Updated: Feb 21
The Work of the Pastor
by William Still
Christian Focus (2001, first published 1984)
For William Still the essence of pastoral ministry is to feed the sheep. This is the bulk of his work with the residue of remaining labor flowing from it. The Work of the Pastor compiles five addresses originally given at two different InterVarsity Theological Students’ conferences in 1964 and 1965. If the length of his pastoral tenure says anything, Still probably knew a thing or two about pastoral ministry. He was pastor of Gilcomston South Church, Aberdeen, from 1945 to 1997. Sinclair Ferguson has been quoted as saying that no single person had a greater spiritual impact on him than Still.
The five addresses compose the five chapters of the book. “Feed My Sheep” establishes preaching and teaching the word of God as the main work of the pastor. “The Pastor Outside the Pulpit” explores the comparatively little work that remains in addition to preaching and teaching. “Complete and Contemporary” commends the word of God as eternal, living and active. In this manner it is ever-contemporary. The pastor must be disciplined to look no further than the word of God to minister in a manner relevant to the contemporary needs of the people of God.
In “Commissioned by God” Still pleads with hopeful ministers to be convinced of their calling before entering into the ministry. Apart from that bedrock conviction, he says, the pastor will be swept away by the myriad difficulties that accompany the calling. Finally, in “Walking the Tightrope” he presents the work of ministry as a work in the Holy Spirit that defies the laws of nature. That people become saints of God at all is a truly supernatural work.
As far as Still is concerned, a minister is a pastor if he feeds the sheep. Many other seemingly good work will vie for his primary attention. But all other work will prove worthless apart from the ministry of the word. He writes:
To put it otherwise and more simply: a shepherd is no mere warder-off of wild beasts. To save the sheep from wild beasts and all other dangers is not to feed them; and if they are not fed, what matters whether they are safe or not? What is the good of being saved to starve? We must be saved in health and strength, unto maturity and power to reign with Christ in His kingdom. And for that we must be fed.
This is probably the chief contribution of Still’s book. He sounds a crystal-clear call to pastors and to the church in general to view pastoral work as foremost a ministry of feeding the sheep from the word of God.
Still affirms that pastors must be evangelists. They must set forth Christ. But he jealousy guards the pulpit from a reductionist definition of the gospel. He has no use for pastors who would limit their preaching to a few elementary propositions about justification. He commends the whole counsel of God. He argues that the people of God need more than milk. They need the meat that is to be found in all of Scripture. The pastor must give them what they need, and he must do so even if they think it is not what they want.
In addition, Still does identify and provide counsel concerning a number of difficult pastoral quandaries. He identifies the person who becomes attached not to the word, but to the personality of the preacher. Such a person is difficult to discern because he or she may appear to be fruitful due to being within the proximity of the Word’s ministry. For such a person the ministry of the word remains external and never becomes internal. In the end, says Still, they do not want the Word Himself.
Still also discusses how pastors ought to deal with seemingly chronic difficulties. He has much to say here that undoubtedly is worth considering. For example he writes, “Jesus allowed people, when he had challenged them, to choose their level. That is why He let the rich young ruler go.” Similarly:
…There are those who must not be allowed to devour your time and energy because their problems are beyond you. It is not that they are beyond God. Rather, there are limits to your ability and calling, and, this being a world not only of sin but of the fruits of sin, it is constantly strewn with the wrecks of God’s judgements; that’s what ruined lives are.
I am not sure that every broken person can simply be cast into the category of “wrecks of God’s judgements.” However, I also tend to think that Still has a valid point. There is such a thing as living under God’s judgement. Whether in the end one agrees completely with his advice, the wise pastor will certainly profit considerably from wrestling with his advice.
Indeed, the book contains a number of pastoral gems. Regarding the pastor’s work, Still advises, “But, remember, the pastor is not a spiritual doctor. The tension in his work is between the ministry of the Word and the guiding of the soul. The Holy Spirit is the Doctor.” Quite right. Likewise he warns pastors they must not think that the church will be smothered by facing trials. Rather she is much more likely to be smothered by wealth, ease, and complacency. Further, the pastor will find that his love for people is most sure and fruitful when his love for God burns more brightly than his love for man. More in the same vein are to be found in the pages of this little book.
Still argues in this work for something that sounds a great deal like a two kingdom view. He argues that ministers must remain laser-focused upon the task that is before them. They must not think that their work is to wield political power, or to transform cultural institutions. Their task is to evangelize the lost and edify the church. They have no business seeking to Christianize the state. He does not begrudge Christians taking up vocational calling in government. But he sees that as the work of individual Christians, and not the work of the local church per se.
My one quibble with Still is that he does not even mention the sacraments as being part of the work of the pastor. Now I must admit that I do not know why he omits mention of them. There may be any number of reasons, and I will not venture to speculate. I do not know Still’s views regarding the place of the sacraments (although he was a Presbyterian minister). Perhaps the ommission was primarily a function of his purpose or the audience he addressed.
However, he is treating the subject of the pastor’s work. Indeed, given the fact that he heavily emphasizes both word and prayer, I found the lack of any mention of the ministry of sacraments to be glaring and unfortunate. I fear that Still is emblematic of an unfortunate trend of his time. In an effort to maintain the primacy of the ministry of the word, it will not due to jettison the importance of the sacraments. Notwithstanding this ommission, there is much good to be gleaned from these pages. Anyone desiring to better understand the work of the pastor will benefit from reading this work by Still.