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The Heart of Ministry, Doctrine, and Joy

10 Questions with Burk Parsons

In this interview with Burk Parsons, editor of Tabletalk magazine and pastor at St. Andrew’s Chapel in Central Florida, Credo Editor Lance English posed questions that focus on the heart of ministry, the importance of sound doctrine, and personal joys that shape the Christian life. The discussion explores the significance of personal and corporate Scripture reading for believers, delves into the balance between pastoral, theological, and family roles, and touches on the practical implications of sound doctrine. As Parsons candidly shares his insights and experiences, we hope you gain a deeper understanding of the challenges and rewards inherent in a life dedicated to pastoral ministry, theological study, and familial devotion.

This issue of Credo Magazine is on Lectio Divina. How important is personal and corporate Scripture reading for the life of the believer?

I first learned of Lectio Divina from Dr. Bruce Waltke. Dr. Waltke was one of my professors in seminary, and he also attended our church for many years. Imagine learning to preach with Dr. Waltke in the congregation. It was terrifying. But he was always gracious. He helped me to see the value of Lectio Divina while not insisting on the practice.

Personal and corporate Scripture reading is of utmost importance. Christians are people of the Word. However, many believers think that simply means that we should read as much Scripture as possible. Some people seem to read Scripture just so they can brag to other believers about how much they’ve read. Others make it seem as if they are in competition with other believers. And while it is certainly appropriate to read Scripture, privately and corporately, it is also important that we study Scripture, memorize Scripture, and meditate on Scripture as we hide it in our hearts so that it would dwell within our hearts abundantly. We might read Scripture once or twice a day, but we ought to meditate upon it throughout the day. We should let the glorious and inspired truth of our Lord live within us in such a way that we are inhaling and exhaling the Word of God to him, in prayer and praise, to ourselves, our families, and to everyone around us.

Moreover, when we read Scripture, we find that it emphasizes our study of Scripture, which, of course, includes reading Scripture, but we ought not merely read Scripture and conclude we have fulfilled our calling. We also need to be very careful not to be legalistic by establishing reading and study habits for ourselves and then strive to pressure other believers to comply with our particular routines. Pastors are often the greatest culprits of this, and that is one reason why I have never publicly shared my reading, study, journaling, and memorization habits, although sometimes my colleagues and close friends might occasionally hear me mention a certain passage of Scripture I was studying on a particular morning. The study of Scripture is to be a liberating joy, so we ought to be careful not to make it seem a burden by making others feel as if they have to conform to our patterns and disciplines. The Lord has called us to read his Word and to dwell upon it deeply.

Outside of your ministry and theological work, what are some of your favorite hobbies or pastimes that bring you joy and relaxation?

I spend most of my free time with my family. There is nowhere I would rather be than at home with my family. So, we spend a lot of time together at our home out in the country of Central Florida. Incidentally, most of Florida is comprised of forests, rivers, lakes, farmland, cattle ranches, horse ranches, and, of course, beaches. In truth, I love just working around our house and property, doing everything from pulling weeds, felling trees, and fixing whatever needs fixing, or cleaning whatever needs cleaning. Really. I love to cook, especially with my kids, in the kitchen, on the smoker, or on the grill. I also spend as much time as I can on the water and in the woods, fishing the backcountry lakes and lagoons and upland-game hunting with our bird dogs, my friends, and our kids. Once and a while I get invited on a big game hunt with my rifle or bow, and most summers I am able to spend a little time flyfishing the rivers in the mountains of Western Carolina. But in the end, I am an outdoorsman in that I simply enjoy being in the woods or on the water, and I care far less about what I catch or harvest from the water or the woods, for, as my fellow outdoorsmen know, being outdoors is more about my relationships with my friends and family and being together with the people I love. Many of the men I hunt and fish with are in their 70s and 80s, and we have been together doing the same things for more than twenty years. They are first and foremost friends and mentors, but we have a good time hunting and fishing together too.

Could you share some insights on the importance of sound doctrine and its practical implications for the life of the believer?

For we are not masters or lords of Scripture, we are students, servants, and stewards of Scripture and the mysteries of God. Click To Tweet Sound doctrine is absolutely vital in every way. Without it, we wallow in the mire of doubt, anxiety, self-trust, confusion, anger, and depression. It is why every believer must be a good theologian and why we must be in churches where our elders are preaching and teaching the whole counsel of God and defining and defending the faith once delivered to the saints. We must see ourselves, pastors and scholars included, as life-long students of Scripture and its doctrine as disciples of Jesus Christ who are always learning as we follow our Savior. For we are not masters or lords of Scripture, we are students, servants, and stewards of Scripture and the mysteries of God. I believe that creeds and confessions are very helpful in our striving to adhere to sound doctrine. I myself heartily adhere to the Westminster Standards, but I always remain diligent to ensure that I hold to the standards subordinately. There is only one infallible rule for faith and life, namely, Scripture—as the Westminster Confession of Faith teaches. The practical implications of adhering to sound doctrine are multi-faceted and numerous, and some of the most apparent implications relate to our understanding of the character of our triune God, who he is, what he has accomplished, what he has promised, how he is actively working, the ends he is bringing about, all the Holy Spirit accomplishes, who we are in Christ, what we have in Christ, and how we are to live as followers of Christ. While there is so much we could consider here, it is important to understand that when we rightly know sound doctrine and affirm the thesis of every doctrine we believe, only then are we rightly able to state the antithesis of what we believe and discern every false doctrine and every partially false doctrine.

