At the end of this week, my family will load up our minivan with suitcases, swimsuits, bikes, and food. We will make the 2 ½ hour journey up to Lakeside, OH for Annual Conference. Annual Conference is my denominational body’s regional three-day church meeting filled with worship, communion, guest speakers, ministry reports, voting on recommendations, debates, amendments, amendments to the amendments, remembering the clergy and laity who have passed in the previous year, and my favorite, the ordination and commissioning of new pastors. There is also plenty of connections with friends, gallons of coffee, and multiple trips to the Patio for ice cream.
As I prepare for Annual Conference, I realized that this will be my 10th Annual Conference as a pastor. 10 years ago, I received my pastoral license to preach. Becoming a pastor was a long surrender, but when I finally gave into to “the call,” I felt at home. This was what I was meant to do with my life.
I am still a baby pastor, however. 10 years is nothing in the scope of pastoral ministry. Every day I learn something new about myself and the people God has called me to serve. As I look back over these last 10 years, there are many lessons, sometimes painful, that I have learned.
In the spirit of Letterman’s Top 10 list, here are my Top 10 Pastoral Lessons I Have Learned in 10 Years.
- Seminary preparation is limited. Now, I don’t say this as a dig to seminaries, and especially not to my alma mater. Seminary prepared me to be a practical theologian. They taught me how to exegete scripture and how to prepare sermons, funerals, weddings, and worship services. They taught me the original language of scripture, and the many historical settings of scripture. They taught me pastoral care principals, and the basics of leadership. What they didn’t teach is how to lead in a post-Christian context. Much of my seminary education assumed that the context in which I would find myself would be preaching and teaching to Christian people. With the decline of Christianity’s prominence in society, Christian faith is no longer the norm. Learning how to contextualize scripture into a post-modern culture has come through trial and error. It’s something I, and I venture to guess, all pastors are learning.
- Ministry is hard. I assume that every job has its difficulties, but I was not prepared to handle all the ups and downs of ministry. Ministry can be both exhilarating and exhausting at the same time. There are moments of success and celebration, and moments of falling flat on your face. There are moments of clarity and direction, and moments of wandering in the wilderness. Sometimes ministry is a gamble. You try something new and it blows up in your face. Sometimes you don’t try anything, and the Spirit rushes and moves in ways that you were not prepared for. Ministry is still such a mystery to me. Thank God for grace.
- Preaching is only a portion of what a pastor does. I hate this. I really love preaching. It’s my favorite thing to do. I love digging into God’s Word, pulling out bits and pieces, and nuances and nuggets to apply to present day realities. And yet, the 30 minutes of preaching is over before I know it. It’s like planning for a wedding—a whole lot of preparation goes into the planning, and boom, it’s all over. Unlike a wedding, however, I get to do it all over again, week after week!
- Titles and degrees aren’t all that important. I say this as I am working on a doctoral degree! Most people could care less that I have a Masters of Divinity degree. They could care less about my GPA in seminary, or what classes I took. As much as I hate clichés, this one is true. People don’t care about how much you know, they want to know how much you care. I know pastors that are the most articulate preachers and have a depth of knowledge that would make King Solomon blush. Yet, they struggle as pastors because they are so distant from their people. There is a movement within Christian literature that thinks that pastors need to be distant from their congregations. I just have not seen that to be all that effective. In a world where people are increasingly disconnected, this mindset seems to perpetuate that fact. People want to feel loved and connected to their pastor. As my church grows, this is increasingly hard. I preach three services a Sunday, and there is only a 30-minute window in between each service. This gives little time for connection. Scheduling appointments, coffee meetings, and breakfast and lunch meetings are great ways to connect with people and to let them know you care.
