A Baker's Dozen of Pastoral Lessons
As I approach the fifth anniversary of my ordination to pastoral ministry, I confess that last five years have been a maelstrom of emotional highs and lows--as well as a school of previously unknown experiences. My own experiences and observations of pastoral situations have helped produce my baker’s dozen of lessons for seminarians and new pastors. This has been a learning and growing time for me. My hope is that these observations may prove useful to pastors and church members alike to help give them pastoral perspective into the often unseen aspects of church life:
1. Sometimes church members want change...provided they don’t have to change. You will be asked how you will “grow the church”, “develop hospitality” or some such other need, perceived or real. People want change--usually, for you to change other people--but are resistant to hearing that they also need to change.
2. New congregants are often full of bright ideas...but usually burn out quickly. Learn to appreciate the slow and steady church members rather than the “hare-like” newcomers. Often they will seem more attractive and appear to have more zeal and bright ideas for the future. Usually, they do not, and their star dims quickly. Often they leave quickly, because the rate of change is not quick enough...for them.
3. Don’t trust preaching and pastoring to change the church...trust the Holy Spirit. It is easy to fall into a mechanistic approach to the means of grace, and practically fail to depend on the Holy Spirit to bring about change through the administration of the means of grace. In other words – don’t trust the means, but don’t neglect them either. The means of grace are the instrument of change, not the cause. If you invert the order you will become frustrated and even angry--and, trust me, it will show. Trust God to do what is right – either in growth or in pruning. That means you need to be in prayer, a lot.
4. Realize that change in a church is just like change in you...slow, progressive and sometimes, almost unobservable. One pastor used to say to me “People are not where they ought to be, and neither are you.” That is a great leveler. You can’t expect for others’ old habits to die overnight, anymore than you expect your own besetting sins and traits to vanish overnight. Be patient, as God is patient with you.
5. Do not be eager to blame the previous pastor for your present troubles. No doubt the previous pastor got some things wrong (perhaps he got a lot wrong). But you weren’t there to observe it, and anything you hear about him will be hearsay. Also, remember that when you leave, there will be some (perhaps many!) in the congregation who cannot wait to close the door behind you when you go. Try not to listen to discontentedness about previous pastors from the congregants--unless you are addressing it in pastoral situations.
6. When candidating for a church, remember that the church and session is candidating for you. This is a big one. Straight out of seminary, while looking for a call, you will want to get your feet under the pastoral table so to speak. Do not be so desperate to find a call that you will accept one to any church no matter what. I have great admiration for a brother with whom I recently reconnected, who went back to secular work for a year and a half after seminary because he could not find a church to which HE believed that he was called to pastor. That was, in many respects, an act of faith. When the church asks you those hard personal questions about faith and life (and it should be asking them!), do not be afraid to ask the hard questions of the church, the elder board or governing body. Just because a church thinks that you are the one that they need to be their pastor doesn’t mean that you need to accept the call.
7. Don’t trust numbers...either few or many. Trust and contentment in large numbers is pride and sin. Complacency in small numbers is equally sinful. Do not give into the temptation of measuring your pastoral faithfulness based on numbers. If you find your identity in large numbers, remember that God can (and often does) prune in no time. In what then, will you find contentment? Equally, decreasing numbers does not necessarily mean pastoral failure...or faithfulness. Resist the temptation to think that faithfulness will be smallness or largeness. If God chooses to prune you in the ministry in cutting back your attendance, accept this from the loving hand of your heavenly Father by faith and press on.
8. Listen to brothers in the wider church (as they often know more than you). You do not have to step out alone in the church. Keep your ears open at all times, and remember that there is safety in a multitude of counselors. By listening, you will save yourself a great deal of heart ache.
9. You are not ultimately responsible for growing the church. When asked “how will you grow the church,” refer your inquisitor to 1 Corinthians 3:7. Placing this burden upon your shoulders will destroy you and your ministry. You may actually make progress for a time, but will quickly burn out. If you succeed in seeing it grow you will be tempted to pride. If it does not grow you will have a heightened sense of personal failure, discouragement and discontentment. While you must be diligent in ministry and seeking to be the wisest leader possible, you must resist thinking that the well-being of the church rests on your shoulders.
10. You are responsible to be a faithful pastor. Frankly, that is enough! No-one except a pastor can tell you what the pastorate is like. It is a huge undertaking--often simultaneously heartbreaking and full of joy. That is a big enough task for any man so don’t lay extra burdens (like #9) on your shoulders. Seek to be a faithful servant of the Lord Jesus Christ in all that you do. That is what He requires of you.
11. God doesn’t owe you anything. If he wants to give you a Jeremiah ministry or an Acts 2:47 ministry, so be it. Simply, be content to serve the Lord. Discontentment in ministry often stems from a mindset that God somehow owes you something. The Lord's response to Jeremiah's penman (who wanted a little of the fame pie) is instructive here: "Do you seek great things for yourself? Do not seek them. See I have given you your life wherever you go" (Jer. 45:5). God's redeeming grace should keep us from having an entitlement mentality in ministry.
12. Acknowledge the fact that there is a grey zone in pastoral ministry. Seminaries generally work in black and white. They often, rightly, feel the need to do so in order to clearly define doctrine and practice. Good seminary professors will prepare you for the world of grayscale. Life is complex and messy, and the black and white of the classroom is often more shady in real life. Pastoral situations take a great deal of pastoral wisdom that is not often easily attained on perceived. The opening verses of the first chapter of James teaches us this! There is always give and take in pastoral ministry. Remember that change takes time and must be done patiently and wisely. It is not always compromise to take your time in seeking to bring about principled change in the life of the congregation.
13. Don't worry when people leave the church and/or speak ill of you. This is almost certainly going to happen to you. Solomon taught us this valuable principle when he wrote, "Do not take to heart everything people say, lest you hear your servant cursing you. For many times, also, your own heart has known that even you have cursed others" (Eccl. 7:21-22). Additionally, you can’t please all the people all the time, and you shouldn't try to do so (tip #10). This doesn't mean that you shouldn't receive criticisms and examine your own heart and life to see where you can grow. However, many criticisms are unfounded. This is why the Apostle Paul charged the church not to receive an accusation against an elder without two or three witnesses. We are engaged in spiritual warfare--and false accusations are some of the enemies favorite weapons.
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