As a lifelong Christian, I’ve always known the importance of spiritual growth. But when I became a pastor, suddenly my ideas about this were bigger than simply what was going on in my life. As an undershepherd of God’s people, now the spiritual growth of other people is my concern. You could argue that this should have been my concern all along, since every follower of Jesus is tasked with discipleship. But as a pastor, this is a primary job description.
What surprised me is how much I learned about what growth actually looks like. Here are five ways in which pastoring shaped my views:
1) Everybody doesn’t grow like I grow. Subconsciously, we use our own lives as the template for growth and maturity. I do this because I’m the person I know the most. But I’ve learned that my growth process is unique to me and I shouldn’t force that onto another follower of Christ. God designed each of us uniquely with differing circumstances, gift mixes, talents, and missions. There are basic elements of spirituality that apply to all believers, but they unfold and look different on different people. As a pastor, I can frustrate someone’s walk with God by continually making them try to do like me when their real model should be Christ. Ultimately I should want my people to become the people God wants them to be rather than who I, in my fallen imagination, desire them to be. (By the way, this is essential in parenting.)
2) I can’t actually produce spiritual growth in anyone, including myself. There is a role for a pastor to encourage, provoke, push, love, pray, and teach his people. There is a role for this for every follower of Christ. But the role of a Christian is simply that: to influence. Only the Holy Spirit can produce growth in someone. I can’t do that. I can’t even make myself grow. There is a reason Galatians 5:22 says that the characteristics like love, joy, peace, gentleness, goodness, etc are “fruits of the Spirit.” The point is that the Holy Spirit takes the Word of God and changes a person’s heart. That’s work I can’t do. What I can do is influence, love, encourage, confront, and pray. I can also get in the way of the Spirit. I can frustrate someone because they are not growing according to my timetable or my template for them. I have found that often the best tool I have in “getting someone to change,” is simple prayer. I’ve seen more growth in people when I’ve closed my mouth, stop stressing, and just got on my knees.
3) There are seasons of growth for every person. There are seasons of planting, seasons of tilling the ground, seasons of watering, and seasons of harvest in a person’s soul. There are years of bountiful growth and there are years of famine. Don’t you see this in your own life? I do. This was especially illuminated for my by Mark Buchanan’s excellent book, Spiritual Rhythm. It’s a worthy read if only to make you more aware of the rhythms of spiritual growth. This means that as a pastor, I should know in what season of a person’s life to push and what season to wait for the hard to work fully take root in the soil. And, I must trust the Lord of the Harvest, that his timing is much better than my rushed impatience. Interestingly, I’ve found I’m much more impatient with other’s spiritual growth than mine. All this impatience has down is stunt other’s progression. I don’t want to do that.
4) Spiritual maturity is manifested in ways that are not always visible. Because we are an impatient people, we often create man-made lists for what spiritual growth looks like. The lists look different from church to church or denomination to denomination. It could be the type of haircut or the language someone uses or the types of media they consume. But real fruit, the Scripture says, is internal. Things that can’t be developed in a weekend or at the barber shop. Traits like love, joy, gentleness, goodness, peace, temperance, etc. The best things for us to do as pastors and influencers and disciple-makers is to help someone cultivate their inner life with Christ, not measure someone’s progress by external, extra-biblical checklists.
5) Sometimes I’m not the best person to nurture someone’s spiritual growth. This can be a matter of pride. For me, I wanted to be the one that new Christian pointed to as the key to their spiritual growth. I wanted to have a leading role in the story. But God has the leading role, not me. He’s much better at that role than I am. So my job as pastor is to let go of myself and serve in any way I can. Sometimes that’s active discipleship. Other times I need to point them to a book that can profoundly shape them. Or it could be as simple as pointing them to another person much more suited to their spiritual needs. In other words, I have to admit that there may be a better person or resource for their spiritual growth than me. When I do this, I allow God to do His work and I get out of the way.
Daniel Darling is the Vice President for Communications for the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention (ERLC). Dan is the author of several books, including Teen People of the Bible, Crash Course, iFaith, Real, Activist Faith, and his latest, The Original Jesus. Dan holds a bachelor’s degree in pastoral ministry from Dayspring Bible College and has studied at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. He is currently pursuing a Master’s Degree from Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He and his wife Angela have four children and reside in the Nashville area. They attend Green Hill Church in Mt. Juliet, Tennessee, where Dan serves as Pastor of Teaching and Discipleship.