From the moment preachers graduate from school and begin a work, they typically become the focal point of learning in the local congregation. The nature of the work necessarily includes the built-in expectation of advanced knowledge and the ability to communicate. The man of God must prove himself a man of character, ready to face not only the temptations and trials of life but also those peculiar to the work of a preacher. Even from the earliest of days, these fundamental qualities must exist to some degree. However, as a man gains experience in the work and in the word, these qualities should come to abound. But that will only happen if he approaches every day and every challenge as a servant of God ready to learn and ready to grow. And while the content of Proverbs 27 applies to all who serve God, I find these principles particularly applicable to those who aspire to and participate in the ministry of the gospel.
- A preacher must learn true humility (Prov. 27:1-2). A preacher must know his limitations as well as the possibilities. But even in his strengths, he should let his work speak for itself as much as possible. The more a man highlights his successes and accomplishments, the less a man is able to point to Christ. Over time, many will observe your work and offer praise and encouragement. When it happens, thank them and appreciate the moment, but then get back to work. When a preacher lives for the praise of men, he ceases to be the servant of God (John 12:43).
- A preacher must learn to deflect negativity (Prov. 27:3-4). Few things destroy a young preacher’s confidence faster than the constant barrage of negativity some heap upon him as if it were a sport. Some people find joy in raining on everyone else’s parade as if it were great wisdom. Although no preacher should expect his ideas and preaching to receive a glowing five-star review every Sunday, neither should he have to endure the wrath of the congregational misfit at every turn. The problem is, when you truly care about the work and about the people, there is the tendency to absorb all of the negativity tossed in your direction to the point of allowing it to become a crushing burden. Learn to discern the difference between legitimate concerns and just general crankiness. Learn to evaluate negativity quickly, find the positive lessons available, and then move on. For the work’s sake and your own, do not add others’ negativity to your own emotional train. Caring for souls is weighty enough.
- A preacher must learn to accept constructive criticism. “Open rebuke is better Than love carefully concealed. Faithful are the wounds of a friend, But the kisses of an enemy are deceitful” (Prov. 27:5-6). When brethren offer constructive criticism, they do so from the viewpoint of the pew. Most have neither the training nor the knowledge to explain their issue in “preacher’ language, but that does not mean that it does not have merit. The view from the pew is just as legitimate as the view from the pulpit; it just does not have the same experience. However, as these proverbs imply, the key to constructive criticism is building the relationship to the point of trust so that we recognize the criticism constructively when it is given as such. The comments of experienced and knowledgeable Christians should carry more weight than the passing recommendation of someone looking for a lighter, less-challenging spiritual meal. The key, however, to accepting constructive criticism is maintaining the desire to improve and correspondingly never thinking you have arrived and know it all. You do not have to follow all of the advice offered, but it is wise to recognize that most of it is well-meaning. And, if you pay careful attention, you can find something of great value in the observation of someone who sees you from another point of view.
- A preacher must learn to be content (Prov. 27:7-8). Paul told Timothy, “Now godliness with contentment is great gain” (1 Tim. 6:6) and, while in prison, told the Philippians, “Not that I speak in regard to need, for I have learned in whatever state I am, to be content” (Phil. 4:11). This does not mean that a preacher should be content to be treated poorly, content to not make enough to support his family, or content to work with a congregation that does not really want to hear the truth or practice it. But preachers must learn to find contentment in their work or they will never do the work to the degree necessary to be successful. Preachers can fall victim to the comparison game too easily, always looking at larger congregations, better pay, or easier work conditions. Instead, preachers should keep their mind on the spiritual and on how they can best serve, beginning with where they are at the moment. Different opportunities present themselves to men content doing their work for the Lord just as much as the opportunists. But the preacher who is content does not measure his worth in the kingdom by such opportunities but by his service wherever he is.
- A preacher must learn the value of friendship (Prov. 27:9-10). A preacher is in a very different position than most people when it comes to friendships. In most cases, the preacher moves to a place where he does not know anybody and therefore has no friends besides his wife. In the congregation, he must balance his time and interaction with people so that he does not create problems, even when he might enjoy the company of some more than others. No one in the congregation has a job like his, and any “professional” relationships are likely out of town. But friendships still matter (Prov. 27:17-22). They can provide needed counsel and advice for a number of situations and can provide all kinds of assistance in their own areas of interest. And that is why preachers should cultivate friendships—as difficult as it may seem. Find similar areas of interest with members of the congregation. Develop others. Keep in contact with preachers in the area and those you know from elsewhere. Have a variety of friends that offer a variety of backgrounds. Learn to reach out and develop friendships when possible (even you, introverts!). They will benefit your ministry and encourage your soul.
- A preacher must develop prudence (Prov. 27:11-16). Preachers must learn to see problems as they are approaching rather than simply announcing their arrival. His lessons should prepare people for potential issues so that they are not surprised when error or other problems present themselves. He must grow to recognize the challenges the congregation will likely face in the near future and begin preparing them accordingly. And he needs to have common sense in relationships so as to be the friend people turn to in need rather than the acquaintance they hate to see coming. Prudence means not taking unnecessary risks but being able to rise to the moment. Handling congregational problems is an essential skill. Preventing congregational problems is a valuable asset. This requires experience, acute observation, and a good understanding of human behavior.
- A preacher must learn the importance of forethought (Prov. 27:23-27). While the preacher must preach in the moment, he should be thinking about the future. He should regularly consider the situation of every family and each soul to whom he speaks every week. He should anticipate how changes in the congregation’s situation could affect the congregation’s direction, for good or for ill. He should consider how to position the congregation for a healthy future—numerically, financially, and spiritually. And while these surely should be on the mind of the elders, the preacher who learns to think in such visionary terms is valuable to elders concerned about the future. Learning to think ahead requires recognizing problems in their infancy rather than maturity. It means seeing the potential in people before they see it in themselves. It takes giving thought to people’s strengths and weaknesses in the present and thinking about how that will affect their future and the future of the congregation. And it takes time.
Preachers have a role that often requires wisdom beyond their years. The expectations can be high. But that is as it ought to be. The privilege of preaching God’s Word to God’s people deserves excellence, and we should aspire to it. But that means valuing learning as a lifelong endeavor—not something completed at graduation. It also requires us to learn how to evaluate ourselves and our own experiences so that we do not simply repeat the same errors time and time again but rather grow from them. When a preacher gets up to speak on Sunday morning, he expects the people to be ready to listen and ready to learn. He should expect no less of himself every day of the week.