To those just starting in ministry

A friend who works with student ministers on the various college campuses around New Orleans has invited me to address his team in their weekly gathering. Asked if he had a  topic in mind for me, he said,  “Give us three things you would tell those just starting out in ministry.”

Three things?  How about a hundred! Here are a few that come to mind, in no particular order.

1) Make sure of your calling.

The ministry can be tough and you will often be lonely and experience great frustration. Things are not going as you had planned. The people you trusted have proven themselves untrustworthy.  Those over you in the work have been unable to fulfill their promises.  You’re seeing little results from your labors. You are exhausted and see no way to clear off the schedule for a well-earned rest.

Unless God calls you into this work, you will not last.

If anyone knew the joys and frustrations of the Lord’s work, it was the Apostle Paul. He said, “Therefore, since we have this ministry, as we have received mercy, we do not lose heart (and quit)” (2 Corinthians 4:1).  These two things give us passion for the Lord’s work, and without them, we will soon become casualties:  the Lord saved us (mercy) and He called us (ministry).

Jack Hunter is the director of missions for the New Orleans Baptist Association.  He came to this work after a full career as a New Orleans attorney. A few years back, he took early retirement from his firm to attend Beeson Divinity School in Birmingham. Then, in 2009, when Duane McDaniel succeeded me as DOM for the association, he asked Jack to take charge of our inner city ministries, a work already dear to Jack’s heart. However, two years into his work here, Duane died of a massive stroke. The administrative committee asked Jack to take charge of the office on an interim basis.

That’s when Jack came to see me.  He said, “I have no idea how to be a director of missions. Talk to me about this job.”

Some months later, the administrative committee felt the Lord’s leadership to give the job to Jack on a permanent basis. By then, God had also called Jack. The change in him was remarkable.  One day, perhaps a year into Jack’s ministry, he and I met so I could pick his brain on the local ministries. The DOMs of Oklahoma had asked me to address them on the future of the association, and I knew NOBA was doing some interesting things under Jack’s leadership. In interviewing this newly-minted spiritual leader, I was amazed at his passion.

During that hour, I couldn’t get a word in edgewise. Jack was a man possessed, on fire for the Lord, excited about all God is doing.

It’s what the call of God does to a person.

2) Get all the training you can get.  Do not shortcut the process.

In most cases, you will not be able to put your ministry on hold in order to go to school, but will be training while you continue to serve. None of us can retreat to a mountaintop (or a cloistered retreat) to get an education.  In the Lord’s work, we learn as we go.

The other evening, I had dinner with a pastor who is working on his doctor of ministry degree in seminary.  At the age of 57, he admitted some regrets at not having done this earlier, but he’ll get no sympathy from me.  He’s doing what we all should be doing: learning, growing, gaining new strength. Age has nothing to do with it. The process is lifelong.

Years ago, I heard a fellow say, “I went to school with (President) Jack Kennedy. I was ahead of him and felt that I had more going for me than he did.  But one of the differences in us is that he kept growing and I quit.”

My dad, oldest of what would become a family of 12 children, dropped out of school in the seventh grade to go to work. The year was 1924 and he earned 50 cents a day from carrying water to workers at a planer mill. Two years later, he entered the coal mines and worked alongside his father and uncles, doing, as he said, a man’s work for a man’s pay.  But to his dying day (at the age of nearly 96), my dad kept learning and growing. He subscribed to the daily newspaper and a number of magazines all his life. He read constantly. At his death, at least 6 magazines including TIME and Fortune were coming to the house.

Be a student all your life. Never quit learning.

3) Learn Acts 16:25 and never leave its example far from your mind.

In the midst of your troubles, stay faithful.  Memorize Habakkuk 3:17-19 and repeat it often to yourself. Do not let your faithful service and work and praise be dependent on circumstances. Always rejoice in the Lord (Philippians 4:4).

If you are able to praise God only when everything is going perfectly, you will find yourself worshiping fewer and fewer times with less and less enthusiasm.

After being beaten and arrested for nothing more than trying to bless people, Paul and Silas found themselves locked into stocks and sealed into the interior of the Philippian jail.  Their bloody backs were untreated; they must have been miserable. “But along about midnight, Paul and Silas began praying and singing hymns of praise to God. And the prisoners were listening to them.” (Acts 16:25)

That’s how it’s done. And, according to the rest of the chapter, God did some amazing things through these servants who, given a choice, refused to gripe and complain but rejoiced and trusted the Lord.

No matter what field of ministry the Lord sends you to, from time to time you will suffer and be mistreated.  Count on it. But when you do, just remember there is no place for a “why me, Lord?”  You are to “pray and sing hymns of praise to God.”

When we rejoice in difficult circumstances, many wonderful things happen: God is glorified, Jesus is honored, and the Holy Spirit moves in to use your testimony. The devil is infuriated and your critics are silenced. The church is blessed and people enduring their own trials are inspired by your example.  You yourself are blessed and strengthened.

4) Always make sure the Lord Jesus Christ Himself is your passion.

