When I was first called to minister in a church, I was a young man—a boy really—of 28. As I think back over nearly a decade now in the same congregation, I sometimes can’t believe they were willing to take a risk on a young man like me: single, untested, and directly out of seminary. It was an extraordinary honor to be called to shepherd this congregation. Almost 10 years later, it still is.
But it was also an extraordinary challenge. I was filling the shoes of a seasoned minister, coming directly after someone who had served our church for more than 25 years. When I asked my ethics professor what I should do, having been extended the call, he told me, “I think you should take it. You’re too young and dumb to realize you should never take that call.”
I took his advice, and I took the job. I moved to Orland Park Christian Reformed Church, began preaching, and proved my professor right. In fact, I demonstrated how much he undersold my foolishness in that conversation. “Young and dumb” was probably generous. I had all the arrogance of a new seminary graduate with relatively good grades, but I was practically ignorant. As I began this work, I thought I had a lot to teach the church. After all, I’d been in school for a long time.
I had all the arrogance of a new seminary graduate with relatively good grades, but I was practically ignorant.
The Lord was gracious to me in those early years. He blessed me with an initial time of hardship, with the pain and pressure that burns away pride. He did so in large part through a good group of older men who served as elders in the church, using them to develop and mature me—sometimes in humiliating ways.
When I arrived at this church, I came with grand ambitions. I wanted our sermons to be expositional. I wanted to develop an internship program to cultivate a cadre of preachers and future pastors. I wanted to plant churches, or be involved in the renewing of churches, both nearby and far away. I wanted to engage intentionally with congregations of varying denominations and differing cultural and ethnic backgrounds. And I wanted to do elder training.
At one of the first elder meetings, I excitedly announced my desire to launch one of those initiatives—I’m pretty sure it was the elder training. But the elders weren’t necessarily looking for me to train them.
“Listen to me,” one of them said, “I’m old enough that I could be your father. We’re not doing that.” Another retorted, “You want to figure out how to pastor us! We don’t need to learn from you; you need to learn from us.”
Needing to Listen
I laugh thinking back to those words. They perfectly encapsulate what’s so wonderful about the congregation I serve. It’s straightforward. No nonsense. Unvarnished. True. To the uninitiated, maybe a little harsh.
At the time, those words cut deep. After graduating seminary and being called to serve a congregation as their pastor, I felt I had, at long last, entered adulthood. To be reminded of the age and experience gap I had with my elders, all of whom were at least two decades older than me, felt infantilizing at the time. And I nursed the wounds of those remarks for a while.
A few months later, an elder became upset one Sunday. “You need to learn to preach shorter sermons,” he warned, “or you’re going to create issues in your ministry.” Half a year later, I got a call from another elder. “You need to go to a worksite or ride along on one of our garbage routes or something,” he said. “You talk like books. You need to learn to talk like a person with calluses on his hands.”
Here’s the truth: they were both right. Every single word was correct. And I count it an immense blessing that, after my time at the library carrel at Calvin Theological Seminary, God gave me men with calluses on their hands to teach me how to be a pastor.
God gave me men with calluses on their hands to teach me how to be a pastor.
As I came to understand, there are aspects of being a faithful pastor that can be taught by the elder who has spent his life collecting trash, or swinging a hammer, or getting the numbers straight, or fighting the ground to raise corn and celery and beans—lessons that can’t be taught even by the most learned professor of practical theology. So I needed to listen.
Learning from Our Fathers
Ten years in, Orland Park CRC has just launched its first church revitalization project. It’s being pastored by a man who came out of our internship program. One of the great joys of my ministry is the elder training we did with a Baptist church in Chicago not too long ago. And I was just told by one of our interns I’d lose my job if I stopped preaching expositional sermons.
My elders never intended to crush my vision for ministry. They simply wanted me to pastor this church. They weren’t looking for abstract theology or the best pastor a seminary can create. They were looking for a pastor who would humble himself, learn the local language, and love the people of Orland Park.
There are times I get to speak with brothers beginning their ministries. Under the care of wise, good, and blunt elders, they can be frustrated at how often they’re told they need to learn rather than teach. How often they’re forced to listen rather than lead. How often they’re asked to wait before implementing their great ministry ideas.
To all the dear brothers who may be in that space right now, I’d encourage you to be grateful for the gift of older elders. I’d encourage you to thank the Lord for them without ceasing. And I’d encourage you to have the humility that allows you to listen to them. Each of them is old enough to be your father.