Remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the word of God. Consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith. Hebrews 13:7
Dr. Ray Van Neste is Associate Professor of Christian Studies and Director of the R.C. Ryan Center for Biblical Studies at Union University. He has a published a number of articles, recently the notes on the Pastoral Epistles in the ESV Study Bible. He is also an elder at Cornerstone Community Church, and taught the Pastoral Ministries class at Union which forever changed my life. He is the husband of Tammie, the father of six children, a fellow West Tennessean, and constant source of encouragement to this would-be shepherd. He was kind enough to answer a few of my questions about following the Way and shepherding the flock of God.
1. Could you describe how you came to faith in Christ?
I came to faith as a child in a Christian home. I was privileged to hear the gospel early, from home, church and school. I responded to an “invitation” at church at about age 6, and was baptized but I really did not understand all that was going.
I then wrestled for some time with assurance, fearing that Jesus would return and I would not be ready. I prayed repeatedly to be saved and feared I did not mean it enough, that I was not sincere enough. From this confusion and anxiety, in the end I came to realize I could not save myself but had simply to trust in Christ.
I could not pinpoint the day this occurred. It was more like I entered a dark valley and when I came out on the other side I was believing.
2. Could you describe your call to ministry?
I don’t seem to come to anything without struggle. 🙂 I began to think that perhaps God was calling me to pastoral ministry during my senior year in high school. The summer prior I had been on my first mission trip and had the privilege for the first time of leading someone to Christ. From that experience a friend and I committed to sharing the gospel more boldly in our last year of high school. God blessed us in a number of ways, with opportunities private and public of sharing the gospel. During that year some adults suggested to me that pastoral ministry might be my calling. I resented the suggestions, and in my heart I wondered why these suggestions bothered me so. I seriously wondered if I was bothered by this because I thought it was true. I had my plans to pursue a career in physics.
My wrestling came to a head at a Centrifuge camp after my senior year. There I finally relented. It still took some time for me to find clarity in the calling, but the general picture was certain then.
In college I saw more thorough teaching of the Bible and my heart began to yearn to see this sort of teaching in the church. This has flowered into one of the central driving motivations of ministry for me.
3. Could you describe your personal devotional time (what time of day, what it consists of, whether or not you pray according to a list/schedule for various people, use a Bible reading plan, etc.)?
My personal devotional time has varied quite a bit over the years. I have read with a plan and without. I have prayed with a specific list and without. Realizing that I have the freedom to approach this in different ways has been valuable to me.
At this point in time my daily reading is typically a portion from my Readers Greek New Testament and a Psalm. Then, I aim to pray through the Psalm. I pray for issues related to my family and try to incorporate the list of needs from my church from the previous Sunday. With my older boys at night we pray for mission/church efforts/people with whom we have connection.
4. Which two or three books outside of the Bible have had the greatest impact on you? Are there any authors from the past or present of whom you would recommend we read all their works? Why?
This is always a difficult question to try to focus on (there have been key books at different stages of my life). The first book that comes to mind that had a profound impact on me was Elisabeth Elliot’s Shadow of the Almighty where she recounts the life of her husband Jim. The portrait here of a godly, though real and fallible man challenged me deeply while I was in college. Outside the Bible I have no doubt this book was the key formative influence on my life at that time. Mrs. Elliot’s book Passion and Purity also had a big impact on me at this time, shaping my approach to relationships, etc. In fact, I thought no woman would ever appreciate my convictions. When I met a beautiful young lady named Tammie who was reading and appreciating Elisabeth Elliot I knew something special was going on. 🙂
After that Knowing God by J. I. Packer was important for me. As I grew in appreciation of theology the writings of R. C. Sproul were a delight. In Sproul’s Tabletalk magazine I found rich theological discussion unlike anything I had seen before. Michael Horton was also beneficial to me especially at this time. From here I was turned on to the Puritans, among whom I have dabbled more than reading a lot from certain authors. This was not by design but simply what has occurred.
This is getting long, so I will jump forward to say that D. A Carson’s books and lectures have also been very beneficial.
I have probably not read all the works of anyone. I am sure I could benefit from doing this but I have tended to read more thematically rather than working through a certain author.
5. Because the Puritans are of special interest to me, is there any Puritan work which you have found to be particularly helpful? Why?
Actually, Packer’s book Quest for Godliness about the Puritans is the first thing that comes to mind. He gives a wonderful introduction and overview of helpful themes from the Puritans. It is a great place to start. One can then pursue authors and topics of particular interest.
Baxter’s Reformed Pastor has been influential for me. He provides such a strong, healthy portrait of pastoral ministry which is far different from what is typically seen today.
Thomas Brook’s Precious Remedies Against Satan’s Devices is an amazing book both due to the wisdom given for dealing with temptation and as a model of a pastor seeking to help his people in practical ways. This is no abstract teaching.
Thomas Boston’s The Art of Man-Fishing (the title differs a bit in various editions) is a wonderful treatise on evangelistic fervor. If anyone thinks of the Puritans as lacking in evangelistic zeal, this book destroys such a thought. It is great for lighting a fire under you!
Those are some that come to mind.
6. As a pastor, do you have a particular strategy for continuing to study and learn? When do you do this? Why is this important to you?
Great question. In one sense also being a professor might make this easier, but it is very easy to get flooded with planning, grading, etc. that you never really learn more or grow.
So, here is my basic approach. I seek to consistently read my Greek New Testament. I want to grow in a deep familiarity with the text of the New Testament in its original language. I can’t do this all at once but if I plod faithfully along then over time this will grow.
Second, I push myself in reading books in theology and biblical studies. The number of things coming out is overwhelming so it is impossible to keep up with everything (at least if you really want to read and digest). I have more books that I want to read than I can read, but keeping these books around assures that I have something to move on to when one book is finished.
I also read history and novels for fun. I find that these also help me to learn as I better appreciate biblical history (in relation to other history) and better understand human nature.
I keep a list each year of each book I read. This provides me with a bit of an intellectual history along the way, reminds me of what I have read, and lets me know how much I have read each year. This plays on my competitive spirit because I want to read more this year than last. This can have downsides (e.g., wanting to read a book just to get it on my list), but any good attempt can be distorted. At least this provides me with a prod, some discipline and encouragement (as I look back to see what has been accomplished).
I have mentioned pushing myself in this, but that could be misunderstood. One reason I read is because I enjoy it so. I push and discipline myself here not because I don’t want to do this but because I often fail to accomplish things I like if I don’t have a plan or goal.
7. What do you find to be the most discouraging and the most encouraging in your ministry, leadership position, or walk with Christ?
One of the most encouraging things to me in ministry is to see people in my church growing, flourishing. To see young people I have invested in marry well, or enter into parenthood, or take the next step in life is very encouraging. Sometimes at church I have been moved, for example, just seeing some of the men standing at the front to hand out communion and thinking of how God’s grace has been active in their lives.
The flip side is then true. It is discouraging to see people turn away from truth or act as if they have not heard the truth. It is discouraging when it seems there is no fruit from your labors or when it seems people do not recognize or appreciate your labors. This is a tricky one though. It is easy to seek self-exaltation and to crave the recognition of man. As pastors we must recognize that much will be unseen and to serve for the One who sees in secret.
8. If there was one word of advice, encouragement, or challenge to pastors, what would it be?
Great question. So much could be said. These two passages come to mind:
“Keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching. Persist in this, for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers.” (1 Timothy 4:16)
“Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood.” (Acts 20:28).
Thank you, Dr. Van Neste, for your thoughtful answers! You can read more of Dr. Van Neste’s thoughts on pastoral ministry at his excellent blog, Oversight of Souls.