Stephen Covey and the Pastor (by Jeff Wigley)

Stephen Covey and the Pastor (by Jeff Wigley) November 16, 2015

NorthernLogoTestJeff Wigley is a student at Northern Seminary, wrote this paper on Paul and pastoral theology in light of Covey’s famous habits, and it deserves a good read and an even better discussion. 

Would I be a good pastor?  This is an academic paper, but it’s not an academic question.  I’m slowly working towards my M.Div., wondering how I can best serve God.  I am a successful business leader, but will those skills help me be a successful pastor?  If the principles I practice are inconsistent with the Bible, then woe to me![1]  (Mt. 7:15-23)

One book that influenced my business career is The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People.[2]  Written by Stephen Covey, a man deeply committed to his Mormon faith, it has sold over 25 million copies in 40 languages. I read it 20 years ago, well before I had any serious interest in learning habits from the Bible, and I have internalized much of its teaching as a model for success.  This week’s assignment made me wonder whether my habits in running a business would serve me as a pastor. This paper will ask whether Covey’s 7 habits will help me in following the ten principles of Paul’s pastoral theology from 1 & 2 Corinthians that you enumerated in class.

Habit 1:  Be Proactive

Covey’s key concept here is that one has a choice how to respond to circumstance.  After a stimulus, one can choose his response.

While none of Paul’s ten principles of pastoral theology specifically overlap with this idea, certainly Paul’s activities described in Acts show Paul living this habit!  After Paul’s encounter on the road to Damascus (Acts 9), Paul responded proactively with the greatest missionary effort ever.

Habit 2:  Begin with the End in Mind

They main idea here is that one must begin with a clear understanding of the desired goal.  To be effective in any endeavor, one must first determine direction and purpose.

Much of Paul’s pastoral theology can be easily understood since he clearly begins with the end in mind.  Paul has an “astounding ability to see everything from the perspective of Christ and the cross”[3] and many of his pastoral principles follow from that perspective.  For example, one of Paul’s pastoral principles is that the pastor stands before God, as a servant of Christ, not the congregation (1 Cor. 4:1-5). Paul explained that a pastor must act in accordance with God’s wishes, not human whims.   It must be natural for a pastor to want to receive praise from the congregation, but Paul tells us to focus on “praise from God”.  (4:5).

Paul also taught that the pastor must repudiate his own merit and status as part of a cross-shaped ministry  (1 Cor. 4:8-13).  Paul explained that a pastor must be willing to endure significant hardship in ministry, even to the point of becoming “refuse of the world.”  (4:13).  While one would expect American pastors today to have it much easier than Paul, Paul warned that a pastor must be ready to suffer on behalf of Christ.

Another of Paul’s pastoral principles is that the pastor surrenders rights he may have.  (1 Cor. 9)  Paul taught that a pastor may need to forgo things due to him so that he can effectively proclaim the gospel.  As Paul could have taken payment for his teaching and preaching, he provided an example for pastors by denying payment so that he would feel indebted to no one, thereby avoiding compromise.

Additionally, Paul taught that the pastor is a “clay pot” (2 Cor. 4:7).  Paul reminds us that the shining light of God (4:6) is carried in clay pots.  In Paul’s day, “clay jars … were readily discarded … were cheap and disposable…”[4]  It’s the gospel that’s priceless, not the pastor.

I believe Habit 2 is consistent with Paul’s pastoral theology.  The above four principles of pastoral behavior are contrary to human nature, but consistent with Paul’s goal of exalting Jesus and the cross over everything else.  Paul’s advice above seems possible only if he is keeping a firm eye on the end goal; as Paul says “I do not run like a man running aimlessly”  (1 Cor. 9:26).

Habit 3: Put First Things First

The important idea here is that our daily actions should support the important goals we identified in Habit 2.  In the cacophony of voices competing for our attention, it is easy to get distracted toward the urgent and lose sight of the important.

None of Paul’s ten pastoral theologies directly address the importance of prioritizing first things first.  Nevertheless, Paul clearly modeled this behavior, in that all of his behavior in Acts supported the goal of spreading the gospel; he never was distracted from serving Jesus!  As such, Paul did model one of Paul’s pastoral theologies; that is, the pastor loves like a father, offering wisdom by modeling the right behavior.  (1 Cor. 4: 15-17)  Paul believed that a pastor should love like a parent, modeling exemplary behavior for the child to imitate.

Habit 4:  Think Win/Win

The key idea here is that in human interaction, one should constantly seek the mutual benefit of all parties.  It is based upon the idea that there is plenty for everybody, and that a solution can be found which meets everyone’s important needs.

