Lessons for Younger Leaders

As 2012 draws to a close there are two big milestones I’ve finally reached. The first this year was turning 30. The second is that I’ve completed five full years of vocational ministry. These two milestones are big for this reason: I finally get to move up in the demographic surveys I take! For the last few years I’ve had to check the youngest and least experienced blocks. But now, I’m moving up the ladder to the next youngest and next least experienced. With that move comes the need to share five things with younger ministers, those who are just starting off or who are in their preparatory phase of life. This list is not exclusive but merely a starting point.

  • Read a lot. If you’re wanting to be a leader, you must be a reader. You have to stay up on the literature base, keep up with the trends in the journals and blogosphere. You need to continually refine and reinvent your thinking and analyze your presuppositions and ministry practices. The best place to get all that is in a book. You cannot lead others without first leading yourself. And being a student doesn’t stop at graduation. Five books I would recommend you read this year: Josh Harris Dug Down Deep, Al Mohler Conviction to Lead, Thom Rainer & Eric Geiger Simple Church, Kevin DeYoung & Ted Kluck Why We Love the Church, and Mike Bonem & Roger Patterson Leading from the Second Chair. But read beyond these books. Read books on history, read systematic/biblical theology, read good fiction, read towards your specialty (children’s, youth, music, education), read biographies of missionaries and influential Christians, check out reading lists to see what other people are reading, read stuff you don’t agree with, read outside your denomination, read more than Piper, and read for fun. Turn off the TV and pick up good fiction. All that said: exercise discernment when reading. You’re not DA Carson, you can’t read everything out there. Take advantage of book reviews and synopsis of books you don’t have time for. Three tips to reading well: read wisely, read broadly, and read consistently.
  • Network. Gather with other guys in your area who are working in similar circumstances. I regularly meet with a handful of other student pastors in our area for lunch or coffee. Every time we get together we all come away sharpened from the experience. We talk about ministry, our families, ourselves, and we always try to spur one another on. There is always a discussion of books, teaching topics, what’s effective (and not), and encouragement. Network outside your community too, so make time to go to conferences, read/interact on blogs, and take advantage of social media. I tell my interns that they should try to make at least 10 new contacts in their network every year, starting locally and branching out until they have a national network of co-laborers. Three benefits to networking are: Mutual encouragement, fresh ideas, and connections. Networking can lead to other opportunities, so it’s great to know people and let them get to know you. Most churches don’t have time to research everyone, so they rely on people they know to recommend people for positions. Networking also can be a great tool when you face the inevitable discouragement. I just scrolled my phone and counted 37 people I can call or text if I need edification. How many do you have? Keep that list handy and stay in touch regularly with other ministers. Networking also helps spur on ideas. Things get stale after 2 or 3 times, so always ask what other people are doing, teaching over, focusing on, etc. Stay in contact with leaders in your state who are well-resourced and can get you in contact with other ministry leaders in your area.
  • Get more education or training. Take every opportunity to get more education, more training, more sharpening as a pastor, theologian, and practitioner. Online education provides you with the resources and equipping you need without having to uproot your family and ministry. Finish college, get a masters degree, get another masters, do doctoral work if you really want to be ‘sanctified,’ and take advantage of continuing education opportunities. Go to conferences, sit under solid teachers, sit down with experts and dialogue with them about sharpening your ministry. If you go to a new church, ask them about helping support your education. If you’re an alumni, take advantage of alumni academies or other ways of continuing education. It keeps you in the literature, it helps sharpen you, and it builds on your gift sets. The beauty is, as a minister and student, you can apply what you have learned to the church, and the church to what you do in class. It provides a double-focus of theory and practice. Education also opens doors for you to reach your destination, whatever your end-game goal is. Those years of preparation and training may give you the advantage to help land that ministry, and help equip you with the necessary tools to faithfully serve.
  • Find a mentor. Don’t just settle for a boss, find a Paul. In 1-2 Timothy you see this relationship between Paul and Timothy look like a father-son relationship. It’s evident that Paul is investing greatly in Timothy as not only a pastor but as a protege. I have felt strongly about this for many years that young ministers need to have a mentor in their life to prepare, equip, teach, correct, and encourage them – so much so I’m writing my PhD dissertation on this subject! You have the opportunity as a young minister to interview your potential boss too. Ask him to commit to mentoring you, to helping you sharpen your spiritual gifts and develop the necessary competencies/skills for doing pastoral ministry. Let me say this to you younger ministers: do not go to a church if your pastor is unwilling to mentor you and develop you. This ministry model of segregated silos is unhealthy in the short-term and long-term. Younger ministers must think about their 20 year plan and trajectory and older pastors have the opportunity to leave a lasting legacy. Sit under the wisdom of a man who has served the church faithfully for decades. Soak every piece of knowledge you can. Take advantage of opportunities to visit the hospital, do funerals, preach, counsel, sit in on committee meetings, and be open to feedback and evaluation.
  • Learn from your mistakes. You will make mistakes. You will do and say dumb things that right after it happens you’ll say “aw stink, that was dumb.” If you haven’t, you will, or you’re in denial. Either way, get ready. I made a huge mistake a couple years ago after being fed up with the faultless criticism our pastor was facing, and allowed myself to lose my cool in the pulpit – which I immediately recognized and repented of before the church. I had some good godly people correct me and offer feedback. I also had a few who took that as an opportunity to… let’s say… threaten to have me fired if I ever did that again. To be honest, those were very dark days with great anxiety. I don’t regret what I said, nor even taking a very stern tone, but do regret allowing my emotions to rule and give cause for sin. Some of our students and folks still give me a hard time about it, but do so in a loving way that gives us all a bit of a laugh. Here are three things to do when you make a mistake: First, own up to it. Don’t live in denial. You do something dumb, admit it. Apologize to offended parties, repent, and accept what happened. If you didn’t do anything immoral or illegal, relax. If you did, get counseling. Second, use it as a learning experience. Share it with other people as an example of what not to do. Look for ways to redeem the situation with not only yourself and the offended party but also the church, and remember that even your stupid mistake fits into Romans 8:28. Third, grow thick skin. There are still people who won’t look at me when I walk down the hall or try to say hello to them, I’ve seen me come up on Facebook (actually not ever been named, but it’s obvious), and my mistake has been the subject of much gossip, rumor, and grumbling in various meetings and hallway conversations. Here’s why I can’t be mad: I did it. I did something really dumb. So I have to deal with it. Do I wish more people were encouraging, prayed for me, allowed me to share my heart with them, and forgave me? Yes. But that’s life. So young minister, listen well to your critics but don’t find your identity in them – find that only in the finished work of Christ for your behalf (and strangely enough, the guy who threatens to have you fired… that’s humbling!). You will make mistakes in your budget, you’ll say dumb things when you teach, you’ll take out a kid playing basketball, or in a rush leave someone at McDonalds. But the difference is to learn from them, and to remember that God’s grace is sufficient for you.

As year 6 begins my prayer is simple: Make much of Jesus, be faithful to His Word, make disciples, develop a Christian worldview, and stir a passion for missions. Everything else is irrelevant.

Count Zinzendorf: Preach the Gospel, die, and be forgotten.

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