(Recently, we wrote an earlier article for “those just starting out in ministry” in which we made some suggestions on matters they should learn, skills they should have, and such. Here is that article http://joemckeever.com/wp/5-starting-ministry/ for which this one is the companion.)
I began pastoring churches when John F. Kennedy was president. That was a long time ago. Then, 42 years later I moved from pastoring to become associational director of missions. After five years in that (DOM) work, I’m now in my 6th year of retirement, mostly an itinerant ministry, speaking in scores of churches every year.
I love preaching and serving churches, encouraging ministers and counseling church leaders. It’s the greatest work in the world.
Do I wish I’d done some things differently at the start? You bet. And, I imagine most ministers feel that way for reasons unique to themselves. Here are a few of my “wishes” that come to mind, for whatever it’s worth to you who are at the front end of your call into the Lord’s service….
1) I wish I’d sought out a few mentors and given them no rest until they taught me how to do this work.
As it was, in my first couple of pastorates, at sermon-making time, I had to reinvent the wheel each week. In college, I had majored in history and political science, thinking to teach it later at a collegiate level. But God had other ideas. When He called me, I was a senior in a Methodist college. Not many Southern Baptist churches were willing to give a chance to this kid from the country who was graduating from a Methodist college with no ministerial training.
In April of 1961, when the Lord called me, our church’s minister of education (Ron Palmer, later well-known with the South Carolina Baptist Convention) said, “Now, let’s talk about seminary.” I said, “What is seminary?” That’s how green I was. Thanks to Ron’s encouragement and owing to his persistence, I went to seminary.
Then, when I actually started pastoring, I should have gone back to Ron and said, “Help me!” But I didn’t. Shame on me. I paid a dear price for my ignorance, primarily sweat drops of blood from trying to learn the work from the ground up.
2) I wish someone had told me to read everything by C. S. Lewis I could lay my hands on.
And I wish they had sat on me until I finished each book. In college, I had gotten into a bad habit of not finishing books, but reading parts of a book and writing reports on them. To this day, unless a book is so fascinating and well-written that I can’t put it down, I tend to do the same thing, and I regret that.
I wish they had started me reading “Mere Christianity,” followed by “The Screwtape Letters,” and then “God in the Dock.” (In case anyone wonders, all those books were already in print then. C. S. Lewis died one year after I began pastoring. I do recall reading Screwtape in the mid-60s. Also, for those who wonder about this, I am not a huge Narnia fan. I tried, honestly I did, but that kind of fantasy does not work for me.)
I am not saying we should accept everything C. S. Lewis says as though it came down from Sinai. He was not Jesus. But, I know no one who does a better job of stating the essence of the Christian faith and understanding the challenges Christians face in this world than Lewis. Take his book of “Letters to an American Lady.” Almost everything he says to that correspondent is thought-provoking, and readers will regularly close the book and reflect on something he said. I’m grateful for any Christian writer who can do such a thing.
3) I wish someone had told me to make a list of, say, 20 questions I would be asked a hundred times in a long lifetime of ministry and to make a serious study of the best response to each of those.
How can God be both all-loving and all-powerful with the suffering in the world today? Why do most prayers seem to go unanswered? How do we know there is a God? Doesn’t modern science disprove the God thesis? Convince me the Bible is inspired. How could a loving God sit quietly by and let the Nazis and Communists slaughter untold millions of His children?
That sort of thing.
That’s where C.S.Lewis would have come in handy. He had some great answers.
In “God in the Dock,” which is a compilation of a lot of his articles and even an interview or two, one chapter has him taking questions from an audience. Someone took the exchange down verbatim, for which we are grateful. Here is one I enjoyed….
Question: Which of the religions of the world gives to its followers the greatest happiness?
Lewis: Which of the religions of the world gives to its followers the greatest happiness? While it lasts, the religion of worshipping oneself is the best.
