Book review: Memoirs of an ordinary Pastor

Memoirs of an ordinary Pastor: The Life and Reflections of Tom Carson is a biography of a man who ministered in Canada, was faithful, but was never famous. So, why the book? One of his sons, the theologian Don Carson, wanted to show ‘ordinary pastors’ what an ordinary pastor should be like.

It doesn’t sound like the best book – indeed, if I’m honest, I usually want to read books about men who grew huge churches and were famous. Indeed, I had decided not to buy this book in the past. How wrong I was! So, when a good friend put this book in my hand, I felt I had to read it…reluctantly! I am so glad I have read it…

Let me give 10 reasons, if you are a church Pastor, why you should read this book:

Most of us are ordinary pastors

Let’s be honest.I ain’t no Piper, and you ain’t no Warren. I am called to Ammanford, we have a smaller population in this valley than Rick Warren has members! I don’t have the theological capacity of Al Mohler, and I’m not as tech saturated as Driscol. I preach once a week, visit my members, try and make wise decisions, and long to see people saved. That is my ministry. It was so refreshing to read of a normal, ordinary ministry life and not lust after multi million pound budgets.

Most of us, in Wales, work in a bilingual setting

A unique aspect of this book for me was the fact that Canada has a French and English speaking population. Indeed, during the 50’s and 60’s there was a lot of bilingual work that brought a lot of hardship and difficulties for Tom Carson. It was really insightful to read about that work.

All of us will face discouragements

Tom faces a number of discouragements. Early on he is caught up in a denominational controversy and ends up having his funding pulled. I know a few in Wales now who are facing such situations, and this account of how Tom dealt with it would be a real guide and encouragement.

There are other discouragements like: Christians moving away, people being interested in the gospel and then not being interested, financial struggles, and other missionaries swanning in, stealing sheep and working in opposition. These are the realities of ministry in Wales today…It was a blessing to read Tom’s heart in all of this.

All of us will face conflict

If you have been in ministry for more than a day, you know this is true! As I have mentioned, Tom faced a huge denominational conflict. For me, the way he responded to this conflict is the measure of the man (and his wife) and I pray that I would have a quarter of his graciousness and wisdom.

I’ll come back to the importance of this.

We need to be good husbands

A key to understanding Tom’s life is his wife. Indeed, he was a good husband (although he didn’t think he was). I was challenged by the way he cared for his wife and loved her. Indeed, he made sure that no one ever disrespected her, and although he was sporty and she wasn’t, he never made fun of her.

Later on in his life we see how much he really loved his wife.

We need to be good fathers

Lately I have been thinking a lot about what it means to be a good father and how that works when Noah is a ‘child of the manse’. This is where I want to come back to the controversy with the denomination. Although Tom was hard done by, and was innocent,  and had all his funding pulled, he never mentioned it to his children. Indeed, Don Carson comments that he never found out about it until he was studying Canadian church history! He then went home and asked his dad why he never mentioned it, his dad replied:

‘There were 2 reasons. 1st, you were children of the manse, and although you have seen then outworking of the gospel, you have also seen more than your share of difficult and ugly things, and we did not think it wise to expose yout to this history when you were young. 2nd, Marg and I decided we needed to protect our own souls from bitterness.’

The book worth worth reading just for that section!

Many will go through depression

Tom went through a period of depression when he saw very little fruit. I’m sure many go through this, and it was helpful to read an account of such a private battle.

Many will have to leave a work

We don’t like to admit it, but many ordinary pastors end up finishing full time ministry early. Unfortunately they can become bitter and stop using the gifts God has given them. Tom gave up his full time ministry and moved. He ended up as a translator for the government. He could have just earned money. got used to free evening, and become bitter. Rather, he supported the local church, carried on discipling people and worked hard at evangelism. Indeed, he become a ‘tent-maker’.

This leads to another interesting part of his life…

Some will move to second fiddle

The church tried to get Tom to become the Pastor, but he refused. Rather, he did about 15 hours per week of unpaid work for the church – visiting, discipleship, preaching, playing the piano, etc. I think most men would want to be the lead Pastor….have the title. Tom didn’t care. he just wanted to serve.

I pray that when I am older, I will be humble and able to move to second fiddle.

Some will have to become carers

The hardest part of the book to read is the penultimate chapter that recounts how Tom looked after his wife when she had Alzheimer’s. Indeed, I was moved to tears. This is a powerful chapter and really shows how good a husband Tom was. Don comments:

External ministry just about evaporated: Dad’s ministry was looking after Mum. And not once, not once, did any of his children hear a single note of self-pity or a muttered “This isn’t the woman I married” or any such thing. We cannot recall a single time when he lost patience with her. He sang to her a great deal and found a funny side to almost everything.

Any suggestion from the family that Dad needed help with Mum would earn the firmest insistence that he could look after her himself. “She looked after me all my life,” he would say; “it’s my turn to look after her. And it’s a privilege.”

You see, Tom loved Marg as Christ loves the church. he gave himself for her. This is the greatest measure of the man. I fear too many men are sacrificing their families on the alter of ministry. Don’t get me wrong, there were huge struggles for the family and Tom worked long and hard. But he never did it at the expense of his family.

Summing up a life

This is how Don finishes the book…a beautiful piece of writing:

Tom Carson never rose very far in denominational structures, but hundreds of people in the Outaouais and beyond testify how much he loved them. He never wrote a book, but he loved the Book. He was never wealthy or powerful, but he kept growing as a Christian: yesterday’s grace was never enough. He was not a far sighted visionary, but he looked forward to eternity. He was not a gifted administrator, but there is no text that says, “By this shall all men know that you are my disciples, if you are good administrators.” His journals have many, many entries bathed in tears of contrition, but his children and grandchildren remember his laughter. Only rarely did he break through his pattern of reserve and speak deeply and intimately with his children, but he modeled Christian virtues to them. He much preferred to avoid controversy than to stir things up, but his own commitments to historic confessionalism were unyielding, and in ethics he was a man of principle. His own ecclesiastical circles were rather small and narrow, but his reading was correspondingly large and expansive. He was not very good at putting people down, except on his prayer lists.

When he died, there were no crowds outside the hospital, no editorial comments in the papers, no announcements on television, no mention in Parliament, no attention paid by the nation. In his hospital room there was no one by his bedside. There was only the quiet hiss of oxygen, vainly venting because he had stopped breathing and would never need it again.
But on the other side all the trumpets sounded. Dad won entrance to the only throne room that matters, not because he was a good man or a great man—he was, after all, a most ordinary pastor—but because he was a forgiven man. And he heard the voice of him whom he longed to hear saying, “Well done, good and faithful servant; enter into the joy of your Lord.”

If you are a Pastor, read this book. Don’t just fill your minds with the whole Hybels, Warren, Driscol, mega church books….fill your minds with ‘ordinary pastors’.

If you are a church member in a struggling church, read this book. See what your pastor is going through and pray for him.

I am so thankful that this book was put into my hands by a good friend.

One little word of warning, the first chapter is an overview of Canadian history, and is rather boring, but necessary. So, don’t let that put you off!

You can download the PDF for free here.

CJ Mahaney preached a sermon partly inspired by this book in T4G this year, it is well worth a watch:

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3 thoughts on “Book review: Memoirs of an ordinary Pastor

  1. I read the book till some horrifically early hour in the morning about a year ago when I discovered Dave Bish had linked to it on his blog.
    I cried too whilst reading the Alzheimer’s chapter; – fascinating how love moves us to tears – I agree with you; it is a fantastic book!

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