I recently celebrated 20 years of serving in vocational ministry of some kind. I spent my first eight years serving as an associate pastor in several different churches, and I’ve spent the last 12 as a senior pastor. I’ve learned many lessons throughout these years—many of them through pain and suffering.
Here are 20 lessons I’ve learned over the past 20 years.
1. God’s Word Is Sufficient to Build Christ’s Church
On my first Sunday as senior pastor, I sat alone in the sanctuary wondering if the doors would be open in a year. I realized all my cleverness and worldly wisdom couldn’t stop the decline. But I knew God, by his Spirit and through his Word, was sufficient to build and revitalize his church. Over a decade later, I’ve watched him do this very thing.
2. The Gospel Is Powerful Enough to Change Lives
Programs, gimmicks, and personalities don’t change people’s hearts. Nor do they invigorate churches that have been in decline for over 30 years. For the last two decades, I’ve watched the gospel free people from the bondage of sin and give hope to the hopeless. I’ve watched it unite old and young, black and white, rich and poor. The good news has brought our church back to life. Indeed, it is powerful enough to change lives and revitalize any local church.
3. An Effective Pastor Is One Who Feels Deeply
Many churches have bought into the phony idea that strong biblical masculinity is stoic, unemotional, and unwavering. The Bible, however, paints a different picture. True masculine strength feels deeply, loves passionately, and sacrifices willingly. Feeling deep emotion causes our heads to descend into our hearts. This allows us to empathize with hurting people. An effective pastor is one who owns his weakness, is secure enough in Christ to be vulnerable, and who suffers with others.
4. Hang Onto Your Family
I was once told, “You can always have another ministry. You only get one wife.” This is absolutely true. Children also grow up fast and need their dad. Make sure you balance ministry and family life in such a way that your wife and children always come first, even in the grind of ministry. I’ve learned to take all my vacation time and not to answer the phone during dinner, devotions, and my day off. Remember, if you lose your family, you may lose the right to serve in ministry at all (1 Tim. 3:4–5).
5. Don’t Underestimate the Value of Older Members
Because it’s hard for older members in a dying and declining church to accept a young pastor and a new direction, it’s easy to see them as obstacles. I know this because I did. Yet the longer I served at our church, the better both I and the longtime members have learned to love and work with each other. In the early years, I thought I was the patient one. As time went on, though, I realized just how patient they were with me as a young and growing pastor.
6. Pursue Being Wanted, Not Needed
For my first several years as senior pastor I heard I’d probably be our church’s last senior pastor. When I went on sabbatical a couple of years ago, I sincerely hoped to come back and see how unneeded I’d become. Sure enough, expendability is exactly what I experienced when I returned—and it had never felt so good.
Yet I now feel more wanted than ever. This should be our goal of pastors. We need to build up good leadership so our church doesn’t depend on one person, while being fruitful enough in ministry that the church still wants us. Not the best formula for job security, but a wonderful plan for a healthy church.
7. Don’t Neglect Your Soul
Paul told the Ephesian elders to pay careful attention to themselves and to all their flock (Acts 20:28). Pastors know to pay attention to their flock, but often forget to pay attention to themselves. Over the past 20 years, I can always trace the times I’ve not been at my best back to a neglect of my own soul.
Pastors, do what you must to care for your own soul. Don’t neglect it. If you’re not refreshed daily by the Lord’s grace and Spirit’s strength, you won’t be in the right place to minister his grace to others.
8. Faithfulness Is Worth the Harshest of Criticisms
Hard decisions have been made in every church I’ve served. Members have been disciplined. Men who just completed seminary have been counseled not to pursue vocational ministry. Attenders have been denied membership. Members have been removed due to their neglect. Countercultural decisions to defend the gospel in the community have been mocked. I’ve endured many harsh words because of my decisions to obey Scripture. My name has been so slandered that people recongized me in stores or coffee shops only because of the painful and public words said about me. But I can endure even the harshest words because I trust Christ will count me faithful, even despite my sin, when I stand before him.
9. Authentic Brokenness Is Better than Unique Giftedness
So many envy the gifts of others. Pastors are no different. We tend to think we need the mind of D. A. Carson, the preaching passion of John Piper, and the charisma of Matt Chandler. We think we won’t serve our churches well without these things. But I’ve learned that a pastor who authentically owns his brokenness, weakness, and neediness for Jesus before his congregation is valuable and serves the church faithfully. Showing your church how to walk humbly with Jesus is worth more than even the most exceptional ministry gifts.
10. Training Men for Pastoral Ministry Is an Unspeakable Joy
Other than conversions, one of my greatest joys in the last 20 years has been training men for pastoral ministry, sending them out, and then watching them flourish in their new ministry. Though it’s hard to send out some of your best and most gifted, it is worth it and is a great personal joy.
