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3 Lessons I Learned the Hard Way as a Pastor

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Editors’ note: This article was adapted from a new book published by Crossway under the TGC imprint, 15 Things Seminary Couldn’t Teach Me, edited by Collin Hansen and Jeff Robinson with a foreword by Albert Mohler. Order your copy today.


I warned them, but I don’t think they believed me.

No doubt, they thought I was merely trying to exhibit humility or was trafficking in a garden-variety form of preacher talk. The pastoral search committee had zeroed in on me as its final candidate, but the three letters that sometimes appear to the right of my name kept hijacking our conversation: PhD.

“Should we call you doctor?” one asked. “I’ll bet you’ll really get this church going with all you bring to the table as a doctor,” another said. I fidgeted in my seat. I didn’t doubt the sincerity of their admiration, but I felt profoundly unprepared to play the role of spiritual superhero.

I had no idea.

At last, I said: “I’m grateful you want to honor my studies, but please don’t mistake a degree for maturity, competence, fitness for ministry, and certainly not for godliness. The one does not necessarily portend the others. All it really means is that I persevered long enough to meet some academic requirements.”

From the standpoint of interview skill, that was the correct answer. But over the next three years, God burned the truth of those words deep into the recesses of my soul.

Soon, the church called me as senior pastor. Soon, I learned that advanced degrees from a leading theological institution had not transformed me into the godly, humble, wise, selfless leader this congregation desperately needed. Soon, I realized only suffering-laden service on the front lines of ministry could make me that man. Soon, it hit me: I serve the church at war.

Sadly, my tenure in that first pastorate lasted little more than three years, due mostly to a major financial crisis in the church. Today, I am privileged to serve a different congregation. And thanks to lessons learned from many mistakes and foolhardy decisions I made in the first church, I am a different pastor.

Here are three major lessons I could’ve learned only by serving God’s people in the local church: credentials are not competence; ministry means war; and apart from God’s unilateral grace, a pastor labors in vain.

Credentials ≠ Competence

Prior to becoming a pastor, I had preached 1 Corinthians 13 many times and had seen it cross-stitched on home decor at least a thousand more. But once I began to shepherd a local flock, it became one of the most perplexing passages to me in the entire Bible. Why? It’s not difficult to interpret, but therein lies the rub; it’s difficult because it’s easier to be orthodox than it is to be loving.

It’s easier to be orthodox than it is to be loving.

And “knowledge puffs up” (1 Cor. 8:1). As one who prizes the study of theology and church history, that phrase hits close to home. It hits home because, if God gave me one wish in a prosperity-theology sort of way, I’d be tempted to choose “have all knowledge” instead of “be loving.”

Every hour of seminary delighted my soul. It left me with much knowledge, and, as it’s designed to do, equipped me to gain more for myself. But I soon realized that my command of Greek or Hebrew or the Puritans is not enough to keep me from erupting when an angry church member brings false charges against me. Those things don’t guarantee wise leadership decisions when a deacon tells me the church is almost out of money.

Sure, my theological knowledge positions me to make wise decisions and enables me to feed the flock with healthy grass, but the maturity needed to be a godly under-shepherd comes only through days, weeks, months, and years of labor in the vineyard of the Lord. It didn’t take long for me to realize that I am a man in the middle of his sanctification, just like the people who listen to me preach every Lord’s Day.

Love > Knowledge

Soon, I realized the people under my care were not all that interested in my orthodoxy, although I could never compromise it. They just wanted to know if I loved them. Once they knew I genuinely cared and saw them as cherished family in Christ—and not as mere subjects for evangelism or discipleship—they were much more willing to listen to me expound orthodoxy.

And there was only one means for building such trust: time in their presence.

I recall one particularly cranky man who just didn’t seem to like me—at first. So, taking a page from the Richard Baxter playbook, I visited his home. It was summer and we sat on his porch. We discussed Auburn and Georgia football. I listened to him talk about Dale Earnhardt. I listened to his wife talk about her family’s role in founding our church.

Before long, they seemed to move into my corner. On the day I left the church, he bear-hugged me and, through a river of tears, told me how his family had grown to love mine and how they would miss us. They would even miss my teaching.

The apostle warned me about this: “If I have . . . all knowledge . . . but have not love, I am nothing” (1 Cor. 13:2). If I do not love my people, they will not care how much theological talk proceeds from the pulpit. They will follow me only when I prove I love them and can be trusted as a mature teacher and under-shepherd.

In his excellent book Dangerous Calling: Confronting the Unique Challenges of Pastoral Ministry, Paul Tripp identifies a binary syndrome that too often inflicts the inexperienced but self-assured pastor. Tripp appropriately labels this dangerous malady as “big theological brains and heart disease”:

Bad things happen when maturity is more defined by knowing than it is by being. Danger is afloat when you come to love ideas more than the God they represent and the people they are meant to free. . . . I longed for [seminary students] to understand that they aren’t called just to teach theology to their people but also to do theology with their people.

After reciting his lengthy biological, theological, and experiential pedigree, Paul concluded much the same: “I have reason for confidence in the flesh, but whatever gain I had, I have counted loss for the sake of Christ” (Phil. 3:8). He possessed all the ingredients to serve as an omnicompetent pastor, yet it was all rubbish compared to knowing Christ and exhibiting his love for people.

