Becky and I celebrating 15 years of marriage this year (last June 29) helped me to remember that this October will mark 15 years since I was "licensed for gospel ministry" by The Brook Church (in Houston, TX). Licensing is a weird thing, and many churches don't do it any more, but for my church at the time, it was a neat and helpful way to corporately recognize my gifts for and calling to vocational ministry. I had begun "doing ministry" two years prior, right out of high school. My first position was as youth minister for Zion Chinese Baptist Church. (Yes, you read that correctly.) There was a period in my life where I was not serving in any official ministry role, not necessarily by my desire but certainly by God's design and for good reason, and while I am not a wizened veteran pastor, I have learned a few things serving in and working for churches over the last 15-17 years.
In the last 2 years I've officiated more funerals than the previous pastor in this position did in 10. And only 1 of those was for a professing believer. I've talked the manic depressive worship leader off the ledge before worship service time countless times. I've had a guy hug me with tears in his eyes in a hospital parking lot one weekend, then stab me in the back the next. I've discovered that a team member had been lying for months and apparently left the faith to live with his girlfriend. I've sat with people while they die. I've confiscated drugs off teenagers, I've kept a knife in my office drawer for protection against crazy people who are coming to visit, I've been verbally and emotionally abused by pastors in authority over me, I've almost quit ministry altogether. I've had people who love me end up hating me. And vice versa, praise God. And I've seen God work despite me over and over again to make people love Jesus and follow him on mission.
I'm a guy who finds landmines by stepping on them. And every success I've enjoyed has been mostly accidental on my part, God working providentially and brilliantly perhaps through a little of my guesswork but wholly through his goodness. Here are some things I've learned over the years:
- If you don't regularly sabbath, God will force you to take one. And those aren't the fun kind.
- 7 times out of 10, the first-time visitor who just loves everything about your church and seems totally on fire for the whole shebang and promises to plug into everything, won't be back the next week. 9 times out of 10 they drop out after a few weeks.
- If you take the credit for the increase, you have to take the blame for the decrease.
- Take the responsibility that's yours, coach others into theirs, and trust God with the rest. You are so not a big deal.
- Always be proactive about conflict and conflict resolution. Most times conflicts can be resolved amicably if you act very quickly. Whatever you do, don't avoid it.
- It's never worth offending God to please others. Be faithful first. Unreasonably disgruntled people can get happy in the same pants they got mad in.
- The people who say "I'm not being fed" are as equally likely to be shallow, superficial Christians who love pop psychology as they are to be stereotypically pharisaical "churchy" people. No one type has a market on consumerism.
- Also: Sometimes people who say "I'm not being fed" aren't and have legitimate concerns that shouldn't be ridiculed and written off.
- Focus on budgets and butts in the seats is a losing game.
- You are just as likely to reach burnout through neglect of the Scriptures as you are through ministerial busy-ness.
- You can't fix anybody.
- Soaking in the gospel is amazing for confidence. And for humility.
- Don't hesitate to defend your wife's right to pick her own friends.
- You can find another local church. You can't find another family.
- Pastoral ministry is the grounds of legitimacy for any public platform you may achieve, not the other way around.
I believe I've learned a lot, and by God's grace I learn more new things every day, but those are some of the hard-won lessons that stand out.