A Reconsideration of the Most Important Qualification for Being a Pastor

By Bob Howard In Essays
Sermon on the Mount

During the past seventy years of serious thought about the pastoral ministry (yes, at fifteen I pondered such things) I have topped the list of qualifications with good preaching.  My retirement has affirmed this priority.  I am not going to sit for twenty minutes or so every week and listen to someone tell me how to understand the Gospel of Jesus Christ when it is clear they don't know what they're preaching about, or doing so in a boring formulaic way that encourages this insomniac to go somewhere else in his head.  

I am, I've been told by those in authority in my denomination, a "difficult" person.  But I am tolerant and gladly give plenty of poetic license to other preachers, when they really try, really try to wrestle with the Scriptures and the English language for the sake of those sitting in front of them.  I know the demands and the difficulties of coming up with something fresh and important to say on a weekly basis.  It isn't easy.  But the guy or gal in the pulpit must damned sure try.

Okay, okay.  But Bob Howard is just one guy.  I'm old enough now not to care if you think me a braggart.  The sun sets sooner than before.  And in the diminishing light I can see that in this matter of pastoral leadership I was exceptional. Scouts for major league baseball teams look for players with excellence in five skills: hitting, hitting with power, fielding, running the bases, and positive attitude.  In the profession of a pastor, I had the full panoply of that job's required skills.  I may not have been an All Star or a Park Avenue pulpiteer, but I did have my moments... most of which you can read about on this site.  

pulpit and prayer

All of which is a lengthy introduction to my re-prioritization (terrible word!) of qualifications for the pastorate.  I'll not list them here.  Read my book.  But here's the point: I now move into first place something I know you know, and have known most of your years in association with a church, any church, what parishioners prize most in their pastor: friendliness.  No, not hail fellow well met; not just a big smile.  Caring, getting to know you and the particulars of "the life journey you are on" (a phrase, if not terrible, then one woefully hackneyed).  Expressed in the week to week engagements with the flock in pursuit of the greatly varied endeavors Christians think worthwhile.

That is, I am agreeing with you, most of you.  Preaching down a notch or two; Connecting with others positively, up to the top. 


The desired openness and warmth will not be a sometime thing.  Availability is essential.  In my years tending the flock, I was usually the last one to leave the church after the benediction; and then the coffee hour, after the last cup.  I answered the phone.  I signed on for every workday.  I cooked dinners for the men and clam chowder for everybody.  I played wink with the junior highs on sleepless overnight "retreats." I fixed Flushomatics in seventeen toilets... and flourescent ballasts everywhere.  I had the "girls" of Deborah Circle sit on my lap when playing Santa at their Christmas party.  I interrupted vacations in Vermont for funerals back home 300 miles away.  I sang in the adult choir. I took communion to shut-ins. That is, I was immersed in the entire intense and sometimes silly patterns of life in the church in the last sixty years.

I was available.  And I loved it.  When asked at retirement what I thought I would miss most, I echoed my ten year old grandsons: "Not being important any more."  Which was just another way of declaring that being in the middle of all the human energy expressed in the name of God was a great way to spend a life.

One last caveat about my new top priority, "the pastor as my friend": when there, there with others, others trying like you to be faithful, warmth and kindness, jollity and frivolity, whatever endears us to each other, the pastor still has to be there, not just a pleasant cipher but curious, wise, worldly, and fully with it.  Being immensely likeable is not a substitute for intelligent and faithful preaching; but it goes a long way to getting the sermon heard.


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