Thursday, June 4, 2009

Reflections on my first years as pastor

This month marks the three-year anniversary of my role as full-time pastor of our church. These have been some of the most wonderful years of my life, because my wife and I have finally been able to fulfill our calling and devote ourselves entirely to the church, using all the gifts and training God has given to us.

This morning, I feel the need just to jot down a few thoughts on a young man's first years of ministry, including some things to do and things to avoid:
  1. Be loving. It is often said that people "don't care how much you know until they know how much you care." This has been proven again and again. Most laypeople could care less about my seminary degree, and even less about my GPA or the number of commentaries on my shelf. They simply yearn for a shepherd who is going to know, love, pray with, talk with, and visit them. Sometimes, it takes a card of encouragement, a home visit, a hospital visit, or even the funeral of a loved one to win the affection and trust of some of your members.
  2. Keep learning. Seminary is a wonderful "seed bed" for developing theologically-minded pastors, but your learning has only just begun by the time you graduate. Then begins the "school of hard knocks." I have found my knowledge and awareness have increased dramatically since seminary through books, blogs, conferences, online sermons, and the people I talk with. Pulling out old college and seminary syllabi and textbooks has also been invaluable. I have learned to appreciate the history of my church and my denomination, highlighting its strengths rather than complaining about its weaknesses. Learning can be very exciting, because now it has immediate application in your ministry.
  3. Form partnerships. I have made great efforts to cultivate relationships with other pastors in our area, both those in the SBC and other evangelical denominations. I participate in the local ministerial, and do my best to attend pastors luncheons, associational meetings, and state conventions. I want to be known as a team player, not a lone ranger pastor. I believe this is a great way to support the larger Body of Christ, encourage one another in gospel ministry, and model Christian unity to our congregations.
  4. Change carefully. All change is not bad. Sometimes, a church is waiting eagerly for their new pastor to cast a vision and make some changes, wondering, "What's taking him so long?" But other times, the church can feel like, "He has no idea how important this is. How dare he change this!" I have tried to make changes in a slow and gracious manner. The bigger the change, the more prayer, discussion, and research has preceded it. I have used our deacon meetings and church council as sounding boards to throw out ideas -- sometimes very bold ones -- and then try to discern if a change would be wise or foolish. However, I did make some early mistakes on trying to make a couple of bold changes too quickly. At the time, I thought the people were ready, but I later discovered that there was still a lot of grassroots resistance that undermined the unity of our church. When major changes are involved, be very patient and almost resist change. Even if you know it is a good change, don't just assume it is right thing and the right time to do it. Much prayer and teaching is necessary before that change is made.
  5. Be forbearing. This is a tough one, and I want to be very careful in how I explain this. In the early years, a pastor must learn to be tolerant of certain sins in the church. We as young pastors have the zeal of Phineas and want to crush all disobedience and get people on fire for God. But a new pastor is just going to have to hold his nose at some things that stink, and learn to minister in spite of certain programs, people, and even doctrinal beliefs in the church that he knows are wrong. In most churches, where church discipline has not been taught, and where a context of loving leadership has yet not been developed, it is just too early to rebuke and exercise church discipline, except in very gross cases of immorality or heretical teaching. Know your people, choose carefully the hills you are willing to die on, and let love cover a multitude of sins (1 Pet. 4:8). Remember that Christ did not unleash all His teaching and rebuke to His disciples at once, but spent three years with them, and even then He said there was more to say, but they were not yet ready to bear it (John 16:12).
  6. Start discipling. As soon as possible, I identified some men and started discipling them. We cannot afford to wait in "entrusting these things to faithful men who will be able to teach others also" (2 Tim. 2:2). After researching what some other churches are doing, I developed a discipleship program and started assigning books to read, Scriptures to memorize, and/or lectures to listen to and discuss. Our group has been a mix of current deacon/leaders and potential future leaders. This has been a special time of sharpening and is crucial for the long-range health of our church. Identifying and training new leaders should start as soon as possible, even if it begins one-on-one with one other man in the church.
These first three years of ministry have included many joys and trials, exciting testimonies and painful lessons. Our church is not yet where I would like us to be, but we also are not where we were. I believe God has allowed us to make some progress toward maturity in Christ, and I pray this will momentum will build in the years ahead.

Like farming, ministry can be very difficult and labor-intensive early in the season, with heavy plowing and sowing and minimal results. But as we continue to serve the Lord and depend upon Him for results, I believe He will bless His Word and bring a great harvest for His glory.

1 comment:

  1. Step four really is true. At my last church (not my current one) the pastor decided that the church was finally ready for a change he identified the day he started... but it was 17 YEARS later.

    The church had essentially written into the church constitution "Commandment 11 - Thou Shalt not Drink."

    It was followed by a contract for Sunday School teachers that said "Thou shalt not attend the Movie Theater."

    He waited on these because the goal was not to encourage drinking and theater going, but rather to help bring the congregation to understand that these actions should be motivated out of conviction in the heart, not rules on paper.

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