When Augustine, the great African theologian of the early church, first became a leader in the church, he was not prepared. Using the imagery of a ship’s crew, Augustine said he was appointed to “the second place at the helm” although he “knew not how to handle an oar.” He said that at the time he thought he knew how to lead in the church, and he had even rebuked the faults of many “sailors” before he learned the nature of their work by experience. He had criticized other pastors before he became one himself!
Once he started his duties he quickly realized his criticism of other pastors was unfounded and that he himself was ill prepared to be a leader. He said it was a rebuke of God when he realized his own inadequacy – and it led him to a sorrow that even his friends could not console. It’s not like Augustine had no idea about the difficulties of the ministry. He knew of them:
…My experience has made me realize these things [difficulties] much more both in degree and in measure than I had done in merely thinking of them: not that I have now seen any new waves or storms of which I had not previous knowledge by observation, or report, or reading, or meditation; but because I had not known my own skill or strength for avoiding or encountering them, and had estimated it to be of some value instead of none. The Lord, however, laughed at me, and was pleased to show me by actual experience what I am.
Augustine even said that his inadequacy was a source of personal grief:
Moreover, it is true that I did not at any earlier period know how great was my unfitness for the arduous work which now disquiets and crushes my spirit.
In other words, Augustine thought he could handle the difficulties of the ministry, but quickly realized that his own strength and skill were of no value. By experience he learned that he wasn’t as strong and skillful as he thought: it was as if God was laughing at Augustine for thinking he could do something on his own that he clearly could not do on his own. This makes me think of a three-year-old boy taking the shovel from his dad and proclaiming that he can clear the six inches of snow off the driveway by himself. The dad would chuckle, hand him the shovel, and let him try!
How did Augustine deal with his inadequacy and grief? He looked to God for mercy and turned to Scripture and to God in prayer:
But if He has done this not in judgment, but in mercy, as I confidently hope even now, when I have learned my infirmity, my duty is to study with diligence all the remedies which the Scriptures contain for such a case as mine, and to make it my business by prayer and reading to secure that my soul be endued with the health and vigour necessary for labours so responsible.
Later in this letter that I’ve been quoting from Augustine asks Bishop Valerius if he could take a sort of study leave or sabbatical to pray and study the Word. This, he said, would better enable him to face the difficulties of the ministry and make him a better leader. This letter of Augustine to Valerius is a good one for pastors or future pastors to read and note: even Augustine struggled mightily as a pastor! He was humbled for thinking he could do it by his own strength and skill. And he learned from the difficult experience to turn to God in prayer for help and his Word for strength.
You can find this entire letter in the first volume of the Nicene and Post Nicene Fathers’ set – letter 21.4 (Schaff, Philip, ed. The Confessions and Letters of St. Augustin with a Sketch of His Life and Work. Vol. 1. A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, First Series. Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Company, 1886.)
Covenant Presbyterian Church, OPC