Keep before you the story of the woman who sat at the feet of Jesus worshiping and anointing Him and weeping, then letting down her hair and wiping His feet. “She loves much because she has been forgiven much,” the Lord said.  (Variations of the story are found in several places, but nowhere more lovely than in Luke 7:36-50).

That’s you and me. We are the forgiven sinners, always loving Jesus and praising HIm for His great mercy.  The more you know of your own unworthiness, the more you will appreciate what God did for you in Jesus.  Likewise, the person with little appreciation of their own sins will have only the smallest of gratitude to Jesus for atoning for them.

It’s not enough to be in the ministry because you love college students or enjoy teaching or are challenged by leadership tasks. None of those will sustain you. Only a passion for Christ Jesus will suffice.

When Pastor Jim became unemployed, he sat in my office pouring out his frustration.  At one point, he burst out, “I have to preach! Preaching is my passion!”

I said, “Jim, there is the problem.  The Lord Jesus wants to be your passion, not preaching.”  Give him credit. He took it like a man. “Wow. Thank you. That hurts, but it’s what I needed to hear.”

“Draw nigh to Him and He will draw nigh to you” (James 4:8).

Luke 10:20 reminds us that the numbers will be there sometimes and absent at other times, but our joy has to be fixed in something permanent and unchangeable. “Rejoice that your names are written in heaven.”

5) Have a network.  You’re going to be needing mentors, advisors, prayer supporters, encouragers and friends. 

When you find a problem you cannot solve, a temptation you cannot overcome, a doctrine that does not work for you, a discouragement that threatens to swamp you, rally the troops. Woe to the one who tries to do this alone.

Ecclesiastes 4 says, “Two are better than one because they have a good return for their labor,” and so forth. It’s a great text, verses 9-12.  We respond, “Two are better than one? Sure. But four, we hasten to add, are better than two.

As you go through life, be on the alert for special friends to whom you are attracted in the Lord’s work and who seem to appreciate you. Do not lose them, no matter where you end up serving.  These days, with instant communication, there is no reason to be out of touch with anyone. You’re going to be needing them.

6) Put balance in your life.

Read outside your field of ministry. Take care of your body by walking or jogging or riding a bike.  Travel.  Camp out in national parks. See the world.  Pick the brains of important people you encounter along the way. Start a blog.  Laugh a lot.  Be silly.  Learn to pray.  Pray for your pastor.  Go to ball games.

Luke 2:52 says our Lord “increased in wisdom and in stature, and in favor with God and men.” That works out to intellectual growth, physical growth, spiritual growth and social.

Learn a foreign language. If you are single, find out when your seminary is staging another archaeological dig in the Holy Land and sign up for it. Build your Facebook friends into the thousands. Learn to appreciate operas (start with those by Puccini).  Read the comics in your newspaper.

7) Love the Lord’s church.

Today, an itinerant preacher said God had written Ichabod (“the glory has departed,” a reference to I Samuel 4:21) upon the church today, indicating that the Lord was through with the church.

This fellow must be smarter than God. My Bible clearly says, “Christ loved the church and gave Himself for her” (Ephesians 5:25) and “the gates of hell shall not prevail against (the church” (Matthew 16:18).

An never-failing principle I discovered as an 11-year-old believer, the night Jesus came into my heart, is this: The closer we get to Jesus, the more we will love His people; the farther we drift from Him, the more critical we become of them.

Use that as a barometer in your personal life.

These will suffice as the first 7 of my “100 pointers to those starting out in ministry.”  (What are the other 93? I have no idea. Smiley-face here.)

5 thoughts on “To those just starting in ministry

  1. If you are married, make sure your wife is called with you. My wife swore she would never marry a preacher and she did not. When I shared that I believed I was called to be a pastor, she responded, “God has not told me.” I did not say another word and waited until the Lord had spoken to her. Six months later she came and said he had and she was ready to go. She has been faithful in service with me!

  2. I’ve not been a pastor for 2 years. I needed this. Many days have been dark, and Acts 16 and Habakkuk 3 will be light for my pastoral path in the days ahead, to be sure. God bless you.

  3. Right on time! You haven’t the slightest idea how much this blessed my soul. I am one of the “unlikelies” God has called to ministry, and to be quite honest, I have no idea what I’m doing. All I know is what God told me and the fire in my heart to bring it to pass for His glory. Thank you for putting this out there – much needed! God bless you in all your endeavors.

  4. I was called years back was not so sure, so i continue with my work as interpreter in my my local church, many a times i get home to meet note written down by pastors i never met telling me to take up the work God had called me up. I got so disturbed that i was depressed doing other things has not bring much desired happiness, now in debt, frustrated at work, my family agreed with me on the call but wanted an assurance. i travelled over a 1000kilometers from home to attend a bible study only to be confronted by the Pastor there that i have been running from the call of God. I have had several dreams and revelations, i was shown end time events and The THRONE, now i had decided to go as directed by God to go from township to a nearby village. i had acquired property for the work of ministry but still need intercession for a quick take-off. Its a must for me. PLEASE NEED YOUR LOVE, HELP. ……..

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