I have been in the minsitry for more than half my life, and have learn some valuable lessons along the way - most in the school of hard knocks. If I were to advise a new pastor who was beginning his ministry today, here’s what I would suggest:
1. Quit living and dying by the numbers each Sunday. Yes, numbers count because every number represents a person for whom Jesus died. But numbers can be torturous too. Live by the numbers, pastor, and you will die by them.
2. Turn over more responsibility to key people, empower them, and then support them before the congregation. And when some of the members begin whining because “We want the pastor, not an assistant” I would tell them to get over it, and have the strength to stick to the plan.
I’m sorry I let myself be manipulated by people who insisted I be the one to show up at their events or was the one they preferred to visit their hospital room, etc, even though plenty of others were just as qualified as me. It ran me ragged and the church suffered for it.
3. Reserve the morning hours for secluded study of God’s Word and sermon preparation. Even if it means staying home during these hours, I would do it. There are too many distractions, interruptions, phone calls, or walk-ins that will throw you off. Pastors are under a seven-day deadline every single week to deliver another message. The pressure of doing this week-after-week, month-after-month, year-after-year, is something most people do not experience in their line of work, so they won’t understand. Doesn’t matter. Do it anyway. Your pulpit ministry will be much better.
Early in my ministry I spent too much time visiting hospitals, attending denominational meetings, or keeping morning appointments so I could check those tasks off the list and then have the rest of the day for other things. Consequently, I was always behind on sermon preparation and found myself burning the midnight oil on Friday or Saturday night too often. And my pulpit ministry suffered for it.
4. I would not do any counseling. Early in my ministry people would call me for counseling appointments, to which I gladly agreed. Those time-slots would crowd out everything else on the calendar that day. When word got out that I was a “counseling preacher” I was inundated with counseling appointments – sometimes three or four a day. That’s more than any professional counselor schedules in his/her workday (not to mention they charge $75-$100 an hour)!
Of course, these appointments were in addition to all of my regular pastoral duties and personal responsibilities to my family. When I dragged home for dinner in the evening, I had no energy for anything but sleep.
I eventually figured out that it is better to say no to most counseling appointments or refer them to professionals (who are much better at it than I am) even if it means being criticized. The reasons far outweigh the consequences.
5. I would be more straightforward and a little less “the nice guy” to church bullies or squeaky wheels who always expect to get their way in the church. Every church has a few bullies. Early in my ministry I was intimidated by them. By the time I planted PCC I was seasoned enough to know how deal with them. It’s why I am still here and they are not.
6. Take better care of yourself and your family. Put your family first, before church work. Most pastors do not intentionally neglect their spouse and children. Rather, they are trying as hard as they can to serve God by “fulfilling the ministry” (Colossians 4:17) to which they have been called. But somewhere along the way, that’s exactly what they do – neglect their families by doing too much church work.
To enter the ministry is to live in a world of unfinished tasks, with more work to be done, and more people to be helped. When you drop your head on the pillow at night, you can always think of more things that need to be done, people who still need a call, sermons to prepare, and projects that need attention.
That’s the real-world life of a pastor, and if you are not careful your wife and children will get the dregs of your time, the leftovers of your attention, and the last of your energies.
So here’s my advice. Build some margin into your schedule. Take more time off. Don’t work so many evenings or after-hours. Attend fewer meetings. Take longer vacations. Go camping, fishing, hiking, whatever.
And have a life outside of church-life.
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