by Josh Kary
June 2020 marked one year since being installed as an Associate Pastor at Calvary Grace Church. I offer a few of my own gleanings upon reflection of my first year as a pastor.
My Wife is a Great Gift
Marriage makes pastoring more joyful and more difficult at the same time. Having a wife naturally divides my interests and time (cf. 1 Cor 7:32-35) between shepherding my family (priority #1) and my church (priority #2). I will give an account to the Lord for my leadership in both “households”, which is quite sobering to think about.
Even with the challenges that come with the distractions of home-life, it is evident to me that Julie has been my greatest helper along the way and that my ministry as a pastor is better because of her. Next week we are officially 8 years into marriage. She has supported, encouraged, and challenged my (sometimes wrongly motivated) ambitions in ministry along the way. At times, she is like a pressure release valve who listens to my opinions on all sorts of tertiary issues (which she can assure you are not typically in short supply). She is also a great sounding board to help me know if I’m going over people’s heads or actually communicating truth clearly for the average, non-seminary trained Christian. Her ministry of the ear has helped me become a better teacher.
The last several months have been difficult for her, especially with adding another baby to the mix and some additional health challenges. She was just beginning to find some energy and traction to do more hospitality when the COVID lockdowns happened and immediately deflated those opportunities for ministry that she aspired to lean into. But all along she has been doing ministry behind the scenes, in ways that sometimes only the Lord sees. At this time she fulfills her ministry primarily at home, caring for our two kids while I’m at work during the day, teaching on Sunday mornings, or engaged in meetings in the evening. Her ministry helps free me up to give energy to overseeing and caring for the church as a pastor. It also gives me confidence that our children are being instructed and disciplined well while I’m not home.
Through all the ups and downs of the past year(s), I see more and more that she is the helper fit for me.
A Plurality of Pastor-Elders is Wise
At my first elders meeting – less than a week after being installed as pastor – we dealt with a difficult church discipline situation. Tragically it culminated in the church removing our affirmation of the faith of two individuals because of their refusal to turn from their sins. A couple of weeks after this meeting we met with another individual who was previously disciplined out of the church and whose actions were at risk of causing division and confusion in the church. This is the soul-wrenching stuff of pastoral ministry, and I didn’t have to wait long to see it up close and personal.
I came off the bench cold, not knowing the people involved and the full scope of their situations. I generally kept my mouth shut during the meetings, speaking up if I wanted clarification on some matter or if I was asked for my thoughts. Through it all, I saw the wisdom of God at work through a plurality of qualified pastor-elders, submitting themselves to God’s Word for direction and God’s mercy for change.
The first year of ministry further confirmed what I already believed: the church is managed and cared for best when there is a group of biblically qualified men (1 Tim 3:1-7) who are committed to shepherd the church (1 Pet 5:2) by keeping watch over themselves and others (1 Tim 4:16; Heb. 13:17), setting an example of godliness for others to imitate (Heb 13:7; 1 Tim ), and preaching the same gospel no matter the cost (2 Tim 4:2). This past year would have been far more stressful, way less joyful, and substantially less instructive for me if it were not for the collective wisdom and example of my fellow pastors all rowing in the same direction.
It is Possible to Be a Convictional and Welcoming Church
It might seem to go without saying that a church should welcome sinners and not shrink back from sound doctrine and calling people to repent and believe in Christ. After all, no church sign that I’ve seen advertises, “we’re jerks, stay away!”. And no church website has a scrolling banner across the top that reads, “We hate the truth!”. But if we are honest, some churches lack the familial warmth, patience, compassion of Christ towards sinners (Mark 6:34) that ought to mark the “household of God” (1 Tim 3:15), even while they are committed to sound doctrine. The opposite problem of being “welcoming” but theologically soft and undefined in terms of the gospel and church membership and practices is equally problematic and sadly all too common. But thankfully I’ve seen that this is not the case overall with my Calvary Grace family.
The term, “welcoming church” has been hijacked by our culture to mean that you must hollow out your convictions in order to make space to not only welcome people (which we gladly do), but affirm and celebrate people whose lifestyles are out of step with the will of God (which we cannot do). What I see with the saints of Calvary Grace is a church committed to thick doctrine and thick love. They desire the salvation of the lost and the restoration of the wandering, but they don’t coddle sin and error as if it’s no big deal. Of course, there is always room for growth and sinful tendencies sometimes push individuals to one ditch or the other. There is the perennial need to watch out for the deadly traps of loveless orthodoxy on the one hand (Rev 2:4) and tolerance for falsehood on the other (Rev 2:20). Over the past year, I see in our church a genuine love for all people, situated on the foundation of an unwavering commitment to the truth that all people need to be forgiven of their sins, and that there is one man – Christ Jesus – who has died to forgive and change anyone who trusts in him alone to save them from the judgment that they deserve for their sins.
