Be Encouraged: Introducing the Ordinary Pastors Project

“We often let the big ideas, the majestic vistas of salvation, the grand visions of God’s work in the world, and the great opportunities for making an impact in the name of Jesus distract us from taking with gospel seriousness the unglamorous ordinary.”

Eugene Peterson in Practice Resurrection: A Conversation on Growing Up in Christ

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There were four of us in the car when Collin Hansen asked, “What is something you would like to see more of that we could put on The Gospel Coalition’s site?” I cannot remember if my response was immediate. But my first thought was, What about something highlighting the work of the ordinary pastor? The conversation then turned to the unique contribution of Memoirs of an Ordinary Pastor: The Life and Reflections of Tom Carson, Don Carson’s book about his father.

In the evangelical world I live, move, and breath in, this book is, well, unusual. Weird even. We celebrate the extraordinary feats of ministry performed by the prominent pastors. Their interviews go viral. Perhaps it has always been this way. But I read Carson’s book as a much-needed shot of encouragement for the vast majority of pastors who will never speak to more than a few dozen in out-of-the-way places.

This initial conversation took place the day before C.J. Mahaney’s talk for the Together for the Gospel conference in April 2010. The title alone, “Ordinary Pastors,” interested me. But his call for faithfulness and encouragement to those who minister in obscurity was a moment of providential bliss for me. So I am not alone in seeing this need, I thought.

Having no clue Collin was actually interested in this proposal, I forgot about it for The Gospel Coalition. But I must admit, I did nurse the desire to think deeply about the faithfulness of unknown, ordinary pastors, who serve in a culture that honors the celebrities. But Collin was serious. He and I both thought—think—there is a real need to encourage and honor ordinary pastors. Why? We tend to equate importance with fame. The net effect, then, is that thousands more pastors harbor a sneaking suspicion that they are not really doing anything of lasting importance.

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The ordinary pastor is not alone in his discouragement. Overburdened and overworked, famous pastors must also deal with discouragement. But they have fans. And fan pages on Facebook. Their discouragement draws interviews and grabs the attention of book publishers. All this turns into an encouraging opportunity altogether foreign to the experience of the ordinary pastor.

So TGC’s new Ordinary Pastors Project is an effort to say, “Be encouraged.”

Be encouraged. Be encouraged in the midst of ministerial duties that are mind-numbingly mundane. Be encouraged in a world drunk on the sweet nectar of the spectacular. Be encouraged when you preach the gospel clearly. Be encouraged after years of faithfulness, even if you don’t have numbers that impress conference organizers. Be encouraged in the tedium. Be encouraged when you see the same faces week-in and week-out. Be encouraged as you marry and bury, counsel and speak at the local lodge’s spring pancake breakfast. Be encouraged.

Be encouraged when dreams of thousands have careened against the retaining wall of reality with hundreds. Or dozens, even. Be encouraged when no one has heard of you, your church, or your town. Be encouraged in the midst of decline. Be encouraged when you must stop preparing your sermon to clean the bathrooms. Be encouraged, because you stand before God redeemed and loved because of Christ’s righteousness credited to you. Be encouraged, for this right standing before God is not based on the success of your ministry, loved no less because it is ordinary. Be encouraged, ordinary pastor.

Be encouraged when growth is slow and measured by generations. Be encouraged when guilt, fear, and the specter of failure form an unholy alliance against you. Be encouraged when young men grown fat on the feast of podcasts question your every move. Be encouraged when no one knows your name; it is written in blood in the book of life. Ordinary pastor, be encouraged: Your faithful labor in the darkened forest of obscurity is heroic.

This is not mere rhetoric. And it’s not romanticizing. This is the reality. Carson writes:


Most of us, however, serve in more modest patches. Most pastors will not regularly preach to thousands, let alone tens of thousands. They will not write influential books, they will not supervise large staffs, and they will never see more than modest growth. They will plug away at their care for the aged, at their visitation, at their counseling, at their Bible studies and preaching. Some will work with so little support that they will prepare their own bulletins.

