It’s 25 years this month since I visited Switzerland as a pastoral candidate. At the time there were two of us under consideration. During the weekend I was there, I became increasingly convinced that the other guy (10 years older, more appropriate life experience) was the man for the job! When my wife and I headed back home to Ireland (a little shell-shocked at what had felt like quite a gruelling weekend), it was with a sense of ‘don’t call us, we’ll call you’!
But they called us.
And we spent 17 years there before returning to Northern Ireland where I was pastor at Portstewart Baptist Church for 4 years.
A quarter of a century on, some of you are where I was then. Here are ten things I think you should know as you embark on ministry. Hopefully they will help you make some sense of your own leadership journey.
- You need to live out your calling and not someone else’s.
You will probably not have to be in ministry too long before you discover ministerial insecurity and (believe it or not) ministerial envy. The other guy’s church is bigger. They have more talented musicians. They are experiencing more conversions. He gets invited to speak on significant platforms. Jesus says, ‘What is that to you? Follow me.’ (John 20:22) He will not ask you what you did with the other guy’s gifts, resources and opportunities. Just yours. Be faithful with what you have and don’t worry about what someone else has.
- If you live for people’s praise, their criticism will really hurt you.
It’s fairly normal to hope for some affirmation in what you do. You probably don’t want to preach your heart out for 35 minutes after spending a couple of days in preparation, only for people to doze off in the pew and expressionlessly shake your hand as they leave for Sunday lunch. But there is a fine line that we cross when we don’t just hope for affirmation; we long for it to the point that we cannot live without it. When that shift takes place, you leave yourself open not only for discouragement when it doesn’t come but also for devastation when you receive criticism.
- You should (not) be professional about your work.
Take this in the spirit of fools and folly in Proverbs 26! You should be professional in the way you go about your work. It may sound crass to say it, but if the Lord is providing for your material needs through the kindness of the people you serve, you owe it to them to work hard. More than that, you want to be able to present yourself and your work to the Lord in the knowledge that you have done the best that you can. Sloppy work neither honours God nor does it benefit you or anyone else. On the other hand, you must never reduce what you do to the level of a mere job. Your ministry is a God-given privilege.
- There is a difference between perseverance and stubbornness.
Not everyone will applaud (or even support) all of your ideas and initiatives. Some people may even oppose you and what you want to do. If you give up or back down at the faintest hint of opposition, you will not achieve very much beyond maintaining the status quo. There are times when you will have to persevere when you believe that God is leading you. One of the significant characteristics of successful leaders is their resilience. But there may be times when you have got it wrong (or you are fighting a battle that does not really need to be fought): at times like that perseverance becomes stubbornness.
- Conflict is inevitable: you need to learn how to handle it well.
There is enough sin and selfishness about us and the people we serve to ensure that the sea will not always be calm. The carpet will be the wrong colour, the music will be the wrong style, the dress code will be too informal: that’s just the easy stuff! Some of us have personalities that would prefer to run a mile rather than face conflict: if that’s you, you are going to have some work to do. Since it’s inevitable, you’ll need to learn to deal with it. Reflect much on Matthew 18.
- Being a great preacher and a compassionate pastor should not be an either/or.
Be the best preacher you can be. Don’t be happy with sloppy, superficial sermons and avoid homiletical junk food. But in being the best preacher possible, you need to accept that the fact you sat in a waiting room with one of your church members while his wife went through major surgery may stand out more in his mind than your alliterative outline of Leviticus 16.
- There are people who will be glad to help you: ask them.
Don’t be afraid to seek out friends and mentors in ministry. Busyness and ministry envy are two of the things that might keep you back from that. Sometimes it’s the perceived busyness of an older, more experienced colleague that keeps you from asking him to meet with you from time to time to encourage you and pray with you. If he’s too busy, he will tell you. But he will be glad you asked, and you might just be surprised.
- Being teachable and correctable is a virtue.
You don’t know it all: either theologically or in terms of ministry philosophy. So you will make mistakes. Sometimes you will be tempted to be plain stubborn! Reflect on what Proverbs has to say about reproof and correction.
- It is (not) about you!
This is another one of those fools/folly conundrums (like #3). Your ministry is about you. You need to be guarding your heart, feeding your soul and drawing from God. But it’s not about you: it’s about Jesus. Your job is to point people to him. If you make it all about you, you could be heading for trouble.
- The gospel is true.
One day, as Jesus’ disciples returned from a ministry trip, enthusing about the supernatural work they had seen done, Jesus told them that that was not why they should rejoice. ‘Rejoice that your names are written in heaven’ – he told them. That is the constant. Remember, as Jerry Bridges likes to say, that on your good days you are not beyond needing the gospel and on your bad days you are not beyond its reach.