Let no one despise you for your youth, but set the believers an example in . . . conduct. (1 Timothy 4:12)
My brother pastor, this tragic world has no idea how much you’re worth. But in the eyes of the risen Christ, you so matter. You carry weight with him, and you can carry weight with the people in your church. And this gravitas has nothing to do with your age.
If the ministry makes you feel inadequate, welcome to the ministry! Even the prophet Jeremiah felt that way. But the Lord told Jeremiah to stop his defeatist thoughts: “Do not say, ‘I am only a youth’; for to all to whom I send you, you shall go, and whatever I command you, you shall speak” (Jeremiah 1:7). And then God reached out and put his own words in Jeremiah’s mouth (Jeremiah 1:9). Why? Because what matters more than your mouth is whose words are in your mouth.
And, remember, your calling is to pastor, not only to preach. These two primary tasks are inseparable but distinguishable. Preaching declares gospel doctrine, and pastoring nurtures gospel culture. When the pastor’s message is good news, and his manner is gentle warmth, “church” can start feeling like an experience of Jesus himself. And it’s exemplary pastoral conduct, surrounding both preaching and pastoring, that leads people into those green pastures and beside those still waters.
You don’t have to be brilliant, but you must be exemplary. First Timothy 4:12 says so. And how could it be otherwise? We can think of gifted ministers whose shameful conduct has discredited them and grieved us all. The whole world, along with the entire Christian church, has every right to expect us to be surprisingly exemplary in this age of corruption. Brother, let’s stand tall with Christlike integrity, as true-hearted men of God. If we corrupt ourselves, we, like King David, will give “great occasion to the enemies of the Lord to blaspheme” (2 Samuel 12:14 NKJV). So much is at stake right here: “Let no one despise you for your youth, but set the believers an example in . . . conduct.”
Pastoring in ‘Little’ Moments
Conduct, in the original text, suggests your multifaceted lifestyle, your many moments on many fronts, your total way of life in all its variety. This word covers all your interactions with people, all aspects of your job performance, all occasions of family life and leisure. George Abbot-Smith’s Manual Greek Lexicon catches the sense with “a wheeling about” — that is, a turning from one moment to the next as each day unfolds.
The whole-life-ness of conduct reminds me of one way I’ve changed over the years. Back in college, all my friends were reading The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien. So I took it up too. But I couldn’t stick with it. The story unfolded so slowly, with one subplot after another slowing the onward movement of the drama. I started thinking, “Get to the point!” In my impatience, I gave up. That was in the 1970s.
Then the summer before the first LOTR movie came out in 2001, I tried again. I wanted my own imagination to paint the pictures. And this time, I couldn’t put the books down. Why? Tolkien hadn’t changed. I had changed. I had come to realize, by my fifties, that my real life is just like Tolkien’s portrayal — one tiny subplot after another, but each one meaningful within the larger story. I now understand that all my tiny moments are building toward the final denouement promised by God. So, I get it. Many small moments are how our lives actually work. They are where our conduct is formed and displayed. They matter.
The Book of Common Prayer gets us praying that “among the swift and varied changes of this world, our hearts may surely there be fixed where true joys are to be found.” Exactly. That’s the realism, and the hope, empowering exemplary pastoral conduct.
Your Life Can Persuade
Let’s admit it. In lots of moments, ministry can feel insignificant. But your little moments are not little. Each one fits meaningfully into your story, as told by the Lord Jesus. Every meeting, every conversation, every quiet minute of study — all of it constitutes your conduct, declares your character, and can inspire your congregation. So, think long-term, and be patient. If God isn’t rushing around in a hurry, why should you? Over time, your exemplary conduct, growing into a magnificent totality, is convincing. You will win the respect of good people.
Yes, sadly, some church people will never respect you. But most others will be reasonable and will admire your example. They will feel proud that you are their pastor. You will prove the wisdom of saintly old J.C. Ryle: “Your life is an argument that none can escape.”
Now let’s get practical. As in my last article on exemplary speech, let’s see how Titus 2:2 can help us: “Older men are to be sober-minded, dignified, self-controlled.” The “older men” are the grown-ups in the room. Your conduct can make you one of those heroes right now. Whatever your age, you can help set the tone for everyone else.
The exemplary pastor’s conduct is calm. He strides forward with gentle confidence. It isn’t bravado. It is sober realism. You are, in fact, serving the One who has all authority in heaven and on earth. You have no right to be inflated with pride or crippled with fear. The Lord of the universe called you into the ministry. He has been preparing you all your life for the duties and challenges of this very day. You’re more ready than you feel. Dare to believe it. And go do the next right thing.
You can be a mature father-figure in your church. And good fathers know what to do, what to say, as the occasion requires. Then the other family members feel reassured, safe, grateful. What a wonderful calling your Lord has given you! You don’t have to deserve it, but you do have to receive it. Your exemplary conduct proves to your people that “Papa’s home.”
The exemplary pastor’s conduct is noble. The longer I live, the more I desire this in my own life. That title “Reverend” before your name calls for this very quality of dignity, nobility, honor. I have no respect for pompous grandiosity in a minister. But gravitas — I revere it, and I expect it.
Is there laughter in the ministry? Oh, yes! How lovely a sound is the hearty laughter of the saints! But infantile silliness, common in our declining culture, deserves no place among the blood-bought people of God. We worship here below in harmony with “angels and archangels and with all the company of heaven,” as the Book of Common Prayer reminds us. Please, brother, show your church, by your exemplary conduct, what that dignity can look like — even this Sunday.
The exemplary pastor’s conduct is steady. Maybe at times you notice some unruly emotions inside you, as I do inside me. That bad neighborhood between our two ears can be a crazy place to dwell in. Our dark thoughts and feelings can dominate us, even defeat us. But godly men fight back. They dare to live in Spirit-given self-control.
Why not go to a trusted friend at church to talk and pray through together what most unsettles you? No one grows in isolation, not even pastors. But all of us can walk in newness of life by going to a wise friend with this humble request: “Help me see myself.” Who wouldn’t benefit from that? Your vulnerability itself will be exemplary conduct. And you will grow in the steady self-mastery that adorns the gospel you preach.
Exemplary or Cool?
The great thing about being 73 and half-dead is that I’m not cool anymore. It’s freeing. I don’t have to project an idealized false Ray. I can get over myself and love others. And here is my plea to you, my brother pastor: Why not enter that freedom right now, at your younger age? You can be exemplary in your conduct, by God’s grace, at a level that surprises even you.
Rolling Stone magazine interviewed Billy Joel back in 1990. Here’s a snippet of what he said:
I need substance in my life. And the world needs substance. The world doesn’t need any more hip. Hip is dead. The world doesn’t need more cool, more clever. The world needs substantial things.
The world needs substantial pastors too. That’s what I believe. It’s what you believe. Okay then: set the believers an example in your conduct.