11. The Burden to Care for Souls Is Too Great for One Person
Most of the churches I’ve served have had a one-pastor model. Caring for souls was overwhelming. I saw it in others and felt it myself when I became a senior pastor. This is why the New Testament clearly teaches that the care of souls in the local church requires a plurality of pastors/elders to share the load, not just one man.
Moving to a plurality of pastors was maybe the most significant decision I’ve made in the last 12 years at our church.
12. Pastors Will Give an Account for Every Soul Under Their Care
Pastors often forget they’ll give an account to the Lord Christ not only for those who love and support them, but also for those who don’t. When I struggled to love difficult people (which was often), the piercing words of Hebrews 13:17 kept me from shirking my responsibility before the chief shepherd.
13. The Most Crucial Pastoral Quality Might Be Patience
Pastors require many godly qualities, but patience may be the most important because of how it affects other qualities. Patience helps prevent pastors from overreacting. It helps them make decisions and evaluate their church with a long-term perspective and plan in view. We grow in discernment and wisdom when we’re patient, but these qualities are typically absent when we ramrod our agendas through.
14. Be Content-Driven with Music
I’ve experienced a very revealing change in ministry environments over the years. At one point, I was on staff at a church using all the latest technology: theatrical lighting, enormous projection screens, and lots of “wow.” I then left for a church that sang out of a hymnal.
I learned two valuable lessons from this radical transition: (1) style divides and (2) life-giving truth unites. Content should always drive our public gatherings. No matter the style and feel of your weekly services, make sure people leave talking about the wonderful truths they sang, not how well the music was played.
15. Learn What Not to Do
In the four churches I served as an associate pastor, I learned more about what not to do than what to do. I saw practices and ministry philosophies that lacked biblical warrant. And, regrettably, I’ve witnessed firsthand how these practices can harm the souls of God’s people. Those were difficult times for me, but they helped me develop and hone many of the biblical convictions I hold today.
16. Prayer Changes Me the Most
I spent 20 years of ministry not praying as much as I should have. Many regrets here. But when I did pray, I found God meeting me in my despair and comforting my soul. That became a sweet place of rest, more so than any answered prayer.
It’s a special thing when a pastor cries out for his people and church to be strengthened. God has answered many prayers throughout the last two decades, but what he’s done in my soul when I’ve cried out to him has been most significant.
17. Choose Battles Wisely
That I can write this after having been in vocational ministry for 20 years is itself evidence of God’s grace in my life. As I look back on so many of the decisions I’ve made, I know I likely would’ve been fired had many of them gone the other way. Just in my first five years as senior pastor, there were three efforts to remove me.
Pastor, pick your battles; don’t let them pick you. Be patient and wise. Seek good counsel. Give yourself to tireless prayer. God can use just one decision to turn the ship of a struggling church—or to overturn your ministry.
18. Expect Suffering
My experience has reinforced this truth a lot over the years. If you want to be a pastor but aren’t willing to suffer, do something else. Our families and ministries are on the front lines of spiritual attack and gospel work. Suffering will come. At times, it will come all at once. Expect it. Hang on loosely to the things of this world. Hold on tightly to Jesus and your family.
Allow pastoral suffering, for it is certain to come. Let it make you long for heaven.
19. Numbers Are Not a Helpful Gauge for Determining Church Health
The common trend is to use bodies and budgets to gauge church health. Having served in churches with big budgets and lots of behinds, however, I can tell you firsthand that those criteria by themselves are bad for measuring God’s work and church health. Pastors must evaluate their church and ministry in God’s way, not corporate America’s.
20. Jesus Is Always Enough
For most of my ministry, I found my identity in ministry. It led to a very harmful and narcissistic approach to life and ministry. Only in the last few years has God exposed this idolatrous approach. This has led to some hard and painful soul work. As a result, I’m experiencing a freedom that helps me hold loosely to all my ministry. As long as I have Jesus, I’ll have enough.
For so much of my 20-year ministry, Jesus wasn’t enough. But he is now. Even though I do all kinds of exciting ministry, I could walk away from it all today if I had to. Jesus is enough. Learning this has taught me to enjoy all the ministry I do even more—not because I need it, but because I get to do it. Ministry is a privilege.
Asking for Another Twenty
Failing miserably in many different ways taught me these lessons. Be encouraged, fellow pastor: the Lord often teaches us through our sins, our mistakes, our disappointments, our weaknesses.
By his grace, I’ve grown as God has continued to let me serve him. Now, I’m asking God to let me serve him another 20 years. I’ll take the honor if it fits his good and perfect purposes.