So, Jim, you’re leaving the comfortable nest and trying your wings. You have served well on our staff for these four years and now God has called you to a congregation where you will be the point man. The shepherd, the overseer, the leader. The one who blazes the trail, rallies the troops, sets the mood, coaches the team, and–let’s face it–gets the credit and takes the blame.
I hope you will not mind if I make a few points here which I intend only as an encouragement to you in this new ministry. Entire books have been written to beginning pastors, but you will not mind if I don’t attempt one here. Here are ten pointers, most of which I have learned the hard way, and have the scars to prove it.
1) Remember to say ‘we’ and ‘our,’ not ‘I’ and ‘my.’
When you are referring to a staff member, say “our minister of music” or “our minister of students.” It makes little difference to you, but a world of difference to him/her. As a former staffer, you of all people know this. The assistant on your staff may take direction from you and be accountable to you, but you can magnify their ministry and encourage their faithfulness by speaking to them and of them with the greatest respect.
2) Never claim any authority as the pastor.
Any time you tell someone you have authority, it lessens it. If you truly have the authority to do a thing, you may sit quietly by and listen to the controversy that surrounds you, knowing within yourself that when the moment of decision comes, you will make the call. You must be prepared to do just that.
You might recall, Jim, a meeting in my office a couple of years back when I cautioned you about using that word “authority.” It was just before I did the same thing with the two lay leaders who mistakenly thought they had some too. Serving the Lord and leading His church are servant jobs, not positions of authority. Slaves have no authority other than to help and bless and give and suffer. They take orders from the Master or the Master’s representative.
So, if someone in the church gives you authority over them–and that’s the only kind you and I have in leading a church–it is their gift to us. We should wear it lightly, use it sparingly, and try not to let the recipient know they just saw it on display.
3) Learn to listen.
You’ve worked with me long enough to know that I’d far rather talk than listen. We preachers sometimes think the Lord called us into the ministry because we have this gift for gab. In most cases, we should look upon that as a liability rather than a strength, Jim. It takes a mature person to discipline his mouth to stay shut so he can tune in to what the person across the desk is saying.
The Lord knows this to be a human problem, which accounts for all the times in Scripture He said, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.”
4) Try not to overtalk.
If there is a number one ministerial failing, it’s probably this. Ask a preacher a yes-or-no question and you get an essay in return. A friend suggested something I want to pass along to you. The next time you’re in the car alone, imagine a committee meeting or church conference in which you are asked a question on a particular subject (you get to choose the subject). Now, practice giving a short, positive, to-the-point answer. Then, come up with other ways to say the same thing even better. Role-playing is a great way to unlearn some old habits and to create some new ones.
5) With the office staff, always conduct yourself with quietness and strength.
When you raise your voice to someone in the office, it feels to them and anyone overhearing it that you have lost control. That unnerves people. People want to know their leader has things in hand. I once heard a leader of a large company say he never lets an employee see him rushing anywhere or hear him raising his voice. He knows how vital it is that the workers trust the leader to keep a cool head.
6) Never put anything negative in a letter; deal with it personally.
Letters–and that goes for the e-mail kind, too–can develop a life of their own long after an issue has been resolved. So, only the positive stuff goes into a letter. Problems and criticism should be given personally or over the phone.
7) Lower your expectations about your congregation.
That sounds like I’m counseling you to distrust your members, doesn’t it. Actually, I’m suggesting you remember your own theology. “All have sinned,” according to Romans 3:23. Remember, you are dealing with sinners. God remembers. “He is mindful that we are but dust,” Psalm 103:14 says.
You’ve read the Old Testament enough to have seen where Moses is repeatedly criticized by God’s people, even though he was giving his best and never deserved their harsh treatment. We may look upon that as a harbinger of things to come! Almost everyone sent by the Lord to shepherd His people will encounter ugliness and unfairness along the way. Some seem to receive a steady diet of it, and our hearts go out to them. In my case, I’ve been treated far better than I deserve, but still….
8) Nothing is more important than staying close to the Lord.
It’s not enough to open your Bible each morning and study next Sunday’s sermon. You’re not just a chef who prepares meals for others; you are a needy human with a spiritual body in need of nourishment too, like every other follower of Jesus Christ. So, feed your soul. I suggest you get a specific place in your house and keep your Bible and notebook there. First thing every morning, spend time there in the Word and prayer. I guarantee you it will make a difference throughout the day.
9) Know how much of church stuff to keep from your wife.
Every wife is different. I’ve known pastors whose wives were equal partners in the ministry, and what one knew, both knew. But not all wives can handle the harsh treatment their husbands occasionally receive and still smile on Sunday and treat the offenders kindly. Ask the Lord to make you sensitive about this. There is a fine line between over-protecting your wife and burdening her with church doings. “You husbands, dwell with your wives according to knowledge,” Peter counseled. (I Pet. 3:7)
10) Protect your sermon study time.
The most important task you have as a pastor takes place when you step up to the pulpit to deliver the Sunday morning sermon. Prepare well. Three primary activities will comprise the bulk of your sermon preparation: studying, praying, and just thinking.
It’s my opinion that the average pastor does the first one of these three pretty well, the second not so well, and the third one hardly at all. The first, you do in your study with the Bible and various books. The second–prayer–you do there and throughout the day as you reflect on your text and the sermon itself. But the third–reflection–is a never-ending, on-going discipline that will clarify the points, solidify the message in your own mind, and sharpen its impact as it keeps you from veering down many a dead-end road.
Remember to laugh with your people. Visit in their homes. Do not try to protect your image; serve Christ and let Him guard your image. Have fun. Love the Lord and do loving things to His people. Get some physical exercise, eat healthy food, and try to sleep 8 hours a night.
I should have made this one of the 10 principles, but we’ll just end with it: love your wife. “Rejoice in the wife of your youth,” Solomon (or whoever wrote Proverbs) said (Pr. 5:18). Let nothing interfere with this most vital of relationships. Peter says husbands and wives are “heirs together of the grace of life” (I Peter 3:7). I don’t claim to know all that means, but early in our marriage I discovered that when I was close to my wife, I felt close to God. And, when things were not good between us, I felt a distance from the Lord.
Eventually, Jim, you will come to the conclusion that no human being can adequately pastor the church of the Lord Jesus Christ, no matter how large or small. Don’t let that discourage you; you’ve just learned one of the most basic realities of the ministry.
From then on, you will go forward on your knees–or go nowhere at all.