The Flourishing Pastor: Recovering the Lost Art of Shepherd Leadership, Tom Nelson, IVP Praxis, 2021, 246 pages, ISBN: 978-151400132-5, List price: £14.99
“An impoverished theological vision, inadequate spiritual formation, and faulty pastoral praxis” (p.6). That is how Tom Nelson describes his younger self as he emerged from his time in seminary to start into ministry as a church planter. His reflections on his ministry experience and his observation that “the pastoral vocation is increasingly at risk” (p.7) in the contemporary setting, along with his conviction that “the One who calls pastors will provide the wisdom, guidance, strength, and empowerment to flourish and finish well” (p.7) led him to write The Flourishing Pastor. Inspired by the description of David’s shepherd leadership in Psalm 78 verse 72, he sets out to explore what it is to be a shepherd (Part 1), to have integrity of heart (Part 2) and to serve in pastoral ministry with skilful hands (Part 3). The result is an excellent guide to shepherding ministry that deserves a careful read by anyone called to pastor.
Nelson is concerned that the pastoral calling is in crisis because many are tempted to one of three “perilous paths”: the celebrity pastor, the visionary pastor, or the lone ranger pastor (Chapter 1). He seeks to call pastors back to an understanding of the pastoral calling that is rooted in faith in God and happy to embrace obscurity (Chapter 2) and flows from an understanding of oneself as a sheep in the care of the Good Shepherd (Chapter 3). Having laid these foundations in his first section, Nelson proceeds to explore what integrity of heart means in terms of an integral life (Chapter 4) in apprenticeship to Jesus who calls us to be yoked to him (Chapter 5) and pursuing wholeness through healthy life practices (Chapter 6). The final section of the book considers skills for ministry, which Nelson understands as being about equipping God’s people to be a faithful presence in the world (Chapter 7). He argues that that goal means we must cultivate a flourishing culture in our churches (Chapter 8), help people connect Sunday to Monday (Chapter 9) and measure ministry progress by how well we are doing this (Chapter 10). He closes with a challenge to finish well (Chapter 11) based in a reminder of how often biblical leaders ended poorly and in the words of Paul to Timothy.
The Flourishing Pastor contains a wealth of wisdom for pastoral ministry. Its call to obscurity and integrity is deeply challenging and thoroughly biblical. Nelson’s reflections on Jesus’ call to take his yoke, a passage many readers will know well, are refreshing and enlightening. His concerns about misunderstandings of pastoral ministry are timely and his central assertion that pastors need to recover an understanding of what it is to shepherd God’s people under Christ is surely crucial. Personally, I appreciated his frequent references to authors I have found helpful, especially Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Henri Nouwen. The inclusion of a Discussion Guide, with questions helping readers to reflect upon each chapter, relate it to their own experience and apply it to their future practice, makes The Flourishing Pastor a valuable tool for use in leadership teams or one-to-one mentoring relationships.
It feels like Tom Nelson really speaks the language of Living Leadership. Or almost! At times his writing felt unnecessarily complex, with many technical terms he assumes the reader will understood, and his occasional references to neurobiology are unhelpfully brief and add little to his case. Personally, I must also confess that I am not a fan of the word ‘flourishing’, which appears quite often in the book as well as in the title. Like another recurrent phrase in this book, “the common good”, I fear it is too open to misunderstanding. Whilst his vision for pastoral ministry as equipping God’s people to serve him in all of life, he does not explain how to navigate the differences in understanding of what is ‘good’ that are bound to arise between Christians and others in today’s culture. This presumably looks different in his context in the USA from Europe and will need some careful contextualisation. In general, Part 3 of The Flourishing Pastor is less well-developed than the first two parts. It labours the point of equipping for whole-life discipleship without exploring other skills a shepherd pastor needs, such as feeding people from God’s word, praying for them, and tending to their wounds. Readers will need to look elsewhere for help in Word ministry, prayer and pastoral care.
The great strength of this valuable book is in its attention to the pastor’s calling and heart. It is more than worth the cover price for its excellent and challenging thoughts on these subjects. Its consideration of the pastor’s task is less complete, but still worth a reflective read. The Flourishing Pastor speaks to the heart and will fan the flame in readers of a passion to shepherd others “with integrity of heart” and “skilful hands” (Psalm 78:72).