the consistory. Otherwise, the leadership of the minister should be received with respect and submission, unless it is proved to be in conflict with God’s Word (1 Tim. 5:17).
Be Thankful for Your Minister
The ordination form used at the start of my ministry stresses the need for thankfulness. “We receive this servant of our Lord from the hand and heart of the Shepherd and Bishop of our souls. We are grateful that our Savior has committed preaching, teaching, and pastoral care to the office of the ministry.” The form charges “beloved Christians” to “receive your minister in the Lord, with all joy . . . let the feet of those who preach the Gospel of peace, and bring the Good News, be beautiful and pleasant to you.” We should pray with gratitude when we think of our minister: “Merciful Father, we thank Thee that it pleases Thee by the ministry of men to gather Thy church out of the lost human race to life eternal. We acknowledge the gift of this thy servant, sent to this people as a messenger of Thy peace.”
Your minister might not always appear to be a gift. Even then we can trust that God is working his perfect will through him, sometimes in spite of him (Phil. 1:15–18).
Receive Christ Through Your Minister
Christ has given himself as the spotless Lamb through whom we can approach God in peace. God’s ministers declare this message both publicly and privately, in their words and in their deeds. Jesus told his disciples, “Whoever receives you receives me.”
That old ordination form puts it well: God uses ministers to “gather His church out of the corrupt race of men to life eternal, and to give to His church such teaching and care that she may grow in faith and love and service.” God uses his pastors and teachers to equip, build up, unify, sanctify, fortify, mature, and grow his people (Eph. 4:11–16). It is they who plead with us to be reconciled to God in every sphere of our lives (2 Cor. 5:20).
Those who receive Christ through the minister have this promise: “The God of peace shall enter your homes. You who receive this man in the name of a prophet, shall receive a prophet’s reward, and through faith in Jesus Christ, the inheritance of eternal life.”
This article first appeared on The Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals’ website; www.alliancenet.org under the heading The Christward Collective, December 22, 2016.
Rev. William Boekestein
happily serves Immanuel Fellowship Church in Kalamazoo, MI (in which he and his family have been warmly welcomed!). He has written several books, including Why Christ Came: 31 Meditations on the Incarnation(with Joel Beeke).