Tom Arthur: A younger pastor seeks advice from an elder

Most mainline seminaries prepare pastors for the church as it was decades ago. But what if the prototypical church now is Willow Creek?

In the ancient church a young monk would approach an elder and ask, 'Abba may I have a word.' Tom Arthur, in his first year out of seminary, seeks advice from elders in these letters. Michael Jinkins' reply is here.

Dear Michael Jinkins,

Recently I picked up your new book “Letters to New Pastors” (Eerdmans). I was soon to be appointed to my first church after graduating from seminary. I began reading the introduction before I was appointed. Once I started, I realized that it would be more fruitful to wait until I actually began in my first church.

You’ll be glad to know that I put your book down, and in its place I picked up Gregory the Great’s “Pastoral Care” and John Chrysostom’s “On the Preisthood,” as your introduction said I should. I found Gregory’s insights just as helpful for today as they were in his time. His exegesis of the human character was sharp and probing. Chrysostom was a little slow to wade through at the beginning, but after slogging through his defense of why he set his friend up to be ordained while skipping town himself (what was that all about?), I found his insights on the pastoral call applicable and challenging. Thanks for pointing me back to the resources for pastoral vocation in our history. It was amazing to me to see how pastors have essentially dealt with the same issues over the last two thousand years.

In July I began my first appointment at a United Methodist Church in Lansing, Michigan. I decided that I needed to make a habit of reading for the first 20-30 minutes of every day. I do this first thing in the morning when I come in the office (I do read devotionally each morning at home as well. I’m currently enjoying Howard Thurman’s “Jesus and the Disinherited”). Before I turn on my computer, I pick up a book and read, lest I get sucked down the endless black hole that is the inbox (any further recommendations?).

I began this discipline with your book. What a wonderful exercise this has been! Your letters have given me considerable help in thinking through all kinds of things that I’ve encountered in my first three months: pastoral care, self-care, leadership, preaching. I often found myself passing on a chapter to a staff member or lay leader. Thank you for this wonderful wisdom and practical guidance.

And yet, there was something missing for me.

Let me tell you a little about my church. It is an eight-year-old church plant. I am their second pastor. While this church is United Methodist, it is organized quite differently than most mainline churches. It is built on a model of ministry more similar to that of Rick Warren’s Saddleback or Bill Hybel’s Willow Creek. And even as I say those are different models, it is worth noting that in our denomination’s monthly magazine for pastors, a survey showed that the number one conference attended by United Methodist pastors is Willow Creek’s Leadership Summit. The reality on the ground is that pastors are engaging these kinds of mega-church models of ministry while seminaries tend to roll their eyes at them.

What seems to lay behind most of your letters and much of my seminary education was a very different idea of what the church looks like. It is an image of church more akin to the kind of church that Richard Lischer describes in his book “Open Secrets,” or the kind of church that John Ames pastors in Marilynne Robinson’s novel “Gilead.” My imagination has been working in that direction for the last four years of seminary, and now I find myself in a church that is completely foreign to the average small rural, urban, or suburban mainline church. While I’m no Bill Hybels, I’ve been appointed to Willow Creek when it was in its infancy!

So here’s my question, if you were writing a letter to Rick Warren or Bill Hybels when they were in their late 20s or early 30s just beginning their churches, what would you tell them? What kind of guidance would you give? How would you encourage them to live out the vision that they have lived out at Saddleback and Willow Creek and how would you caution them? I look forward to your letter just as I looked forward to reading first thing every morning your letters to other new pastors.


Tom Arthur

Tom Arthur is pastor of Sycamore Creek United Methodist Church in Lansing, Michigan.