At age 60, with something pretty close to a clean bill of health from my doctor, I have no intentions of dropping out of ministry any time soon. I don’t know if I have five years, or fifteen, or twenty-five left in active ministry. I am planning to keep preaching and serving until I am no longer able. But the fact is that having served churches for nearly 4 decades the majority of my ministry is behind me not in front of me.
Paul’s words in 2 Timothy 4 have always been both a goal and a taunt to me. “I have fought the good fight, I’ve finished the race, I’ve kept the faith.” He had struggled to continue on in the race of ministry and to keep faithful to Christ no matter what came against against him. I want to be able to say that when I reach my final gasp, when I see the end approaching. But I also see missed opportunities, failures, and bad choices that make me wonder if I will be able to say that.
I rest in the fact that ministry is an act of God’s grace and that he is faithful even when I fail. I believe God has used me but I also look back with longing and wish I could get a few do-overs. Two contrasting facts present here.
- I know a lot more now than I did back when I was a young whippersnapper.
- I remember how hardheaded and self-assured I was in those days and I’m not sure that if I could time travel back to the early and mid-80s that young whippersnapper Dave would listen to the wisdom old fogey Dave has to give. I’d like to share some of my thoughts about what I’d do differently if I could start it all over again and if I could get my young self to listen to reason.
I’ve had a wide range of experiences. I’ve been the guy the state office asked to come and speak because our church was growing so fast and they wanted me to share what we were doing with everyone else so that they could do what we were doing. I’ve also pastored churches that were plateaued and recently, a church going through a painful time of contention and split. I’ve seen it all. I’ve been through good times and burnout, even depression. I have made enough mistakes to fill several volumes but I have managed, to this point, to remain faithful to my wife, to the Word, and to One who purchased my soul.
I would offer these thoughts to you younger pastors and I hope you will accept them from my heart. A few of them come from victories and many of them come from deep regrets, from my failures.
If I had it all to do over again
1. I would find Paul.
My ministry hero is my dad and I learned a lot from him. My first ministry out of seminary was under him. The church decided (over his objections – he thought people who were upset with him might pick on me) to hire me as an associate pastor/youth pastor. I learned a lot in those five years. But my dad’s managerial style was hands off. He was an immensely busy man, with a national Bible Conference ministry and a growing church to lead. He trusted me to do my job and let me do it.
I never really had a ministry mentor. The seminary gave me a class or two on “Pastoral Ministry” but they were worthless. I had to learn while doing. I did a few things well and I never learned to do other things.
I wish I could go back to February 1, 1982, the day I started at that church, and tell my young, skinny self to find a man or group of men I trusted and ask them to mentor me in ministry. I knew how to study and preach, but I didn’t know much about pastoral ministry, time management, and other things. There were some other churches around and there were a couple of deeply spiritual and mature men in the church I could have worked with. Paul had Barnabas. Timothy and Titus had Paul. I had to learn ministry on my own and I believe it set me back in my Christian and ministerial maturity.
2. I would never walk alone.
I am a loner at heart. I think a lot of us pastors are. We love to sit in our studies and think deep thoughts and interact with the great minds of church history and read and prepare messages. That is all a part of ministry. But one thing I noticed about Paul as I studied Acts is that he never went anywhere alone. He had Timothy and Titus and Luke and Aristarchus and Gaius and the rest. Some, like Demas, forsook him. But everything he did in ministry was a group effort.
If I had it to do over again, I would force myself out of my loner personality and include others in more of what I did. I’d take people with me on visits. My ministry would be more of a group effort than a solo project.
3. I would not get fat.
When I entered the ministry I was a recovering marathon running addict. Over thirty years I gained 200 pounds by continuing to eat like a marathon runner when I did
We laugh about fat preachers but in reality it is not a laughing matters. We are slowly killing ourselves with bad diets. We rail against alcohol and drugs but obesity is also highly destructive to our bodies (though not perhaps as dangerous when we drive) and it is a poor witness to our lack of self-control we stand in the pulpit.
