- Preach the word, and
- Love the people.
Everything else is secondary. Which is not to say everything else is unimportant. But no matter how good a pastor is at anything else, if these 2 essentials are missing, being good or bad at the rest will only be the difference between being ineffective and being awful. On the other hand, for a pastor who has a solid grasp of the essentials, the rest can mean the difference between being good and being stellar.
Of these 2 essentials, people in the pews are likely to view the second as being more important. To put it another way: people will tolerate and forget mediocre sermons; they will resent being uncared for. They may remember a few key points they heard in worship, but they'll always remember the time their pastor was present with them in their critical moments and whether that pastoral presence was helpful. But whether people respond to loving them or not, it is a pastoral requirement. You cannot represent the love of Christ without practicing the love of Christ. This kind of love is not a feeling or a sentiment; it's a practice.
Preaching the word, however, is equally important. Great preaching starts with not being boring, but it isn't just about being an engaging public speaker. Any charlatan can be engaging. Great preaching teaches and prompts the church to be true to itself, to stay on mission, to grow in seasons of plenty and to survive in seasons of adversity. Poor preaching leaves the church to drift with the tides of popular opinion and wither away into irrelevance. Without good preaching, in other words, the church eventually ceases to exist at all.
Fortunately, acquiring the capacity to excel in both of these essential practices is possible for most people who take their calling into ministry seriously. Both can be taught. However, to become good, or better than good at them requires intentionality and practice. Fortunately, pastoral ministry, no matter how small the congregation, affords plenty of opportunity to practice both.
This begs the question, "What prevents there being more good pastors?" More specifically, why are great pastors so hard to find in Mainline American churches.
At this point, I need to take great care to acknowledge that there is no shortage of well-meaning people doing pastoral ministry. Most of them are people of sincere faith and good intention. Many of them are laypeople, doing their best to serve their congregations out of necessity, called out of their pews to fill the increasing void of formally trained and ordained pastors. My hat's off to them, especially. That said, being a faithful layperson is an honorable calling of its own; it does not mean one ought to be a pastor. In better times, laypeople would be free to be great laypeople.
Others sincerely believe they are answering a divine calling, which can be expressed in many different ways. But believing you are called is no guarantee you are called. A lot of people who believed they could sing used to audition for American Idol, and some of them were passable; very few were good enough to get on the show as serious contenders. "Many are called; few are chosen." (Matthew 22:14.)
Still others are striving toward a great soulful longing, sometimes also expressed as "divine calling", and they have an idea that a career in pastoral ministry may fill their lives with meaning that has eluded them elsewhere. And while these souls also have good intentions, getting into pastoral ministry to fulfill one's own spiritual need is a recipe for disaster. Suffice it to say here that pastoral ministry is spiritually exhausting work. It has its joys, but it requires solid spiritual formation and a sense of life purpose to come from elsewhere.
This is a partial answer to the question why, even with so many people of good intention serving as pastors, there still so few great pastors in Mainline American churches. But it is not the deeper reason.
In some cases, it may be a lack of access to good teachers. But with more resources being widely available and at less expense online, I suspect that access is rarely the real problem.
In my experience, underlying the dearth of great pastors is the erosion of focus on excellence in these 2 essentials over the course of the 20th and early 21st centuries. The core meaning of ordination as receiving a commission to be a servant of congregations after the model of Jesus among the people, has been lost. Ordination has been gradually replaced by certification to a career as a "helping professional" in a non-profit corporation. We see this language of certification in terms like "Certified Lay Pastor", in use across several Mainline bureaucracies. Never mind the term, Lay Pastor, is itself an oxymoron.
This is not to put down helping professionals or non-profit corporations or the important work they do, but to say that there is a crucial difference between pastors and helping professionals, and loss of the distinction has contributed significantly to the churches' loss of good pastors. (There is a corresponding relation of the loss of distinction between a church and a non-profit corporation to Mainline decline in general. But that's a matter for another post.)
Reversing the erosion of excellence in pastoral ministry is possible. The path toward regaining great pastors in the church is both simple and difficult, because pastoral ministry itself is both simple and hard to do well. It requires churches returning to an insistence that anyone who would be a Pastor be committed to the constant practice and work of preaching the word and loving the people, and that candidates for ministry prove themselves capable of and consistent in doing these 2 things well.
Again, doing these things well is possible for most people with practice and intention. It is practice with intentional focus on these essentials that separates the called from the chosen, the people lining up to audition from the real contenders for ordination.
Often, people will speak of giftedness as a criteria for ministry. Giftedness can give some people a head start. But the catch with giftedness is that while someone may be gifted at one or the other of these two practices, there is rarely anyone who is gifted with both. I have yet to meet anyone who is. And everyone will be inclined more toward one than the other. To be a good pastor, though, requires being committed to doing both well, and that will always take practice with intention.
If you want to be a pastor, or want to be a better pastor, it all comes back around to preaching the word and loving the people. If you're looking for a pastor, look for someone who does these 2 things well, and you won't go wrong.