“Pastor, I don’t care what that book says, that’s not how we do things here!”
I’ll never forget these words directed at the Bible in my hand. Five years later, I can still recall nearly every detail of that ill-fated business meeting.
In the year leading up to that night, I was encouraged by many to stay the course, but now there was no consensus on what to do. The following Sunday—rightly or wrongly—I resigned. In an instant I was no longer a pastor. In some ways the move brought relief, but I was also overwhelmed with grief.
Immediately my thoughts turned to what to do next. I considered starting a new church with several faithful families. When that door closed I began to submit my résumé to other churches. It didn’t take long to get some initial interviews, but they only revealed I was in no place mentally, emotionally, or spiritually to return to pastoral ministry immediately.
What was an unemployed pastor to do to earn a living? Apparently, not much. No one was interested, except for a local car dealership. After a brief interview I was hired. This former pastor was now a car salesman. And the Lord used the next year and half there to teach me to be a better pastor.
Here are four lessons I learned about pastoral ministry along the way.
1. We Can’t Faithfully Preach to People We Fear
As pastors we’re inclined to fear what people think of us, how they’ll respond to what we preach, and if what we say or do will cost us our job. A pastor must have thick skin and an unwavering commitment to God’s Word. I soon learned these qualities were required on the car lot, too. Temptations to compromise abound, and they’re only enhanced by fear. It could be the fear of customer rejection or not meeting a sales quota at month’s end. Though anxiety is ever-present, a Christian must have a fear greater than self-preservation.
We care deeply about what ‘that book’ says, because it’s all we have to say.
The same is true in the church. In that ill-fated business meeting, I was tempted to compromise and melt. But who would I fear more, God or man? Pastors are constantly called to compromise, perpetually tempted to fear man over God, to tailor our messages to tickle ears, but we have no such luxury. We preach Christ crucified. We declare the whole counsel of God. We care deeply about what “that book” says, because it’s all we have to say.
2. We Can’t Faithfully Preach to People We Don’t Love
When I arrived on the car lot, I knew nothing about either cars or sales. I had to study the technology, test-drive vehicles, and ask lots of questions. Soon I began to sell cars and went from being the naïve new guy to an obstacle standing in the way of the other sales consultants achieving their goals. Sadly, I eventually viewed them that same way.
Likewise, I saw “opponents” in the church as a project to be fixed or an obstacle standing in the way of my church-health goals. But people aren’t projects to be fixed; they are image-bearers to be loved. Church health is important, but not at the cost of loving the church. If Christ had treated us this way, we’d be without hope, for we were God’s enemies when Christ, by his death, reconciled us to him (Rom. 5:10).
People aren’t projects to be fixed; they are image-bearers to be loved.
Pastors will face unjust criticism, and some of those closest to us will betray us. But how is this any different from the way Christ himself was treated? He didn’t dismiss his opposition; rather, love compelled him to the cross. May the same love compel us to love those whom he has called us to lead.
3. We Can’t Love People We’re Not Committed To
Commitment isn’t the norm in the car industry. Sales consultants often have one foot out the door, eyes always scanning for greener pastures. And yet the salespeople who took years to build a healthy client base always had a steady stream of new and returning clients.
Pastoral ministry is no different. Times get tough and tempt us to look for greener pastures. We move on and start over in a new church or ministry, only to encounter many of the same challenges we thought we left behind. Why? Because people are people and ministry is hard. At the same time, the church we left starts over as well. Everything we worked so hard to accomplish is quickly undone. A new pastor arrives, and the congregation soon wonders how long he’ll stay. Why? Because they’ve never experienced the love of a pastor committed for better or for worse.
4. We Can’t Stay Committed to Them If We’re Not Committed to Him
On the car lot I wondered if I’d ever return to pastoral ministry. As days turned into months, I wrestled with the growing possibility that pastoral ministry might not be the Lord’s answer to my prayers. It was a devastating possibility, since my only desire was to pastor.
But that was the problem.
My identity was found in my pastor title, not in my loved-by-Christ status. Through the sanctifying lessons of car sales, Christ convicted me of my sin. I couldn’t faithfully follow him—much less lead others—if the identity of being a pastor hindered my ability to trust him as my only hope in life and death. Over time and through many tears, he brought me to the point where I could honestly say if I never pastored another church or preached another sermon, Christ was enough.
I stepped into car sales out of necessity, to put food on the table. Little did I know God would use this wilderness journey to teach me how to pastor.
Nearly two years later the Lord graciously allowed me to return to pastoral ministry, where I’ve tried to apply these lessons. It’s been a joyous and difficult readjustment. I can testify that the grass isn’t greener, but I deeply love the people, I’m committed for the long haul, and Christ is enough.