9 Lessons Learned in 9 Years of Pastoral Ministry
As I’ve concluded nine years in pastoral ministry and transitioned to a new season of ministry at the Berkshire Institute for Christian Studies, I’ve taken some time to reflect on my experience as a shepherd of God’s flock – the ups, the downs, and the lessons I’ve learned along the way. I’m not at all claiming to have enlightened reflections, superior wisdom, or the keys to ministry success – and it didn’t take me nine years to figure that out. Nevertheless, by God’s grace and mostly through error, I have learned a lot. So I humbly offer these reflections as an expression of my gratitude for God’s sustaining grace and for the seemingly limitless patience of my Faith Church family.
1. Keep the long view. Pastoral ministry is not a sprint, it’s a marathon…and there are no quick fixes or shortcuts. Change is often slow, so patience is the name of the game. The words of Paul to the young Pastor Timothy are an oft needed reminder: “Preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching.” (2 Timothy 4:2) While my restless heart and short-sighted eyes long for measurable change here and now, the fruit of gospel ministry is always borne over the long haul.
Similarly, I’m plagued with the terrible disease of only seeing what’s left to do, rather than what’s already been done. But I’ve learned the importance of appreciating and celebrating what God has done. I can now step back and survey the landscape of our church over the past decade and see that even though there is much work to do to move towards health and effective mission in our community, there is much that God has already done. As we look ahead we can be assured that God has brought us this far and will continue the work He’s started. In the meantime patience is paramount. Rather than growing discouraged by how much work is left to do, we ought to patiently wait on the Lord for all that He will do – in us and through us, until Jesus returns.
2. Faithfulness over formula; truth, not tricks. While I embraced this theoretically even before the start of pastoral ministry, it’s been proven practically again and again. The key to church health and church growth is not found in some elusive recipe for success. Quite to the contrary, ministry success is found in being faithful to be and to do all that God has called us to be and to do. That’s not to suggest that faithfulness is easy – not at all! But if we’re chasing after the secret formula for ministry success then we’re probably missing the point of ministry in the first place. Some of the most important words I’ve meditated on in over these past nine years are these from 1 Corinthians 3:6 – “…but God gave the growth.” The work of ministry is ours, but the result of ministry belongs to the Lord.
Further, the core of our ministry can be nothing else than the good news we’ve been entrusted with and called to proclaim. My foundational ministry verse has been and will always be this: “And I, when I came to you, brothers, did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God with lofty speech or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.” (1 Corinthians 2:1-2) It’s the gospel we proclaim because it’s the gospel we all need. Time and time again I’ve faced the temptation to say the things that people want to hear, but I’m reminded again of Paul’s words to Timothy – “Preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching.” More than anything else, the people of God need to hear the Word of God – that Word alone which is “breathed out by God”, which is “profitable for teaching, reproof, correction, and training in righteousness,”, which is able to make us “competent, equipped for every good work.”
A ministry built on anything else other than the gospel of Jesus Christ will one day be burned up. Only that which is built on the foundation of Jesus Christ will stand the test of time. (1 Cor. 3:10-17)
3. Priorities, priorities, priorities. My stock answer whenever anyone asks me how things are going is one word: “busy”. I used to follow it up by saying, “This is a busy season for us,” until I realized I was saying it in every season! When I say “busy” what I really mean is that it’s always a challenge to find time for “one more thing,” whatever that one thing may be. What I’m learning in the midst of this struggle is that we really can (and do) find time for the things that we find most important. I may always be busy, but I rarely miss a meal (and it shows!). Why? Because I’ve deemed meals to be a priority, and we make time for the things we find most important.
So the lesson for me has been to prioritize the roles and tasks that truly are most important. When it comes to life, that most certainly means prioritizing time with my family. I’m a Christian, husband/father, and pastor – in that order, and I must constantly be reminded of that. Likewise, in ministry, I have to be reminded constantly to place the highest emphasis on the things that are most important. On this point the words of Acts 6:4 ring in my ears often: “But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word.” While there will always be other things to consume my time, none is more important than a commitment to the ministry of the Word and prayer. I don’t always prioritize things correctly or spend my (limited) time wisely, but I’ve learned the importance of doing so.
