What I needed as a young preacher

At 73 and no longer pastoring churches, I’m going hither and yon to preach as the Lord leads and the invitations arrive.  It’s a satisfying life, the kind of retirement (if you insist on calling it that) I would have dreamed of had I known such was available.

Observing my host pastors as they lead the congregations, I remember so vividly experiencing the same life they know with its delights and demands, its burdens and blessings. My heart goes out to them.  (In case anyone wonders, I do not arrive at a church handing out advice to host pastors, acting as some kind of inexhaustible fountain of wisdom to these good men. I come to do whatever they ask–to teach or preach or train, draw my pictures, or tell my stories–and if the Lord chooses to turn it into more than that, well and good.)

And frankly, looking back over my own lengthy pastoral ministry, sometimes my heart aches for the young McKeever, the pastor I was in my late 20s and 30s.  I wish I could go back and give that eager young man a good pep talk, a needed bit of advice, a big hug, and a swift kick in the pants.  The young Joe needed all of these at one time or other. (A few friends who have stayed with us from all those years will read this and smile and think, “At last, he gets it.”)

1) I wish I could tell that young pastor (which I was) to quit living and dying by the numbers from each Sunday.  You know about those numbers–our attendance today, what the offerings were, did we have any additions, and how all this compares with last year.

I’m sorry I composed a chart so the secretary could keep a running report on these numbers, thus diverting our attention, energies, and resources from more urgent matters.

I’m sorry I was up emotionally when the numbers were high and beat myself up with guilt when they were not.  I wish I had known the reality of Luke 10:20 back then: “Do not rejoice because the spirits are subject to you”–that is, because you are achieving all these great victories–“but rejoice because your names are written in Heaven.” The Lord wants us stable, even, balanced, solid, always rejoicing no matter what the victories are and whether the numbers are present.

Live by the numbers, pastor, and you will die by them.

2) I wish I could tell the young pastor I was to turn over more responsibility to key leaders–staff and lay–and empower them for the assignments, then support them before the membership.  And when the members began bellyaching because “We want the pastor at our function, not an assistant,” as they invariably would, I wish I would have had the courage to tell them to get over it and grow up and the strength to stick with the plan.

I’m sorry I let myself be bullied by sweet old ladies and precious church friends into trying to be everything for everyone.

I was too much of a people-pleaser, loved the satisfied coos coming from the nest of the lulled flock, and thought this meant I was doing a good job. I wish pleasing the Lord had loomed larger in my focus than satisfying the whims and whines of a well-meaning but misguided membership.

3) I wish I could tell the young pastor which I was that even though he was finding the distractions numerous and the attractions (to other activities) glamorous, the best thing he could do each day would be to stay at home and spend the early hours secluded in the study with God’s word, a notebook, a few commentaries, and nothing else.

I’m sorry I was gone from home as much as I was, even though it was all good–revivals here and there, denominational meetings, etc.

I’m sorry I chose to spend my morning hours visiting the hospitals so I could check that off the list and have the rest of the day for other things. As the new pastor of that church, I had assigned other ministerial staffers a day a week making hospital visits. But when members complained that no substitutes were acceptable, that when they were hospitalized they wanted “the man and no one else,” I caved to them and took back all the hospital work.

The members thought I was being a good pastor by tending to the sick so faithfully. I know now I was letting them control me.  Acts 20:28 says the Holy Spirit makes the pastor/elder the “overseer”–episcopos–of the church.  That’s a far cry from what I was.

And to the person who insists that the minister is the servant of the congregation, I cite Second Corinthians 4:5. “…ourselves your servants for Jesus’ sake.”  That is, I serve the congregation but do not take orders from them. The minister takes orders from the Lord as to how to serve His people. Big difference, one it took me a long time to see.

4) I wish I could tell the young pastor to plan his own calendar and quit letting everyone else plan it for him.

In one of those early churches, people would call for counseling appointments and those time-slots would crowd out everything else on the calendar for that day.  There were occasions when I  would open the calendar and find the secretary had made six counseling appointments for that day. Six of them.  That’s as many or more than any professional counselor that I know takes. Of course, these appointments were in addition to all my regular pastoral duties and my responsibilities with my family. When I dragged home for dinner, I had no energy for anything but sleep.

