You either change your church or your church changes you.
Of course this is a blanket statement and perhaps it is a bit of both. But when I started there was certainly some patterns, values, structure and most importantly culture at my church that was in serious need of leadership. Leadership in a church context means you call out unhealthy aspects of the body. It means you see what could be and offer a hopeful future. Leadership means you persevere even when there is opposition, misunderstanding, miscommunication and selfishness. There are power dynamics which sometimes need to be challenged and addressed. If a church wants to change they will employ a leader. If they want to continue in their present patterns, they will employ a chaplain.
As a pastor you love people, and love them too much to not want to embrace leading them to green pastures. Embracing the idea that you do have something to offer and your insights and ideas might be helpful can be stressful for those without a holy confidence. In this age where pastors have used their power to abuse, bully and control people for their own ends its important to understand that despite those of ill-heart we are still called to lead. Checking your own heart, motives and spiritual connection is vital. As is embracing the wisdom of others when difficult decisions need to be made. Lead, but lead with love and a vulnerable heart.
The biggest change that will occur will be the one in you.
Embrace Personal Development
Does this statement follow on from the previous one? Stay with me. As a keen and present observer of congregation members, myself as a pastor and other pastors here is an observation. As a Pastor God will wrestle with you, challenge your comfort levels, deal with your spiritual health, your upbringing, your choices, your relationships, your habits, your inner being, your psychological welfare, your resistance to change, your propensity to slip into bad patterns, your mind, your spirit and even your physical health. He will also challenge and inform your spiritual view of the world. You will understand the spiritual battle more so than when you are out of ministry.
Ministry has a way of speeding up and deepening your personal development. It brings into focus who you are as a person and makes you question almost every aspect of your character. You will find yourself in situations where you will question whether you are the right person for this role. There will be moments of serious ‘imposter syndrome’ where you wonder when it will be that people realise you are not qualified, spiritual enough, skilled enough or anywhere near as deep a Christian as they or you think you should be.
A variety of friendships and relationships are vital.
When I started out in ministry I was fortunate enough to be placed in a peer group. This group has changed members, flexed and groaned as different members changed churches, ministries and life stages. We have been fortunate to not experience any serious moral failures or terminal lapses of judgement. What we have is been able to tell each other at various times and stages of ministry, you are not deluded, at fault or insane. We have recognised patterns in others ministries, the same type of characters and opponents and critics, and helped each other understand what is happening in various ministry situations. Over 25 years we have listened to, prayed for and supported each other. In the early years of conflict ridden ministry this group was indispensable to me and without them I would not still be in ministry.
I have a number of close friends within church. When I first started older pastors told me not to make friends within church. They were right in that having friends within church has proved problematic at times. When I have needed to have a strong word with them, deal with difficult situations, deal with complex narratives, the distinguishing of roles has not always been easy. Taking of my ‘friends hat’ and putting on my ‘pastors hat’ has been something I have needed to do. Crying with a friend who has had a serious moral failure. Admonishing them to be honest and deal with the ramifications of their failure has been stressful and all encompassing. But I need friends. This has not got easier but in many ways more difficult. But I would not change the joy from having friends in my church, even though they are the ones who can hurt me the most.
I have had some of my closest friends serve with me on staff. They have counselled me, listened to me, cautioned me and even warned me. The wounds of a friend are true and a true friend will inflict those wounds truly. Serving in churches with my friends is the most fun I have had in ministry.
There are a number of intentional friendships I have both with christians and non- church people who do not come to my church. I need friends without the pressure of there being any agenda about my church. Friends who do not see me in any way as their pastor but merely as their friend. Friends who love Jesus, and friends who are friends with me despite not sharing my faith. These are people who I can talk about footy, fishing, life, relationships, children and food without any need to reference what takes up a large portion of my time and emotions.
