November 6, 2015

If anyone’s fully qualified to write a comprehensive manual on best practices of pastoral ministry, surely it is R. Kent Hughes.

Hughes served 41 years in pastoral ministry, including 27 at College Church outside Chicago. He’s also authored numerous books, including Disciplines of a Godly Man (Crossway, 2007) and Set Apart: Calling a Worldly Church to a Godly Life (Crossway, 2003), and serves as editor of Crossway’s Preaching the Word series. He’s written several volumes in that series, including commentaries on Acts, Ephesians, Colossians, and Hebrews.

His newest book, written with contributing editor Douglas Sean O’Donnell, will no doubt become a go-to manual for pastors. The Pastor’s Book: A Comprehensive and Practical Guide to Pastoral Ministry (Crossway) is a wide-ranging and delightfully detailed 592-page work that offers wisdom on many aspects central to pastoral ministry—from the elements that compose a Christ-centered worship service to the important tasks of pastoral counseling and visiting the sick. I asked TGC Council member Hughes about The Pastor’s Book, reflections on four decades in ministry, wisdom for young pastors, and more.


The Pastor’s Book is comprehensive, covering everything from the ordering of worship services, to hospital visits, to the use of creeds, to selection of hymns for worship, to conducting funerals and weddings. What was the inspiration behind the book?

Lane Dennis, president of Crossway, asked me to consider the idea of authoring a book on pastoring, drawing on more than 40 years in ministry. I had never thought of such a project. But I agreed to give it some thought, which I did for several weeks, racking my brain as to what I would’ve liked to have had in a single “go to” volume for pastors.

The subjects that came to mind were: Sunday worship, annual services, weddings, funerals, public prayers, the use of creeds, hymns and songs, baptism, communion, pastoral counseling, and hospital visitation. I also asked that the book not suffer from brevity and lack of specificity. So, for example, in the past I wished for some sample homilies for marriages and funerals, so I suggested ten (which I did get!).

I then met with Dennis and team of editors and presented them with the tentative outline of topics covering a broad range of ministry that, after some discussion, they enthusiastically endorsed. Happily, Douglas Sean O’Donnell agreed to serve as contributing editor. And so the work began.

As a pastor I realize seminary prepared me well to do things like select and exegete a text, illustrate sermons, and teach doctrine, but there were many things in everyday ministry for which it could not prepare me. If you could address seminarians transitioning into real-life ministry, what one thing would you say?

I’d say that if you’re committed, as I was, to a gospel-centered expository pulpit, you might be tempted to imagine that alone constitutes a gospel ministry. Well, the pulpit is certainly central (I devoted about 20 hours per week to sermon preparation, which amounted to some 24,000 hours while at College Church), but that centrality was the “ground game” for gospel ministry.

In truth, some of the things we may regard as diversions are in fact immensely gospel-freighted opportunities—events like weddings and funerals and hospital visitation. The Pastor’s Book posits that all ministry is, and must be, gospel-centered.

You write about the imaginary but ideal church, and ask the reader to ruminate on the question, “What does your biblical ideal of corporate worship look like?” What would your ideal corporate worship service include?

It would be a service of the Word in which the biblical text informs the shape and progress of the service so that the choice of songs, the Scripture reading(s), and the prayers would all elevate the preaching of the Word and exalt Christ. This kind of intentionality requires a lot of hard thinking and prayer from pastors and church leaders.

The Pastor’s Book includes an excellent section on hospital visits. I haven’t seen much written on that and similar topics like member visitation. But time is short for pastors; why not devote our limited time to sermon preparation, which benefits everyone, and trust others to handle visitation and care duties?  

Certainly a pastor isn’t doing his job if he imagines visitation is his singular domain. In fact, it unwittingly shadows a Roman Catholic view of ministry—that one hasn’t been truly visited by God unless the padre (you!) shows up. It implies your prayers and presence are more efficacious than those of the other elders and the flock. Indeed, this unfortunate view is reflected in many traditional and fundamentalist churches that expect the pastor to do all visitation of the sick. That said, the pastor who delegates all visitation to others will be functionally out of touch with his people (and it will show in his preaching).

When he visits, the pastor will be with families in their deepest times of crisis. And in all instances, he’ll be ministering to far more people than the sick and dying. And the deep needs to which he ministers will afford sweet gospel opportunities. This means the visitation of the hospitalized doesn’t derail the pastor from ministry, but is central to it. Of course, a church must seek to be organized so the ill are being cared for by elders, deacons, deaconesses, and the caring flock.

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