I know it’s crazy, but I wish time travel was readily available. Why? Because I’ve got a few things I’d really like to say to the younger version of me. First, I’d tell myself not to freak out while watching the Steelers in the 1972 AFC Championship game, because Franco Harris will pull off the “Immaculate Reception” in the final 30 seconds. I’d also tell myself that computers are not a passing fad, and then I’d mention it may be wise to invest in a little company called Google. Oh, and I’d tell myself to eat less pizza and more salads. Actually, I probably wouldn’t say that at all.
But I would love to tell my younger self a few things about pastoral ministry. I’ve been in this for more than 28 years. Over the decades, I’ve learned some things I wish I would have known as a freshman pastor.
1. Pastoring Is First About People
I was an impatient, driven, type-A kind of person, who didn’t necessarily have time for people and their problems. It was easy to think of pastoring as more about leadership, programs, and preaching, rather than being involved with people. But the reality is, pastoring is about being intimately involved in the lives of people—being a shepherd of their souls. Peter said, “Shepherd the flock of God that is among you . . .” (1 Pet. 5:2). Paul said, “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” (Acts 20:28).
To be a faithful shepherd, you must care for sheep.
I missed that at first. I remember when a member left a counseling appointment with me feeling more managed than shepherded. His feedback tutored me. He came looking for a shepherd to care; what he got was a soul mechanic looking to make a repair.
Martyn Lloyd-Jones hit the nail on the head: “To love to preach is one thing, but to love the people to whom you preach is quite another.” If I could grab a coffee with my younger self, I would talk to him about what it means to “love the people to whom you preach.”
2. You’re Called to Pastor Broken People
Jesus said, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick” (Matt. 9:12). I’d want to tell my younger self that when people come to pastors for help, they bring their baggage with them. We live in a broken world where sin and sickness debase God’s image and defraud human beings. They mess with people and mess up people. Pastoral ministry doesn’t happen in Eden. It happens in the untidy trenches of a fallen world. People come to pastors marred by the effects of sin.
I didn’t get it, at least not in the beginning. But God was faithful, and reality crashed my pastoral party. I seem to recall it happening around a depressed woman who didn’t get better from the passages I told her to memorize. Fortunately for me, older pastors were there to help. I began to see that the complexities of brokenness are not so simple, not so easily catalogued, not so expedient. I began to understand that this is why God created shepherds.
It’s an illuminating moment when a leader realizes, “Oh my, this is ministry. This is what ministry is really about.” We don’t usually think about pastoring this way. We romanticize the role, seeing ourselves in a living room or behind a pulpit, with soft music playing as eloquent words drip from our lips.
But in reality, ministry is messy. How could it not be? We’re not yet what we shall be. I know I’m not. That’s why I need the gospel every day. That’s why I need—we all need—pastors.
I wish I would’ve learned that earlier.
3. Pastoring Is Suffering
Second Corinthians 4:7–12 gives us a snapshot of the reality of suffering in ministry. Paul describes his work in terms of being afflicted, perplexed, persecuted, and struck down. Not exactly your best life now. And yet Paul also makes it clear that God not only works all things for Paul’s good, but also for the good of the people Paul serves (2 Cor. 1:7).
It’s easy for young pastors to expect a different path—to only think about the glamorous, public aspects. But ministry is tough business. It’s not for the faint of heart. Only a suffering servant can truly serve suffering people. When a pastor touches darkness, he learns how to find light. Then he learns how to pass it along to others.
Somewhere along the way I began to see that more clearly. I began to comprehend that if I wanted to experience the power of his resurrection, I would have to share in his sufferings (Phil. 3:10).
I think that’s been the hardest lesson. Probably the most surprising as well.
Called to Be Spent
Unless a Flux Capacitor (if you have to ask, watch Back to the Future) becomes a reality soon, I won’t have the opportunity to talk to my younger self. But I can talk to you, and you can, perhaps, learn more quickly from one who was too slow on the uptake. I hope it helps you view ministry more soberly.
But even more, I hope it helps you see a Savior who redeems our misses, so that even slow guys like me can “gladly spend and be spent” (2 Cor. 12:15) for the ones he is called to love.