“Walk with God” is the easiest piece of advice for a Christian leader to assume without applying its practices. “Right, right, you really just mean be a Christian. Of course. I’m going into vocational ministry. So what’s #2?”
I would issue caution here. To assume godliness because of Bible knowledge or a following of trusting people is to tread in dangerous waters. And further, prioritizing what to do to have (your idea of) success in pastoral ministry will almost always detract from who you are as a godly leader. It’s important to remember that the biblical qualifications for pastoral ministry (1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1) focus far more on character and godliness. We can become a bit too centered on the usefulness of our own gifts to the Kingdom than on the gifts of God’s presence and God’s Word. H.B. Charles said it well: “Real pastors are more concerned with their godliness than their gifts, and certainly more than their reputation. They flee passion and pursue godliness.”
When I ask pastors to share what they would want to emphasize most with someone training for ministry leadership, there is an echoing chorus of a single reply: walk with God. When enough godly people say the same thing over and over, it’s best to pay attention. There is a reason why men with years of pastoral experience are pleading with those in training to give primary attention to their relationship with God. There is a reason why there is a brotherly warning in their voices. They have seen what happens in themselves when they drift from God. There are real memories or real current struggles attached to this warning. When our eyes drift from God, pride is usually at the heart of what draws us away. Pride can overwhelm us before we’ve even acknowledged the small concessions we’ve made for its progress. And a prideful pastor can destroy a church.
Pastor Charles wrote that real pastors “pursue godliness.” If you’re anything like me, you know well that there is often a very murky line between pursuing godliness and feigning godliness, from the perspective of an onlooker. I’m the son of a pastor. I’ve been in church as long as I’ve been alive. Believe me, I can outwardly fake everything about the Christian life. It is quite possible to have the ability to speak in the tongues of men and of angels, and yet to have not love. Similarly, if you are called to pastor or lead in ministry but have not a prayer life, you may be dangerous. Yes, you are in danger yourself. But you may be dangerous to your church.
God is not fooled by feigning, and one day you will answer to Him. I hope that accountability means what it should mean to you. Unlike God, however, people can be fooled. They might buy the manipulative pattern of fake godliness to their detriment for a long time and allow it to continue. If you are called to lead a flock, listen to those who have gone before you. They are telling you that your relationship with God is of paramount importance.
Walking with God is a life posture of submission, of obedience, of the fruit of the Spirit. No, that is not a requirement of perfection. So don’t fake perfection, for your own sake and for that of others. The Good Shepherd is the one providing the merit for us, remember. That distinction needs to be emphasized, because it’s the message of the gospel that Christ saves us in spite of our sin and imperfection. Don Whitney, in one instance, echoes the Word like this: “It’s crucial—crucial—to understand that it’s not our pursuit of holiness that qualifies us to see the Lord. Rather, we are qualified to see the Lord by the Lord, not by good things we do.” To teach others this truth, you must exemplify this liberation in your own life.
But to pastor a flock to Jesus by nature involves a me-decreasing, Him-increasing godliness for others to follow. Walking with God cannot be assumed. It doesn’t happen because you’ve preached a thousand sermons and read a thousand books. It involves and necessitates a prayer life dependent upon the Father as a result of Christ’s saving work in you. As Whitney says, the spiritual disciplines by which we pursue or train for godliness are “practices derived from the gospel, not divorced from the gospel.” If you want to lead others to live from that gospel, shepherding them each day closer to Jesus, walking with God yourself is a rightly-ordered expectation. Do the qualifications of 1 Timothy 3:1–7 and Titus 1:5–9 describe you? Do they still describe you? How about 1 Timothy 4:6–16? Are you honest with God about your deepest temptations? What are they? Are you honest with faithful friends about them too? If there is going to be a root of self-promotion, lust appeasement, or tyrannical control that desires to sprout at any opportunity, it’s best to notice it now, ask God for help now, and chop at it now with all you have. Willingly hand a hatchet to people you trust as well—and do it now. It was true for John Owen, and it’s true for us: Be killing sin, or it will be killing you. Yet also, walking with God by nature reproduces the joy springing from the gospel fountain as it grows by proximity to the Fountainhead. As God dwells in you, and you grow in the richness of that reality, so shall joy dwell in you no matter the circumstances.
