It was one of those moments that is shocking, telling, and yes, abundantly gross. Back in the good old days, the BCI had an annual pastors and wives retreat in the Amana Colonies; a highlight of the year for all of us. After the meetings were over one night I was “fellowshipping” with a group of about half a dozen pastors. Okay, we were hanging out in the large hot tub at the hotel! I told you it was gross. As the chat progressed I had a moment of revelation – I was no longer the young whippersnapper in the group. I was the old guy, the voice of experience. The young pastors were peppering me with questions and seeking advice. Things had changed!
When did that happen?
It is a disturbing thing in more than one way.
- That hot-tub revelation was now over 15 years ago. If I was the voice of wisdom and experience then, what am I now?
- More importantly, I believe I’ve learned some lessons in life – some the hard way – that can help some of you young whippersnappers. I’d love to see some of you avoid the mistakes I made. I did some things right, but I made some mistakes as well.
I hope you will listen and learn. There is a certain arrogance that often attaches to youth. I had it – in full measure and in spades. Some might question the past tense! A few years ago I saw a comment by a young whippersnapper friend who stated on a blog that the younger generation was hopefully going to be able to rescue the church from the compromise and theological muddle of my generation and those older than me. That’s how I felt about the older generation when I was his age. I comfort myself that when he’s my age (if he’s made it in ministry) young whippersnappers will be saying the same thing!
My dad’s generation got some things very right and they messed up some things. My generation got some things very right and messed up some things. Young whippersnappers, your generation has done some good things but you also do not have it all together. We can learn a few things from you, but I hope you understand that there are some things you can learn from those of us with wrinkles, gray hair, and a lot of miles on our seminary diplomas.
I’d like to share my heart with you and I’m begging you to listen. Please join me in the virtual hot tub (I will keep my clothes, I promise) and let me share some wisdom with you that I have learned through the years of battle, of slogging through good times and bad. This will help you. Each of these is based on biblical truth but my views have been forged in fires of conflict, hard times, heartaches, sleepless nights, and those dark nights of the soul.
So, here are some of my suggestions for your consideration.
1) Take care of your body.
1 Timothy 4:8 says it perfectly (as one might expect from a perfect word). Physical exercise profits “a little” and is worthwhile. It has value. But godliness profits in all things. We ought to maintain our physical bodies but not make idols out of physical fitness.
Can I share a recipe with you?
- Take a marathon runner who can eat anything and not gain weight because of the number of calories his training regiment burns.
- Slow down his training schedule gradually.
- Continue to add the massive calorie intake of the marathon runner.
- Stir for approximately 30 years in a high-stress, sedentary ministry position.
The result of this? A morbidly obese preacher in his late 50s begging for his first coronary!
We joke about fat Baptist preachers, but there is nothing funny about it. In addition to the fact that it is a public testimony every Sunday of my lack of self-control, my weight affects my ministry negatively. It affects my health, my ability to serve, my energy. Do you know what else it affects? Guidestone rates! If all us SBC preachers got in shape our rates would go down!
Nearly two years ago, I got serious and went on a real diet. I count calories and take some medicines, working with my doctor. I lost a lot of weight and now I’m on a plateau which I’m trying to break through. The first 50 pounds was easy, but the body defends itself against weight loss! As I was out walking through the Loess Hills of Sioux City yesterday I figured out something no one else has ever thought of, I’m sure.
It is easier to get fat than to get skinny.
The best diet is to simply take care of yourself in your 20s, 30s, and 40s. Back then, I was a marathon running, sports-crazy guy. I’m concerned at how many young guys I see now who look the way it took me 25 years to look!
Guys, God loves you fat or thin and there is no reason a preacher needs to be a CrossFit devotee. But stay in shape, reasonably slender. Get some exercise. Don’t be like me. Your body is a tool to be used in service to God. You will be a better pastor when you are fifty if your body is in reasonable condition. It’s an act of stewardship.
2) Beware the slavery of debt
Debt is not a sin, but it is a path to pain for preachers. You want to make your life as a pastor a huge pain in the neck, stress your marriage to breaking point, and sap the joy from everything you do? Dig yourself into a deep debt hole!
There are some preachers out there who make serious bank, but they are rare. Most of us struggle financially. The tendency is to use debt to get stuff we can’t afford through “easy payments.” We refinance and the debt spiral continues. There are a lot of pastors whose ministries are threatened not by immorality or false doctrine or other disqualifying sin, but by the soul-sapping, joy-choking, life-stealing power of debt. If you sense that I am sharing personal testimony here, all I can say is that while I’m giving no details you are right. Sleepless nights. Conflict. Despair. A desire to escape. A sense of hopelessness. A searing pain deep in my soul.
It is so unnecessary today. With online resources and computer programs, tracking your finances is a snap. I used to have to do all that by hand. My family would clear out when it was time for dad to “do the checkbook.” Now, with online resources, I can track my finances moment by moment.
