The cultivation of piety in the ministry is a pertinent area in the life of every pastor. It is with some measure of trepidation that I approach this subject, fully conscious that I am touching on an issue that is too “close to home,” so to say. Further, I am mindful that it places me and other ministers of the gospel under special scrutiny. This is a matter that lays bare the lives of God’s servants before their own congregations and the observant world. Nevertheless this is an area of supreme importance that has been addressed both in the Scriptures and in the writings of our Reformed forefathers. If the inspired and sacred Book and our Reformed precursors did not flinch from speaking on this subject, why should I exhibit timidity or hesitancy to do the same? Are ministers not called to preach the “whole counsel of God” (Acts 20:27)? Allow me then to make a feeble attempt on a somewhat delicate but extremely important and necessary subject.

I have elected to consider this subject under three heads, namely:

  • Special areas in which the pastor must exhibit piety.
  • The perils of piety in ministry.
  • The resources available for cultivating and sustaining piety in ministry.

Special areas in which the Pastor must exhibit piety

The pastor has three particular areas in which he must pay close attention in keeping with Paul’s exhortation—“watch your life and doctrine”.

(a) He must watch his life in relation to his domestic sphere. The entire pastoral calling rises and falls on this very point. The apostle Paul in writing to young Timothy says, “If a man does not know how to rule his own house, how will he take care of the church of God?” (1 Timothy 3:5). The pastor cannot promote piety in the church of God if he fails to promote piety in his own backyard!

The pastor must demonstrate this piety first through what he inculcates in his own children or dependants at home. Of course, he cannot convey grace to his children, as this is a sovereign act of God, but in practice this means he must make his household a model for the church of God (Bridges, 1967, pp166). His household must have family worship in which doctrine is taught to complement the pulpit ministry, and where prayer and singing to the God of the Bible takes place. A word of warning here to pastors is to remember that spiritual food must be apportioned wisely (Luke 12:42). This means that we must take into consideration the mental capacity of each of our family members. Spiritual food is only profitable if it is “rightly divided” (2 Timothy 2:15) and profits all. Family worship that is bathed in deep “School of Theology” lingua profits no-one but the speaker and his seminary professors!

The man of God must be exemplary in the handling of day to day things. Examples of this are what are sometimes called the “Habits of Order” (Bridges C, 1967, pp166). Translated into layman’s language this means there must be accountability and proper use of time, property and money. Of note here are simple things like regularity in the payment of bills, strict avoiding and prompt repaying of debts. With respect to children and/or dependants “allowance must be made for (children’s) infirmities, patience and forbearance be constantly maintained, sympathy be shown in all trials and difficulties…. Considering every member of the house as if interested in their temporal welfare and responsible for their immortal souls” (Bridges, 1967, pp166-168).

The pastor must exhibit piety with respect to his wife. He must love her as Christ loved the church (Ephesians 5:25–29). This will be clear to all in the way he speaks to and about her, the way he treats her (e.g. not violent towards her, 1 Timothy 3:3) and the way he publicly and privately relates to her. He should never seek to belittle or deliberately be injurious to his fellow “heir of life” (1 Peter 3:7).

(b) He must watch his life in relation to his ecclesiastical sphere. He must exercise piety in two areas towards his elders and church members.The heart of piety in relating to elders is to realise that the biblical concept of leadership is shared or collective pastoral leadership. Jesus Christ gave the church plurality of leadership. Consider that Jesus Christ did not appoint one man to lead his church. He personally appointed and trained twelve men (Luke 6:13–16). This principle of shared or collegiate leadership is carried on in the New Testament. Pastoral oversight of many of the early churches was under the elders. The examples are legion. The reader will note that the word “elder” is always in the plural when it is used in the context of the church (Acts 15; James 5:14; Acts 14:23; Acts 20:17, 28, Philippians 1:1; Titus 1:15; 1 Peter 5:1). Shared pastoral leadership is biblical. However, there is amidst the collective leadership in the church what is sometimes called the “first among equals” and the pastor must fulfil this role (1 Timothy 5:17,18).

