The Book Your Pastor Wishes You Would Read (But is Too Embarrassed to Ask) by Christopher Ash. Epsom: The Good Book Company, 2019. 126 pages. Cover price £5.99. ISBN 9781784983635.
Your pastor is a person too, so someone needs to know your pastor and your pastor needs care from you. This is the central claim of this brief and highly readable book from Christopher Ash. Writing as someone who has been both a pastor and, latterly, a church member, Ash aims to help Christians understand the needs of their pastors. The result is a challenging and practical guide to some important principles for care for Christian leaders which will need some thought or help (cue Living Leadership!) to be worked out in practice.
After explaining why he wrote the book, Ash presents us with ten pen portraits of fictional pastors that resonate with my experience as a pastor and as a mentor to numerous pastors. It is clear that he understands the kinds of struggles pastors often have, from the sense of never bringing work to completion to the struggles that come from relatively low incomes. Ash then presents his case for why we should care for our pastors – because we have a responsibility to make their work a joy and to help them be motivated to fulfil the task God has given them. The core of the book is seven chapters each of which outlines a virtue that church members can cultivate and display towards their pastors: daily repentance and eager faith, committed belonging, open honesty, thoughtful watchfulness , loving kindness, high expectations and zealous submission. After presenting these, Ash argues that someone needs to know the pastor, suggesting five key areas that will affect the pastor’s attitudes and expectations: upbringing, models of ministry the pastor has experienced, past material lifestyle, personality, and the attitude of the pastor’s spouse if married.
Ash writes with clarity and warmth. Reading this book feels like sitting across a coffee table as he shares insights and wisdom. His use of fictional or fictionalised stories throughout the book helps to earth it in reality. In the course exploring his seven virtues, Ash proposes numerous practical ideas for helping pastors. Especially helpful are his comments about reading, conferences, study leave (or sabbaticals), days off and vacations (pp.73-78). I found it especially helpful that he did not only consider this in terms of words of encouragement, noticing the pastor’s needs and responding with acts of kindness, but also setting high expectations of our pastors in their character and behaviour. He also outlines clearly the responsibility of church members to maintain their own spiritual health and to submit to their leaders. This book is calling church members and pastors alike to a relationship of mutual support based on a deep faith in the Lord. It is challenging, practical, and relatable. Ash suggests that “You will be a better Christian in a better church” (p.10) if you read his book (and presumably also put into action what it says). I think he is justified in this claim and, with him, “I want you to read this book … very much” (p.10).
My chief criticism of this book is Ash’s assumption that each congregation (what he calls a ‘local church’) will have one senior pastor. This first pops up implicitly, for example when he says that those who cannot remove a false teacher from a pastoral position, “must leave their church” (p.42, italics mine), or, “Even if you have been an associate minister of an assistant pastor, nothing quite prepares you for the day when you are entrusted with senior leadership of a church” (p.49-50, italics mine). His belief in a single senior leader becomes explicit near the end of the book when he writes, “Even with shared leadership, we should let one entrusted with senior leadership actually lead” (p.104). I recognise this is a widely held view, but Ash assumes it rather than arguing for it. Personally, I found it jarred with his references to biblical passages, such as 1 Timothy 5, Hebrews 13 and 1 Peter 5, where leaders are consistently referred to in the plural. I wonder where the biblical case is for a single senior leader and would hope that those who do advocate it could be more clear in exactly what they think the limits of that individual’s authority should be. I suspect some of the problems we face with leadership, and with the experience church members have of leaders, arise from a poor understanding and flawed operation of plurality. I would have liked to hear Ash calling church members to step up to the hard work of shouldering leadership responsibility alongside paid pastors and to encourage their leaders to be truly accountable to a collective team of suitably gifted people.
Ash’s focus on the single senior leader led to a few other weaknesses of the book. He assumes that leader will be paid to minister full-time in a congregation, and probably just one congregation at that. The book is less clearly applicable to bivocational pastors, lay elders or ministers with the charge of multiple congregations. In this same vein, I felt Ash was a little too quick to assume that a pastor’s leadership is “entrusted to them by God” (p.68) without considering the degree to which it is also affirmed by the Church (whether a congregational vote or a bishop’s anointing) and therefore accountable to it. This high view of divinely appointed leadership leads to a lack of differentiation in his chapter on submission between legitimate authority and illegitimate use of power. Ash argues that if a leader’s vision is not ungodly, then “We need to learn gladly to submit to the gospel authority of our pastors as they lead our churches” (p.107-108). I find the phrase “gospel authority” here confusing. I would assume it should refer to a pastor’s authority to command obedience to the gospel and to Scripture (as in Titus 2:15), but that a leader’s call to commit to his ideas that are not explicitly commanded in Scripture must carry a lesser level of authority. I think this is a distinction that wise leaders and careful churches will be eager to make and that leaders should think carefully about the degree of uniformity of commitment to their visions they expect from their members.
In drawing this review to a close, I am aware that my comments on the book’s limitations emerge from the fact that my work in Living Leadership brings me up close to the things that go wrong when leaders overstep their authority or when churches do not care well for their leaders. This ministry involvement that makes me glad that Ash has written this helpful book, but also makes me eager for it to be integrated with other books and resources that can tease out what Ash does not. My colleague Marcus Honeysett’s book Powerful Leaders? is the best resource I know for distinguishing legitimate authority from misuses of power in leadership. I am more hesitant about suggesting where greater clarity may be found on plurality in leadership as that question is inseparable from one’s view of church governance. I do think, however, that all churches could benefit from a better understanding and more robust operation of collective leadership whether our plurality is within the congregation or within denominational oversight of the congregation.
This book does a great job of highlighting a problem and pointing readers towards some ways to put it right. Ash urges us not merely to read it but to make changes as a result (p.122). It is at this point that Living Leadership can help you, in two chief ways. Firstly, we can provide your leaders with the support they need to maintain their joy in faithful service for the Lord through our Pastoral Refreshment Conferences, Refreshment Days and Refresh Network Online as well as personalised mentoring and care as needed. Secondly, our Leadership Commitments Scheme is designed expressly to help churches and organisations towards increasingly healthy cultures of mutual responsibility and care between leaders and people. It centres on Codes of Best Practice in both leader conduct and leader care which provide a standard you can commit to and members receive access to helpful toolkits to work these commitments out in practice. Living Leadership is a vehicle that can help those who get the message of The Book Your Pastor Wishes You Would Read move forward to a better place.