Criswell’s Guidebook for Pastor’s[1] is an extremely difficult book to evaluate without gushing praises and accolades over this book that aspires to carry the immense weight of crystallizing Criswell’s careers’ insights, while conversely entertaining serious questions about his approach to ministry.  As such, this 385 page work serves a pigmy encyclopedia concerning the task of the ministry and compiled from his lifelong experiences that Criswell encountered throughout the years of his ministry.  The book that bears the name of the author is appropriately identified.  Guidebook serves as an extension of the man, as Criswell has created an effective service manual for the clergy’s enactment of their divinely ordained duties at virtually every level of competency and service stations.  As a guidebook for pastor’s, Criswell’s magnum opus succeeds in its objective of consolidating over fifty years of service into a practical message designed to serve as an unpaid staff member for any church, regardless of size or stature.

What can you say about a book that delves into the personal lives of the minister, challenging them to go deep into the reflective pools of the dynamic devotional life that can be found in Christ and also outlines the practical aspects of day to day ministry?  Criswell moves the minister down the pathway of God’s abundant blessing that is only achieved through an in-depth, personal relationship with the living Lord of Glory.  From the call to pray regularly and consistently, to the nature of meditative consideration of the living Word, Criswell speaks to the matters of the heart for the modern minister.

Criswell also approaches the practical aspects of sermon construction as well, as he shares the philosophical underpinnings of sound, homeletic constructs that possess the power to both test and convict his audience.  But Criswell doesn’t stop at the exotic challenge to simply preach well, alone and by itself.  He adds depth to the subject by inserting various examples of each aspect of the nature that a sermon can take from his prodigious body of work that has been compiled over the years.  The outline of the book in all of it’s various elements lends itself to a common belief that Criswell would be a ready advocate of the standard three point sermon.  The stock system that Criswell presents is a tried and true pattern that has been tested down through the ages and has produced a significant level of success by many, many ministers.

Borrowing from his extensive portfolio concerning interpersonal relationships, Criswell sets forth distinct guidelines for dealing with pastoral staff members that is enlightening and beneficial.  He lays down an impassioned appeal for handling staff members in an equitable manner that should help to enhance the integrity of any multiple staff configuration.  Criswell also presents an impassioned appeal for handling human resources in all organizational structures, from the church that is comprised of all volunteers, to the mega-church structure that may have a workforce larger than most congregations in America.

Criswell challenges the growing church to carefully evaluate the needs of the people, recognizing the inabilities of any pastor to minister effectively to the larger congregation on a personal level. It is his expert opinion that: “Any preacher can reach and keep just so many people (Criswell, p. 82).”  This belief stands as a truth that is hard to overcome when attempting to grow an older church that has reached a comfort level of expected service and relational interaction with a minister or staff, before advanced growth can occur.  A compelling analogy is drawn using a tree’s rings as the focal point of comparison when discussing a church and staff.  The correlation views the church as a tree with growth that always occurs on the periphery while never happening at the central core.  Thus, families and individuals are added to the church form the outside in, with the figure at the middle being the pastor.  The outward assignments would then serve as staff, elders and other committed members of the congregation.  Although imperfect in its representation, the tree analogy does serve as a good illustration of the dynamic nature of a churches’ growth potential.

The further discussion concerning the development of a payment plan that rewards good staff is an appropriate section for discussion amongst boards and financial committees dispersed throughout the church universal.  Criswell’s admonition on the value of a good staff member’s ability to produce a net yield that is well worth his keep is a realistic appraisal of the simple fact of numeric equivalency.  If a competent staff person adds just twelve families to the church, their basic compensation will be met fully as long as the new members become faithful supporters of the church. This is a solid reminder that all staff should be required to attempt to add members to the church via recruitment efforts and evangelism as a means of good stewardship, let alone God’s desire to extend the kingdom dynamics of salvation (Criswell, p.83).

Criswell’s approach to staffing a church with paid clergy is interesting, as his approach seems to operate in a counter continuum to the typical scenario.  Most churches today advocate the hiring of a youth pastor as the second person placed on full time status after the senior pastor, at least within the prototypical Pentecostal models.  In Criswell’s model, which is distinctly Baptist, the first person hired would be a combined educational minister who could also serve as the minister of music.  It is his conviction that this individual would serve as the lead pastor’s primary associate.  The next person Criswell advocate’s as an additional staff member would be the children’s pastor. Although the biblical ground that is utilized may be a bit specious (Jn. 21:15-17), the spirit of care and concern for the most vulnerable members of the church is heard speaking through the text.  It is somewhat of a stretch to attribute Jesus’ words concerning feeding the flock to Simon Peter to assert that this was a priority in developing body ministry by Christ.  Although the term for lambs is used prior to the term sheep, this is an inappropriate use of Scripture to prove a point.  If this were true, the children’s minister should be first hire not the senior pastor, thus undermining Criswell’s thesis concerning staffing a church.

