Sometimes I’m baffled at how quickly Americans trust a pastor who they don’t know with care over their souls. When we consider a job opportunity or are looking for a school for our children, usually we spend a little bit of time getting to know the company or school before jumping right in.
Unfortunately, I don’t think many people operate the same way when it comes to religion. In general, people avoid an interview process and just start attending.
Here are five things you should know about your pastor. (And if you can’t find any of this information about your pastor, or you can’t ever meet the head pastor, then it’s probably time for a new church.)
1. Where did my pastor go to school?
I realize that a seminary education doesn’t automatically create a good (or even decent) pastor. In some cases, it can create a monster, and if that has been your experience, I am deeply sorry.
There are some men in church history who never required any theological training, and there are some remarkable people today who might fall into this category. But this should be an exception to the rule and is not the norm. Unfortunately, not pursuing any training before becoming a pastor has become a staple in American churches—and is part of the reason why so many Christians today are ignorant of basic Christian beliefs. Whenever we drive by a new church that pops up in our neighborhood, my wife and I look it up online and every single time the pastor has "felt called by God" to start the church.
For most people though, it should matter if your pastor went to school or through some established program or curriculum that equips him to rightly interpret the Bible. When we are being treated by our medical provider, we want the best care possible with the most highly trained and respected doctors. Nobody willingly invites malpractice or asks for untrained physicians to work on their bodies, so why should it be any different with pastoral care? We should want the same treatment for our souls as we do for our bodies. It shouldn't be any different with stewards entrusted with handling God’s Word.
So ask some honest questions:
Is my pastor trained enough to know some of the most significant heresies and controversies in the history of the church?
Does he know basic principles of interpreting the Bible? Can I trust him to care for my soul in the same way I trust a doctor to take care of my body?
2. What does my pastor believe is “biblical”?
Having creeds and confessions, or a statement of faith matters. That’s something external to your pastor that holds him to an objective standard outside of himself. All pastors need this kind of accountability. No matter how wise and godly, an individual pastor can’t possibly have all the answers. We can’t put that burden on our pastors, and our pastors shouldn’t try to bear the weight of two thousand years of Christian wisdom on their own shoulders either.
So, what do they officially believe? Do they have a statement of some sort that tells you, in general, what they do and don’t believe? Have they promised to remain faithful to a body of teaching that can publicly be accessed by others? Is he willing to submit to the discipline of the church if he ceases to be faithful to God's Word?
3. What does my pastor believe about the church?
Christian traditions vary, and there are different views on what the church should be emphasizing depending on what theological backdrop a pastor (and church) is coming from. However, there should be a strong focus on every pastor in any given Christian tradition on two vital things that distinguish Christianity from every other kind of fellowship, group, parachurch organization, and frankly, cult.
Does my pastor believe the central mission of the church is to preach the gospel, administer the sacraments (baptism and the Lord's Supper), and exercise church discipline?
4. Does my pastor really love people?
Is my pastor someone who really believes what he says about the love that we have for one another because of the gospel? Does he have a conviction for truth and compassion for others to believe in the truth? Or is he defined by winning arguments and getting it right?
Obviously, every person is different and will express love in different ways. Some people don’t seem to be passionate at all, but for their temperament they are actually really excited about the gospel—they’re just not as passionate as John Piper.
That’s okay, but what I mean here is, does your pastor love you? Do you see his love for the lost?
5. Is my pastor a godly person?
I’m not trying to crush fellow co-laborers in the gospel with this one. I equally fall under this gutting question too and it’s a tough one for me to hear. But the apostle Paul uses himself as an example of godliness for all ministers of the gospel to follow after, lest we are "disqualified" (1 Cor 9:27). And he often makes it a point to remind all Christians to “imitate me as I follow Christ” (1 Cor 11:1)—if Paul expects that of everybody, he certainly expects it of every minister. Elsewhere, Paul instructs us that “overseers” (or pastors, ministers, elders, bishops, priests, board members, etc.) are to be godly.
This is a bare minimum qualification for ordained ministry, so you shouldn’t feel bad about asking this one about us. "Is my pastor godly?" "Does he live a life that is worthy of imitating or is he headed for shipwreck?" If you are a pastor, trust me, I cry out with you and the Apostle Paul, saying:
“Who is sufficient for these things? For we are not, like so many, peddlers of God's word, but as men of sincerity, as commissioned by God, in the sight of God we speak in Christ.” (2 Cor 2:16-17)
The ministry of the word is a high calling, and it’s not for the faint of heart. It’s also not a business, and unfortunately, people need to learn how to discern the difference between a church that is out for your money, and a church that seeks to faithfully make the mysteries of the gospel known to a dying and starving world. Ask questions and learn the difference—in this case, both your body and soul depend on it.
With these five questions, you should be able to separate faithful servants from those who are just trying to become super-apostles by building a platform. I pray that these guiding questions will help you identify servants of Christ who are worthy of the very gospel they are proclaiming, even though none of us—myself included!—are truly sufficient for these things.
Please pray for your pastor. And if you have a good pastor, thank God for your pastor.