Look, my friend, if you are determined to get rich, do not go into the ministry. That’s not what its all about. Hopefully, churches will pay decent wages, but if God calls you to serve in average churches, get used to the fact that you will not drive a decked-out Lincoln Navigator. That struggle is going to be real and it is only going to be made worse if you include debt into the mix. You think you have to have this or that? There are few things that are worth the crushing pain that drowning in debt can bring.
Please don’t ignore me on this one, guys. Pretty please?
3) Remember that your critics are your friends
I don’t particularly enjoy being criticized, but I can tell you that at 59 I handle it a lot better than I did at 49, at 39, and especially at 29. Back then I would go into fetal position on my bed for about a week if someone told me I’d done something wrong. What is sad is that the previous sentence is only a slight exaggeration!
I had to learn two things.
- Not every criticism of me is right. I was so insecure and fearful that I would crumble before every criticism. I’d often strike back defensively because I was so scared of it.
- Not every criticism of me is wrong. Sometimes, even the blind squirrel finds an acorn, right? A critic may actually say something that is right.
There has been a trend in recent years to design systems of church polity that protect the pastor from dealing with criticism and negative opinions. I’ve known pastors who cast anyone who disagreed with them as the enemies of Christ, as “divisive,” and as worthy of church discipline. No person should ever be put under church discipline because he or she disagrees with the pastor or even because that person expresses criticism of decisions or actions.
That “thorn in the flesh” who is always on your back can actually be a tool of God in your life, puncturing your pride and driving you to seek God. They can cause you to reevaluate your plans and question whether your strategy was as brilliant as you thought is was. They can keep you on your toes. Every church has these people. Every church needs these people.
Don’t treat them like the enemy. Don’t try to run them off. Listen to them. Befriend them. Pastor them. Apply scriptural principles like “return good for evil” and “love your enemies.” If we preach grace and then treat anyone who disagrees with us without it at all, are we really servants of God? Do not these critics give us an opportunity to demonstrate the way of the Cross.
All of this leads to the next point.
4) You earn the right to lead with love, perseverance, and faithfulness.
When you walk into a pulpit, the church gives you a six month supply of leadership bucks for you to spend, just because they hired you to be their pastor. It’s a limited amount and it will soon be gone. Any credibility and leadership you have in the church after that initial supply is gone is earned by faithful service and ministry to the church.
Feeding the people from the Word is an important part of that, but being a pastor is more than being a pulpiteer. You earn leadership by loving people. Jesus saved us by sacrificial love and you will earn leadership the same way. People need to see that you are the real deal – a man of God, not an actor playing a man of God. They need to see you stick it out through hard times, respond with grace to insult and resistance and continue to faithfully do God’s work no matter how hard it is.
Of course, what I’m saying is largely true of smaller churches, but that is where you start your ministry most of the time, isn’t it? We all begin our ministries sure we will end up in one of the megas someday, but for 95% of us, it never happens.
If you go into a church and try to force your agenda on that church, try to change its structure according to your vision, or make the church operate your way, before you have earned the “leadership bucks” necessary to pay for that kind of change, you will split that church and cause yourself great pain. If you are going to change a church, invest yourself into that church for YEARS before you do. Love the people. Let them learn to trust you and love you. When they love you and trust you they will begin to follow you. Great damage is done by men who try to force an agenda on a church when they have not earned the trust of the people when they have not earned their leadership bucks.
5. Some wars aren’t worth fighting.
This is something I’ve seen in blogging through the years – some folks will just never let something. Someone says something. Someone else answers. Then the first responds, then the second, then the first, then the second. Back and forth. Back and forth. And no one is ever willing to just drop it, to let it go. They continue to just snipe at each, not willing to let the other have the last word.
My dad said something that stuck with me. He said, “Most fights in a church will heal completely in a short time as long as the pastor does nothing about them.” Someone has a bad day, comes to church and says something mean to you. Don’t make a federal case. Extend grace. Let it go. Absorb the pain and take it to the Lord.
The trick, of course, is figuring out when something needs to be dealt with. If you make a mountain out off a molehill, you cause problems. If you make molehill out of mountain, eventually the mountain will crush you.
Here is what I’m saying, and it is hard. Jesus was talked about, lied about, mistreated, and done dirty. You are called to serve the Body of Christ and walk as Christ did.
If you are a pastor, you will be gossiped about. You have to respond in love. People will call you names and you pray for them. Members will seek to destroy you and you must seek to edify them. As Christ laid down his life for us we must humble ourselves and lay down our lives for the body of Christ. We may not die for the church but we have to live for it.
If you aren’t willing to suffer a little injustice, get another job. If you have to settle every score, answer every insult, respond to every slight, you are not a pastor. Paul said his goal was not only to know Christ and his resurrection power, but to share in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death (Philippians 3:10). Sometimes the sheep bite the shepherd. The good shepherd doesn’t slaughter them, but continues to love and serve them.
Remember, Jesus died for the men who nailed him to the cross, those who ridiculed him while he hung there, those who cast lots for his clothing. He looked down from the cross and said, “Father, forgive them.” That is our model!
There’s more to say, but this ought to do for one day.