‘Danger is afloat when you come to love ideas more than the God they represent and the people they are meant to free.’

If you have served in a local church, a second lesson will soon become axiomatic for you: ministry means war, which is to say, suffering is normal for an under-shepherd of Christ.

Ministry Means War

A. W. Tozer famously said, “It is doubtful whether God can bless a man greatly until he has hurt him deeply.” In pastoral ministry, as in the Christian life, there is no crown without a cross. The great men of Scripture were formed under the lash of suffering—Job, Daniel, David, Peter, Paul, and, of course, our Lord Jesus Christ.

The great names in church history walked the Calvary road of affliction. Luther and Calvin were forced to run for their lives. John Bunyan spent 12 years in a Bedford jail for preaching good news. Charles Simeon served an irascible congregation that once locked him out of the church. I had a friend whose church fired him because he planted grass at the parsonage without a committee’s permission. Another friend was released two weeks after being elected because a deacon found an objectionable theology book in his library as the moving van was being unloaded.

How bad can it get? The cauldron of suffering nearly drove the great Charles Spurgeon from the ministry at the age of 22. On October 19, 1856, seven people were killed and 28 injured when someone shouted “Fire!” during a service, causing hundreds of the 12,000 gathered to stampede. The depression resulting from this disaster left Spurgeon prostrate for days. “Even the sight of the Bible, brought from me a flood of tears, and utter distraction of mind.” This set the tone for his ministry, and he battled acute anxiety and dark depression for the rest of his life.

The office of elder is not for the faint of heart. It is dangerous, even deadly. It will bruise the new man I’m becoming in Christ, and it will kill the old man I was before the grace of God stormed the battlements of my heart.

Seminary did not teach me how deeply ministry could wound. But it couldn’t teach me that, for seminary is to ministry what basic training is to combat: a training ground, a relatively safe place to acquire tools—Greek, Hebrew, exegesis, homiletics, systematic theology, church history, and much more. Basic training is not war, and seminary is not pastoral ministry. Nothing but the battlefield itself could have prepared me for the pain ahead.

Had I been paying closer attention to Scripture, I would have seen the warning signs. Through the lens of Paul’s ministry, 2 Corinthians is a manual for suffering in pastoral ministry. Read a few verses and you’ll see the office of elder is not for the faint of heart. It is dangerous, even deadly. It will bruise the new man I’m becoming in Christ, and it will kill the old man I was before the grace of God stormed the battlements of my heart. It is a glorious death sentence from the hand of a loving God.

War Within, Too

There will be difficult days in ministry. You will doubt your calling. You will question God’s goodness. Your heart will struggle to trust the very divine sovereignty your mouth has so often celebrated. You will fear people. You will resent the apparent ministry success of your friends, though pride will lead you to publicly congratulate them. You will want to quit, particularly on Mondays. To summarize: you will wrestle with you.

Voices will fill your ears with an alluring siren song, urging you to find, by whatever means necessary—even by small increments of theological or ethical compromise—a place where ease and prosperity reign. There, in ministerial Rivendell, you will be far from the bad deacons meeting, far from the church member whose marriage is imploding, far from the family who thinks you’re killing the church by teaching the Bible instead of building the youth group. This is the internal battle of Ephesians 6:17; it’s just intensified within the pastor because of his calling. If you are to survive this war, you must feed on God’s Word daily. You must become a man of constant prayer, of vigilant self-examination. You must live in habitual awareness that you utterly depend on grace. Paul asked the question to which you must learn the correct answer: “What do you have that you did not receive?” (1 Cor. 4:7).

Absolutely nothing.

Suffering is normal in ministry. Paul suffered. Our heroes from history suffered. God will use struggles with foes from without and within to make us more like his Christ, to slay our pride, to arm us with gospel comfort so we may comfort fellow sufferers in our charge, and, perhaps above all, to provide his bride with a picture of the sufferings of his Son. Humiliation precedes exaltation, both for Jesus and for his people (2 Cor. 4:7–12). It’s the gospel way.

Affliction will either drive God’s servants to my third and final lesson or drive them from ministry.

Apart from Him You Can Do __________

One phrase a minister must burn above the doorpost of his heart is Jesus’s words in John 15:5: “Apart from me you can do nothing.” If you are to persevere in faithfulness, God’s unilateral grace must uphold you. Various studies communicate a grim but unified message: a high percentage of seminary graduates disappear permanently from pastoral ministry within five years. You will need grace upon grace upon grace.

In the context of his being lifted up to the third heaven, the apostle explains that God does not weigh strength on the same scales as we do: “I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. . . . For when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Cor. 12:9–10).

A few days into that first pastorate, I realized that only the Lord working through his Word and his Spirit could make dry bones live. All I could do was preach, pray, and shepherd his sheep. Mercifully, the pressure is not on us to change hearts. We are not the power of God for salvation; his gospel is.

We are not the power of God for salvation.

At Kings Island amusement park near Cincinnati, there was once a wooden roller coaster that stood more than 300 feet tall. At the entrance, there was a sign that said, “This ride is not for the faint of heart.” Pastoral ministry is like that. It is a delightful calling with many dizzying highs. It is a dangerous calling with many depressing lows. It will rattle your bones all along the way.

But ministering God’s Word and watching him use it to transform lives is a marvel that strains the descriptive capacity of human words.

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