I had the opportunity to attend the Andrew Fuller Conference at Southern Seminary this past week. On my flight home, I read a book I’ve been looking forward to for years — D.A. Carson’s Memoirs of an Ordinary Pastor: The Life and Reflections of Tom Carson.
I was first drawn to this book through a couple of podcasts and/or interviews of Dr. Carson when it came out. The book recounts the rather ordinary, yet significant life of his father Tom, a Baptist pastor1 in French Quebec through the 1950s, 60s, and 70s. There are a number of reviews of the book out there and I’ll link to a few at the bottom of the post. I wanted to list a few observations from the life of Dr. Carson’s parents, Marg and Tom, which resonated with me as an older and hopefully, wiser retired pastor.
- Most pastors and leaders will serve congregations of 100 or less. Of course, that’s a well-known statistic but it’s good to be reminded now and again, particularly from the experience of a Christian rock star like D.A. Carson. He’s lived on both sides of Notoriety Street as the son of Marg and Tom in a church of no more than 40 people
- You will experience crises. In the case of Tom and Marg, they set out with their family on a church plant with the promise of financial support, in writing, which was suddenly withdrawn and given to others. This was potentially devastating, both to the Carsons personally/financially and their fledgling church. But, the Lord had their back and they escaped a bitter quagmire. Yes, leader: friends and leaders will sometimes lack the most basic Christian character and treat you worse than the pagans will! In fact, you can count on it.
- Darkness, defeat, and depression are far more common in the life of a pastor than you may think — you are not alone and, in fact, are in good company. Remember, Jesus was a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief, just like Jeremiah, Job, and plenty of others. There doesn’t seem to be a place in some people’s canon for a Jeremiah, a psalmist or an apostle who was “so utterly burdened beyond our strength that we despaired of life itself.” (2 Corinthians 1:8 ESV) The Bible is full of gloomy nights for the people of God. But, joy comes in the morning. This is probably the most valuable lesson in Dr. Carson’s book as he reproduces Tom’s journal entries, as well as his Scriptural antidotes, during periods of self-doubt, self-condemnation, self-flagellation, and deep despondency.
- You will experience incredible satisfaction and joy when you see individuals or scores of people brought to life as the Spirit gives sight to blind eyes and the Word of God bears fruit in those new lives. Marg and Tom remained faithful for 3 discouraging decades, among small churches. Then, in the 1970s the Lord moved in a remarkable way through surprising cultural and political events, as well as a crop of young leaders, to see the small sowing they had begun in French-speaking Canada explode into a massive harvest of souls! They received little recognition when those dynamic leaders were thrusting in the sickle, but plenty of love and kind remembrances at their memorials.
When Don Carson was a student at the Central Baptist Seminary, he learned that his father had played a significant role in the establishment of the Baptist association in that part of Canada, as well as the seminary. One lecturer ended a survey of the Baptist history in the area with these words: “One of the first things I want to see when I get to heaven is Tom Carson’s crown.” And, the first thing Tom would point out is that there would be now crown without the Gospel and Marg by his side.
Owen Strachan says, “This is one of the best books you will ever read about the Christian ministry.” I think the book is helpful for those pastors at the end of their lives to make sense of what happened to them and because of them — how their belief in the Gospel or occasional unbelief of the Gospel informs their conscience and “ their conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse them” in assessing their lifetime of labor (Romans 2:15 ESV). But, I would invite young leaders, elders and deacons, to read this book and count the cost of serving the Church. I want to help you understand what you are getting into and then encourage you to go forward and experience the often painful and mundane joy of leading a Gospel community! It’s not my desire to discourage but encourage sober thought and reflection on the task ahead.
A good companion to this book is this video sermon series by Alexander Strauch, author of Biblical Eldership. These messages distill lessons learned over four decades of pastoral ministry in an exposition of 1 Peter 5.
- The New Testament uses the terms <em>elder</em>, <em>pastor/shepherd</em>, <em>overseer/bishop </em> interchangeably. This NT vocabulary serves to illustrate or emphasize the character and functions of the leader(s) in local Christian communities. So, when I speak of elders, pastors, or overseers on this blog I am referring to the same leaders within a church – <em>an elder is a pastor and an overseer.</em> [↩]