This principle was observed even by the Lord Jesus Christ. He selected twelve disciples but he singled out three (Peter, James and John) for special attention. But even among the three, Peter no doubt is unquestionably the “first among equals”. In four lists of the apostles, Peter is mentioned first. Indeed Peter is called “the first” on one occasion (Matthew 10:2). By calling Peter “the first”, Matthew means “the first among equals” (Strauch, 1995). But this does not entail that Peter is now to be elevated to the position of “pope”. This is a denial of the gospel and an insult to Scriptural collegiate leadership.

Without belabouring the point, the question is, how does collegiate leadership enhance the piety of the pastor in relating to his fellow elders? Among many other reasons, it makes the pastor accountable in areas that may involve correction, rebuke, encouragement and discipline, if necessary. All of us have weaknesses and blind spots which are visible only to others but not to ourselves, and the pastor is no exception. The Christian leader who refuses brotherly accountability is self-deceived and headed for self-destruction. Only dictators fear accountability from godly colleagues (Strauch, 1995). Even Paul rebuked the “first among equals”, the apostle Peter, at Antioch in Syria (Galatians 2:11–15). Hence cultivating piety in relating with fellow elders is allowing for accountability within the eldership.

In his ecclesiastical relationship, the pastor must also cultivate piety as he relates to his church members. It appears the New Testament picks out three areas to guide this relationship (Strauch, 1995). There must be Christ-like love for the flock of God (Philippians 2:1,2; 2 Corinthians 5:14), humility (or servant leadership) before the flock (Philippians 2:5–8), and there must be fervent prayer for ourselves and the flock of God (Acts 6:4).This “trilogy” must be the pastor’s ethos as he seeks to cultivate piety in relating with church members.

(c) He must watch his life in relation to his social sphere. The summary of cultivating piety in social life lies in the words of the two pastoral letters to Timothy and the one to Titus. To Timothy we read: “Take heed to yourself and to the doctrine. Continue in them, for in doing this you will save both yourself and those who hear you” (1 Timothy 4:16). To Titus we read “In ALL things showing yourself to be a PATTERN of good works …” (Titus 2:7, emphasis mine). The heart of piety in a pastor’s life is his behaviour. Phillip Henry puts it succinctly when he writes to ministers: “Our lives should be the book of the ignorant” (Fairbairn, 1992, p80-81). The pastor is the official ambassador of the flock that he oversees. In his social life he cultivates piety by living out his preaching and teaching. He must bring alive what he preaches in his behaviour. It is indeed a “grievous mistake in those ministers who study hard to preach exactly, but study little, or not at all, to LIVE exactly; who spend most of the week in studying how to speak two hours, and scarcely spend an hour in studying HOW TO LIVE all the week” (Fairbairn, 1992, p85-86).

The rebuke by St Paul is worthy of our greatest scrutiny: “You, therefore, who teach another, do you not teach yourself?” (Romans 2:21). I could write many things but I believe that the portrait drawn by that great Dutch man, Vitringa, sums up the way a minister is to cultivate piety in his social life. He writes that the faithful servant must be “…of chaste and unadulterated manners; by his example teaching the virtues of piety, modesty, gentleness, zeal, prudence, gravity; one who, like a candle set upon a candle stick, gives light to all who are in the house, to all who are desirous of salvation; both showing the way of LIFE…. Wherever he turns his steps, there is salvation, when he opens his lips; there is the salt of grace ….” (Fairburn, 1992, p91). The pastor in his social life must never forget his calling. The pastor ought very carefully to take heed that both at home and abroad, he lives a life worthy of himself and his calling. Let him live chastely, whether he is single or married (Bullinger, 1849, p159).

The Perils to Piety in Ministry

Let me hasten to mention that these are legion but I have picked what I consider the more acrimonious dangers:

(a) Complacency: We read in Amos 6:1, “Woe to you who are at ease in Zion ….” This is a stern warning against being complacent. This is particularly prevalent in the face of great spiritual success. Vigilance must never be lost. The pastor needs to realise that Satan is “a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour” (1 Peter 5:8). Slothfulness can, all too easily, beset the man of God. We see this in the tragic example of King David who “at the time when kings go out to battle,” sent Joab instead (2 Samuel 11). Further we see David lazing about on the roof of the king’s house. The rest is history, as they say. It all began with complacency. Complacency and slothfulness are twin evils. The attitude of the apostle Paul must always be a reminder against complacency; “But I discipline my body and bring it into subjection, lest, when I have preached to others, I myself should become disqualified” (1 Corinthians 9:27).

