My journal entries and emails to close friends in my first six months as a pastor included a fair amount of anguish as I wrestled with challenges I’d previously only prepared for intellectually. Still, I’m extremely grateful I’d been instructed about many of the challenges I would face as a new pastor.
I can’t imagine how much more difficult it would have been if I hadn’t at least engaged in that intellectual preparation.
I’m too new at this to propose “the seven most important dynamics a new pastor should prepare for,” but here are seven things I experienced acutely in my first six months in pastoral ministry.
1. I Was Surprised by Loneliness
Know where you’re going to turn when you’re struggling.
When you repeatedly get your wires crossed with a fellow staff member, and you can’t figure out why you keep offending them, you’ll want to talk to somebody. But at church, where everyone knows them, you’ll be hesitant to share anything that might paint them in a negative light.
Consequently, you’ll turn to people outside the church—your friends from seminary or from years gone by. It will feel good to get your struggles off your chest. However, because your friends have never met your fellow staff member, you’ll find their ability is limited to offer helpful analysis about a relational dynamic they haven’t witnessed firsthand.
If you have a spouse, she’ll naturally be your most trusted confidant. Even so, there are several reasons you’ll want to be wise about how extensively you share your relational conflicts with her. If she isn’t party to the reconciliation process when the conflict ends, will she be able to let it be over? And is it fair to ask her to carry all your burdens in addition to her own? It can be exhausting to be married to a minister who comes home and vomits frustrations evening after evening.
What’s more, you won’t experience loneliness only amid conflict. Someone will question a decision you’ve made, and your impulse will be to so thoroughly explain your decision-making process that the doubter’s jaw will drop in amazement at the brilliance of your intellect. But when you realize this impulse is rooted in a desire for self-glory, you’ll keep secret the behind-closed-doors conversations that factored into your decision-making. As much as this may hurt, it’s wise: You can’t take back what you’ve overshared with someone who will subsequently mishandle your words.
Loneliness in ministry is unavoidable. Let it drive you to prayer, where you’ll be forced to rely more than ever on Christ’s supernatural comfort.
2. I Must Learn to Prioritize
Build preaching-and-teaching skills that will sustain you through years of ministry.
Unless you have a narrow, specialized role, you’ll likely be swimming in more responsibilities than you can fit into a week. Learn what to prioritize. After your walk with the Lord, make preaching and teaching the “first big rock” you put in your jar.
I was extremely blessed that my senior pastor encouraged me to do just that. Consequently, I’ve established a rhythm of thoroughly working through passage after passage. I’m keeping my ability to work with the languages. I’m making notes in Amos that will keep me from error when I preach Acts. I’m getting untied from my manuscript. And I’m making myself useful to the body by becoming a preacher who can open the Bible and lead listeners to say, “I should’ve seen that! I can’t wait to read my Bible this week.”
But the first six months of sermons are not the time to swing for the fences. Knowing I might make that error, a friend wisely encouraged me to write my first sermons looking for “base hits.” In the words of Tim Keller, this is the quest for good preaching (not necessarily great preaching).
So how does a new pastor prioritize his development toward good—that is, faithful—preaching and teaching? I benefited from two critical homiletical exhortations.
First, solicit brutally honest feedback. Before I preached my first sermon, I recruited a seven-person feedback team. These seven varied in age, gender, theological acuity, and ideological persuasion. For the first six months, I sent them each sermon draft two weeks in advance and asked for their comments. This team has kept me from creating a great deal of confusion, not a few ghastly errors, and plenty of unnecessary offense.
Second, learn the congregation. Get in their homes. Schedule meetings over breakfast, lunch, and coffee. You’re likely to find the people actually sitting in the pews are different people than you thought. You’ll cultivate a tender affection that will help you preach to them instead of preaching at them.
3. Weekly Rhythms Are Important
Don’t try to schedule every week from scratch.
In most cases, your first ministry position is going to involve more meetings and administrative duties than you imagined possible. That work will swallow up every day of your week if you don’t intentionally reserve time away from it. To do this, reserve the same blocks of time on the same days each week if possible.
Your supervisor(s) will need to be on board with your plan; talk it through with them and draft a weekly schedule that’s agreeable to everyone. Realistically, the weekly rhythm you establish early won’t prove optimal in the long run. Still, there’s value in establishing (imperfect) weekly rhythms from the outset. Even if you find your time isn’t being optimized, at least the tyranny of the urgent won’t completely swallow it up.
Talk to other pastors. When do they take their rest days? How do they carve out time to study?
4. The Role of a Number Two Involves Glad Submission
Don’t give your supervisor unnecessary reasons to be frustrated with you.
In your first pastoral position, you’re likely to be working under someone older than you. This means there may be some generational suspicion to overcome; we millennial pastors aren’t always known for our hard work, timeliness, appropriate dress, or honoring of authority figures.
We might be tempted to discuss some of these differences this way: “We want a healthier ‘work–life balance’ than another generation of pastors had.” Or, “We want to connect with ordinary people in a way another generation of pastors didn’t.” There are at least two pitfalls in framing generational differences this way. First, we may be guilty of viewing our cultural conventions as morally right, when some may be neutral. Second, we may not be treating our most important work relationships with the priority they deserve.
