I found this list the other day, written perhaps a dozen years ago. As a veteran of 42 years in the pastorate, I have made my share of mistakes and have compiled a lengthy list of regrets. See what you think of these twenty things I wish I had known early in my ministry.
1. To take care of my family first.
2. To say no without feeling guilty.
3. How to be quiet.
4. How to introduce someone to Jesus.
5. How to get a sermon from a text.
6. How to lead a worship service.
7. How to do a funeral and feel good about it afterward.
8. How to do weddings and give young families a head start.
9. To say ‘I don’t know’ when I didn’t.
10. To apologize quickly and simply without rationalizing or justifying.
11. How to find a mentor.
12. How to help my wife feel good about what I was doing and to find her own role.
13. How to work with the deacons.
14. How to preach without imitating the last good preacher I heard.
15. How to counsel the troubled.
16. How to take criticism without losing my confidence.
17. How to respond to troublemakers the way Jesus would.
18. How to choose staff members wisely.
19. How to be prepared for temptation ahead of time.
20. How to give up jobs in the community to church members so I could stick with my own priorities as pastor.
Take the first one on my list, looking after my family. I have painful memories and my wife carries a scar on her soul from the time we moved from our seminary pastorate 300 miles north into the Mississippi Delta to a larger, more challenging church. I walked out and left her in our new home with boxes to unpack, pictures to hang, and a dozen other chores–and her with two little boys, ages 1 and 4–while I went to the hospital to check on church members. It was a misplaced sense of duty on my part. “It’s a bigger church,” I rationalized. “I have to hit it at a run.”
A dozen years later, when our marriage was in trouble and Margaret and I were deeply into marriage counseling, she brought up that incident. I was so obtuse that I had never even given a second thought to the way I had abandoned her and wounded her soul.
Neither of us will ever forget the time the Washington County Mental Health Center brought in chaplains from state mental hospitals in Georgia to spend the day with the pastors in our small city. After a full day of discussing mental health problems that affect church members, one of the men made a suggestion. “We don’t fly out until tomorrow, so why don’t all of you bring your wives tonight and we will talk about the pastor’s home life.” I learned pretty quickly that most ministers did not want to talk about this part of their lives, that it was an area where we all felt like failures.
Only half of the men returned with their wives that night. Margaret came with me. Soon we were all opening up for some honest sharing and therapeutic confessing. Around nine o’clock, the leader said, “Our plane leaves at noon. Suppose we all come back in the morning.”
There might have been fifteen of us the next morning, sitting in a circle with one of the chaplains in the center. When we began discussing the preacher’s time with his family Margaret volunteered, “Ever since we’ve been married, Joe has been promising me that he would start taking a day a week off. But he still hasn’t done it.” By then we had been married 6 years.
The chaplain looked at me in mock horror. “Joe! You don’t give your family one day a week?” I said, “I’ve been sincere in promising it. I just never felt I could spare it.”
He said, “Margaret, I want you to look Joe in the eye and ask him to give you and the kids one day a week. We will be your witnesses.”
She said, “No, I don’t want to put him on the spot like that.” Whew. I was relieved. Off the hook.
Then, I heard words coming out of my mouth I did not speak. “I really meant it when I made that promise. So, right now, Margaret, I promise you that I will start taking a day a week off.”
“When?” said the chaplain. “Right now. Today. Tuesday.” I said.
Gene Russell, the Methodist minister, said, “Margaret, let me know the first Tuesday Joe misses and I’ll come over and give him a swift kick.”
An hour later, we picked up our sons from child care and drove to Vicksburg. We visited the battlefield, picnicked on the grass, and flew kites. We got home late, tired and elated. It had been one of the best days I had experienced in years.
Had you been graphing our marriage, you would have drawn an upward spike beginning that day. Tuesdays became the day for our family. I discovered the only way I could relax and enjoy the time was to leave the city and be unavailable to the phone.
I wish I had known six years earlier to take care of my family. The new church did not need me visiting the hospitals when I should have been unpacking boxes and seeing to my family. The church had done just fine without a pastor for six months, and another week would not have hurt them. I didn’t know.
I wish I had. I hope someone tells today’s young pastors.