When I was candidating, it was obvious to me that I wouldn’t be able to pull the wool over the eyes of the elders or the church. The Word of God is so much a part of their spiritual DNA, which means that they have sharp, intuitive responses to test all things and people by the Word of God (Acts 17:11). The pastors and members were on high alert during my candidacy, closely examining my life and doctrine. This signified to me that they take the Bible’s qualifications for elders seriously (1 Tim 3:1-7). I could tell that they were Bible people. Yet even after going through the wringer of an elder ordination council – which included writing a theological paper, a personal statement of faith, and an examination of my life and doctrine – along with lunch meetings with members and a period of congregational review and response, the church warmly welcomed me and my family.
My church has reminded me that truth and love are friends, not enemies.
Trust is Earned Over Time
One of the big lessons that I gleaned over this past year is that trust increases with time and as others see your sincere labours for their good. I have no doubt that the church trusts me as one of their pastors. But there are deeper levels of trust and privilege that are earned over time as my love for God and this church grows more evident through my words and actions.
Even though I am the only other full-time staff pastor, I found out quite quickly that people don’t always come to me first – or even second or third – when they need counsel. My flesh takes this as a personal assault on my knowledge and ability as a pastor. But the truth is that in most cases they go to others simply because don’t know me as well as they know the other pastors or members. I would likely do the same if I was in their shoes.
Young pastors – and all Christians for that matter – need to remember that trust is earned. If you forget this, you will grow bitter and controlling when people skirt around you for help. The fact that people don’t always come to me is a helpful reminder that they need the Lord far more than they need me, and that I’m not the only instrument who God uses to help people change. What a gift it is to have other trustworthy and competent pastors and church members who can counsel one another with the truth.
The flock that God gives me to pastor will increasingly trust me as they see a shepherd who continues to lead them to green pastures of truth and works diligently to guard and protect them from harm, even at cost to myself. The shepherd earns trust over time as his godly character is displayed.
Hold Your Plans Loosely
At the beginning of 2020, I was making plans for what I thought was going to be an exciting year of ministry ahead. Some of these plans for the fall meshed well with my desire to train young men to be theologically rigorous churchmen – some of whom might become pastors or deacons down the road. I was also considering the possibility of heading overseas to help a missionary train indigenous pastors. Additionally, the church budget was at record levels of health and we planned to renovate portions of our building and add more support staff. We honestly believed that these were some of the best next steps in obedience to the mission Christ calls us to obey.
And then COVID hit.
No one could have predicted this pandemic and all of the side effects from the ensuing lockdown and depressed economy. Nothing is ideal about this new corona-age, and it has quickly sidelined a lot of our plans. Through this time, I’m realizing once again that James’ expression, “if the Lord wills” (James 4:15), is not just a Christian slogan that we use to garnish our emails and conversations to help give them the proper “christian” flavour. It’s absolutely true, regardless of whether or not we acknowledge it. There is an asterisks beside every one of our plans: *subject to change without notice, if the Lord wills. We are not the sovereign ruler of the universe, and not even of our own lives.
God’s interferes with out plans often hurts because he brings changes which don’t always seem wise. I felt this acute tension and pain when my Aunt (like a second mother to me) died of cancer just before the lockdown. At 58, her death was certainly not what anyone in my family planned or wanted. When our plans are interrupted, we are forced to ask the question as Christians: Do I believe that God is always good and that his plans (including trials) are designed for my best interests as his child, even when they go contrary to what I want or think is good (Rom 8:28)? Or is God only good when my plans work out according to my will? We know the right answer to the questions, but it takes God-given faith to really believe that God’s ways are always best when our seemingly good plans are interrupted by hard providences.
Chuck Swindoll recalls having a conversation with Corrie Ten Boom shortly before she died. In her thick Dutch accent, she shared a good bit of advice for us all: “”Pastor Svendahl, you must learn to hold everyting loosely . . . everyting. Even your dear family. Why? Because da Fater may vish to take vun of tem back to Himself, und ven He does, it vill hurt you if He must pry your fingers loose….Vemember, hold everyting loosely…everyting.”
Like wise ants, we plan and prepare for the future (Prov 6:7-8). But in our planning, we must consciously hold everything loosely, submitting our plans to God’s will, knowing and believing that his ways are always aimed at doing us good, even if we cannot see the how and why right now.
This article first appeared on The Furrow