One of the practical implications of sound doctrine pertains to our relationships with our friends, families, and fellow Christians. When we rightly grasp the character of God, particularly as we consider that our Lord is abounding in mercy and steadfast love toward us and that in Christ he has forgiven us and has declared that he remembers our sin no more, we ought to be people who stand always ready to forgive, always ready to show mercy and grace, and always ready to make peace with everyone, as much as it depends on us.

What is one particular doctrine that you believe the church needs to better understand and why?

Missiology. I have found that many Christians do not possess a clear understanding of this most precious doctrine. Missiology relates to every other doctrine of Scripture, and without our properly grasping the biblical magnitude of missiology and how it relates to theology proper, Christology, pneumatology, ecclesiology, eschatology, and every other loci of systematic theology, we will have an overall deficient theology and understanding of Scripture. While it is true that everything in the church is not “foreign missions,” it is true that everything that we do is, or at least should be, related to the mission of God and the fulfillment of the Great Commission of Jesus Christ.

How do you strike a balance between your roles as a pastor, theologian, and family man, and what advice can you offer to others trying to juggle similar responsibilities?

I establish and maintain strict priorities, routines, and policies. I work very hard to protect my time with my family. In 1995, I vowed and wrote in the front of my Bible, “I will live for God, not for ministry.” The meaning of that statement is based on what I observed in some pastors who seemed to be living to make a name for themselves in the church, and who seemed to strive always to climb the ladder of ministry success to get into a bigger church with a bigger salary and to have a bigger name. To that end, they said yes to everything, every event, every program, every opportunity—to the point that they were so busy running around like chickens with their heads cut off, regularly late to meetings, cancelling engagements at the last minute, not getting back with people promptly, not having appropriate time to study and pray, and giving their wives and children the last remains of their time and energies—but only when something else in ministry didn’t get in the way. Rather than living as ministers, servants of God, serving him and his people, some pastors are opportunistically living to make a name for themselves in ministry.

As pastors, we must learn to say no to opportunities so that we can be wise stewards over that which God has entrusted to us. We must be willing to disappoint people, and we must be willing to be disliked. We must never give unnecessary offense, and that is why we must maintain strict policies so that people do not get their feelings hurt. In striving to answer the question as it pertains to my own life, I will offer just a few of the things I do with the hope that it will perhaps serve other pastors well. Delegation is absolutely fundamental. I could not do all that I do in my service to the Lord and his people without excellent, dependable assistants and colleagues. In the church, I have to constantly remember what my role is, and what my role isn’t. I must keep focused on what I am tasked to do according to the Word of God and to encourage and challenge the body of Christ to do what they are gifted and called to do in their various roles, offices, and areas of ministry.

Another area where we must be diligent with our time concerns is our communication. To that end, I am very guarded as to who has my email address and phone number so that I can always be focused on what I should be focused on, and not have to deal with constant emails, text messages, and calls, whether I am in a prayer meeting with the pastors I serve alongside, in a counseling session, visiting the sick in a hospital room or in their home, studying Scripture, or at home with my family.

In 1995, I vowed and wrote in the front of my Bible, “I will live for God, not for ministry.” Click To Tweet As pastors we cannot be everything to everyone, and while we are undershepherds of the entire flock of God, we cannot be everyone’s best friend. We must constantly strive to help God’s flock look to all the elders and shepherds of the church, to the deacons of the church, and to one another as we all together serve one another in the numerous ways God calls us to serve. The elders of our congregation are some of the finest, wisest, courageous, humble, and godly men I have ever known. And the deacons of our congregation are equally so. They are humble men not looking for attention but are willing to serve year after year with no applause from men because they simply want to please our Lord and glorify him in their service to him.

It is vital that we ourselves guard ourselves and our time, for no one else will do it, and no one in our lives knows all that we deal with—only our chief shepherd really knows. To that end, we must keep strict policies with our schedules, our time, our email correspondence, and our phones. But it must be understood, we keep such policies not merely for our sakes and our families’ but to the end that we wouldn’t inadvertently hurt anyone’s feelings. We cannot show partiality; we cannot show favoritism. We cannot go against our policy and attend the event of a wealthy person if we wouldn’t attend the same event for an unwealthy person.