None of Paul’s ten pastoral theologies directly address the importance of thinking win/win, and I think Paul would have been highly suspicious of the concept. Paul certainly worked to settle disputes among differing factions, and he sometimes suggested outcomes that might have looked like compromise.  But to the extent win/win would require any compromise of Paul’s gospel beliefs, he would reject any such approach.  For example, Paul was willing to advise the Corinthians they could eat meat that had been offered to an idol, so long as it did not cause a problem for others, since “an idol is nothing at all in the world” (1 Cor. 8).  Yet Paul certainly would have prohibited a compromise that required the Christian to participate in the ritual sacrifice.

In summary, I believe Paul would advise a pastor who is mediating disagreements to find a win/win solution for both parties so long as neither side is asked to compromise on gospel beliefs.  Paul would have embraced this habit, but with great caution.

Habit 5:  Seek First to Understand, Then to be Understood

The key idea here is that when dealing with others, one must first work hard to understand their message and their point of view.  This requires effort to listen carefully and put yourself in the other person’s shoes, then it requires the courage to convey your own views.

I believe that Paul agreed with this habit and was largely, though not completely, successful in following the principle.  One of Paul’s pastoral theologies is that the pastor connects churches.  This theme is evidenced throughout Paul’s letters, and it is reinforced through action when Paul asks the more prosperous churches for a collection to support the poorer Jerusalem church  (e.g., 1 Cor. 16:1-3).  The request shows that whatever resentments Paul could have held over the Jerusalem church, he first listened to their needs, and sought to meet their needs through an action that helped others to understand what he believed was important.

Paul also demonstrated this habit in his speech at the Areopagus, where he displayed an ability to see things through the eyes of the Greeks when he referenced their objects of worship.  (Acts 17:22-23).

On the other hand, it can’t be said that Paul always followed this habit.  For example, Acts repeatedly shows that as soon as Paul entered a town, he would immediately go to the synagogue and preach.  (E.g. Acts 19:8).   No mention is made of attempts to listen first. One gets the feeling that Paul is pretty sure of what he has to say and there is a lot more recorded of Paul talking than listening.

Habit 6: Synergize

The core idea here is that when all of the habits are combined, the habits work together to create extraordinary change.

I believe a couple of Paul’s pastoral theologies are consistent with this habit.  First, Paul believed that a good pastor “smells” like Christ  (2 Cor. 2:14-17).  Paul states that a pastor who lives the gospel will begin to emit the “fragrance of the knowledge of him”  (2:14).  It is wonderful imagery and captures the idea that a life lived consistently with the gospel will produce miraculous change.  Second, a good pastor will become embodied in the congregation (2 Cor. 3:1-4).  Paul stated that a good pastor will become such a part of the congregation that they will be written on his heart, and they will become like a letter from Christ.

I believe Paul would agree with this habit, believing that as the gospel is preached over time, both the pastor and congregation can be changed remarkably.

Habit 7:  Sharpen the Saw

The last habit highlights the need for one to seek out a regular renewal of one’s physical, social, mental, and spiritual needs.  Only through regular renewal can one stay sharp enough to practice all the habits.

One of Paul’s stated pastoral theologies was that the pastor needs reconciliation along with the congregation (2 Cor. 5:16-21; 7:5-7).  This evidences our very human need to occasionally affirm one another as beloved.

I don’t believe Paul was concerned with renewing his physical or mental needs, but certainly he practiced a daily social and spiritual renewal through community and prayer.  I believe he would support this habit for pastors today.

Comparison and Conclusion

Covey’s 7 Habits are aimed at teaching effectiveness.  While Covey was deeply committed to his Mormon faith, the habits are actually value neutral.  They are tools to become more effective at any occupation, whether pickpocket, pastor, or pediatrician!

Paul’s ten pastoral principles are aimed at teaching cruciformity.  Rather than being value neutral, Paul demands that pastors imitate Christ and model the way of the cross. Importantly, Paul’s activities in Acts and his advice in 1 & 2 Cor. show that Paul largely followed Covey’s habits in spreading the gospel. Therefore, I believe that Paul would support the adoption of most of Covey’s value neutral habits toward the goal of implementing the pastoral principles.

For the past twenty years, Covey’s habits have helped me become a successful businessman.  I’m hopeful today they could help me become a successful pastor.


[1] For a discussion concerning the preacher as false prophet, see Scot McKnight, The Story of God Bible Commentary: Sermon on the Mount (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2013), 269.

[2] Stephen Covey, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1989)

[3] Donald Hagner, The New Testament: A Historical and Theological Introduction (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2012), 503.

[4]  Craig Keener, The IVP Bible Background Commentary (Downer’s Grove: IVP, 2014), 505.

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