In my life I have cultivated intentional friendships with mentors, counsellors and other pastors. These are both in my city and without. They are not only from my faith tradition but from a variety of Christian churches. These friends have taught me not to take my Baptist tradition too lightly, but also strengthened why I am Baptist. They have informed me that people with different views and interpretations to mine are great people and can help me in a variety of different ways. They have helped me see that the ‘Church’ across my city in all its different forms meets the needs of a much wider group of people than I ever could. Other local churches are not our competition, they are our family. I love Pastors.
Curiosity keeps you young and fresh
Stay humble and a lifelong learner
I may have been in my church a long time, but there are people there who have been there longer, and they will remain after I have gone. That is a sobering point on several levels. I wondered at one point if my ministry would outlive all who where there before me and it hasn’t. That leads me to an application I can truly say I have sought to execute. To remain a lifelong learner and student in every area of my ministry. I have read countless leadership books, attended multiple conferences and intensives and listened to hundreds of podcasts. I have studied the scripture in fresh and different ways. I have looked into colour, style and form of churches. I have installed lighting and computer systems, upgraded our livestream and listened and learned to those far more skilled than myself in all these areas.
I often think about a couple who have attended my church well before me and calculated they have probably heard me preach at least 1000 sermons. The potential for them to be bored by that is likely. But my role is to inspire, encourage, teach and make relevant the word of God in their lives. If my own relationship with my task as a preacher if stagnant, then there is no hope for it to help them grow. Ever year I have tried to change something simple or fundamental or structural about my communication. How I prepare, what I prepare, what media I use, what I focus on. I have never preached a sermon twice. Never. Every week I ask God to help me preach a message that will transform. It is not only about scriptural exegesis, it is also about me as a communicator.
People will continue to surprise you
In my ministry life I have been threatened with violence a couple of times. There is no comparison with Jesus and others who have been truly persecuted for their faith. However it is indication of the feeling that having a spiritual authority figure can provoke in some people. For a reason I cannot explain people can get weird with power dynamics in churches. If you seek to lead a church and provoke change, you may provoke anger disappointment and resentment in people. Knowing what battles to pursue, which to put on hold and which to leave is a question of wisdom. It is not something I have always been wise with, but is something I have grown into.
I have sat with people crying with them because they have done something seriously out of character. I have watched from the sidelines as people make foolish decisions around serious issues within their life. I have made some serious mistakes with people particularly around confrontation. I have allowed my own insecurities to govern my decision making, thus not doing what was was wise. I have watched as they walk away from my church and ministry over both a perceived offence, a real offence and as they have refused to extend or receive forgivess. I have also had to deal with some people whose time at my church has needed to come to a conclusion. Churches and pastors hurt people. Sometimes I have worn the sting of how I have hurt someone, and sometimes I have worn the sting of how a previous pastor hurt them. People often bring that hurt with them. I have been seriously hurt as people have ghosted me, misrepresented me and walked away when all I gave was love and care.
I have been amazed as I have seen people step forward for Jesus, say yes to Jesus, be baptised, take up serving, care of others, love people in extraordinary ways and teach me about Jesus. I have watched with wonder as people get lost in praise, pray without ceasing, love without measure and challenge my conscience around finances. They have amazed me as they show grace, fruit of the Spirit and give of themselves way beyond what I thought they would. People have surprised me with their grace and love towards me and their forgiveness.
A old mentor once said to me, ‘if you don’t like the smell of the sheep, don’t be shepherd’. I don’t know if that is true. There are plenty of times I have not wanted to be a pastor and not liked people. I once advised a group of Indonesian Pastors to not encourage their children to go into the ministry. Ministry is not easy and why would you encourage your children to choose it as a life career? I am not digging ditches in the heat of a Australian summer and probably couldn’t. However a ditch digger does not go home with the weight of congregants issues and the issues of the church on their mind.
I sometimes wish I was not called to be a Pastor. But I am. I love ministry, I love people, I love the church and I love Jesus. With all my heart. I am so glad I am called to ministry. It is a privilege beyond what I deserve. However at times the only factor which has kept me in ministry is the call. That unexplainable word from the Spirit, this is what I have called you to.
This was originally done as a letter to a dear friend and ministry colleague who asked me for five learnings after a long term ministry. I asked for permission to publish it publicly