The Pastoral Training of Growing Up in a Christian Home

By Brian Key    |    October 9, 2023

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When I moved to Kansas City to attend seminary, like most students, I was eager to soak in all that I could to be prepared for a life of ministry. After God did transformative work in my soul during and immediately after college, I knew that I was called to ministry, but all I could think was that I knew very little about what it would take to fulfill that calling. I felt like the more theology I learned, the greater my grasp of Scripture, and the more deeply I understood the nuances of Greek and Hebrew, surely that would make me a great pastor. Looking back, I thought I was building from scratch.

But, what I realize now is that the Lord had begun depositing ministry insights into my soul years before through the lives of my parents. Both of my parents are committed followers of Jesus and faithful servants in his Church, who, in both the deeply spiritual moments of conversation about God’s Word and in the relatively mundane moments, were sowing seeds of pastoral development.

Love of God’s Word

The first thing that I learned from them was to love the Word of God. When I was a little boy, they both served as Sunday School teachers in our little church—dad with the adult men and mom with the teenagers. In addition to their daily readings of God’s Word, on Sunday mornings, I would wake up to the smell of Folger’s coffee, the sounds of Albertina Walker, and a table spread with Bibles, lesson commentaries, and Bible dictionaries.

They would turn pages, make notes, check cross-references, and discuss the riches of God’s Word. They shared what they were learning, what they hoped to convey to their classes that day, and how they hoped that their students would take God at his Word and trust him. I didn’t realize it then, but they were modeling for part of the foundation of a pastoral life: a love of the Word of God that was committed to studying it deeply and communicating it clearly.

As pastors, our work is, first, to study God’s Word as disciples and adopted sons, asking God to comfort us, confront us, and conform us into the image of Christ through it. Then, as we think about our work to feed the flock that the Lord has given us to lead, we have to be men who are committed to “do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth” (2 Timothy 2:15). Right handling requires a right posture of heart toward, deep study of, and correct teaching of the Word of God.

Before I knew the words exegesis and hermeneutics, I saw them embodied in my parents. Even to this day it is not uncommon to talk to my mom about books or study bibles she has found to help deepen her study, or to my dad about the rich discussion in the men’s class from last Sunday. Every Sunday morning, though they no longer teach, they are up studying, preparing as if they were teaching so that they can be eager participants in the class. And when they know I am preaching somewhere on a given weekend, if I break my study to call home to check in, I can count on the phone call ending with a “we don’t want to hold you. Get back to your study so you can be ready to preach.”

Hard Work, Steady Pace

My dad and my uncles are some of the hardest-working people I have ever met. I am pretty sure that if there is a piece of machinery to be fixed or an engineering conundrum of any kind, someone can fix it, or they will stare at it together until they figure out a solution. Most folks in their generation grew up farming or sharecropping, so hard work was engrained in them from when they were young. And yet, when I go home to East Texas, the pace never feels hurried.

I noticed it several years back when I was home for a visit with my family. At the time, I was one of the pastors of a young, center-city church. Life in the city was fast. Leading a growing ministry as a father of very young kids was exhausting. Everything felt like a blur of immediacy and urgency, burning the candle at both ends. Oddly enough, when I would go home to see my folks, I would call ahead to ask my dad what kind of work clothes or what kind of tools I needed to bring home. Inevitably, he would say, “Oh, son, I just want you to come home and rest.” I would retort that because so much of my work was in an office, and with my mind, it would be good for my soul to do some kind of physical work.

We would start early (“Don’t waste daylight, son.”) and work hard, whether that would be digging post holes, replacing trim on the house, or cutting firewood. But the pace was never rushed or urgent. I didn’t understand how both things could be true. I had trained myself that hard work always meant urgency and immediacy, but what I would later learn is that this is a quick path to burnout in ministry. Working with my dad, I learned the art of thinking in projects, breaking those into smaller parts, and honoring the limitations of your body and your day.

The most powerful illustration of this lesson happened a couple of years ago. There was a small grove of trees that he wanted to cut down toward the back edge of the property. The benefit would be a decent score of firewood and increased visibility. We worked for a few hours, felling, bucking up, splitting, and stacking wood until we took a break for a late lunch.

After lunch, he said, “I think that’s enough for today.”

I replied, “But I still have energy, and we still have quite a bit of daylight. We can get more work done.”