They cannot possibly discern whether the constraints of their own sphere of service owe more to the specific challenges of the local situation or to their own shortcomings. Once in a while they will cast a wistful eye on “successful” ministries. Many of them will attend the conferences sponsored by the revered masters and come away with a slightly discordant combination of, on the one hand, gratitude and encouragement and, on the other, jealousy, feelings of inadequacy, and guilt.

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By encouraging ordinary pastors, we do not intend to merely turn the tables and slight the God-anointed ministry of revered pastors with extraordinary gifts. Rather, we seek balance, contentment to be faithful before God and counted among the ranks of the ordinary pastors, even as we learn from those who move in the circles of the celebrated. All who have been called to serve the body of Christ ultimately find their fulfillment in God and his glory.

Really, the phrase “ordinary pastor” is a misnomer. For all who pastor by the power of the gospel do extraordinary work: preaching the Word, comforting the hurting, baptizing, and administering the Lord’s Supper. It is all extraordinary. After all, “we have this treasure in jars of clay.” This way, “the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us” (2 Cor. 4:7). No wonder, then, the extraordinary is in the ordinary.


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Note from TGC:

Would you like to honor and encourage the ordinary pastor in your life? Did God use a certain pastor to lead you toward Jesus Christ and raise you in the faith? Tell us about him in about 500 words and include a photo, or record a video testimonial of five minutes or less and send the link to TGC plans a regular feature that highlights the extraordinary work of God, who does indeed store the treasure of his gospel in ordinary jars of clay. We also plan to interview prominent pastors to learn who modeled for them the love of God and encouraged deeper trust and faith. With the Ordinary Pastors Project, we hope to find wisdom and honor in faithfulness, demonstrated in varied contexts.

Collin Hansen, Editorial Director

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  • Stephen Altrogge

    This is an outstanding project. Thank you so much for doing this!

  • B.J. Maxwell

    This is an extraordinary idea!

  • deb t

    Thank-you for this post. I am married to just, such a man. This will encourage him in many ways. Thanks for caring!!

  • Gene Jennings

    This is great! I look forward to reading more!

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  • John Koessler

    Yes, by all means. I am reminded of Eugene Peterson’s observation: “Most pastoral work takes place in obscurity; deciphering grace in the shadows, searching out meaning in a difficult text, blowing on the embers of a hard-used life. This is hard work and not conspicuously glamorous.” Many (most?) of the role models paraded before us at pastors conferences are serving in contexts that bear very little resemblance to the ordinary pastor’s circumstances. They are pastoral supermodels, whose airbrushed image leaves the ordinary pastor feeling unsuccessful and inadequate.

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  • Jim Jacobson

    Wow, thanks for this article. It was a rough weekend, I am encouraged!

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  • Tim Kerr

    Thank you for caring for ALL pastors in this practical way. I think the gnawing burden of many pastors of small churches is that we do not live with God’s favor on us. It is easier to except ones limitations in gifting or God’s sovereign plan, than to face the feeling that small = not favored by God. This is because we all know that in most cases a growing church IS an evidence of God’s favor(praise God for large growing churches!) Yet I remind myself that the greatest favor God could ever give is mine already in the fact that Christ died for my sins and has brought one so undeserving to himself.

  • kg

    this made me cry. thank you JESUS!

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  • Fr. Bill Mouser

    So far, so good. Eye catching to the ordinary pastor. But, as I read the paragraph beginning “Be encouraged. Be encouraged in the midst of ministerial duties that are mind-numbingly mundane. Be encouraged …” and ending with ” …be encouraged: Your faithful labor in the darkened forest of obscurity is heroic.” a couple of paragraphs later …

    … well, I began to hear in the background “Be warmed! Be filled!”

