But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word.
Acts 6:4 ESV
In 1 Peter 5:2-3, pastors are given three commands which correspond to their three titles: shepherd the flock (pastor), exercise oversight (overseer), and be an example to the flock (elder). Each command is a different aspect of leading God’s people. Pastors lead by shepherding, overseers lead by overseeing, and elders lead by modeling. These are great overall ideas, but how does that look in the everyday? What are the primarily tasks by which a pastor shepherds, an elder models, and an overseer oversees? Acts 6:4 gives us the two most important tasks required of a pastor: prayer and the ministry of the Word.
As we will see when we study the responsibilities of deacons, the apostles within Acts 6 are acting as prototype elders of the church in Jerusalem, and within that text, they also establish the first seven prototype deacons. Therefore, the apostles’ resolve to commit themselves primarily to prayer and the ministry of the Word must also be the heart of every pastor. The entire purpose behind establishing deacons was to defend pastors’ ability to focus upon praying and ministering the Word.
Above all things, pastors must devote themselves to prayer and the ministry of the Word. That’s not to say that an elder does not have other tasks that must be done, but being devoted means giving unremitted attention to these two things. If he can do only two things, they are prayer and the ministry of the Word. People often have a multitude of expectations for what a pastor ought to do, but the Bible is clear that these two tasks must be first and foremost.
The Ministry of the Word
A pastor must be rooted in God’s Word. As an overseer, he oversees through the Word of God. As a pastor, he shepherds with the Word of God. As an elder, he models submission to the Word of God. As intimidating as being a young pastor can be, it also forces me to depend upon the Scripture. I simply do not have the life experience or the time-hardened wisdom to say many things that must be said. Fortunately, I have God’s Word, which is the only authority worth asserting.
For the importance of ministering the Word to others, we only need to turn to the life of Jesus. The primary focus of Jesus’ earthly ministry was preaching the gospel. This, of course, runs against what we tend to assume. Our minds first go to Jesus’ miracles, but He performed those miracles in order to demonstrate the authority of His preaching. Mark 1:35-39 tells of Jesus’ disciples informing Him of people in need of healing, but He says to them, “Let us go on to the next towns, that I may preach there also, for that is why I came out” (v. 38).
Furthermore in Mark 6 we find the account of Jesus feeding the five thousand. Verse 34 gives provides the background to that miracle:
When he went ashore he saw a great crowd, and he had compassion on them, because they were like sheep with a shepherd. And he began to teach them many things.
It is tempting to link Jesus’ compassion upon the crowd immediately to His feeding them; however, Jesus’ love for them was first displayed in His teaching them. They were lost sheep, so He shepherded them by teaching them the good news of the kingdom. Jesus, therefore, saw teaching as shepherding. This is even further enforced by Jesus command for Peter to feed His sheep in John 21:15-19.
The mark of teaching God’s Word is so important for a pastor that it is listed in the office’s qualifications (1 Timothy 3:2). Although there will almost always be teachers in the church who are not elders, the ability to teach God’s Word is a requirement for elders. To be more succinct, not all teachers are elders, but all elders are teachers.
Titus 1:9 reiterates this necessity while providing a twofold look at its practice:
He [an overseer] must hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it.
Three points must be made from this verse. First, the ministry of the Word means holding firm to the Word as trustworthy. Second, he must be able to give instruction in sound doctrine. Third, he must be able to refute those who contradict it. Instructing and refuting are the two arms of ministering the only Word that is entirely worthy of our trust. In shepherding terms, instruction is feeding the sheep, while refutation is protecting them. All pastors must feed the sheep by teaching the Scripture and drive away the wolves by rebuking false doctrine.
The second task of an elder is prayer. Why is prayer a job requirement for an elder? Aren’t all Christians supposed to pray? The quick answer is yes. All Christians are certainly called to pray. But remember, elders are models of Christian maturity; therefore, a pastor should desire for all those in his church to pray like him.
If this does not humble a pastor, he should probably examine his heart. Few Christians, pastors included, are strong enough in their prayer to confidently tell a new Christian to pray like they pray. Elders, nevertheless, must model prayer.
This does not mean, however, that elders are the only models of prayer in a church. Specific ministries of intercession are sorely missing in most churches today. In fact, I would urge each Christian to grow in intercessory prayer throughout their life. Too many older believers become disheartened in their old age that they cannot do the ministries they once did due to physical constraints. Aging, of course, cannot be stopped; therefore, we should prepare for becoming warriors of intercessory prayer in the years where our bodies can no longer perform many of their former tasks.
Elders, though, should not only model prayer for the congregation; they should also pray for the flock of God. Personally, I use either physical notecards or the app, PrayerMate, to pray for every member of the church. Placing each family unit on a card, I pray for three to five cards each morning. While that system is not required of each elder, it does ensure that each member is being prayed for by his or her pastor on a regular basis. Without this system, I tend to only pray for those who I know are in present need of prayer, but as a follower of Christ, I do not want people to only pray for me whenever I am in visible need. I want to be prayed for at all times because I need prayer at all times! How then can I not do the same for the congregation?
The danger of prayer is that it is so easy to neglect. Since most prayer happens behind the scenes, a pastor can be readily convinced of the need to focus on more “important” and showy things.
In terms of importance, seemingly random needs will always come to the surface at the moment of prayer. Unfulfilled to-do lists come to mind with a renewed resolved to see them accomplished whenever one becomes ready to pray. But there is no work more important than prayer.
As for showy things, it is all to easy, as a pastor, for me to neglect prayer in favor of doing things that will be seen by others. For me at least, it’s rarely a means of stereotypcial boasting; rather, I often fear being viewed as lazy. Time spent in prayer, after all, is time not spent elsewhere. By working prayer into my schedule, I must set aside more “productive” and visible tasks.
The heart is ultimately at stake here. I prefer the hands-on work because it can be recognized and affirmed by others; prayer, however, is between God and I. Working for the approval of men is often the root cause of my procrastination of prayer. Prayer is work, but it is work without the recognition and affirmation of others. Since pastors live before the watching eyes of the congregation, God was certainly wise in pairing the public work of teaching with the private work of prayer. When I teach well, I risk taking the glory for myself, but knelt in true prayer, I can do nothing but give glory to God.
Prayer forces a pastor to remember that only the Holy Spirit can change hearts. Pastors need to always be reminded that God shepherds His people through them. God is the worker, and they are His instruments. They cannot do the work of shepherding alone; they need the empowerment of the Spirit.