Practical Advice for Productive Ministry

By LeRoy Lawson


06_Lawson_books_JNFrom Midterms to Ministry: Practical Theologians on Pastoral Beginnings
Allan Hugh Cole Jr., editor
Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2008

Leadership Handbook of Management and Administration
James D. Berkley, editor
Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2007

Start with Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action
Simon Sinek
New York: Portfolio/Penguin, 2009

One Size Doesn’t Fit All: Bringing Out the Best in Any Size Church
Gary L. McIntosh
Grand Rapids: Fleming H. Revell, 1999


Everybody knows there’s a world of difference between life in the seminary and life in the church. Almost everybody complains that seminaries and Bible colleges don’t teach enough practical ministries; their concentration on biblical languages and theology and church history and other academic stuff just doesn’t prepare budding preachers and pastors for the perplexities of running a church.

That’s what everybody thinks. And everybody’s right: there is a difference; seminary isn’t church and church isn’t seminary. But the difference is what makes it so important that campus and congregation complement and not compete with each other.

From Midterms to Ministry collects stories of veteran ministers recounting the surprises (even shocks!) they encountered when they left the safety of the classroom for the perils of life in the parsonage. The young minister quoted here isn’t the only one to lament, “I lost three churches before I figured out what people want.” Some things just can’t be taught on campus.

This has been a good read for me. I’m back on campus after 50 years serving churches. I came here with about as much experience as could be jammed into one man’s lifetime. Almost from my first class as a newly recycled professor, however, I’ve been more of a student than my students. How much better my preaching and leading would have been had I learned earlier what my students and I are learning together now.

Thomas Long’s essay in this volume summarizes the whole book: “Good ministry is found . . . where pastors stand with one foot firmly planted in their theological education and the other foot just as firmly planted in the parish, and allowing the resulting tension to shape their pastoral practice.” Ah, that tension—that irritating, frustrating, never-ending tension! May it always be.

The book deals with how to start your ministry, how to end it, how to transition from one ministry to another, how to learn to love your people—especially how to learn to love those who are really hard to love (and who follow you from church to church disguised in different bodies and names but with the same challenge to your pastoral patience), how to make the best of a bad professional marriage, how to build a Christian community, and much, much else.

This says more about me than about the book, I suppose, but reading through these chapters, which I’ll be recommending to my students, almost prompted a letter of resignation and a return to the pastorate. The more I read the more inspired I was with this thing called local church ministry. If, like me, you’ve been in this business awhile, you might enjoy, as I have, being reminded of the glory and the messiness of our calling.



Since I’m on the subject, let me keep going. I read Leadership Handbook of Management and Administration from cover to cover, not something I recommend for every reader. I did it because it’s a required text for one of my seminary courses and I thought it would be a pretty good idea to know what’s in it.

What’s in it is pretty helpful stuff. It’s what it sounds like—a handbook chock-full of sage advice for running this amazingly complex volunteer organization called the church. Every pastor from the neophyte just out of college or seminary to the veteran with decades of service can profit from this compendium of “how-to’s.” Some topics:

• The minister’s call and responsibilities

• Time and money management

• Transitions into and out of local church leadership

• Leadership and management—and the differences between them

• Supervising a staff (paid and voluntary)

• Church governance (how to get along with church boards—and what kind of boards to have)

• Areas of special concern: the church office, house, and grounds; constructing new buildings and remodeling old ones

• Stewardship and finances

• Laws (state, tax, etc.)

There’s more. These are just the large categories.

Not all the advice will fit your particular situation, but all of it will make you think about it, and that’s reason enough to review the lessons taught here. I found myself thinking again and again of jams I got myself into over the years, ones I could have avoided with some of the simple but wise counsel found on these pages.

This book will occupy a nearby spot on my library shelves.


Beyond What and How

Two other books should be mentioned here in order to round out the practical advice given in the above volumes.

The first is Simon Sinek’s Start with Why. I hesitated awhile before adding this one, not because it isn’t helpful but because I become a little impatient with excellent magazine articles bloated to book size. It’s longer than it needs to be, more repetitive than it ought to be. Still, the thesis, simple and memorable, can keep any leader—and any church—on task.

Picture a target. Just three concentric circles. Label the outside one WHAT, the middle one HOW, and the bull’s eye WHY.

Almost all members of all organizations, businesses, and religious bodies can tell you what they do. They make widgets, for example, or they put on programs, or they sell retail products.

And within all those enterprises the knowledgeable ones can tell you how they do it. They can take you through the process from step 1 to step 10; they can explain how the manufacturing plant cranks out their products, or how the church organizes to put on those programs.

But very few people can convincingly explain why. Why has to do with belief, conviction, desire. What is rational, analytical, readily explained. How builds on the rational, separates the steps, explains what is taking place. But why comes from deep within; it has to do with feelings that move us to action.

It’s good to know the “nuts and bolts,” as described in the other two books in this column, but it’s imperative to know why we’re doing what we’re doing.

From time to time a church invites me in for a consultation. They provide the attendance and finance figures, explain their programs, take me through the building and ask my opinion about this or that. It’s all helpful. In a sense, though, it’s a little beside the point, or at least premature. There’s something else I must know first, or I won’t be able to help them at all.

I need to know why. What’s your mission? Your purpose? Why are you in this “business”? And why should anyone else want to come aboard? These are important, Sinek says, because people don’t buy into what you do; they buy into why you do it. Martin Luther King Jr. inspired America not by saying, “I have a plan,” but by sharing, “I have a dream.”

That dream is the why.


Your Church is Unique

Gary McIntosh’s One Size Doesn’t Fit All is another book whose message is captured in its title. You don’t need the rest of the book to get the point, but the book is quickly read and the repetition helps you retain the message.

I’m including it in this column as a reminder that not all good advice works well everywhere. Wise is the minister who understands the uniqueness of each congregation, the particularity of each church setting, and who does not try to apply what works somewhere else without adapting it to this church in this place.

Of particular value is McIntosh’s insight that the small church (15 to 200 members) wants the pastor to be a lover, the medium-sized church (200 to 400) needs an administrator, and a large church (400-plus) must have a leader.

Many are the churches and pastors who have made themselves miserable because they didn’t know that “one size doesn’t fit all.”


LeRoy Lawson is international consultant with CMF International and professor of Christian ministries at Emmanuel Christian Seminary, Johnson City, Tennessee. He also serves as a CHRISTIAN STANDARD contributing editor and on Standard Publishing’s Publishing Committee.

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