By Norris Burkes April 16, 2023

There’s an old joke about a pastor who shared a dressing mirror with his wife every Sunday morning.

Checking his tie, he asked, “Honey. How many great preachers do you think there really are in the world?”

“I’m not sure,” she said, reaching to straighten his mismatched tie.

“But I think there is one less than you think there is.”

I’m not sure my new congregation or my wife Becky would say I’m a great preacher, but I do believe I’m a better pastor thanks to the late James Morton.

Forty years ago this month, I accepted my first parish and I quickly realized that seminary hadn’t taught me everything.

I needed mentoring and Jim, pastor of First Big Church, was up for the challenge. Every Tuesday, for two years, he shared his wise advice while listening to all my church problems.

Jim stressed three best practices for pastoring. They also work for just being a nice person.

First, “Always carry a pen. It’s a powerful device,” he said.

Second, “Use that pen to write compliments, never to pen criticisms.”

Jim wrote the nicest things to those needing an encouraging word. Often his parishioners shared those notes with friends, expanding Jim’s ministry message.

If were mentoring me today, he’d probably urge me to add text messages and emails to convey gratitude. People will often forward those messages or post them on social media and ministry is expanded.

Finally, when it comes to reproving others, Jim urged me to use the calm tone of spoken words. “People may be taken aback by your words,” he said, “but the sting will dissipate over time. Words are fluid and allow for feedback and revising your understanding.”

Never, he emphasized, send someone a critical note.

Jim knew this was good advice for me. Even then, I was a good writer and my words had helped some but hurt others.

If you scold someone with the written word, he explained “they will nurse those words for a very long time.” The words will expand in the heart of the criticized and become far worse than what was intended.

I know his advice to be true. In the 21 years of writing this syndicated column, I’ve received thousands of compliments.

Oddly enough, I best remember the critical ones.

I’ve been called a moron and told to “Grow up.” Some say they use my column to line bird cages. One minister called my column “drivel.” Apparently, she didn’t have Jim for a mentor.

While these folks have long forgotten their comments, Jim was right – biting words leave an aftertaste when written. In the echo of my head, they question my worthiness.

And before you advise me to, “Buck up. Don’t be a whiner.” Jim told me that too.

You may not be a pastor, but Jim’s wisdom fits any job or situation.

Speak your critiques and pen your compliments. Spoken words will fade, written compliments need never die.

Or as Ephesians 4:29 teaches, “Say only what helps, each word a gift.” (The Message.)

Jim offered one last piece of advice.

“When you retire, take all your experience back to a small church again.”

“Why?” I asked, still hoping to become a “great and famous pastor.”

He explained that small churches can have big problems and need experienced pastors, not seminary grads using them as a steppingstone for flashier opportunities.

Twenty years ago, Jim retired from Big Church and took a part time job as Director of Missions, the closest Baptist equivalent to the office of Bishop. I presume he used his office to mentor the pastors 18 small churches area churches.

In the meantime, I took that last piece of advice. I now pastor a small church just a few miles from the church he was serving before his retirement.

In hopes, I’ve made some improvement over the years, I occasionally dare ask my wife how many great pastors there are in the world now.

Becky shakes her head and, faithful to follow our old litany, says “STILL, one less than you think there is.”


My friend Jim died in 2003 in a plane crash in Alaska.  RIP.

Write to Norris at 10556 Combie Rd. Suite 6643 Auburn, CA 95602. Read past columns at Contact him at or via voicemail (843) 608-9715.