Having reached, by the grace of God, the milestone of 25 years of pastoral ministry and 2000+ sermons, I am writing here a few things I have learned along the way. The first post was things I have learned about preaching.
My pastoral ministry has included serving in three different churches over a 25 year period. In the first I served as a youth pastor for 4 years. I served in the second as the senior pastor for 9 ½ years and have been senior pastor at my current church for 11 ½ years. Here are some things I have learned about ministry and churches. There are many observations that I could make. These are some that stand out to me, with minimal explanation. Each paragraph is a separate observation, in no particular order.
Jesus Christ is building His church. I come back to this truth over and over. I cannot do it, nor am I responsible to do it. The church will survive and thrive because He is building it.
The church is an amazing entity. It is a place of worship, growth, love, friendship, and encouragement like no other on earth. I love the church.
It is best for a pastor to start out by serving in a church where he can learn the ministry, preferably in an assistant position. I am thankful that I had the opportunity to serve with a man who taught me the ministry before I became the one fully responsible for pastoring a church.
It is good to have one or a few older pastors that you can go to for advice and counsel, especially during the first few years of ministry.
Every church has its own culture. This does not have to do primarily with the basic doctrines or even the polity of the church, though those will determine the culture to some degree. I’m talking about other aspects, such as the traditions of the church, how conservatively the people think, who the influential people are (other than the pastors), how major as well as less significant decisions are made, why the church was started, what theological and practical controversies have arisen in the church’s history, what the previous pastor’s leadership and preaching style was like, what musical preferences and practices the church has (both as a whole and the individuals within the church), whether the mood of the services are formal or have more of a family atmosphere, and numerous other factors. A church’s culture isn’t necessarily good or bad, though it can be either. It is very important for the pastor to learn this culture. This takes time – months and even years in an established church. The new pastor must adapt and work within the existing culture to a great degree starting out. He may be able to create needed change in a church culture, but it will take prayer, patience, teaching, planning, and effective communication. Many church members are as attached to the church’s culture as they are to its doctrine. Regardless of whether this degree of loyalty is right or wrong, it is reality.
When you are the pastor, the church shapes who you are. The responsibilities, activities, relationships, problems, seasons, and joys associated with church life have a formative influence on your own thinking, priorities, emotions, state of mind (day and night), schedule (day and night), view of God, level of encouragement or discouragement, friendships, childrearing, Bible reading, Christian walk, local community involvement, marriage, and more. The pastor’s life is closely linked to the life of the church.
Expressions of love and support from church members are much, much more encouraging than people realize. A few words expressing appreciation for a message, prayer for me and my family, or support through a decision or change will lift my heart for days afterward.
In a similar way, negativity and criticism becomes magnified and intensified in the pastor’s mind. Sometimes negative feedback about a decision or direction is healthy and constructive. Other times it is arises from resistance to change, misunderstanding of the pastor’s motives, or a complaining spirit. The pastor has to learn to welcome the constructive criticism. He also must learn to discern unhelpful negativity and not be discouraged by it. One or two instances of criticism can seem, in his mind, like there is significant opposition to him or the direction he is leading. But it usually represents less people than he thinks it does.
Be very careful about moving forward on a decision when a significant percentage of leaders (pastors, deacons, etc.) or members express concern or opposition to it.
It is not the talent and personality of leaders, nor is it the efficiency of administration, variety and quality of programs, latest technology, or culturally-contextualized facilities that leads people to Christ and helps them grow. These may be helpful but are not vital. It is consistent teaching, preaching, and loving leadership over time – years of time – that truly influences people for Christ.
The key passage that describes the role of the pastor and what church life should be is Ephesians 4:11-16. This passage is fairly complex, but every pastor should study it carefully and in depth in order to develop a sense of purpose and direction for himself and his church. Then he should teach it to the church and lead the church in pursuing it. The church should continually progress toward embodying Ephesians 4:13.
There will be people along the way, hopefully only a very few, with whom a pastor will have a strong disagreement that leads to a parting of ways. This may happen with a church member or another pastor. The disagreement, in my experience, has not been about primary doctrine. It has been over philosophy of ministry or a counseling issue. It doesn’t usually involve sin, just seeing a matter in a very different way. I think it is what Paul and Barnabas experienced, called a “sharp contention,” as described in Acts 15:37-41. I hate it when it happens, and it is one of the most painful experiences I have in ministry. I have learned that I may or may not see how this parting of ways fits into God’s great plan, but I know it does.
When I started in ministry, it was pretty clear what a Fundamentalist was. Now Fundamentalism has so many variations and the term comes with so much baggage that what it represents is unclear. I used to call myself one. I belonged to an organization that promoted Fundamentalism, and I identified with the churches and influential people within the movement. I am still a separatist in a biblical sense, but I haven’t used the term “Fundamentalist” to describe myself in a long time due to the confusion and misunderstanding associated with it.
A good church is like a family. There is love, mutual respect, and warm acceptance among the people. There is willingness to confront and work through difficult issues, combined with a strong commitment to one another through whatever problems they face. The people truly enjoy being together. There is a warm spirit among them when they gather. They think about and pray for each other when they are apart. They love to lift their hearts and voices in praising their Heavenly Father. They are, individually and corporately, developing toward “the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ” (Eph. 4:13). Jesus is “full of grace and truth” (John 1:14), and “of His fullness we have all received” (John 1:16), so the people and the church are becoming more and more characterized by grace and truth. It has been my blessing to pastor in churches like this. I am deeply blessed, and forever thankful to God and the people I have had the privilege of pastoring.