There’s a related lesson here as well: take advantage of every opportunity. Ephesians 5:15-16 says, “Look carefully then how you walk, not as unwise but as wise, making the best use of the time…” We may not always have time for the things we need or want to do, but God’s timing is always perfect and no opportunity comes to us by chance. I often squander those opportunities –missing the chance to turn a routine phone call with a church member into an opportunity to see how I can pray for them, or being so keyed in on a task that I fail to see interruptions as divinely appointed ministry opportunities, and probably countless other ways. But it’s helpful to bear in mind that not one second of my day catches God by surprise. While boundaries and priorities are hugely important, so too is making the most of every God-given opportunity.
4. Love people instead of changing them. Before pastoral ministry was even on my radar screen I used to joke, “I don’t love people enough to be a pastor.” It really wasn’t sincere, uttered more for shock value than anything else. But I now realize there’s a lot of truth in that statement – not the part about not loving people (really, I do!), but the part about pastors being called to love their people. It’s almost analogous to becoming a parent for the first time – or even the second, or third, or fourth! You don’t quite realize how much you could ever truly love a child until you have your own. It wasn’t until I became a shepherd of Faith Church that I realized how much I truly love its people. But that didn’t come instantaneously.
For a brief time in my first few months of ministry, I struggled with the temptation to see people only through the lens of their contribution to our ministry goals. That way of thinking lends itself to asking questions like, “How can that person be used in ministry? Who is behind me and who do I need to convince to get behind me? How can I convince that person to get on board with my way of thinking?” I quickly began to realize that this is an entirely wrong way to view our people! Since then, I have learned the importance – first and foremost – of loving the flock that God has entrusted to my care. Acts 20:28 has been transformed my perspective: “Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood.” This is Jesus’ church…His people, His flock -- obtained at the price of His own blood! More than I need to convince people of anything, and more than I need to leverage someone’s gifts for ministry, I need to simply show them Christ’s love. One of the most important questions I can ask is this: How can I show the love of Christ to that person?
Further, we must remember that true love for the flock transcends different perspectives, different gifts, different backgrounds…and yes, even yet-to-be-redeemed habits and behaviors. The Lord knows He loves me in spite of quite a few of my own “yet-to-be-redeemed habits and behaviors,” so why be so slow to love others in the same way? The flock that God entrusts to the care of a pastor always consists of people from different backgrounds and different levels of spiritual maturity. The call of the pastor is to love them – and feed them, care for them, and protect them – no matter what. Over the course of time, by the grace of God and the work of the Spirit through the gospel of Jesus, people will change. But they’re not mine to change; they’re mine to love. Yes – loving often involves saying difficult things, even correcting and rebuking. But whatever I’m called to do as a pastor, it’s never less than loving the flock. At the end of the day, I would rather love well than lead well, preach well, or counsel well…but then I realize that leading/preaching/counseling well requires – first and foremost – loving well.
5. Don’t underestimate the power of the pen. When we think of the tools of the pastoral trade we often think of the pastor’s Bible, the pulpit, his books. In shepherding (and biblical) terms we may think of the rod and the staff. But in my short time in ministry I’ve learned to rely on an additional tool – my pen. Though not always a literal pen, I’ve found ways to supplement the work of shepherding through writing. A column in our church’s weekly email update, though a significant time commitment, has proven to be an incredibly useful teaching opportunity – using it at times to further apply or flesh out an idea from the previous week’s sermon, and at other times to offer biblical encouragement or to address a current event. More recently, however, I’ve relied on real ink from a real pen on real paper by spending considerable time writing notes and cards to folks in our church. It’s not always tied to a life event, sometimes it’s “just because” to someone whom the Lord brings to mind. A well-timed note can go a long way toward encouraging your people. After all, who doesn’t like receiving mail? Even my sloppy chicken-scratch handwriting and tacky cards don’t hinder the recipient from feeling loved by this simple shepherding task.
