Ministry is never easy, but it can be made less difficult with good practices. As a pastor for almost thirty years, I've usually had to learn things the hard way. One of my major concerns is for the young ministers who are just starting this wonderful, but often arduous journey. They are full of energy and enthusiasm, ideas and innovations that hopefully will bless the churches that they serve. Some of them, however, will not find it easy and may even think about giving up ministry altogether.
I offer these eight short points to anyone just starting out in ministry, not because I have perfected the art of being a pastor, but because I wish someone had helped me when I began to serve God by ministering to His people.
1. Manage your time. You will be constantly interrupted in the things you want to do for the church by people, events, and circumstances beyond your control. Setting up a rough timetable for the week, perhaps on a Sunday evening or a Monday morning, is a good place to start. It’s also a very good idea to work out an hourly timetable for each day. When I enter my office on workdays, I make a rough draft of what I hope to accomplish over the next 6-8 hours on an hourly basis.
2. Internalize less! This is absolutely crucial to surviving ministry. Not every criticism or push back against your ideas is personal, but they will be if you cradle them internally. It took me years to learn this. I would have prevented a lot of heartache, emotional turmoil, and stress if I had taken criticism as suggestive and not combative. As pastors, we tend to think that God gives us the unique visionary gift that our churches need. This is not the case. God works through all of His people. Just because someone voices a different opinion does not mean to say that they are castigating you as ineffective or unimportant. Learn to be a team player and actually encourage others to make suggestions – it's far more productive and emotionally refreshing.
3. Nurture the people. The people of the church are the flock that you are called to care for. You serve God best by helping His people and getting to know their names. People support pastors who actually care about them. Take time to talk with folks before and after worship on Sundays. Be there to reassure them during times of crisis and illness. Celebrate their successes and joyful moments. For introverted pastors, this can be very difficult, but know this: it’s absolutely essential. The people are your business – let them know that you truly care. If you have a church breakfast, dinner, or picnic, then work the tables and go round each small group or family. Avoid sitting by the wayside or being on your own – it makes folks mistakenly think that you're distant, aloof, and uncaring.
4. Improve things. When I was a young tenderfoot pastor, I thought that a large part of my work was to change things. I had learned a great deal of new ways of worshipping, study, and practicing ministry in seminary that I was determined to use in order to re-shape the congregation into my own satellite seminary. This was totally wrong. The congregation had its own culture, traditions, and ministries that had been in existence for several generations. I learned very soon that I had to honor that history and culture in order to be accepted.
I now believe that pastors are not called to change things; instead, we're called to improve things. This may involve making improvements to the physical structure, as well as the spiritual soul of the congregation. It takes time, determination, and strength to do this, but in the end the goal of every pastor should be to leave the church in a much better condition, than when we first were called to it.
5. Sabbath Taking is a Must! Always take a day off each week! For years I neglected to do this, vainly thinking that I was required to be at the church 24/7/365. My health deteriorated; my relationship with my family was almost wrecked; and my effectiveness gradually diminished. In other words, I learned the hard way of how not to be an effective pastor because I felt guilty or undeserving of taking a day off. Nowadays, I take Tuesdays off and everyone in the congregation knows it. I may read, relax, go fishing, do drawings, or absolutely nothing at all. It is a wonderful gift of a weekly Sabbath.
By the way, taking Saturdays off doesn't count as a day off. Mostly everyone else has a Saturday and even a Sunday off from work, so don’t delude yourself into thinking that a Saturday is your day off to be with family. Also, I take Tuesdays off because Mondays don’t work for me. There’s always some carry over from Sunday that needs to be dealt with on Monday. Waiting until Tuesday puts me in a better frame of mind to actually rest and be thankful!
6. Teach! You spent a lot of years at Seminary learning about theology, ecclesiastical history, and the Bible. You are a great resource for the people of the church to learn about the Christian faith. If you have time on Sunday mornings, teach a Sunday school class – it will keep you on your toes and may even provide a last minute example or illustration for your sermon! Use different seasons on the Church Calendar to set up a short series of midweek or even online classes – Lent and Advent are great opportunities to do this. Teach a small group at the church or in a coffee house using scripture or a new book worth studying. Preaching a series on Sundays is a great vehicle for expressing your beliefs, but teaching in a classroom actually provides you with important feedback, faith-sharing moments, and even fellowship.
7. Read! One of the luxuries that we have as pastors is that our folks expect us and allow us to do a lot of reading. This is essential to our well-being, as well as our leadership potential. Christian Books, e-books, blogs, online newsletters and magazines are more available to us now than at any other time in the history of ministry. We have a greater opportunity of widening our experiences and knowledge than pastors in previous generations. Enjoy this great gift and remember, if you want to effectively lead, you need to constantly read!
8. You are called by God. Never, ever forget this greatest of all gifts in your life. God has called you to ministry because He knows your potential and has a purpose for you to fulfill. Every pastor that I have ever known has gone through times of crisis, despair, and doubt. It's very easy to self-denigrate your own ministry, especially when times are tough economically or denominationally. It is essential to remember each day that the greatest Being in all of the universe has called you to do His work, be part of His Son’s ministry, and fulfill the Great Commission. You are not just a child of God’s grace, which is a beautiful thing in itself, you are also a chosen, called servant, which is a wonderful thing to know. Circumstances and people, crises and problems may cause you to question your work as a pastor, preacher, teacher, and minister. But in all of these things, know this for certain, you are called by God and He has not made a mistake!
I hope that these personal thoughts and short points may help you on your new journey. If I can help you or pray for you as a fellow pastor at any time, please don’t hesitate to send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
God bless you for accepting His call. May God grant you the desire of your heart and fulfillment of your plans.
Erin Presbyterian Church,
Knoxville, TN 37932