I have an elderly acquaintance of about eighty, who has lived a life of unbroken selfishness and self-admiration from the earliest years, and is, more or less, I regret to say, one of the happiest men I know. From the moral point of view it is very difficult! I am not approaching the question from that angle. As you perhaps know, I haven’t always been a Christian. I didn’t go to religion to make me happy. I always knew a bottle of Port would do that. If you want a religion to make you feel really comfortable, I certainly don’t recommend Christianity. I am certain there must be a patent American (medicine) on the market which will suit you far better, but I can’t give any advice on it.
A bottle of Port! Pow. Take that, Victoria Osteen!! (A recent video clip that went viral had her telling her thousands of admirers that “God wants you happy” and “worship is all about you.”)
4) I wish I’d known early in my ministry that suffering is a key part of the Lord’s plan, and not an interruption.
In John 16:33, the Lord said, “In this world you will have tribulation.” In Acts 14:22, Paul and Barnabas told the young churches of Asia Minor, “Through many trials and tribulations we must enter the kingdom.” In Matthew 10:16, Jesus told the disciples as they were about to leave on their preaching mission, “Behold, I send you forth like sheep in the midst of wolves.”
Jesus told the disciples they would be arrested, beaten, and brought before high officials as a result of their work in His name. All of this, He said, was “as a testimony to them and to the Gentiles” (Matthew 10:18). The Lord was saying He was going to allow some of His disciples to suffer persecution and false imprisonment in order to get the gospel to people who would not otherwise hear the message. When the judge puts the defendant on the witness stand and orders him to “tell us what you’ve been preaching in the public square,” that is the magic moment when the Holy Spirit will take over and speak (10:19-20).
God uses suffering to perfect His children, to give us a platform from which to “show forth the praises of Him who called (us) out of darkness into His marvelous light” (I Peter 2:9), and a thousand other reasons. He used suffering to toughen me for the future ministry of working with hundreds of churches and pastors, a work I could not have done had life been easy and everyone compliant. Ask any teenage boy: to build a muscle, put stress on it.
I learned it, but only eventually.
5) I wish someone had taught me how to pray and helped me implement the lessons.
What are the lessons I wish they had conveyed? For starters, I wish someone had sat me down and told me:
–that none of us pray very well. (Romans 8:26) Not even the Apostle Paul was satisfied with his praying.
–that that is all right. God is not asking for perfect prayers from us.
–that when Scripture says the Holy Spirit intercedes for us (in Romans 8:26-27, the Holy Spirit intercedes, and in 8:34, it’s Jesus at the right hand of the Father doing the same thing!), one thing that means is He translates our baby talk into Heaven’s language so that our prayers get through and accomplish what we had hoped, and more.
–that prayer is composed 99.99% of faith and that most of the things we pray for, we will not see in our lifetime. God answers in His own way and we should keep praying, trusting that He knows what He is doing.
–that prayers spent in praise and silence are every bit as valuable if not moreso than all other forms. I learned that late. Now, in my daily neighborhood walks, often I will spend practically the entire time just praising the Lord. I recite psalms of praise, the Lord’s prayer, songs of praise, and thank Him again and again for the blessings of this life. Nothing about it is canned or forced; it’s natural and joyful and bathed with tears of gratitude.
Eventually, when I get to laying my requests before the Throne–all of which He has heard repeatedly–often I’ll just say something like “Carla, Leah, Jessica, JoAnne, Neil, Julie, Grant, Abby, Erin, Marty, Misha, Darilyn, Jack, Margaret, Ronnie and Dorothy, Glenn and Peggy, Trish and James, Carolyn and Van, Charlie and Carolyn…” I have the assurance the Lord knows what each needs and He knows what I’m asking for each one.
I love to pray. And I love the idea of prayer. I wish I prayed better.
Do I spend a lot of time regretting these things? Not at all. In fact, my having to come by them the hard way could have been part of the plan.
Some day you will be writing your own list of “what I wish they had taught me when I was starting out.” Your list will be different from mine. And you will realize that even if “they” (whoever they are) did teach you some things, the Holy Spirit wanted you to hammer out some matters and skills in the blacksmith shop of your soul and not have them handed to you in an air-conditioned classroom. Those are the lessons you will prize most.