Then he dropped this gem: “Son, if I work yourself to the point of exhaustion today, you won’t be able to get up and do it again tomorrow.” Even when we finished that work, there would be more to do, and we needed to be able to work over the long haul rather than overwork and burn ourselves out. He also knew that the more tired we got as the day wore on, the more mistakes we were likely to make. He had learned to pace himself for the marathon of a life of hard work, and it was a lesson that I needed to learn as well. It was a lesson of hard work that also honors your limitations.

In The Imperfect Pastor, Zach Eswine highlights several of the lies that pastors believe as we serve Jesus, the chief shepherd. He says that we believe the lies that we need to fix it all, be everywhere for all, know it all, and that all this needs to be done with an overwhelming sense of immediacy. The problem is that none of that is what Jesus has called us to. We must work hard as good stewards. But we also need to learn to pace ourselves for the marathon of the hard work in ministry. In fact, by honoring our limitations, we do a better job of highlighting what it looks like to trust that Christ holds everything together, not our urgency or overwork. Our work is to represent him in word and deed, not be him.

The Nature of and Need for Apprenticeship

I learned how to change the oil on a vehicle because, as a little boy, my dad would take me up to my PawPaw’s house, park his truck over a small ditch that had been dug to enable car repairs and change the oil. I would hand him his tools, trade the used filter for the new one, and after he emerged from under the truck, I would hand him bottles of Quaker State motor oil and watch him put fresh oil in the truck.

I learned how to cut firewood by first watching him and then receiving lessons and feedback from him while he watched me do it. I learned as a teenager that you don’t need to swing the splitting maul hard every time. Just hit the right spots, and you can bust a big block up in just a few swings (“Nope, you’re swinging too hard. Just hit the spot. Let the maul do the work.”)

Apprenticeship happened with my mom in the kitchen. She was convinced that I would marry someone who couldn’t cook, so she made me learn how to while I was growing up (my wife is a wonderful cook, by the way). I can’t tell you the number of times I watched her cook, which eventually turned into me doing small tasks alongside her. We sometimes used old, trusted recipes from the church cookbook, but if we weren’t baking, she would often cook by feel and taste as the flavor built.

Because I had watched her closely, when I went away to college, I would call home to ask her to remind me how to make something. She would say something like, “You know how much salt comes out of the shaker when I shake it? Shake it four times.” And I knew exactly what she meant because I had learned to cook alongside her.

Looking back now, her instruction reminds me of a Pauline statement to the Philippians: “What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me—practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you” (Phil. 4:9).

When I went to seminary, I thought that what I needed was just a few more books and ideas for ministry to be successful. I thought that, armed with the proper knowledge and techniques, I could be a great pastor. What I would later come to understand is that while my language, hermeneutics, and theology courses were very helpful, they weren’t enough. Most really good pastors have become good pastors because of a meaningful apprenticeship relationship, not just academic training or gifting. Like tradesmen, they learn by watching and working alongside someone who has the gifts, skills, and experience that the trade requires.

We see that principle modeled in the New Testament, especially in the ministry of Jesus and Paul. How did the disciples know how to minister like they did? Because they had been with Jesus. Why were the first sermons in Acts filled with Christo-centric interpretations of Old Testament texts? Because that is what Jesus had modeled for them. How did Timothy and Titus know how to pastor? Because they had been with Paul and worked alongside him. The pastoral epistles were reminders of what they had witnessed in Paul’s life and ministry. They were exhortations to embody the pastorate in ways that they had witnessed, and they were challenges to equip others for the work as well.

Apprenticeship is a critical factor as we seek to become good pastors and develop the next generation of pastors. It is one of the reasons I love our model here at Grimké Seminary. We provide theological training, but we expect that the bulk of the pastoral development of our students will happen as they work alongside other godly, qualified pastors because so many of the practices and intangibles of pastoral ministry are better caught than taught.

Growth in the Seemingly Mundane

I didn’t realize it then, but while they were teaching me how to become a hard-working, capable man who loves and follows Jesus, God was using the presence and instruction of my parents to teach me how to embody significant parts of his calling on my life to be a pastor. As I reflect on it now, it is a good reminder that some of our most important teaching and learning don’t happen in huge mountaintop moments of spiritual awakenings. It happens in the mundane moments that the Lord uses to sow seeds of truth that someday surprise us as we see them bear fruit in our lives.

Brian Key

Brian Key previously served as a professor of urban ministry at Grimké Seminary.

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