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Three pastors tell all

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In 2006, the Canadian conference surveyed a group of Mennonite Brethren pastors from across Canada and made some interesting discoveries about the state of the pastorate at the beginning of the 21st century. The survey found that a significant number of MB pastors were experiencing success and longevity in ministry – a statistic not duplicated by many other denominations. The survey also indicated that a large percentage of our new pastors were excited and highly motivated in ministry. However, the survey also uncovered a darker side of ministry – many pastors were facing severe challenges, such as congregational and leadership conflict, family crisis or loss, fatigue, lack of support, salary issues, and unclear or unrealistic expectations from their churches.

Six years later, the MB Herald decided to take the pulse of the pastorate once again. Are things much the same today? Are new pastors still wide-eyed and eager to serve? Are our pastors facing any new challenges? Do they have better support systems and access to more resources?

We posed ten questions to three pastors – each with vastly different ministry experiences. Arno Fast is one of our longest serving ministers, with 43 years at the same church and more than 50 years in total. He is senior pastor at Salem Community Bible Church, Winnipeg. Norm Funk is a pastor and church planter, currently serving as lead pastor at Westside Church in Vancouver. He has 19 years’ ministry experience. Kevin O’Coin is relatively new to the pastorate. With four years under his belt, he serves as pastor of community life at The Meeting Place in Winnipeg

As you entered the pastorate, you probably brought some expectations with you. Is ministry all you thought it would be?

Kevin: No amount of schooling or previous life experience can prepare a person fully for what it means to be a pastor. Looking back, I did have a somewhat romantic and sanitized notion of ministry. There’s a lot more administrative work than I expected, and I’ve had to make peace with the fact that the job is never entirely finished: more could always be done, and people and relationships are never completed. But there are lots of good surprises, too: the degree to which I’m able to contribute to people’s healing and peace was unexpected and truly satisfying.

Norm: On one hand, it’s been better than I ever thought; on the other hand, much harder than ever anticipated. The pastorate has brought burdens that never dissipate, and unbelievable experiences that I could never have dreamed.

Arno: My expectations upon entering the pastorate were simply to serve the Lord and preach the gospel in whatever way he should choose. I haven’t been disappointed, although the going has often been hard.
What’s your greatest joy as a pastor?

Norm: Without sounding canned, it’s Jesus. The fact that he has allowed me to see people take next steps in their walks of faith – either first time steps or steps of greater maturity – is fantastic and evidences his grace upon grace.

: I love sitting with someone and hearing how Jesus is working in his or her life. I’m encouraged when I learn more about people and can point them toward Jesus. In particular, I love the wonderment and earnest questioning of new believers – it’s refreshing.

Arno: My greatest joy has been to see souls saved and grow in the Lord in answer to prayer. Jesus promised, “Ask and you will receive, so that your joy may be made full” (John 16:24, NASB).

And your greatest challenge?

Kevin: The perennial challenge of a pastor seems to be how to change the hearts of people. Of course that isn’t our job per se – it’s for the Holy Spirit alone – but pastors cooperate. There are no rules or formulas: it’s not as if people will move in the direction you want if you just give the right piece of advice or encouraging word, or design the perfect program. Each person and situation is unique.

Arno: My greatest challenge is to give leadership to the congregation so that needs are met and gifts are exercised.

: Me – my sin, discontent, pride, fear, doubt, envy, ego, self-centredness, I could go on. The greatest challenge in my ministry is me.

As a pastor, how do you interpret your call from God?

: I most often interpret a call from God as the internal working and prompting of the Spirit affirmed by the Word (or vice versa), others, and ministry “success.”

: One of the most formative books I’ve read is Eugene Peterson’s Working the Angles. In it, he challenges pastors to concentrate on three things: prayer, teaching and preaching Scripture, and spiritual direction. Though there are often many other things legitimately on my plate, in essence that is what I believe I am called to do – and not because I’ve earned the privilege of doing so or because I’m clever enough to get the job done, but because those are the gifts God has given me in order to serve his body.

: My call from God began as a teenager with a desire to serve the Lord as a missionary or pastor. During Bible school, I had opportunities to teach vacation Bible school, be a counsellor at camp, and practice preaching in my home church. After getting my teaching certificate, I taught for a few years and then went back to study at MB Bible College. My wife and I then accepted a call to serve as missionaries with Saskatchewan Home Missions. Our home church at Dalmeny affirmed our call and ordained us to the ministry. I’m glad I obeyed the call of God.

Are you excited about trends in social media and technology? Do they influence or change the way you minister?

Norm: I don’t know if “excited” is a word I would use. I’m old enough to yearn for the days of clipart and landlines. The fact is, what’s hip and current will be mocked in 15 years. Yet, what is current now – websites, Twitter, Facebook, the City, RSS feeds, streaming, iTunes, etc. – is useful in getting the message out and creating a synergy that wasn’t available 20 years ago. To resist using all things available today demonstrates an idolatry of the past and an ignorance of the present, which, sadly, hinders reaching those we wish to reach.

Arno: I’m excited about the use of technology in reaching the world with the gospel through radio, TV, and internet. I see technology as a useful tool for communication, but we must guard against letting it replace the Word of God and prayer.

