Book review: Memoirs of an Ordinary Pastor

It’s mid-January, and already I have read what could be my best book for 2009—although I have a suspicion it might not be for everyone. However, before you stop reading this, thinking you might be one of those it’s not for, if you are involved in any sort of pastoral work (from church leadership to running a small group to one-to-one personal follow-up), this is the book for you.

Memoirs of an Ordinary Pastor by DA Carson (Crossway, 2008) is a moving and personal reflection on the life of Tom Carson, written by his well-known and, more importantly, biblically literate and pastorally insightful son, Don. Based heavily upon Tom’s journals, we have the privilege of stepping through the front door of a household filled with biblical reflection, deep prayer and true concern for others above themselves—a household lovingly led by Tom.

Having graduated from Toronto Baptist Seminary in 1933, Tom, along with his wife Margaret, served the people of a majority francophone area of Canada for almost 60 years until his death in 1992. During this time, the churches he worked in were, by modern standards, small and unimpressive—small beacons of reformed Protestantism in a largely Catholic state. We read of the small highs and, more importantly, the deep and real lows of ‘unspectacular’ suburban ministry year after year. While the highs are impressive, and Tom’s passion and commitment to his flock inspiring (particularly his prayer and study on their behalf), for me, the highlight of the book is the recording and reflection on the very real lows that pastoral ministry brings. It is in this area that we are so blessed to have someone like Don (Tom’s son) writing about his father because not only does he beautifully allow us into the world of the man, he reflects on that world theologically and pastorally in a sensitive and encouraging way.

In October 1963, at the age of 52, Tom resigned as the pastor of the church in Drummondville—the church that had been his ‘baby’ (born with severe complications) since 1948. This was the conclusion of a year waiting for “conversions and other signs of grace”—signs that did not come (p. 90). For the purpose of helping discouraged ministers of the gospel today, Don takes a short break from recounting the life of his father to reflect on what he saw happening in his father, and what he sees happening in the life of many ministers today.

The nine points that follow (p. 9296) will (or, in my humble opinion, should) become compulsory reading for any person taking on any position of leadership or pastoral responsibility in a church because they address the fact that disappointments and failures will come, and they give some sound reflection on what to do when they come. Here are the points (but read them in full and read the book to get them in context!)

  1. There is always more pastoral work to be done, so remember that we serve under a gospel of grace.
  2. As Marg Carson said, “Work hard and play hard, but never confuse the two”.
  3. When other ministers in your sphere are working effectively and fruitfully, learn what you can, but keep envy at bay with rejoicing.
  4. If you have a tender conscience, rejoice because that is a great gift. But be sure to combine that gift with a deep understanding of the limitless dimensions of the love of God.
  5. No matter what is going on, never ignore your wife and children.
  6. When change is necessary, pray and plan carefully, and act.
  7. Be serious in working out what it means to be content in your busy ministry life.
  8. Know yourself, and play to your strengths.
  9. Fill your life regularly and deeply with the knowledge and love of God so that when the dark times come, the call to God is one of a cry for help rather than a judgemental curse.

As I read these pages, my mind was taken back to 10 years of small, suburban ministry and circumstances when I had struggled with many of the same issues as Tom. However, my reaction was much less godly. Tom’s experiences encourages me to approach and reflect on them differently when they arise again.

This is a great read and one that I’m sure many will find encouraging and inspiring. As Erwin W Lutzer says in introducing the book, “In a day when we honor megachurch pastors, it is refreshing to read this account of an ordinary pastor—representing the unsung heroes among us who do not aspire to greatness but rather to godliness and faithfulness”.

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