I have been fighting the fight over recent years and weight loss after 50, after 55, and after age 60 is hard. It would have been a lot easier just not to become morbidly obese in the first place. I’m not saying we preachers must be CrossFit devotees or that we should idolize physical fitness as some do. But taking care of our bodies is good stewardship and it is
I would have been a better minister in the church of Jesus Christ at 200 or 230 or even 250 than I was at 350 or 370. Gentlemen, bodily exercise has some profit! That’s in our holy book.
Let’s not pretend that morbid obesity is meaningless in ministry.
4. I would fail more.
I have known numerical success and numerical struggle as a pastor. I’m not talking about that. I am talking about the fear of failure that has sometimes kept me from trying things I believed were good ideas – godly ideas – because of how people might react if they came crashing down.
Some years ago, I began to sense that we should start a church in South Sioux (the Nebraska town across the Missouri River where no SBC church existed at the time – there’s a thriving Hispanic work there now). I went to my leaders and to the people with the idea of starting a church over there through intentional church split. We would gather a group of people (25 to 40) and they would begin worshiping in South Sioux. We’d have services there during the Sunday School hour. Our church staff would serve both churches while the South Sioux congregation got on its feet and then they’d go their separate way.
There are several church dynamics that go into that which I won’t explore here, but we suddenly began to get some pushback at Southern Hills. This will hurt Southern Hills. If we give up that many younger people, it will have a negative impact on us. I was going through a difficult time personally and I did not react as I should. I believe I should have challenged the church to believe God and move forward. I gave in to the negativity and abandoned the idea. All of the younger folks who were considering helping in that new church eventually got frustrated with the traditionalism at SHBC and moved on, or left for other reasons. They are all gone and there is still no English-speaking SBC church in South Sioux.
Instead of following what I believed was God’s leading, I gave in to negativity. I “kept the peace.” There are other complicating dynamics there I won’t go into, but I wish I had, with grace and kindness, challenge Southern Hills to go forward in faith and not given up so easily on that dream. If it failed, it failed. But the dream didn’t fail. I did. I gave up.
If God puts something on your heart, be willing to go forward with it!
5. I would live for God’s applause alone.
It is easy for me to say, since I’m now toward the end of my ministry and my family is grown. But if I was more faithful to God I think I’d probably have been on the edge of being fired far more than I was in my ministry.
I pastored a church many years back that had a strong contingent of racists in its membership. I’ve shared here how a group of black teens played basketball on the church parking lot and it broke out in a crisis. We had a scheduled business meeting that week and the church “sent me a message” by voting down my raise and denying deacon status to my best friend. I talked it over with the deacon who had invited the young men to play basketball at the church and we agreed that there was little to be gained by fighting the matter at that point. Just let God change hearts over time.
We thought at the time we were doing the right thing. If I had confronted the issue, I do not know what would have happened. There’d have been a huge fight and likely a church split. And the vote on whether to fire the pastor would have probably come down to a few ballots either way. If the same thing happened now, I would fight it to the bitter end, whatever that was. It is one of the reasons I was so strong in defending Jonathan Greer when he was fired for inviting Black children to VBS. He stood strong where I didn’t and got fired for it. Some, here on Voices, defended the church and blamed Greer, but I admired a young man who was willing to get fired for righteousness’ sake.
I don’t know what God will say at the judgment seat, but I know that my biggest problem as a servant of God has been living for the applause of man. “Nice sermon, pastor.” “You are great, Pastor Dave.” If forget it is entirely possible for God to applaud me and everyone else to be mad and for my church to carry me off on their shoulders (well…) while Heaven is silent.
Live for the pleasure of God alone.
6. I would learn time management.
I’ve always known this was one of my weaknesses. Hopefully, if I’d had a mentor, he’d have helped me. But the key to effectiveness is using time wisely and I have always struggled with that. Men, if you are a time waster, get that under control. Figure it out. Everything else flows from “redeeming the time.”
There is more to be said, but this is enough for now. I’d manage debt better. I’d keep my marriage and family relationships better. I’d work harder, pray more, study more. All of that. But these are some of the things I’d do.
- Any reactions, young whippersnappers?
- Anything to add, old fogeys?