I served as pastor for ten years, serving in bi-vocational and full-time churches, nearly all of it while working on my seminary education. During that time, I didn’t do everything correctly. I made quite a few mistakes along the way, and, because of ego and pride, got in my own way (or even God’s way) at times.
As such, I learned many things about ministry, pastoring, and church leadership. Some I knew before but were reinforced by my experience, some I discovered while on-the-job, and others I didn’t realize until after I left my last pastorate.
I want to share twelve of them with you in the hopes that you can learn from my experience and my mistakes. I could make this list much longer, but I figure twelve is a nice, biblical number.
1. Spend the first year (or more) learning the church’s unique culture.
Each local church has a unique culture; learn it! This includes everything from the existing leadership, the influencers (who may or may not be in formal leadership positions), operational procedures, administrative practices, and cooperative relationships with the community. For the first year or more, study the culture of the church—who it is and how it runs—rather than trying to change it.
2. Spend the first three years getting to know the congregation.
I’m an introvert. There’s nothing wrong with introverts. However, introverts won’t be the life of the party and often struggle with social activities. That’s okay, but that’s not an excuse not to get to know the people in the congregation. Jesus, the Great Shepherd, knows his sheep. As the local shepherd, you need to know your sheep.
3. Spend the first year (or more) getting to know the community.
No church exists in a vacuum. There is a community surrounding it that God wants the church to reach and serve. When you first arrive, get to know the people, businesses, and other churches in that community. Whether it’s a rural setting, urban, or suburban, you need to know the community.
I recommend asking a local member to take you around and introduce you. Then, if needed, ask another to do the same. Give your congregation an opportunity to serve you (which will also help you get to know them, too).
4. Get to know the local social assistance programs and professional aid services.
People are going to come to you for various social and counseling needs. Despite your training and church resources, you can’t help them all. Get to know the local church-based and governmental assistance programs and Christian counseling services in your church’s area. Furthermore, don’t be afraid to use their services (that’s why they exist).
5. Spend less time developing a grand vision and more time developing godly disciple makers.
Contrary to popular church growth philosophies, you don’t need to develop a grand vision for growing your church to be the next megachurch. When it comes to ministry, God already gave the greatest ministry “vision” you need:
and what you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses entrust to faithful men, who will be able to teach others also. – 2 Timothy 2:2
preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching. – 2 Tim 4:2
In short: spend less time casting vision and more time making disciple makers. There’s a time and place for vision casting, but don’t let it overshadow or supplant the biblical vision God already provided.
6. Set aside time specifically for sermon prep and your own spiritual growth.
You will be called upon for a variety of tasks and you’ll be making quite a few visits. However, you’re calling is to preach and teach the word. To do this, you need to spend time growing in Christ and preparing your sermons (if you’re a typical Southern Baptist, that means upwards of three sermons each week). Thus, set aside time (sometimes a whole day) where you won’t be disturbed except for emergencies so you can focus on your growth and sermon preparation.
And please, please, please do not compound the two; keep them distinct.
7. You are the preacher, not the pastor, until you earn it.
You may hold the title of “Pastor” or “Senior Pastor,” but for the first few months or years, you’re merely the preacher until you earn the title of pastor. You will earn it by applying what you learn in Scripture, seminary, and from this list.
8. Don’t try to be like other churches.
As I said, each church has its own culture. Don’t try to infuse another church’s culture into yours. The mix will likely be volatile. The other church has a different congregation, different methods, and a different personality, even if it’s of the same denomination. Let your church be who God wants to make it.
9. Be yourself, not who someone thinks you should be.
Not only should you not try to make the church into something it’s not, you shouldn’t make yourself into something you’re not. Nor should you allow others to try to influence you to be someone or something other than who God made you to be. God gave you your personality traits. God gave you your background and education. You are unique. Be the you that God intended.
10. Be authentic and up front about your personality, styles, and quirks.
We all have weaknesses, strengths, styles, and quirks. Let the congregation know about them up front. Be authentic. Be real. If things about you change over time, let them know about it. The more you allow them to be part of your life, the more they’ll welcome you into theirs (and the more the patient they’ll be when storms come).
11. You’ll learn more about yourself doing ministry than you realized.
Ministry is a journey, and you will discover things about yourself along the way. They may be improvements, regressions, or just thing you didn’t before know. Whatever they are, bring your leadership team and congregation along with you on that journey. Let them see you for who you are.
12. Seek critique, but ignore critics, haters, and trolls.
Welcome honest, helpful critique, and strive to grow as a Jesus follower, pastor, and person. Ignore critics, haters, and trolls, though. If a hater or critic, however, becomes toxic, follow the methods in Matthew 18:15-20 and your church bylaws, coordinating with your leadership team to address it head-on.
As I said, during my time in the pastorate, I made quite a few mistakes. I didn’t do everything wrong, but I didn’t do it all right, either.
Some of these twelve lessons I knew going in, some I learned in the process, and others I didn’t realize until after I left the pastorate. Part of me wishes I could go back and do it all over again, this time with all of this knowledge intact. Since I can’t, I’ll simply try to help others in their ministry learn from my experience.
What lessons have you learned while doing ministry?
Also, if this list helps you, please share it on social media so it can help others.