This is part of a series called Faithful Shepherd Friday, which attempts to learn from faithful shepherds of Christ’s church laboring in obscurity.
Today’s faithful shepherd is Nathaniel Williams. He is the pastor of Cedar Rock First Baptist Church and the editor of IntersectProject.org.
Where do you serve as pastor and how long have you been there?
I serve as the pastor of Cedar Rock First Baptist Church in Castalia, NC, where I’ve served for more than five years. We’re a small church in a rural area northeast of the Triangle.
How do you go about sermon preparation?
I do sermon preparation in increments throughout the week. On Monday or Tuesday, I study the passage. That process typically involves rewriting the passage by hand, making notes and observations on the text, and taking a prayer walk in which I meditate on the text. In the middle of the week, I consult the commentaries and take another prayer walk to wrap my mind and heart around the passage. (This time is typically when the message takes its shape.) I then write a bullet-point draft by hand, and I conclude by typing my manuscript.
What book has impacted your preaching or pastoral ministry? Why do you think it is important for pastors to read this particular book?
The Work of the Pastor by William Still has deeply influenced me, and I’ve read it at least three times in the course of my brief pastoral ministry. Still’s little book is full of razor-sharp quotes, weighty wisdom, and practical suggestions.
In particular, Still speaks to two dangers that most pastors face. We find it abundantly easy to spend our time behind a pulpit preaching reactively and warn about dangers in the world (and rightly so). But Still also encourages us to preach proactively and teach the rich truths of scripture. He writes,
“A shepherd is no mere warder-off of wild beasts. To save the sheep from wild beasts and all other dangers is not to feed them; and if they are not fed, what matters whether they are safe or not? What is the good of being saved to starve?”
Similarly, every pastor has particular subjects or passages of scripture with which he resonates. If left to our own devices, we’d spend all our time addressing these pet subjects. Yet Still compels us to preach the whole counsel of God. He explains,
To keep dipping away into our own pet subjects and giving folk what we like best, or they like best, is not the way to feed the flock. No schoolteacher would get away for long with that cavalier attitude…[We’re called] to the ministry of the whole Word of God.
What figure from church history has been a source encouragement for pastoral ministry?
Lesslie Newbigin probably doesn’t count as a figure from church history. But since he died more than 20 years ago, I’m going to cheat and use him anyway.
Why? Newbigin returned to his home Britain after a season as a missionary. Upon returning, he realized that he also needed to treat his home culture as a mission field. I’ve been encouraged by his writings (namely The Gospel in a Pluralist Society and The Open Secret) and his commitment to bringing his neighbors into a missionary encounter with the gospel.
As our culture grows increasingly secular, we’ll need to have a similar posture — interacting with our neighbors not primarily as culture warriors, but as missionaries pointing them to the gospel of Jesus Christ.
If you were speaking to someone new to pastoral ministry, what encouragement would you give?
First, love the church. Loving the church sounds so simple, doesn’t it? Yet all of us have had painful or negative church experiences in our past, and this hurt can still linger in our souls.
Ask God to give you his heart for the bride of Christ. Ask him to give you a deep, abiding love for the people under your pastoral care. Ask him to give you a heart not just for serving the church or working at a church, but for loving the church. As one retired pastor once said, “There are three things you need to do to be a successful pastor: Love the people, love the people, love the people.” A hearty Amen to that.
Second, be patient. When I arrived at our church, I made a commitment to myself to try not to change anything for the first year. I wanted to focus all my attention on getting to know the people, meeting the community, and understanding the underlying systems and dynamics between people and ministries. This patience, I think, helped me better understand our church family, and it helped me establish credibility. To quote Bill Gates, “People overestimate how much can be accomplished in a year, and underestimate what can be accomplished in a decade.” No change worth having will happen overnight.
Finally, and most importantly, tend to your own soul. We need to develop spiritual disciplines in our lives to cultivate our love for God and other. We walk on dangerous ground if we seek to do an impossible task (ministering the word of God) in our own strength. And, as Eugene Peterson said, “How can I lead people into the quiet place beside the still waters if I am in perpetual motion?” We need these rhythms of rest and prayer for the sake of our own souls — and for the sake of our people.
How can we pray for you?
I, like every other pastor, am fatigued after a year of COVID ministry. In all likelihood, a return to normalcy will be slow. In some ways, it feels like we’ll have to start from scratch. So pray for me (and all pastors) as we seek to serve our churches well in this season.
Also, one of the beautiful benefits of the past year has been spending more time with my wife and children. Pray that we would still prioritize this time even when we begin to creep back to normalcy.