[D.A. Carson. Memoirs of an Ordinary Pastor: The Life and Reflections of Tom Carson. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2008.]
Since 1978, Don Carson (PhD, University of Cambridge) has been research professor of New Testament at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. Previously, he served as academic dean at Northwest Baptist Theological College in Vancouver, British Columbia. In addition to writing or editing nearly sixty books, Dr. Carson serves as co-founder and president of The Gospel Coalition.
Dr. Carson’s unique credibility in writing this book is that he is the son of the ‘ordinary’ pastor of which he writes. Throughout the book, Dr. Carson provides snippets of vital commentary on his father’s life and ministry to teach ‘ordinary pastors’ how to shepherd the flock of God and to deal with one’s insufficiency for such a grand task. Throughout, he points readers back to faithfulness to the Lord, faithfulness his biological father consistently displayed.
Tom Carson, a missionary pastor in the French province of Quebec with his wife Margie, spent the majority of their ministry between two cities, Drummondville and Hull. Tom’s heart for the people of Quebec caused him to spend the majority of his career reaching them with the gospel, a major difficulty since most of the Francophone were Roman Catholics.
Tom’s years before Vatican II were spent in Drummondville. He remained faithful to his Master and worked tirelessly to reach difficult people. His church in Drummondville never grew past 50 members despite his labors of going door-to-door with the gospel, faithful expository preaching, and fervent prayer. While many pastors at that time in that area gave up, Tom stayed faithful. However, he often blamed himself for the ‘appearance’ of fruitlessness in his ministry. He consistently critiqued his shortcomings as a pastor, husband, and father having very little grace for himself. In the difficult years at Drummondville, he prayerfully made a vow to his wife that if things didn’t change, they would seek to leave this work.
After little improvement, he resigned as pastor and moved to Hull, a metropolitan suburb of Montreal where Tom was hired to a secular position as an English to French translator; however, his work as a minister continued. He flourished in his new role as an associate pastor under Jacques Alexanian at Montclair Baptist Church. For the next 20 years, he filled pulpits, provided wise council to elders, made home visits, and helped disciple the next generation of Canadian pastors. He began seeing the fruit of more converts as God stirred up uncertainty in the Catholic Church. Journal entries at this time consisted of more joy than sorrow—until his wife Margie was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease.
Tom’s role as pastor phased out as his wife’s condition worsened and she needed more of his attention. Tom’s caring for his ailing wife was a true example of Christ ministering to his church. After his wife went home to the Lord, Tom resumed his role as pastor in Hull until he died in 1992.
Etched on his tombstone are Jesus’s words from John 12:24: “I tell you the truth, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds” (147). Tom Carson sowed many seeds in his life, but the fruit revealed itself at his death as many people began to testify of the grace of God displayed by this faithful servant. His legacy lives on in the lives of converts and his children who love the Lord and serve His Church.
In Christendom the most revered people are often the most extraordinary. This is unfortunate since the majority of people called into ministry will not experience ‘success’ as defined by our modern church culture. D.A. Carson wrote Memoirs of an Ordinary Pastorso that his father’s life and ministry might take our minds off our shallow views of success and elevate them to the greater goal: faithfulness to the end (13).
D.A. Carson stayed true to the task by presenting his dad’s ordinary life vividly through his father’s journals and contextual commentary. Tom Carson didn’t embody what people think about when they think of a “successful” pastor. He was simply ‘ordinary.’ Outside his sphere of influence, no one would have known that he was a Baptist pastor to the people of Canada. But the Lord knew, which is what matters most.
One potential pitfall in writing biography is to paint a positive picture of the subject while neglecting their shortcomings. This happens out of authorial bias for the subject being written about. Dr. Carson could have fallen into this pitfall by writing about his father, but he did not. He presented his father’s story in a way that elevated his strengths but also gave honest (and respectful) insight into his father’s weaknesses. One of the more profitable parts of the book occurs in the chapter about Tom’s discouragement and despair as Don extracts nine encouragements that pastors should take from his father’s ministry (92-96). He praises his dad’s faithfulness to Christ and family, self- knowledge, and work-ethic while also critiquing his lack of grace for himself when it came to his view of his shortcomings. His commentary on his father’s vices did not try to defend his father or make excuses for him, but rather counsels the reader how his father should have acted or thought in accordance with the gospel of grace. This added value to the book and gave pastors, who struggle with the same problems, instruction and encouragement for the future.
The example of Tom Carson’s life is worthy of every pastor’s imitation. Many pastors need the encouragement and instruction this book provides as we continually ask with the apostle, “Who is sufficient for these things?” (2 Corinthians 2:16). Tom’s story shifts our eyes from earthly ideas of ministerial success to what Paul desires in Acts 20:24: “But I do not account my life of any value nor as precious to myself, if only I may finish my course and the ministry that I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify to the gospel of the grace of God.” This was Tom Carson: an ordinary pastor who remained faithful to the end. May God give us the grace to do likewise.