Preaching or pastoring? That’s the choice that many pastors make at the beginning of their ministries, and also each day of their ministries. Will my life-focus, or daily-focus, be on preaching or on visiting the flock? Will I concentrate on preaching better sermons, or getting to know my sheep better?

Of course, it’s a bit of a false choice, as we pastor the flock by preaching, and our preaching is (should be) heavily influenced by our pastoral visitation. Nevertheless, I have noticed that most pastors, often sub-consciously, have answered that question one way or another. And most congregations will be able to tell you which way their pastor has answered that question: “He’s a great preacher, but we never see him,” or, “He can’t preach, but he’s a wonderful pastor.” And sometimes, especially here in the USA, the congregation will make that choice for a minister, employing him as a “Teaching Pastor,” with little or no expectation of any pastoral visitation.

I realized early in my ministry that my inclination, my default, was to focus on preaching. Sometimes, in the early days, I did neglect visitation. And if I did, it always, eventually, had a negative impact on my preaching. I was greatly helped by my wife who had been raised in the home of a faithful Pastor. She knew what a Pastor’s weekly schedule should look like, with a wise balance between visiting the sheep and preparing their food. If she felt I was becoming imbalanced, she would (gently, usually) tell me.

The need to find this balance has also been brought home to me in my Seminary work. With so many new courses to write, the temptation is to shut myself away every hour of the day and week to concentrate on preparing “perfect” lectures. However, does that produce well-taught students? Probably not. As this article on MIT’s Tomorrow’s Professor Blog demonstrates, “displaying a personal interest in students is not only effective as a way to encourage participation and engagement, but is necessary for real learning.”

Substituting sheep for students, pastors for instructors, and church for college, note some of the other findings:

  • Research in neuroscience and the physiology of learning demonstrates the strong link between emotion and cognition.
  • In the absence of the strong, positive emotions engendered by caring, deep engagement, motivation, and interest, little real learning occurs.
  • Research on large classes demonstrates the positive effects of personalizing the large class with respect to enhancing student attendance and motivation to learn.
  • Undergraduate students repeatedly mention the importance of one-to-one interaction with instructors in supervised projects and the closer interactions with other students and instructors in small classes as important factors in their learning.
  • These threads point to the importance of engagement and a sense of community as critical to college success.

Does that help you re-answer the “Preach or Pastor?” question.

  • Chris Roberts

    As a new pastor, I struggle with that question. I lean heavily on the preach side and the strong introvert in me finds visitation rewarding but taxing. What is the balance you have found between the two?Also, what does your visitation look like? Most of my visits are to older folks, shut-ins and nursing home people. They are not in church most Sunday’s, and conversations are often filled with discussions of the latest kidney problem. This is one reason I find visits taxing, but these are the sort of visits expected of a Baptist pastor.I made it a goal to visit with every family in my church and I’ve just about accomplished that goal, only a handful remain. The one-time visits with people were good, but my regular, weekly visits remain to the shut-ins. Families active in the church are generally working or doing other things during my normal times to visit. I could visit more at night or on the weekends, but then I’m taking more time away from my wife and three small children.So what is the balance? And how do you arrange your visits so that you see people who work during the day? And how do you keep your visits pastoral rather than social?Help wanted! :)

  • Stephen

    Thought-provoking post! My pastor is very much the “he can’t preach, but he’s a wonderful pastor” type. I’ve seen how that’s been both good and bad for the life of our church. In any case, I believe Richard Baxter (one of my favorite models of pastoral ministry) would agree that Monday thru Friday visitation and shepherding is as important (if not more so) than the Sunday sermon.

  • jason

    Thanks for posting this Pastor David. This is a very important topic that needs to be looked upon more often. I’ve noticed this theme running around often at a lot of Reformed churches and I’m sure non-Reformed. The minister will usually quip…I can’t do it all myself, I need to be studying, I can’t be friends with everyone and so on. Now I do agree that they can’t do it all but as you have stated you can’t have one without the other. Follow the great Puritans and see how they modeled ministry. Starting with the Lord’s day; preaching Christ to the people then they would follow up on their feeding of the sheep during the week and if it was to much they would have men who were qualified to assist them in their shepherding duties. Which we see as the Biblical model of elders and so on. So anyways I think you are right on with this article. By the way, I recently heard an interview with you discussing your leaving of your church in Scotland and the struggle within to make sure you were doing what God wanted. I really admired the response you gave to Joel Beeke about the only way you would join the academic field at PRTS, was on condition that you could be preaching/pastoring on a regular basis. Is it true that one of the qualifications of the professors there is to also be a pastor? If so I think that is wonderful! We need more teaching institutes to have this demand. An important book out there if anyone is interested in looking into this a little more is The Shepherd Leader by Tim Witmer, Professor at Westminster (Philadelphia). Continued blessings

  • David Murray

    Jason, yes, we look for pastoral experience when appointing faculty members. It is very important to us.