- Leadership is and is not about me. I used to think that to be a strong leader I needed to be a jerk. Honestly, I thought I had to be the one out in front, pushing, pulling, and moving people forward through strength, might and determination. I am a type A person, so this came naturally for me. I am learning that leadership, real Jesus-style-leadership, is about surrendering, loving, encouraging, equipping, and inspiring people forward. It’s about creating space for people to share their fears and anxieties. This doesn’t mean that we are captive to people’s fears, but it is about letting people be heard and valued. Martyred priest, Oscar Romero, has a great phrase in which he says, “We are ministers, not Messiahs.” Understanding the difference between the two is vitally important to a healthy ministry.
- Ministry takes thick skin. Sometimes Christian-folk can be downright mean. It shouldn’t be that way, but it is. Pastors must learn to separate someone else’s baggage and history from their own experiences. Unhealthy people will try and project their “stuff” onto the pastor. Learning to protect one’s own heart and to differentiate oneself from the situation, especially if it is toxic, is important in order to provide healthy leadership.
- All change is loss. People don’t like change. It’s weird because with all the advances we have made as a human species, change still comes as a painful experience for many. I know all the literature out there about early adopters and those who seem to move faster than others, but no matter how large or small the change is, there is a loss. Giving people permission to name that loss, grieve that loss, and even decide if they can stomach the loss and maintain a connection with their local church, is important pastoral work. Sometimes people can’t handle the change and the most pastoral thing we can do is to help them find a place that better suits them in their discipleship journey. This is always hard, and again, requires thick skin.
- Pastoral ministry requires emotional health. I cannot emphasize this enough. I grieve when I hear news of a pastoral indiscretion of a colleague. I mourn with clergy who go through a divorce. I lament when a pastor leaves ministry due to exhaustion and burn out. Maintaining strong spiritual rhythms, attending to one’s emotional and psychological needs through counseling and spiritual direction, and establishing boundaries are essential in pastoral ministry. Having other pastors to connect and live vulnerably with, is beyond important. It’s essential. Ministry can be lonely and we need each other.
- Pastors’ families are the forgotten heroes. Pastoral families are often overlooked. They take the brunt of the worst side of the pastor. I know mine has. Many pastoral families didn’t sign up for ministry. They were adopted into it, sometimes kicking and screaming. Pastors must make their loved ones a priority. One important lesson I learned early on is that I am a husband and father first. I made a commitment to my wife and future family before I made a vow to the church. I once heard a pastor say that he would not sacrifice his family on the altar of God. I have adopted this principal and try my best, although imperfectly, to adhere to it. Again, #3 is so important. A healthy Sabbath practice, taking vacation time, and maintaining emotional and spiritual health is a benefit, not only to me, but to my entire family.
- Being a pastor is a blessing, not a curse. I know many pastors who act as if what we have been called to do is a burden. Don’t get me wrong, there are days when it feels so. But when I look back over my 10 years, and I consider the future, I continue to be in awe that God would choose me to such a task. I am honored to carry the secrets, the stories, and the moments of joy and sadness of so many people. This is sacred work. Holy work. As a pastor, I am a bridge builder, building a bridge between humanity and God. When ministry becomes a curse, I become a roadblock in people’s ability to connect with God. I get in their way. Ministry is hard, but it is joyful work. It requires sacrifice and a whole lot of blood, sweat, and tears. And yet, every time I baptize a little baby and look at her/his parent(s)’ face, I melt. Every time I bless a couple into a new identity as a married couple, I melt. Every time I witness a personal transformation, I melt. Every time I hold the hand of a dying person, I melt. Every time someone shares with me their deepest, darkest, and most painful secret, I melt. Every time I stand before a congregation full of people desiring to understand how this ancient book called Scripture is meaningful to their life, I melt. Every time I offer people the Body and the Blood of Jesus, man, I melt.
One last bonus lesson…Being a pastor is a journey of learning. I am still growing into my “pastoral skin.” I have much to learn, and so I enter the next decade with an open mind to learn, an open heart to hear God’s voice, and open hands to serve God’s people.
Let the journey continue.