The One Thing I Was Missing Right Out of Seminary
On the morning of January 1, 1996, I sat down in my office as the new interim assistant pastor of South Shore Baptist Church. Nothing conveys a sense of significance and job security like the title “interim assistant pastor.”
But that morning, I was just happy to be done with school and have a real ministry job. I had finished my last seminary classes a few weeks earlier, wrapping up two and a half years of full-time graduate study. And immediately prior to seminary, I had pushed through four years of undergraduate work in biblical studies. With more than six years of uninterrupted schooling under my belt, I clearly had everything necessary to be a pastor: two theological degrees, a budding commentary collection, and a few sermons at the ready from my preaching classes. What else did I need?
There was one “small” thing I was missing: I needed someone to show me how to actually pastor a congregation.
So God gave me Ray.
Modeling the Character and Heart of a Pastor
The church had hired Ray to be the interim pastor a few weeks before they called me. Ray is a wise old New England minister who, over the next year and a half, showed me how to shepherd a church. I watched him navigate the strong currents of our elder board. I sat in on his pastoral counseling sessions and tagged along on hospital visits. He gave me templates for weddings and funerals that I still use today. I got to see good pastoring in action.
I sometimes joke that if I do something right in pastoral ministry, it’s probably because I am copying Ray, and if I do something wrong, it’s probably because I’m improvising. But even more than teaching me ministry skills, Ray modeled the character and heart of a pastor. He demonstrated patience by bringing change at a pace slow enough for a Yankee church to handle. He exuded kindness, humility, and joy, even when he wasn’t getting his way. He trusted God and solved problem after problem through prayer. And above all else, Ray loved the people, and they knew it.
In the end, Ray not only showed me how to be a pastor, he showed the whole church how to follow Jesus.
Are You An Example Worthy of Imitation?
My experience with Ray makes me think of what Paul told the church in Corinth: “Imitate me, as I also imitate Christ” (1 Cor. 11:1). Does that sound strange to you? Have you ever told another Christian to imitate your imitation of Jesus? It sounds like a presumptuous, churchy variant of the game “charades.” Imagine yourself saying to your Bible study group or to your fellow church committee members, “I want to let you all know that I’m following Jesus pretty well, so you should probably copy me.” Maybe that verse was a line only Paul could deliver. After all, he was an apostle. He could get away with saying grandiose things like “imitate me.”
But Paul went further. He not only said, “Imitate me,” he also urged the church in Philippi to pay attention to those who imitated him: “Join in imitating me, brothers, and observe those who live according to the example you have in us” (Phil. 3:17). Did you notice the last word in that verse? He said “us” rather than “me”. “The “us” in Philippians refers to Paul and Timothy (1:1). So the circle of role models expanded beyond Paul to include Timothy and the Christians in Philippi who replicated Paul and Timothy’s pattern of life.
In his letter to Timothy, Paul explicitly instructed his young pupil to be a model for imitation: “Let no one despise your youth; instead, you should be an example to the believers in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith, in purity” (1 Tim. 4:12).
Discipleship begins when a sinner hears the gospel and the Holy Spirit supernaturally changes her inner disposition through the hearing.
What if being an example to imitate is not a role reserved just for the holy apostles? What if modeling and copying are twin beats that lay down the normal rhythm of Christian discipleship? What if what we really need to grow in maturity are more Rays and Timothys setting examples in our churches?
Hardwired for Imitation
That would make sense, given the way that God seems to have hardwired us for imitation. From infancy, we learn to speak, behave, and react by mimicking those around us. Every dad has had those terrifying moments of hearing his own words coming out of his child’s mouth. Mothers worry about whom their teens will choose as friends, because they understand the power of peer modeling. Even as adults, we pick up accents, phrases, facial expressions, humor, tastes, habits, “and hobbies from one another. It’s why couples who have been happily married for fifty years seem to have slowly oozed together into one person.
This dynamic of model and copy, example and imitator, carries over into Christian discipleship. However, the Christian life does not start with imitation; it starts with a miracle. Discipleship begins when a sinner hears the gospel and the Holy Spirit supernaturally changes her inner disposition through the hearing. As a result, the sinner repents of her sin and believes that Jesus died and rose again to save her. She has been born again by God’s power, and her first cry is “Jesus is Lord!” A person must be born again in order to enter God’s kingdom. No one can imitate her way from unbelief to belief.
But now our heaven-born, spiritual infant must grow up into Christlike maturity. How does this happen? It involves a number of factors, such as receiving nourishment from God’s Word. But she also needs something else. Our newborn child of God needs a family where she can learn by the example of others how to walk with Jesus. She needs a local church.
Crucial to the Health of a Church
A healthy local church provides “a rich matrix of relationships for mutual modeling and copying. By becoming a member of a gospel fellowship, our new Christian can compare notes with other newborn believers who are adapting to the strange, wonderful life of a forgiven Jesus follower. She can learn from older siblings who have followed Jesus longer and, in the process, won victories over sin through the Spirit’s power and weathered some significant life storms by trusting in God’s grace. She may even find a few godly mothers and fathers, like the apostle Paul and like Interim Pastor Ray, who inspire her to pray, “Lord, help me to be like that one.”
We need not only solid teaching and preaching about obedient Christian living, we also need to see holiness in practice. We grow through imitating, like the apostles imitating Jesus, like Timothy imitating Paul, and like Jeramie imitating Ray.
This article was adapted from Church Elders: How to Shepherd God's People Like Jesus by Jeramie Rinne.