Okay, so I was a bit inspired by Dave Miller’s post giving advice to the young whippersnapper types around. Now on the one hand they say, “You’re only as young as you feel!” If that’s true, then I think I must be nearing retirement. If 31 feels this different from 21, I hate to think what 41 or, gasp, 51 holds! But no matter how I feel, I still fit into that whippersnapper category.
Later this year will mark the completion of my 8th year in pastoral ministry. While some would still consider that the infant stage, or maybe toddler, I tend to look at it more from the angle of, “Wow…that’s going to be in double digits before I know it. How’d I survive this long?” And to think, Jesus was really only just starting out when he was my age!
But as much as us young guys still desperately need mentors, learnin’, and someone to give us the occasional smack to the back of the head or kick to the rear, we have not gone without our own scrapes and bruises and hopefully stand as better men now. So I thought I would share some things I have learned along the way:
#1: Tiny little country churches provide a great atmosphere of spiritual formation for pastors. During my first semester at SBTS, I made frequent trips to the bulletin board where the school posted pastoral job openings. I applied for many, was interviewed and rejected for a youth pastor position, and finally was invited to preach at this tiny country church in The Middle of Nowhere, Indiana. The building was small, the floors creaked and so did the pews, and there were a lot of smiling older ladies.
They voted Democrat, I, well, usually didn’t. They ate potato chips off table tops, I preferred a plate. They brought all sorts of weird things to carry-in dinners, I brought Rotel dip and was asked for my recipe because they had never seen it before. They had stories about cats and dead husbands, I had…well not much at the ripe ol’ age of 23 when I first started.
I had preached at my home church on occasion, and as pulpit supply for my home association—move in, move out, smile, collect a check, go home—but I never had been tasked with the duty to feed a congregation of Jesus’ sheep week after week. It was a new challenge, but they endured, and I grew better.
Before hand, I had rolled my eyes at stories of cranky people in the church, but never had to spend time on my knees in prayer over a situation and repentance of my own anger when confronted by such a person as their pastor.
My roommate told me how in the cafeteria he overheard one professor tell another professor, “Seminary students shouldn’t be pastors—they’re only in it for the money.” I got a good laugh about that the next Sunday as I collected my $50 per week salary.
The people there were sweet and frustrating, they were a source of joy and jaw-dropping moments, they loved me in that sweet old lady type of way, they smiled when they agreed with what I said and smiled when they told me why I was wrong…half the time I couldn’t wait to get away, now I look back and think: “You dummy, that church was one of the best things that happened to you—you wouldn’t be the man you are today without it!” Personally, I think that every pastor, especially semi-arrogant seminary-types, should start out in churches like that.
#2: My primary job is to make disciples, not to preach. Along the way I have learned that I preach but I am not a preacher. According to Acts 6, the main purpose of my “job” is to devote myself to prayer and the ministry of the word, but center stage for this is not behind a pulpit on Sunday mornings or even the evenings but in bringing the word to bear through relationships with people.
Don’t get me wrong—I love to preach and teach, and I have the personality to easily lock myself in my study and craft sermons and such. I could do this 40-hours a week without coming face to face with another individual and be content.
At my second church, the first one that was “full time,” I made a mistake. They wanted me to teach Sunday School, preach Sunday mornings and Sunday evenings, teach at Wednesday night services, and also at a Tuesday night service. I said, “Sound’s great.” After all, I could teach that much—just so long as I had time to study.
So I studied and prepared and studied and prepared and did little with the people themselves. They started to gripe, I started to gripe about their griping, and it all went downhill. Now, less time in the pulpit doesn’t bother me. I have other men who want to preach and teach, so I work with them and I let them.
I still study and prepare as much as I need to, but I personally mentor certain individuals and invest in their lives and help them learn to mentor others. I open my home to a men’s small group where we can gather together and live out 2 Timothy 2:2. I have a rotation involving my deacons and the other guys who preach, and we go and spend time in homes and get to know the people, speak the word into their lives, and pray with them.
I used to make preaching my primary focus, and while I still strive to excel and teach well while preaching, my focus is instead doing all I can to make disciples who strive to make disciples.
#3: And with prayer…I let my congregation know I am praying for them. It is one thing to say in general to the church, “As your pastor I’m praying for you.” It is another thing to let them know specifically, “I am praying for you.” I read about it on another blog, Practical Shepherding, and thought “Why haven’t I done this before?” That was about a year ago… The suggestion was to take the names of the families of the church, divide them onto a 28-day calendar, pray for a certain number of families each day, and then put a card in the mail letting them know I prayed and asking for requests.
Since then I have heard it a lot: “Thank you for praying for me, that means so much.” “You know, people tell us they pray for us, but it’s nice to know someone actually does it.” “That card meant so much to me, I received it just when I needed it!”
I wish I could boast (well, part of me does). My pride tells me, “I wish I had figured this out on my own.” Reality tells me, “Oh, you think you’re so smart, why didn’t you figure this out on your own?” This is one of those things I wish I could take back eight years ago and start from day one, giving a constant reminder the flock I serve as under-shepherd that I do love them, think about them, and pray for them.
#4: That this pastoring thing is really meant for older and wiser men. Most of us have probably heard some version of that old church joke: “We want a pastor who is in his forties, but has the energy of a twenty-year-old, the maturity of a sixty-year-old, cool enough to relate to the teenagers, traditional enough to speak King James English, and has a wife who can play the piano while singing in the choir and overseeing the nursery.”
There is truth in some of it, especially that maturity part. I think there is a reason why the Bible most often uses the term “elder” for the office that we modern-day Southern Baptist so stubbornly call “pastor.” It’s the same reason why Paul makes good character the number one requirement for eldership, including faithfulness to spouse and this little tidbit about home and family: “He must manage his own household well, with all dignity keeping his children submissive, for if someone does not know how to manage his own household, how will he care for God’s church?”
My years in pastoral ministry have taught me, above all, that most of us dudes in our 20’s and early 30’s in fact have no clue how to care for God’s church well because we haven’t been trained through managing our households and haven’t proven ourselves by caring for our wives and raising our children in the “discipline and instruction of the Lord.” We lack the needed maturity because in most cases, even if we have young families, we are just getting started in that character growth.
I know this seems out of touch with some of the thinking in our culture today that tends to value education and “in church” experience more than the qualities of character forged in the fires of home life… but, if I could speak to my even younger and whippersnappier self, I would tell me to wait: “Get married, have kids, work a job, learn as much about the Bible and theology as you can, learn to disciple your family, learn to care for your own household, serve as much as you can, learn what it is to truly be a man, and learn under pastors who truly are ‘elders,” and then you can take that experience and go care for God’s household.”
And so ends the confessions of this whippersnapper…at least for now! 😀