Kevin: I don’t think churches can get away with shoving new technologies and communication media out of the picture. We must adopt these tools with commitment and excellence. To not do so would be like speaking Latin on Sunday morning – people wouldn’t receive the message. On the other hand, we can’t be silent about the ways in which these technologies have the potential to undermine authentic relationships.

With many pastors leaving, burning out, or “abandoning the call,” do you think the pastorate is in trouble?

Kevin: I wouldn’t say the pastorate is in trouble, but we must be realistic about the loss that happens when someone leaves a church after having a negative experience. Pastoral ministry involves a skill set that evolves over many years. When this gets cut short, the church suffers. Longevity is one of the greatest catalysts for pastoral effectiveness.

Norm: I run in vibrant church planting circles, and don’t come across many who are burning out and leaving. I know it happens, by my world is full of young guys who want to pull up stakes and move into places where more churches are needed. I’ve actually never felt better about the pastorate within our MB tribe than I do right now. We have our issues – don’t get me wrong – but things are trending up.

Arno: Yes, I think the pastorate is in trouble. The expectations of people and pastors often clash. We’re called to give ourselves to the ministry of the Word and prayer. The pressure to make the church a place of entertainment is crowding out preaching of the Word.

As a pastor, how do you stay healthy and equipped? Is finding a mentor important to you?

: I’m fairly consistent in my practice of certain disciplines – study, reading, prayer, etc. However, solid accountability has always been a struggle; I hit and miss with several men in my life. I find their busyness coupled with mine makes it difficult. At the end of the day, the person I’m most open and vulnerable with is my wife – which is great, I think, and far more biblical.

: My family has been at one with me in the ministry. It’s something we’ve always done together. Along the way, the Lord has provided one or two people in each church who have been a spiritual and personal support. I’ve never had a formal coach or mentor, but often wished I could have had that opportunity. Presently, I’m able to mentor my grandson as my assistant pastor.

Kevin: Being in a multi-staff church environment mitigates the loneliness and burden I imagine I’d feel if I were the only pastor. I meet semi-monthly with our executive pastor for a one-on-one. For me, one of the most important things is having a mentor outside the church to whom I give permission to ask hard questions, and who allows me to vent and process. Taking advantage of local pastoral networks and prayer groups, as well as denominational support people and resources, is also helpful.

Norm:  Regarding healthy boundaries, things are different for me today than five years ago. I’m now fairly tight with my schedule as to when I meet with people. My main priorities are sermon preparation, elder and staff training/leading, and church planting work. Everything else flows from there, and most other things are handled by our staff.

Many church staffs are hindered by a lead pastor who has a saviour complex, or members with “leadpastoritis” – an illness that demands they meet with the lead pastor and the lead pastor only. The best way to deal with this malady is to not feed it.

There’s some controversy over the value of formal theological training for pastors. Did you attend seminary? Why or why not?

: I value Bible-centred training, along with practical experiences. I didn’t attend seminary because it was out of reach financially and not essential for me. I’d encourage those preparing for the pasorate to get formal theological training. But don’t lose your spiritual life while pursuing academics.

Kevin: I attended seminary at MBBS-ACTS, and I would recommend it wholeheartedly. My seminary wasn’t just about theological training, but about providing leadership development, preaching and counselling training, biblical studies and history courses, and material on evangelism and spiritual formation. I’ve drawn on many of the lessons and resources from that time, and would be very ill-equipped without the experience.

Norm: I’ve attended three seminaries – ACTS, Regent, and Western – and don’t have a specific degree from any one of them. I’ve heard some say that getting a degree for degree’s sake demonstrates sticktoitiveness. Perhaps. But I’ve been a pastor for 19 years and have no post-graduate degree, and have met many people with degrees who have since quit the ministry. I think ongoing training, education, reading, and study are vital; however, I don’t find it vital to simply have letters after my name.

What’s one thing you wish people knew or understood about your job?

Arno: I appreciate the love and support of my congregation. The pastor and family can be very lonely, always giving out. It’s easy to forget they have personal and social needs as well.

Norm: I’d like people to realize there’s rarely a moment I don’t think about ministry. I understand, to some degree, what Paul meant when he writes of carrying the “burden” of the church (2 Corinthians 11:28). I think that burden is part and parcel of the pastoral gift.

Kevin: There are lots of opportunities to be involved in lots of good and valuable programs that come across my desk every day. Naturally, I have to pass on some of them. To those looking on, the criteria for my decisions aren’t always clear. But I need to make decisions about what things will most effectively accomplish the great commission.

What’s your best piece of advice for someone who wants to become a pastor?

Norm: If you can do anything else, do it! The pay ain’t great, criticism is over the top, and in this age when everybody just downloads podcasts of their favourite preacher, you don’t stand a chance.

However, if you are called, don’t do anything else. I wouldn’t give up what I do for anything in the world. To paraphrase my mentor, I make a living doing something that will matter 100 years from now.

Arno: Be sure of God’s call. When the going gets tough, remember that if God calls you, he will also see you through.

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