    In other words, it’s a good thing to propose to encourage ordinary pastors. I’m not sure that simply saying “Be encouraged here and be encouraged there” is going to do much. It might even be discouraging!

    What, exactly, are you proposing to do that causes ordinary pastors to be encouraged? I have some ideas of my own, but this isn’t my project. It’s yours. What are you actually going to do, beyond saying “Be encouraged?”

    Ordinary pastors are eager to see how you answer this.

  • Ken

    I respect the heart behind this project and look forward to reading some of the stuff that will be produced. But it strikes me odd that one of the things you are planning to do is make some of the ordinary pastors – well – famous. Just be aware that there will be many pastors whose people will not send 500 word essays, or photos or glowing testimonies. And they will have to add one more discouragement to their long list already – the fact that no one will ever write this forum to show any kind of appreciation. It will hurt – again.

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  • Josue Sanchez

    In 1976 my father embarked on a church plant adventure that would see little growth in numbers some thirty years later. The church building was located in Manatee county but many of these people were either illegal or had no transportation, dad new he had to go to them. The ministry he was lead to serve in was ministering to the hispanic migrant farm worker in the Florida counties of Manatee, Sarasota, Hardee, Charlotte, Highlands, Hillsborough. This is a very wide spread area and since they’re migrant workers they migrate throughout the United States seeking farm work wherever available depending on what the farmers were growing for that season. No other pastor was willing to serve where there would be constant change in congregation and where you had to go to them instead of them coming to you to hear the preaching. For 30 years my father lead this ministry and loved every minute of it and in those 30 years he saw the Lord save many and as they would go back to their own country many in turn would start a ministry there reaching out to the forgotten people. Father has had the privilege of preaching in Mexico, Dominican Republic, Guatemala, Puerto Rico at churches that have been started by people he lead to the Lord while they were in the U.S.

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  • Anonymous

    Love the idea of this. Is there any other discussion topics that could help as well?

    I ask, because my pastor is very discouraged of late. Discouraged by the total domination of the local celebrity church here in the Seattle area. I’m not sure how to encourage him.

    I helped plant a church with him almost three years ago because he is a great preacher who has a heart for the lost and the church we were from was just getting too big. We felt called to plant in Bellevue and now have about 180 attendees. Some good growth, but no where near the growth of this mega-church with a pastor known world-wide.

    This guy is a true pastor. I have never seen in person such a great preacher that also shepherds his flock with such care. This guy is the real deal.

    The discouraging part is that is seems everywhere you go in the are they are taking over other “struggling” churches. They guarantee an attendance of 800 the first weekend because they can pipe their famous pastor in live via satellite. What? Doesn’t that sound like a business to anyone else?

    What is just as frustrating is the arrogance of the video statements online. They marginalize and assume that NO ONE has been working for the sake of the gospel in a community until they “come in” to win the city for Christ.

    How does one respond to this if you have a heathy but smaller church?

    There seems to be no place for a “local” church anymore with a phenomenal preacher who just doesn’t have the celebrity status. A church where the gospel is diligently preached. Where living and dying is done. Where the elders and pastors know the names, hurts, and joys of it’s people and gently encourage with patience to walk in faith and the preaching of the gospel. (2 Tim 4:1-5)

    What’s interesting to me is how it’s not the non-believers who are driving great small churches and preachers into the ground. It’s the mega-tele-satellite church down the street who seems to be just as concerned about building the empire as it is about saving the lost.

    When you are discouraged this kind of stuff is like a kick to the throat. How do I encourage my pastor when it feels like the big guys could care less about the work he has done to date?

    Please understand that I am not against this mega-church. It’s just hard to keep striving when you feel like you are being undercut at every turn by the rich friend next door.

    I guess I just needed to get this out. I can’t sleep because I am very concerned for my pastor. I respect all of you deeply and would humbly take any grace filled advice.

    Blessing on you for this blog. I would love some guidance. Is it just me?