In qualifying staff, Criswell states that: “A good staff member (is) what they would be in the secular world of teaching, administration, education, business, public relations, personality, appeal, and all the rest, with this one additional accompaniment the staff member ought to feel a real affinity for the work of the Lord (Criswell, p. 85).”  If there is a significant problem in Criswell’s view of staff, it would exist in his belief in natural talent over a spiritual call of God.  J. Oswald Sanders admonition concerning a human agent’s natural abilities would be a wise insertion into this discussion.  Concerning natural abilities, Sanders declares in Spiritual Leadership, that: “The secular mind and heart however gifted and personally charming, has no place in the leadership of the church.[2]” Criswell comes close to this truth, but he misses it by asserting that the call of the Lord should exist in the staff: “if at all possible (Criswell, p. 85).”

Another significant difficulty that arises from the pages of Guidebook’s teachings would be Criswell’s dual bias that emerges during his discussion about women and ministry.  The first problem area is a strange one, as Criswell alternately defends a woman’s place as a staff member of a churches ranks while then denying these same women the right of ordination.  This prejudicial bias is based on a gross misrepresentation of two key passages found in Scripture that reference a woman’s place in the church, according to some theologians within the church.  The first problematic passage is found in I Timothy 2:8 while the second one is found in I Corinthians 14:34-35[3].

The other positional oddity that appears to be based on doctrinal prejudice is Criswell’s statement concerning the New Testament phenomenon of prophecy.  Relegating the gift of prophecy to a strictly preaching usage, Criswell strips it of all forth-telling properties as he states that: “The idea of forth telling is a much later, post-biblical idea added to the Word (Criswell, p. 94).”  Without going into all the arguments that expose this view as fallacious, let it be said that there is a preponderance of weight against this perspective.  To take this position in its extreme view would threaten to undermine the valid expression of the prophetic that is found within the Scriptural record.  This abnormality in theological understanding is also addressed in the unpublished paper concerning Women and Ordination.

Moving into a more germane field of examination, Criswell develops a very beneficial presentation about the pastor and his study in the third chapter.  His admonition to keep the mornings as a sacred meeting time for prayer and study showcases one of the main reasons for his success as a pastor.  The meditative morning served him well as Criswell communed with God, prepared sermons, thought through his day and the problems it would bring, and as an escape vehicle from the pressures of the world that constantly attempt to be a detractive element in the life of God’s servants.  Regardless of what may have attempted to intrude upon Criswell’s day, the morning belonged to him and to the God who owned his love and allegiance.

In addressing the content of his pulpit’s focus, Criswell advocates using the Bible as the basis of the ongoing, expositional material that Criswell continued to present to his congregation.  This was quite possibly an early example of the expository methodology, as utilized in the modern context, exegeting particular Books of the Bible in a verse by verse format.  By making the most of this system of exposition, Criswell found a never ending source of material to share with his people.  This may be his greatest legacy to the modern church, with many independent churches adopting this system with great success.  The demand for excellence in exposition is an admonition that should be heard throughout the rank and file of the episcopate.

Shoddy sermon preparation is a risk that isn’t worth taking.  The sacred text holds the keys to freedom from sin and advancement within the ranks of the church.  Scripture has the means to effectively instruct all who name the name of Jesus as Lord and Savior.  Utilizing it’s truths grants the minister the ability to call the people into a place of sacrificial service, obediently following the pathway that has been well trodden down through the ages.  ‘Exposit Scripture; release life’, could easily be seen as the theme for Criswell’s Guidebook.

The statement: “In preparing the sermon, bring to bear in the message all of your understanding and knowledge (Criswell, p. 62),” is a clear challenge to the preacher to serve the people in a sacrificial place of ceremony as well as presenting a servant component that challenges the minister to pursue excellence in the pulpit.  Half-hearted attempts at preaching should be way laid, as an ill prepared or ill delivered sermon will always do a disservice to the king of Glory, in whose employment the minister truly attends.  Criswell’ thrust in sermonizing could be encapsulated by stating that the minister should always be as knowledgeable as possible, as dependent on God as probable, with as much clarity and goal orientation as feasible.  These three points: informed, dependency and clarity, are serviceable measures in the realm of communicating God’s Word.