I’m sorry I did not take the initiative in taking charge of my schedule but worked from fear–fear of failure, fear of being criticized, and fear of failing someone.

I wish I had been more courageous and focused.

5) I wish I had been more straightforward and a little less “nice-guy” to a few people who used their leadership positions in the church to drag down what we were trying to accomplish.

One fellow grew angry because I refused to take him as my best friend. He once stood up in a church business meeting and railed against the proposed budget because it contained no funds for a new bus for senior activities. The next day, the church bookkeeper showed me the minutes of a business meeting from a couple of years earlier where this man himself had made the motion that plans for that bus be dropped and the budget item dismissed. I drove to his home and showed him those minutes.  He grew angry–as did his wife–and they never forgave me. Thereafter, his subtle rejection of his pastor contaminated the fellowship and he devoted himself to undermining my leadership.

I let him do it.  I wish I had dealt with him more firmly. (How? Perhaps by asking a couple of key deacons to visit him and give him a stern “tough-love” lecture. It’s hard to know.)

The church suffers when church members undercut their leadership and undermine their ministry with impunity. When they can do this without being held accountable, it encourages others like them.

I’m sorry I wimped out.

6) I wish I had taken better care of my family during those critical years.

Someone who did not know me and saw me relegating my wife and children to a low priority might have concluded I was sacrificing them to success.  That is not the case.

What I was doing was trying as hard as I knew to serve God by “fulfilling the ministry” (Colossians 4:17) to which He had called me. And that ministry always seemed bigger than I could manage. I always knew that a pastor must learn to live in a world of unfinished tasks, that when he drops his head on the pillow at night he can think of more things he should have done, people who still need a call, sermons he should be working on, projects requiring his attention.  That was my life. My wonderful wife and terrific children got the dregs of my time, the leftovers of my attention, and the last of my energies.

My children as adults know how much I treasure them, so we’re good on that account. This is more about my own regrets here. They deserved more; I could have done better.

Margaret used to say I was no fun on our annual outings to the beach with the children, that all I wanted to do was rest (sleep, sit quietly, read, etc).  One day she read where many people require the first three days of vacation to gear down before they can enjoy family time. Then, three days before heading back home, they begin gearing up. “You are fun for only one day,” she said, and she was right.

Thereafter, when we could, we took longer vacations. A few times over this half-century of marriage, we took three-week-long outings. They remain the most unforgettable of all our times together.

I wish I had gone on scout outings with my boys, played ball more with them in the back yard, and took my kids on daylong excursions with just dad and them, one at a time, to create forever bonds.

I wish I had known what a treasure Margaret was. Other people saw better than I what an amazing woman she was. She was a fine Bible teacher, a devoted social worker, an inveterate truth-teller, a friend for the long haul, and the smartest person in my world.

I was so caught up in my work and “me” that I caught only glimpses of her uniqueness. Only later in looking back did I see how miserably I had failed this good woman.

This is where the swift kick needs to have been administered.

Pardon the self-flagellation today.  But believe me, I am not groveling in self-pity or recrimination. I’m feeling fine, thank you. I am simply seeing clearly what I wish I had seen back then.

A high school chum used to say, “Too late smart, too soon dead.”  Thanks, Doodle Howell. Couldn’t’ve said it better myself.

7) I wish I had known servants of the Lord have to learn to live with the tension between all these areas crying for your attention, your time, your energies.

Recently, when a pastor wrote suggesting I write on one particular phase of the ministry where he’s having trouble finding a handle, after thanking him and promising to give it some thought, I replied that it would appear that since every church is different and every minister unique, one church might need one approach and another something different, and that sometimes the same church requires different methods from time to time. There doesn’t seem to be a one-size-fits-all answer to his question.

That may be how it is for young pastors in the ministry.  You do the best you can, recognize you will make mistakes, pray for a lot of grace from those who need you most and believe in you strongest, and learn to live with the tension between what you wish you could do, what you feel you ought to be doing, what others want from you, and what you realistically can accomplish.

That’s also why we keep urging people to pray for their pastors!

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