Lastly, it is crucial that we understand the nature of the Lord’s Day. I have often heard pastors speak of another day other than the Lord’s Day being their “sabbath day.” While I certainly understand that pastors need other days off during the week, we must remember that Lord’s Day rest and worship is not only what God has called his sheep to observe but his undershepherds as well. For we must remember, and we do well to remind those we serve, that while we are shepherds, we are also sheep. And similar to the many teachers, volunteers, elders, deacons, choir members, and musicians who are diligently serving the Lord every Lord’s Day, so we must recognize that we all need to see the Lord’s Day as our day of rest as well. And as pastors, we just have the calling and privilege to help lead the celebration. And being that I preach two sermons on Lord’s Day mornings and preach a different sermon on Lord’s Day evenings, not to mention the numerous conversations between and after services, I know what it is to be mentally and physically exhausted Sunday evenings through Tuesday mornings. But that exhaustion is a glorious one, because we must always rely on the Spirit to give us strength and courage.

What book (aside from the Bible) has had the most significant impact on your personal and spiritual development, and why?

There is not one particular book; there are simply too many books to name. But I will say that the books I most enjoy reading are biblical exegetical commentaries that heavily engage with the original languages. Commentaries are the books with which I spend most of my time in reading and study. And, as I have said for many years, most of the better commentaries that have ever been written in history have been written during the last fifty years.

Perhaps I should also mention that the resource the Holy Spirit used significantly in my life is Tabletalk magazine, when a friend handed me a copy in 1995. I attended my first Ligonier Ministries’ conference a few months later, and in God’s providence, as all things are, I started serving as an assistant editor of Tabletalk just six years later and then became the editor in 2003, for which I am sincerely grateful to God. And in that role, as I serve alongside a tremendous team, I am simply striving to be a faithful steward as long as the Lord will allow me to serve him.

Lastly, a book that has meant a lot to me over the years is John Calvin’s A Little Book on the Christian Life primarily because when I first read the book, it made me feel that I’m not alone, that Calvin understood my plight and the spiritual and theological concerns and burdens of my heart and mind. Calvin’s careful way of dealing with the reality of the struggles and miseries of this life coupled with his encouraging us to not wallow in despair and hopelessness as we cast our eyes heavenward has proven to be a great encouragement to me over the years.

If you could have dinner with any historical figure, living or deceased, who would it be, and what would you want to discuss with them?

Jesus Christ. Everything.

What’s your favorite place in the world to visit, and what makes it special to you?

For we must remember, and we do well to remind those we serve, that while we are shepherds, we are also sheep. Click To Tweet My favorite place to be is home because that’s where my family is, and I hate to travel anywhere unless I am with my dear bride and our children. When we are apart, my heart is sad. And that sadness always leads me to remember that I cannot allow my beloved companion and our children to be idols of my heart, that my Lord is my closest companion, and that, by his grace, heaven is our home where we will never be sad or lonely again and where we’ll all have the same best friend.

What are some of the most rewarding aspects of pastoring your church?

As all my fellow pastors know, being a pastor is hard, very hard. For those who don’t think it’s hard, it’s either because they haven’t been pastors very long or because they are not actually engaging in the fullness of the biblical office of the shepherd–teacher. There is no office of “preacher” in the New Testament, but there is the office of pastor. There are many pulpiteers in our day who may indeed shepherd through preaching and teaching but avoid getting dirty as they walk among the sheep of God’s flock caring for them, serving them, rebuking and correcting them, being hurt by them, encouraging them, praying for them by name, and walking with them through the hardships, heartbreaks, and joys of life. Being a pastor is not supposed to be easy. That is why pastors must daily and wholly cast themselves on the power of the Holy Spirit as we strive to fulfill the fullness of the Great Commission in not just teaching his disciples, but teaching his disciples to observe (guard, keep) all that Christ commanded. That means training, mentoring, and discipling—not merely preaching. And that work of discipleship is the work of the shepherd—in our churches and to the ends of the earth, evangelizing our unreached neighbors and the unreached peoples of the world, planting churches and witnessing our triune God work mightily through the ordinary means of grace as he sovereignly brings about his extraordinary ends for his glory. That said, the most rewarding aspects of pastoring the congregation I have served in one form or another since late 2001 is to see people from many tribes, tongues, and nations around central Florida saved by the grace of God through the preaching of the gospel of Jesus Christ and the regenerating power of the Holy Spirit and to see them mature as disciples of our Lord. I love to hear stories of how my fellow congregants have helped one another when no one asked them to do so, when there was no program or official ministry directing them to do so. And lastly, I will add that what delights my whole being is the fact that my kids look forward to going to gathered worship, not just every Lord’s Day morning but also every Lord’s Day evening, even though their old Dad is the one preaching.

Who has had the greatest impact on your ministry?

My wife. For, without her I would not have made it one day as a pastor. I only wish I could be a more gentle, patient, and understanding husband, living for her as Christ lived for us.

Burk Parsons

Burk Parsons serves as senior pastor of Saint Andrew’s Chapel in Sanford, Florida, as editor of Tabletalk Magazine, and as a Ligonier Ministries Teaching Fellow. He is editor of John Calvin: A Heart for Devotion, Doctrine, and Doxology and coeditor and cotranslator of A Little Book on the Christian Life by John Calvin.

Lance English

Lance English is an editor for Credo Magazine and a Ph.D. student in Systematic Theology at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. He serves as a pastor at Trinity Church in Kansas City and is married to Brielle.

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