(b)   Spiritual Pride: The precursor to this peril is a season of success and accomplishment. Cotton Mather appears to have been severely exercised in this area during his first pastorate. He wrote, “I found that when I met with enlargement in prayer or preaching, or answered a question readily and suitably, I was apt to applaud myself in my own mind…. I therefore endeavoured to take a view of my pride as the very image of the devil, contrary to the grace and image of Christ—as an offence against God, and grieving of His Spirit—as the most unreasonable folly…. I therefore resolved to carry my distempered heart to be cured by Jesus Christ, that all sufficient Physician—to watch against my pride” (Bridges, 1967). This attitude if not checked will disqualify a person from further advancement in the kingdom of God, for “the Lord detests all the proud of heart” (Proverbs 16:5). Remember also that this sin of pride led to the downfall of our great arch-enemy, the devil (Ezekiel 28:1–6).

(c)   Jealousy: This is a close kinsman to pride. It is a morbid ugly feeling within when we begin to see another pastor becoming more prominent and successful. This was a sin resisted by John the Baptist. “And they came to John the Baptist and said to him, “Rabbi… behold, He (Jesus) is baptizing, and all are coming to Him!” (John 3:26). John the Baptist replied, “He must increase, but I must decrease” (John 3:30). This saintly man resisted the temptation of feelings of jealousy against someone his disciples and some Jews perceived to be his rival.

(d)   Popularity: What leader or preacher does not desire to be liked by his people? Being disliked is no virtue, but popularity can have too high a price. Followers are so awestruck at a leader’s virtues that the leader seems no longer merely human. Worse yet, sometimes, the leader comes to enjoy his pedestal (Sanders, 1994). Spiritual leaders may be “esteemed highly in love for their work’s sake.” “There is no fault in finding encouragement when one’s service is appreciated, but the leader must… Refuse to be idolised” (Sanders, 1994, p156). There is, of course, no virtue in being disliked. But Jesus warned, “Woe to you when all men speak well of you” (Luke. 6:26).

(e)   Egotism: This is the spirit of thinking and speaking of oneself, of magnifying one’s attainments and relating everything to self rather than God and God’s people. Samuel Chadwick put it neatly: “If successful, don’t crow” (Sanders, 1994, p154).

(f)   Emotionalism: This is the pastor who has a “short fuse”, and cannot control his temper but is full of uncalculated outbursts. He has no control over his emotions particularly in the face of criticism whether legitimate or perceived. This is a great hindrance to piety in ministry. One of the qualifications of the pastorate is one who is “temperate and sober-minded” (1 Timothy 3:2) and again “not self-willed and not quick-tempered” (Titus 1:7,8). Solomon puts it neatly, “Do you see a man who is hasty in his words? There is more hope for a fool than for him” (Proverbs 29:20).

(g)   Keeping Accounts: One of the strengths of a pastor should be the keeping of short accounts when people offend him. It is always a great peril and temptation to “keep record of wrongs” (1 Corinthians 13:5). He must prayerfully ask and develop a large heart and “forgive those who trespass against him” (Luke 11:4). Piety is choked by a pastor who keeps “long accounts”.

The resources available to the Pastor in cultivating piety

I believe that godliness is not an option for a pastor. Otherwise he is headed for spiritual shipwreck both for himself and his ministry. Let me again only select some of the resources that God has given to every minister of his Word. We neglect them at our own peril.

