Martin Luther King weekend marks my anniversary in vocational ministry. Yesterday it was anniversary #4, today I begin year 5 of this never-boring journey of life in the full time service of Christ. I am still grateful to Broadmoor Baptist Church in Memphis TN for taking a chance on an unproven and very green seminary student to call as student minister. Our time there was short, only 18 months, but I still talk about the lessons I learned there as I got a significant wake-up call to what church life would be like. The church was amazingly gracious to us during our engagement and we had several couples invest in us in our early days of marriage. Those relationships have never been duplicated, and we greatly miss them. It had some difficulties too, as I tried to bring about some change in the student ministry that I thought was necessary and got some pretty big pushback on. Through it, God worked in some great ways and we wouldn’t be where we are today without that time.
It’s also been strange to see God open up doors to have the opportunity to influence a new generation of fresh ministers and leaders. That has been one of the great joys in my time at Westside so far, to be able to share with guys who are new to the ministry or seriously weighing a call to be able to invest in their lives. I hope that this aspect gets to continue until I’m old and gray. It better, because I’m banking my dissertation on leadership development!
In light of entering year 5, I thought I’d pass on some lessons to those coming up to vocational ministry (and volunteer ministry too!). I don’t have all the answers, this list will probably change when entering year 10, year 15, year 20. I also don’t want to sound like the old guy at the park who tells everyone “back in my day…” or the cocky young guy who thinks he has all the answers. That said, here’s my list:
1) Make your wife and family your greatest priority, and protect them at all costs
When you’re single, you can burn both ends of the string like it’s soaked in gasoline. You can serve everywhere, do everything, and accomplish a ton more. But when you get married, your focus becomes your wife. I say this all the time to young married ministers, that God will hold you accountable for your faithfulness in service, but it won’t matter if you weren’t faithful in serving your wife and family. This can be done in any number of simple ways, turn the phone off on date nights (no one is more important than your wife at that moment), carve out time in your week to specifically spend time with her (I would encourage being a bit of a legalist on this). Carrie and I have a thing we do called “game on” which is when it’s the two of us, and we don’t talk at all about church, ministry, school, or anything. Just us. And Sam Sam. The biggest principle to take is this, your wife needs to know you love her more than your ministry, and your kids need to know that they’re more important to you than someone else’s kids. I say this to youth ministers, if you make it to everyone else’s ball games but your kid’s – you have failed as a pastor.
2) Set up boundaries around yourself
I don’t have many regrets in ministry, but one of them is that I’ve made myself more accessible than I should. It was well-intentioned but in our Twitter culture, too many times family time has been interrupted by urgent but not necessary things. I don’t know what boundaries you need to set around yourself, but you need to set up some. Ministry is a 24-7 vocation, but that doesn’t mean that you’re at the beck and call of everyone. Obviously, crisis moments happen and you need to respond to them. But don’t feel bad when someone needs in the building and you’re simply not available. If you’re a lead pastor, encourage your staff to set up boundaries too. It’s not to build walls around you as a shepherd, but it’s to make sure that you have something to give. Boundaries also include what you eat, exercise, and rest. I have seen so many pastors burn out and lose effectiveness because they failed to take care of themselves. I don’t run because I want to be an Olympic athlete, I do it because I want to have the energy and focus to finish the task well.
3) Leadership is costly and painful, have thick skin and an encouraging wife
Criticism is one of the certainties of ministry, especially when you make a decision that may be viewed as unpopular. Sometimes leadership involves making decisions that are the best for the whole and for the long term, which can create some short term tension. When you get ugly notes on your car, angry phone calls, and hear your name brought up in hallway conversations, this is all part of God’s work to sanctify you (for a helpful resource on this, click here). Is all criticism fair and necessary? No, but in those times where it is spiteful, mean-spirited, and unproductive, let God deal with them as you preach and teach and lead and serve faithfully. Part of this includes having a wife who is your biggest supporter, your best friend, and the one you can bare your soul to. If you’re single and reading this, this is my encouragement to you: Marry well.
4) Don’t go it alone
The worst mistake as a leader is to isolate yourself, from not only those under your care but also from those you serve with. Leadership is often lonely enough, don’t make it any worse. Build a team around you that believe in your vision, who love the Lord, who are faithful and cheerful in giving and service, and who have a sincere love for what they do. They will make up for your weaknesses and accent your strengths. It’s a blessing to have adults in our student ministry that I can turn some things over to and who love to plug in and serve. During my PhD studies I have been out of the saddle several Wednesdays to be in Louisville for seminars. I had no shortage of guys who could fill the teaching gap and never miss a beat. Hopefully through those experiences they have been developed as leaders, that would be a great joy. It also applies to our church staff, building relationships with other ministry leaders and creating a climate of mutual encouragement, mutual edification, and mutual Eeyore-ing. It’s never perfect but surrounding yourself with other people is a huge blessing. As a young minister, I love the relationships I have with older guys who have been through what I’m going through and can speak truth into my life. Find these guys, love them, and invest in them.
5) If you’re an associate pastor, be your lead pastor’s biggest ally. If you’re a lead pastor, be your associate’s biggest ally
In many churches the ministries operate like departments in a company. They have leaders who respond to a central leader, each department has its own responsibilities, problems, and spheres of influence. Ministry leaders operate as independent agents and see their specific ministry as their place of service. But that’s not the case, 1 Corinthians teaches that the church is like a body, and what happens to one part of the body affects the whole. As an associate pastor, I see my responsibility to lead our student ministry, but also to support, encourage, and supplement the ministry of our lead pastor. My job is to make him look good, and to help him with ministry work so that he has the freedom to cast vision, preach, and teach. I have not always agreed with him, and he with me. But the worst thing you can do as a young pastor is undermine the work of your lead pastor, or to publicly disagree with him on the church’s direction. Behind closed doors, have at it, debate and dialogue. But in public, be on the same page. Same thing with parenting, mom and dad must be on the same page. My encouragement to young ministers, when you go to a church, make sure you’re on board with the lead pastor’s vision. If there ever comes a time you don’t, have the integrity to get out of the way (unless he is teaching heresy or acting immorally). Lead pastors, be the biggest public supporter of your staff. Brag on them from the pulpit, build trust among the church for them, involve them in the big picture of the church, and set them up for success. In the same vein, hold them accountable and don’t be scared to correct them when they goof up.
These are some things I’ve learned in the last 4 years, I hope they’re good lessons for you as well. It’s incomplete, intentionally so. That’s because there are still lessons to learn and ways to grow and correct. Until we’re all conformed to the imago Christi, press on.