An auxiliary that lends support to the necessity of sound exposition is found in Criswell’s urging the laborers in the Lord’s fields to continue filling the role of the student.  The appeal concerning the Word’s presentation that: “The pulpit especially requires study because of its demand for sermons that are filled with freshness, originality, and force… (Criswell, p. 64),” rings true.  The servants of the Lord need to continually grow at a personal level, as they are subjected to the same conditions and troubles of life that everyone the minister serves is subjected to as well.  The minister must be a person who is disciplined and well trained, never ceding the high demands that Scripture beckons them to become individually.

Criswell’s call to vacate the halls of liberalism carries a strong implication for those groups who are advancing in social standing among the older denominations.  The southern Baptist problem of embracing the liberal ideology should stand as a warning to the newer organizations found among the Pentecostals, BibleChurches, Jesus Movement affiliations and the Third Wave movement.  The further a group moves away from it’s original point of origin, the closer it comes to other voices of influence for good or unfortunately, for bad.  Higher leaning should always be embraced by all ministries, but the dangers of the educational fields general dismantling of the commonly held tenants of faith needs to be held in check within the Evangelical ranks of Protestantism.  The ‘new theology’ as Criswell put it, revolves around three points in his presentation, which could be seen as the theological view that: “Questions the authority of Scripture…denies the existence of judgment and hell…and…(it) accepts and teaches a form of humanism which is by all criteria the deification of man himself (Criswell, p. 67).”

The expansive ministry experiences of the man Criswell filter into his ‘Guidebook.’  While pastoring a primary church in the Southern Baptist Convention, whilst serving as the Convention’s President, in operating as a teacher for fledgling Seminarians, and in preaching to thousands and thousands as a representative evangelist for his church: all of these experiences and offices lend weight to the significance of this work.  It is Criswell’s stated desire that this ‘Guidebook’ would serve: “pastors and ministers in churches of all sizes and locations (forward)” as an asset.  Used correctly, Criswell’s vast wealth of knowledge could easily fulfill the author’s goal.

Those who read this book will be overwhelmed at first, due to the shear volume of subject’s that Criswell covers.  Areas under discussion that are covered extensively in this book range from the purpose of the pastor to the organization of a new church, financing the church to the building of facilities, administrating the ordinances to the ministries that a church can exhibit.  Evangelism, children’s ministries, weddings and funerals: all are covered within this book as well as a plethora of other issues that a minister could possible face.  All of this material is extremely beneficial to the servant’s of the Lord for very obvious reasons.  The material is so extensive, it would be difficult to not find multiple areas of help throughout this book.  This effort will be an ongoing asset in this author’s library and it should be consulted over and over again.

Criswell presents an interesting look into the mega church structure that most pastors will never see in the average church ministry.  This open window is interesting, as it exposes the common pastor to the value of organizational structure, without which the mega-church would never be built.  If for no other reason, this work has great value due to this observation.  But the overall contribution far exceeds this limited point.  The chapter on the “Do’s and Don’ts” for the Pastor Criswell, (ch. 20): is incredible in the ‘can do’s’ displayed by Criswell.

Also, Criswell’s disputation concerning the value of church boards is interesting and should be examined further.  The statement that: “The idea of a ‘board’ of deacons is as strange and unknown to the New Testament church as would be a band of Hitler’s and Stalin’s composing the chosen twelve apostles of the Lord (Criswell, p. 21,),” is pointedly abrasive, yet worthy of note nevertheless.   His contention that: “A deacon-led church will always be a weak, pitiful congregation, floundering before every wind of secular change” should be thoughtfully, processed by churches across the land.  Could his rationale be correct?  If so, what is a possible remedy that could be useful without sacrificing the integrity of the church?  All in all, this is a very good book that answers many ministry minded questions, while raising other points of consideration for those who mediate upon Criswell’s ruminations.



[1] Criswell, W. A, Criswell’s Guidebook for Pastors, Broadman Press, NashvilleTN, 1980

[2] Sanders, J. Oswald, Spiritual Leadership, Moody Press, Chicago, IL, 1967, 1994, p. 235

[3]For additional material on this matter, see an unpublished paper prepared for EDMN 5O5 at LibertyUniversity that deals with the subject of women and ordination by the author of this paper.


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