Reflections from the Normal Pastor Conference
To be honest, this post is probably a bit overdue. But in another way, as I reflect on the messages and purpose of the Normal Pastor Conference, time has instilled a greater realization of the delightful and inspiring words of all involved. Held at Grace Church in Orlando, Florida, the conference was slated to be two days of preaching to discouraged, even disillusioned pastors who need building up in the “normal ministry” of God. It wasn’t a conference about big churches or small churches. Regardless of your context or scale of ministry, this event sought solely to encourage preachers to see more of Jesus and less of themselves.
The first night opened with, perhaps, the most unassuming speaker. Pastor and author Zack Eswine got the conference going by speaking on the posture and practice of a “normal pastor” — a posture that continually seeks opportunities for neighbor love and a practice that fiestily declares the grace of God in the ordinary. Zack’s message was so on-point, directing our attention to the God who meets us and ministers to us where we are.
But in my opinion, Zack’s true sermon wasn’t behind the podium that night. It was in the hour beforehand as conference patrons checked-in and got comfortable in the atrium. As guests mingled, sipped coffee, and made small talk, Zack did the same. I watched as he made a point to talk to each person in that atrium, shaking their hand and listening to them as they introduced themselves and their ministry. He listened with eyes that knew what both normalcy and faith are. Zack’s posture and practice preceded him, as he went out of his way to defer to other normal pastors, displaying in reality a truth he later spoke. That is, for pastors, God takes your normal, everyday life and reorients it towards people.
People are the ministry. Normal people. Struggling people. Faithless people. Defeated people. These are the very people who need the message of Jesus the most. The message that goodness hasn’t quit. That love endures. That the darkness won’t ever snuff out the light. This is what the Word continually spurs us to remember — and pastors are called to impart that remembrance to others. A pastor’s job is to preach to himself and others that God hasn’t forgotten them, but actively remembers them. This is what Pastor Won Kwak relayed to us, reminding us that this is precisely what Jesus has called and empowered us to do. This work of redeeming remembrance is challenging. It’s monotonous. But it’s the ministry.
The hardness of ministry, though, isn’t only seen in the tedium but in the loss. I don’t wish to “rate” these talks, but, perhaps, John Onwuchekwa’s session was the most impactful. I know it was for me. He spoke to the reality of death and adversity, and why those moments are what it means to be a “normal pastor.” (Eccl. 7:1–14) So often we think that preaching and pastoring are seen in the high moments of Sunday morning sermons, myself included. But the reality of normal ministry is that it’s most keenly found in the dark, stormy seasons of life. A pastor’s job isn’t primarily found behind the pulpit, it’s found in the waiting room of disease or beside the bed of death.
It’s in these difficult, adverse moments that a pastor’s calling shines. Death can be the greatest evangelist, sparking thoughts of eternity that before were only distant memories. It’s in these instances that a preacher’s message ought to spill forth, offering hope in the dust. The hope that even as we watch loved ones lapse, God’s mercy and forgiveness won’t ever expire. That the bad days are outmatched when it comes to the goodness and grace of God.
That’s the whole point, you know. A “normal pastor’s” words ought to center on Jesus. He’s at once the entry point and whole theme of the entire Christian faith. And this is what Erik Raymond brought to mind as he began the second day of preaching. Erik entreated us to truly “consider Jesus” — to give careful, intentional, continual attention to the Savior. (Heb. 3:1) On good days and bad, “in season and out of season.” (2 Tim. 4:2), a pastor’s calling is to point to the overwhelming, all-surpassing glory and worth of Christ. God wishes that all of our lives would be a remembrance of him. That in the sunlight and in the shadows, we’d be prompted to see the beauty and weightless and radiance of his Son, Jesus Christ. (2 Cor. 3:18) A pastor’s job is to teach his people to not only see the facts of Jesus but the glory of Jesus. As Erik Raymond so eloquently put it:
Every morning the frost of our hearts needs to be melted by the glory of Christ.
This is what “normal ministry” looks like. As Joe Thorn put it, a “normal ministry” preaches Jesus, works hard, and aims at maturity. (Eph. 4:11–16) It’s not flashy. It’s not after butts in seats but souls in heaven. It’s very easy for pastors to see the ministry as “their platform.” Doing so, however, distorts what it means to be a “normal pastor.” It’s not about platforming. It’s not about speaking pithy catchphrases that are easily marketable. It’s about preaching Jesus, working hard, and running after the Savior as long as there’s breath in our lungs. The “normal pastor” is outwards oriented, building up others — not himself or his platform. He doesn’t look to gain from others but to give to them — give them grace, give them Jesus.
The “normal pastor” is on a divine engagement in a war he cannot win without outside intervention. (2 Cor. 10:3–5) The intervening word of Christ is the only foundation from which this mission can take place. Such is why a pastor’s position is to orient everything he says and does around the worth and work of Jesus. By partaking in this mission, the pastor isn’t earning his keep, he’s keeping and feeding God’s flock. Such is what Jared Wilson spoke of, closing the conference by reminding us of the incomparable joys of “normal ministry.” The joy of resting in God’s absolute sovereignty over your ministry. The joy of knowing that your fruitfulness isn’t contingent on your resources but on your Redeemer. The joy of simply knowing Christ and being his friend — his brother, his sister. Too often, the difficulties and distresses of ministry cloud our eyes from seeing the joy of ministry — the joy that God seeks to impart to us through his Son. “I have told you these things so that my joy may be in you and your joy may be complete.” (John 15:11)
The preaching of a “normal pastor” ought to put on display the truth and grace of Christ. Regardless of the results we see or don’t see. The effects of “normal ministry” aren’t always seen by those who are carrying it out. As Jared said, it’s possible that you’re merely planting the trees that others will enjoy the shade of — it’s possible the products of your preaching won’t be realized in your lifetime. And the gospel of Christ makes you okay with that.
I was privileged to meet Zack and Jared and Erik and John and Joe. I was honored to speak to each of them. I’m extremely grateful for the Normal Pastor Conference and what it means, what it stands for. The speakers and attendees aren’t looking to continue the platform building of Christianity — they’re after building up fellow-laborers in the work of the Kingdom. In the mundane work. In the monotonous work. In the hard work. In the joyful work. All of it is the ministry of a “normal pastor.”