6. Get wisdom…wherever you can. The longer I’m in ministry the more I realize how much I don’t know. The more wisdom I get, the more I realize how much I don’t have. But another lesson I’ve learned is simply summarized in Proverbs 4:7 – “The beginning of wisdom is this: Get wisdom, and whatever you get, get insight.” Books, blogs, conferences, and podcasts are helpful for gaining godly wisdom, but nothing (outside of the Word of God) is as helpful as real-life wisdom, communicated through real-life conversations. And I’ve learned that’s not just from older pastors and peers. The greatest sources of wisdom for me have been from the men and women in my church. The retired businessman, the middle-aged board member, the young mom, and elderly shut-ins have probably taught me as much as any seasoned pastor I know. Godly wisdom is often found in the most unexpected places, if only we’re listening and ready to hear it. I’m wise enough to know that I’m not wise enough…so I’ll look for wisdom wherever I can get it. It’s as good as gold! (Proverbs 16:16)
7. Rest well to shepherd well. Burnout is real, and perhaps one of the greatest threats to effective ministry. By the grace of God my eyes were opened early on to the sort of trajectory that leads to burnout – because I was on it. Again, by God’s grace, I was able to establish the right priorities and commitments to ensure a work-rest balance that mitigates the risk of ministry burnout. I came to realize that if my tank is empty I’m not going to have anything left to offer my church or my family – or both. It became clear that if I was going to shepherd well I also needed to rest well.
To that end, I’ve learned that there is no shame in using every last vacation day given to me. For me, accumulated vacation time (sometimes worn as a badge of honor) is more of a personal liability, an indication of an unsustainable work ethic. Likewise, a weekday off was a high priority from the start. Not that circumstances never required me to skip a day off here and there, but on the whole I was committed to a day away from the office and regular routine – a day with my family. I also began to realize that sometimes the smallest commitments to yourself and to your family can reap the biggest dividends. In addition to vacation time and a day off, I developed several rhythms over the years that just worked. My point here is not ultimately about the specific rhythms that worked for me, but rather the need for regular rest and rejuvenation. I think I still have a lot to learn in this regard, but I’m grateful for the way the Lord has sustained me and spared me from burning out.
8. Prepare (and be prepared) for suffering. There are many lessons to be learned about suffering, but the primary one I’ve learned has little to do with the suffering I may face in my life and ministry. What I’ve learned is that one of my greatest responsibilities as a pastor is to prepare people for suffering. As D.A. Carson says, “All we have to do is live long enough and we will suffer.” It’s true. So if we know that in this sinful and fallen world we will suffer, then why would we not do all that we can to prepare to suffer well – in a way that glorifies God? At every turn I’m learning to teach and apply a theology of suffering that is grounded in the character of God – the only unchanging and unwavering reality in our lives. In the midst of the darkness of suffering is not the time to think about how we’re going to endure suffering; that time is now, in the light of day, when we can see clearly that which may be hidden temporarily by our suffering. If we want our anchor to hold in every high and stormy gale – whenever it may come – we need to build our lives now on the solid rock, Jesus Christ.
9. “O Lord, by your grace, work in me, through, and in spite of me.” These are the words of a prayer I’ve learned to pray at least every Sunday morning, and usually more often. What I’ve come to realize more than ever through pastoral ministry is how much work the Lord has yet to do in me. Every time I have opportunity to preach or teach God’s Word I need to be reminded that I’m probably the one who needs to hear and respond to his Word the most. So each and every Sunday I plead with the Lord to work – first and foremost – in me…to change my heart and my life by the work of the Holy Spirit according to his perfect purposes. Then, secondly, to work through me, since I’m only His vessel. Finally, to work in spite of me, since I’m a weak and broken vessel (2 Cor. 4:7).
While it’s tempting to despair over my weaknesses and sin I’m reminded of the precious promise of Philippians 1:6 – “And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.” Thankfully, the gospel I proclaim and build my life upon is sufficient to cover all my sin – past, present, and future. Not only is it sufficient to save me from my sin, it’s sufficient to sustain me in every moment of my life (2 Cor. 12:9). The God who works through me is continuing His work in me, and will continue that work until the day Jesus Christ returns. In the mean time I can be assured of this amazing truth: when I am weak, He is strong.
As I reflect on these lessons learned I’m moved again with profound gratitude for the believers of Faith Church who have borne with me over these nine years. These lessons are just the tip of the iceberg for the ways they have put up with a young, inexperienced pastor. What a blessing it has been to be the shepherd of this precious, blood-bought flock of God, and what grace they have shown to me! God has used them powerfully to shape my life and ministry, and to point me to Christ.
If you’re a church member, consider how you might encourage your pastor or another young leader in your church. Next time you’re tempted to complain about their weaknesses, pray that God will use you to continue His work in them and through them.
If you’re a pastor, what lessons have you learned? Take a moment to reflect and thank the Lord for His work in you and through you.
Ultimately, any lessons learned over these years, any growth, any progress, any fruit, is owing solely to the grace of God. For all that He has done and will do – in, through, and in spite of us all – to Him be the glory!