To Feed, You Must be Fed
William Still pastored his church in Aberdeen, Scotland for fifty-two years. In his brief but helpful work called The Work of the Pastor, he provides a three-word summary of the pastor’s role: feed the sheep. It is to feed the church on the Word of God that men are called to be pastors. However, Still counsels, “To be a pastor of the sheep, a feeder of the Word to others, you must be fed yourself.” It is not enough for us to simply pass on the Word, but it must be “assimilated and absorbed by digestion.” After all, he says, an atheist could teach what is in the Bible. According to Still:
To be true pastors, your whole life must be spent in knowing the truth of this Word, not only verbally, propositionally, theologically, but religiously, that is, devotionally, morally, in worshipping Him whom it reveals, and in personal obedience to Him whose commands it contains, in all the promised grace and threat of those commands. To be pastors, you must be ‘fed men,’ not only in knowledge, but in wisdom, grace, humility, courage, fear of God, and fearlessness of men.
How well-fed are you? How is God not only feeding you, but fathering you? In what ways are you resisting Him? Drink deeply of the living water. Plant yourself in God’s Word and commune with Him. Submit each day to Him, for it is His mercies which are new every morning before your eyes are even opened. Acknowledge evidences of grace in your life and that of your church. In everything, walk with Him.
Considerations for the Young Pastor
If you are at the beginning of a life in ministry leadership, what temptations lurk in the shadows? Who in your life knows about them? How seriously do you treat your prayer life?
You need to understand the vulnerability you have to pride. You need to beware the chasing of affirmation from others for your giftedness. That way lies not only madness, but further sin as well. Attach yourself to mentors in ministry who are bastions of godliness. Drink deeply in the Word, for the abundance there is unending. God has given us Himself—what a joy to be had as His sons and daughters. Lead others in knowing Him, worshipping Him, clinging to Him as Father. Then lead them and equip them to take the gospel of Jesus Christ to the ends of the earth no matter who knows your name. Aspire for a legacy by which the name of Christ is remembered and yours is lost in peaceful anonymity. If your name is in the book of life, you are fully known by the Creator of the Universe.
Considerations for the Drifting or Older Pastor
Others of you have been pastoring for years. Perhaps “walking with God” has become stale. If that is so, what have you forgotten about Him? What has been lost to you from Scripture? Are you flirting with infidelity? What woman draws your attention away from your wife, and who else knows? Whose opinion matters more to you than it should? Small steps away from true north have catastrophic consequences in navigation shortly thereafter. Perhaps those steps were made years ago and you feel like a failure, lost and ashamed. Remember the God who destroyed the power of shame for His children! Return to Him, and look upon the cross again. The payment made there on that Friday is for you. The resurrection claimed that Sunday is for you. Return to Him, that you can once more help others toward Him.
And for the seasoned pastor, who can you take along with you as you walk with God? There are younger brothers making the mistakes you once made, and they are needful of traveling companions. Invest in your replacements, and show them the way.
 H. B. Charles, On Pastoring (Chicago, IL: Moody Publishers, 2016), 38.
 Donald S. Whitney, Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life, revised ed. (Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress, 2014), 3.
 Ibid., 8.
 William Still, The Work of the Pastor (Fearn, UK: Christian Focus Publications, 2010), 22–24.
Editor’s Note: This is the first in a series of seven posts with advice from pastors around the country. The author, Jordan Wilbanks, leads the Timothy Track program at Midwestern Seminary, which pairs students with a church they serve in during their first year of seminary. This program is for both men and women who desire to pair ministry experience with their residential education. You can learn more about the Timothy Track here.