Book Review: The Flourishing Pastor by Tom Nelson

Review of the Flourishing Pastor by Tom Nelson. Review by Jeff McLain.This is a review of The Flourishing Pastor by Tom Nelson. Released in 2021 on InterVarisity Press, Tom Nelson looks to recover the lost art of shepherd leadership in The Flourishing Pastor. In addition to pastoring for over thirty years, Tom Nelson has become known for his work as the president of Made to Flourish, and for authoring the books - Work Matters and The Economics of Neighborly Love.

It is evident throughout The Flourishing Pastor, that Tom Nelson wants those who feel called to pastoral leadership to understand and fulfill the vision of an ordinary, local, and faithful witness that is needed as a pastor. This local and faithful witness as a pastor is one that compassionately illustrates care, rest, listening, and discipleship for the where the congregation is invested Monday through Friday. I found The Flourishing Pastor to be a compassionate and insightful guide for those navigating the challenging landscape of pastoral calling. With an evident experienced understanding of the perils and pitfalls that are unique to this vocation, Tom Nelson explores throughout The Flourishing Pastor, the essence of healthy and holistic shepherd leadership, delving into the complexities pastors face and offering wisdom to guide them back to the heart of their calling.

The book is divided into three sections. In the first section, Nelson paints a vivid picture of the pastoral calling as a challenging yet honoring vocation, acknowledging the weighty responsibilities and potential exhaustion that accompany the role. Nelson clearly emphasizes the spiritual opposition, family dynamics, and demanding leadership roles that pastors grapple with. I appreciated the three perilous paths Tom Nelson points out that he has seen many pastors unwisely traverse: the celebrity path, the visionary path, and the lone ranger path. I have witnessed pastoral leaders - and ministry leaders - live in all three of these paths.

The first part of the book also opens with what Tom Nelson sees as a crisis within pastoral callings. Nelson draws on the findings of the Flourishing in Ministry research project to highlight the alarming levels of stress and dissatisfaction among clergy. He builds on the work and research done by Matt Bloom through the Flourishing in Ministry Project. I appreciated the Flourishing in Ministry project and Matt Bloom's book on the project, and so I was glad to see some practical realities built out from this helpful research and its important findings. Tom offers a prophetic warning as he unravels the dangers of pastoral leaders who get overtaken by pursuing paths that lead to a desire for celebrity status, unaware visionary pride, or even self-isolation. Nelson’s thoughts on the toxic culture of celebrity Christianity were among some of my favorites. Throughout that warning, Tom Nelson calls pastoral leaders to be faithful in obscurity. He remarks, “Obscurity is a good place to be, and pastors are wise only to step into greater visibility if the Lord is clearly calling them to a larger ministry stage.” In addition to dissecting the draw to notability, Nelson dissects the distorted vision of success, and going it alone, reminding pastors that their true identity lies not in applause but in servant leadership. Rather, he calls pastors to work nervously for a life that is defined by its grounding in trusting in a sovereign God, heeding the Shepherd's calling, embracing obscurity, pursuing an integral life, and cultivating leadership competency. He also calls for greater resilience. 

Tom Nelson then moves into the second section of The Flourishing Pastor, where he challenges pastoral leadership to live with integrity and he outlines a call to a holistically integral life. In this section, Nelson explores what it means to trust in a sovereign God, heed the Shepherd’s call, embrace obscurity, live with integrity, and cultivate greater competency and capacity in one’s spiritual life as a leader. Briefly, he confronts the tendency to embrace partial obedience and emphasizes the importance of submitting to Jesus in all aspects of life. The call to apprenticeship with Jesus resonates strongly, highlighting the paradoxical nature of pruning for greater fruitfulness. Pruning in our lives, like in the agricultural sense, leads to greater fruitfulness. He unpacks what it means to not only steward our churches well, and our calling, but even our lives. We are to pursue wholeness in our homes, bodies, and family systems. I especially appreciated Tom Nelson’s ideas on how pastors can create spaces of beauty, emphasizing the importance of embracing a holistic approach to well-being and flourishing. I think most new pastors should read this section. It would have been meaningful for me to hear much of this at the start of my journey as a pastor.

Throughout the third section of The Flourishing Pastor, Tom Nelson calls pastors to greater awareness of what is happening in their congregational communities and the world around them. He emphasizes what it means to have a faithful presence in the region, and for the local church community, through greater cultural intelligence and attentiveness to the shifting cultural currents. Nelson advocates for a faithful incarnational and missional presence approach to communal and cultural engagement. However, Tom Nelson strongly challenges pastoral leaders to steer clear of political partisanship and embrace a posture of loving service. This book came out in 2021, and that was when I first read this book, I cannot ignore how this part of the book was especially needed in the era it released of great political misinformation, polarization, alignment, and pressure. It still is an important challenge.

In this third section, Tom Nelson also explores the art of cultivating a healthy church culture by focusing church communities not only on the weekend gathering, but the preparation of the church communities for the Monday through Friday realities in which they live, work, study, and play. Tom highlights the role of shepherd leaders in setting the relational tone, balancing vulnerability with strength, and weaving the tapestry of congregational stories into the fabric of the church's identity. Throughout this section of The Flouring Pastor, the reader also faces the vital need for congregations to bridge the gap between worship on Sundays and the realities of daily life. Nelson advocates for a needed shift in focus from the traditional pastoral scorecard to one that measures the impact on congregants' lives and their engagement in Monday worlds. In fact, by giving the church a significant new scorecard and metric framework, he importantly calls us away from a 4B scorecard of brand, budget, buildings, and butts in the seat.

I highly recommend this book. In The Flourishing Pastor, Tom Nelson masterfully weaves together deep theological reflections, practical pastoral advice, and personal reflections from his experiences to create a comprehensive guide for pastors navigating the intricate terrain of their calling. Again, this would have been a helpful read at the start of my pastoral journey years ago. Even so, this by no means is a book for new pastoral leaders alone. Tom’s emphasis on trust, humility, integrity, and a faithful presence offers a refreshing perspective on the true essence of shepherd leadership which is an important call to “return to the heart” of leadership for all pastoral and ministerial leaders. Even more, his focus on how to shift and shape a church community into better life stewardship, new communal metrics, missional discipleship, and workplace ministry will be areas I continue to return to for my consideration and growth and I believe any leader would enjoy.  This book is not just a manual for pastors; it is a soulful journey, an empathetic companion for those seeking to flourish in the noble yet demanding vocation of shepherding a local church community.

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