I don’t want my supervisor to be frustrated with me. But at some point, I know he will be. When that day comes, I want him to be upset with me because I’m suggesting a God-honoring change that makes him temporarily uncomfortable, not because I’m lazy or habitually late, or because I embarrass him with my casualness, or because I don’t show him proper respect in front of people. If I have a choice to remove all those possible barriers from our relationship, why wouldn’t I? What does it really cost me to tuck in my shirt and communicate with him using his preferred methods?
Setting aside our preferences is a matter of basic neighbor love and honoring authority figures. We should need no more reason than that to lay down our “right” to wear jeans or to handle important business over text messages. And there’s an added benefit to such deference: You’ll likely increase your supervisor’s receptiveness to what you’re wanting to change in the future.
There is a limit here. If you’re working for a supervisor who writes you emails seven days a week and expects a prompt response all seven days because he doesn’t personally observe a Sabbath rest, then for the sake of your soul and for the glory of God, you’re going to need to have a hard conversation with him. But in many situations involving generational differences between a supervisor and supervisee, I think we number-twos would do well to get off our high horses and do what’s expected in our church cultures.
5. I Must Take the Posture of a Learner
Study the church’s culture before you start blowing things up.
In past endeavors, I’ve blown things up and asked questions later. I’ve embraced the approach: “If it’s not broken, let’s break it so we can fix it.” However, when I went to seminary, I heard more than a few professors suggest, “Don’t propose any major changes for six months to a year in your first pastoral position. Just learn the culture.” I took this as the Enemy’s attempt to temper my “prophetic edge.”
I went back and read some emails I had written to my pastors years earlier, at the height of my reforming zeal. Much to my dismay, I saw much that looked like self-righteousness and little that looked like Christlikeness. That was the tipping point: I needed to humble myself and learn for a season at my new church before proposing extensive changes.
You’ll be grateful if you learn this lesson before your first pastoral position. Sure, it may pain you to see so much paper wasted every meeting. But do you want to immediately spend your relational capital pushing the church to learn how to use Google docs? Sure, you may think the paint color in the conference room is appalling. Who cares? Did you know the senior pastor’s wife selected it because it’s her favorite color?
In most situations, it’s wise to try what the church has already been doing for at least a year before proposing changes. After you participate in a full annual cycle in the church, you may have a different order of priorities in the changes you want to make.
That said, there’s a limit to going slow. After a year and a half of patient and deliberate diplomacy, I received anger at some tame, measured things I said from the pulpit. That made me wonder: Have I been too slow to rock the boat on things that really matter? We don’t love our people well when we withhold the hard words they most need.
6. I Must Not Fear People
Fight for self-forgetfulness.
It’s worth reading Tim Keller’s short work The Freedom of Self-Forgetfulness the week before starting a new job. Any decent seminary teaches that the temptation to find your identity in what others think about you is one of the great hazards of ministry. Indeed, Satan will work you over in that area as long as you are in ministry. In the first six months, however, he has a distinct advantage, since you don’t know the people in your congregation.
There will be a group of people who love you and think you’re the greatest thing that ever happened to the church. They are going to gush about you to an inappropriate degree, despite your redirecting their praise toward God and giving credit to those around you.
I thought I was prepared for that challenge. I was trying to take my thoughts captive: “I see this as the trap that it is. I’m not going to read my own press.” But deep down, when a few of these folks praised my preaching, I’d think, Here’s somebody who really gets it. Here’s somebody with a discerning ear for preaching, somebody who really loves the Word.
Then I went and visited an elderly woman who admired my preaching as she was recovering from surgery. She was eager to tell me how distraught she’d been to miss church the weekend after her surgery because I was preaching. (God bless her and her love for the Word, I thought.) As it turns out, she was equally eager to tell me she’d made up for her absence by watching sermons from her favorite TV preacher: Joel Osteen.
In his grace, God will sometimes seize your heart when you’ve been blind to your love for people’s praise—and thinking you’re winning the battle. If you’re going to be self-forgetful, you have to fight for it. It won’t come naturally.
7. Ministry Involves Sleepless Nights
This job isn’t like any other you’ve had.
I’ve always been someone who could fall asleep the instant my head hit the pillow. But in my first weeks as a pastor, I spent hours lying in bed at night, staring at the ceiling.
A struggling couple came to me today in a last-ditch effort to speak into their relationship. Their marriage hangs in the balance. Did I ask the right questions? Did I say what they needed to hear?
Someone clearly dissatisfied with the direction of the church inappropriately confided in me today, thinking I was going to side with them. This kind of conversation could easily split a church! Did I handle it with enough firmness, truth, and love?
In situation after situation, the enemy is everywhere, and the stakes are high.
Some measure of feeling the weight of the pastoral task is an indication that you’re in the right line of work.
Of course, a healthy pastor doesn’t get consumed by it all, doesn’t take it all on his shoulders, doesn’t let it crush or overwhelm him. But if you get through your first six months without experiencing those things Paul talks about—the sleepless nights, the daily pressure of concern for those under your care—without ever crying out to God in desperation on behalf of your people, it may be wise to ask, Why am I doing this? Some measure of feeling the weight of the pastoral task indicates that you’re in the right line of work.
Don’t Forget God
For most of us, our first six months in ministry will be some of the least effective, least fruitful months of our lives. Our skills are underdeveloped, our relationships untested, our theology half-baked. As such, how foolish would it be for a new minister to neglect his personal relationship with God for the sake of stretching his work hours to generate some paltry amount of additional ministry success?
Above all, at the outset of your new role as an undershepherd of God’s people, prioritize building lasting habits of intimacy with God.