(a)   The pastor must pray: The pastor must “outpace the rest of the church, above all in prayer… Prayer is the most ancient, most universal, and most intense expression of the religious instinct. It includes the simplest speech of infant lips and the sublime entreaties of older age…” (Sanders, 1994, p85). Indeed as James Montgomery puts it in one hymn, prayer is “the Christian’s vital breath, the Christian’s native air.” The pastor must first and foremost be prayerful because in this way he opposes the works of Satan. Our enemy the devil seeks to “smite the shepherd so he can scatter the sheep” (Zechariah 13:7). It is true Satan tries to prevail against the church of God, but his primary target is the under-shepherd. If only he can succeed to bring down the under-shepherd the damage is irreparable but for the grace of God. Prayer is the pastor’s vital weapon. He only has to look at his supreme example—Jesus Christ—who at times spent whole nights in prayer (Luke 6:12). The pastor must also at times avail himself to fasting as some problems can only be resolved through “fasting and prayer” (Mark 9:29).

(b) The pastor must read: The absence of reading is one of the cardinal slaughterhouses of piety in a pastor. The apostle Paul while in prison wrote to Timothy, “Bring the cloak that I left with Carpus at Troas when you come—and the books, especially the parchments.” (2 Timothy 4:13). The man of God must be a man who reads books, especially the Scriptures. “Lawyers read steadily to keep up on case law. Doctors must read to stay current in the ever changing world of health care. So the spiritual leader must master God’s Word and its principles… To do so the leader must have an active life of reading” (Sanders, 1994, p102). There are a variety of reasons for reading, but the primary one is to cultivate our piety. John Wesley—that great Arminian who at times puts me to shame—told the younger pastors of the Methodist societies to read or quit the ministry! I believe that out of the variety of books on piety that every pastor must read and re-read is The Reformed Pastor by the venerable Richard Baxter, vicar of Kidderminster (1615–1691).

(c)   The pastor must redeem the time: It was while David squandered his time on the top of the palace that disaster struck! David failed to redeem the time. Time is a resource that every pastor must wisely use if he is to cultivate piety. In Ephesians we are warned, “… redeeming the time because the days are evil” (Ephesians 5:15). The converse is true—if we fail to redeem the time, we will become evil (i.e. lose our piety). There is a saying that has been coined—“an idle mind is the devil’s workshop”—and so it proved for David. He ended up sinning in a way he would never have dreamt he ever would. He found himself caught in a web of adultery, murder, deceit and lies (2 Samuel 11). Many centuries later, we read about “another David” who came and died in Zambia at Mwenzo Mission, even David Livingstone. Truly he redeemed the time because “at age ten [he] worked in a cotton mill in Dumbarton fourteen hours a day. Surely he had excuses for not studying, for not redeeming the little leisure left to him. But he learned Latin and could read Horace and Vigil at age sixteen. At age twenty-seven he had finished a program in both medicine and theology” (Sanders, 1994, p95).

(d)   The pastor must be accountable: This may sound strange to some, but one of the causes of declension in piety in the pastorate is non-accountability. The exhortation by Paul to the elders at Ephesus is “Take heed to yourselves, and to all the flock of God…” (Acts 20:28). This is not just an exhortation to keep watch over our individual lives, but it is an exhortation to accountability by all the elders over one another. In fact, Richard Baxter, a proponent of this idea, has an entire chapter devoted to this subject of accountability (Baxter, 1849, pp53-62). Therefore, the reader who despises this counsel, would do well to devote his time to reading Baxter on this issue of mutual accountability.

Let me end by saying that piety in the pastorate is something that is constantly under attack. Satan will not spare any pastor, because he is a threat to his kingdom of darkness. Therefore, may the Lord spur every child of God to pray for all pastors. May the Lord also bless my feeble efforts to spur everyone reading this article to higher heights of holiness. Amen.


STRAUCH , A. 1995. Biblical Eldership. Littleton, CO.: Lewis & Roth Publishers.

SANDERS O, 1994. Spiritual Leadership. Chicago: Moody Press.

FAIRBAIRN, P. 1992. Pastoral Theology. Edinburgh, Old Paths Publications.

BULLINGER, H. 2004. The Decades of Henry Bullinger vol. 2. Grand Rapids, MI.: Reformation Heritage Books.

BRIDGES, C. 1967. The Christian Ministry. Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust.

BAXTER, R. 1974. The Reformed Pastor. Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust.