It is an interesting question for pastors to ponder, isn’t it?
In my vocational journey, what lessons have I learned?
That question, of course, leads to other important inquiries: What do I wish that someone had told me early on? What counsel would I want to be certain to offer to those men and women who are just beginning their ministry? What insights have I gleaned from the living out of my calling?
I was privileged to serve as the overseer of our annual conference’s probationer program from 2002 until 2006. (The blogroll’s very own Jeff Vanderhoff now occupies that position. I am grateful for Jeff’s faithful ministry to our probationers.) During one of the probationer retreats that I facilitated years ago, a twentysomething probationer caught me off guard with this request:
“Eric, you’ve been a pastor for over ten years, right?”
“Yes. Why do you ask?”
“Well, I’d like to know what you have learned in ministry over the years. I’m new at this stuff. I want to hear what some seasoned pastors have to say about the most important lessons that they’ve learned about local church ministry.”
That conversation inspired me to do some significant journaling for a couple of weeks. My journaling resulted in the list of insights that I am about to share with you.
Some of these insights may resonate with particular depth for you. If so, I celebrate that. On the other hand, you may discover that some of these insights miss the mark or fall short of being accurately descriptive of what you have experienced. That’s OK too. Disagreement or clarification, after all, often leads to a more substantive discernment.
Please understand that I offer these insights, not with the arrogance of one who fancies himself a “seasoned veteran” or an ecclesiastical guru, but with the humility of one who considers himself privileged to be sharing with you—and learning from you—in the journey of ministry. I would love to hear about some of your own ministry insights, if you would be willing to share them.
Stewardship of the spiritual disciplines (such as prayer, meditation on Scripture, solitude, community, fasting, worship, sacramental celebration, and journaling) is the responsibility that is most crucial to the vitality of one’s ministry and the one that is most frequently neglected.
In one’s first five years of ministry, the patterns and rhythms that one establishes in the practice of the spiritual disciplines will set the spiritual tone of one’s entire ministry. Change is always possible, of course. But the likelihood of altering an insufficient practice of the disciplines decreases significantly with each season spent in this condition of insufficient spiritual practice. To put it another way, if one’s life of prayer is currently on the back burner as a result of an unmanaged schedule, the front burner often becomes increasingly more difficult to access as time goes on.
The most important “art” in the life of ministry is the art of forgiveness—both the giving of it and the receiving of it. (Note: Forgiveness does not mean forgetting. Rather, forgiveness means remembering in a healthier way, without hatred, without bitterness, and without the desire to retaliate.) Pastors must take seriously the responsibility of forgiving their people (some of whom will be penitent, some of whom will not). Just as important, of course, is the pastor’s responsibility of requesting forgiveness from those whom he or she has wronged and receiving that forgiveness when it is offered.
If one is en route to becoming a deacon, it is essential for him/her to recognize (with patience) that United Methodism is still endeavoring to make theological sense of this calling. I see this as a hopeful challenge rather than a punitive resistance.
For the sake of the health and vitality of one’s ministry, it is imperative that pastors resist stubbornly what I consider to be the fastest-acting spiritual poison in the church: chronic and unbridled negativity. What does chronic negativity sound like among clergy? It sounds something like this:
“Why didn’t I get that appointment/salary?”
Or this: “He/she doesn’t deserve that appointment as much as I do.”
Or this: “It’s all the district superintendent’s fault…or the bishop’s fault…or the trustees’ fault…or Protestant liberalism’s fault…or evangelicalism’s fault…or Hollywood’s fault.”
Or this: “Why do I have to participate in the Probationer Program? It’s nothing but a series of hoops through which the Board of Ordained Ministry expects me to jump.”
The journey from negativity to cynicism is notoriously short, and cynicism corrupts the spirit of relentless joy by which we are called to live as followers of Jesus Christ. Furthermore, chronic negativity can lead to self-fulfilling prophecy. For example, if one automatically assumes that something will be a negative experience, then, chances are, it will be, if only because of the limits created by one’s negative presuppositions.
With all due respect to the urgency of heartfelt pastoral care, preaching and worship oversight are still the most widely-observed tasks on a pastor’s job description and therefore deserve far more time and preparation than many pastors are willing to devote to them.
Nearly every preacher with whom I have spoken cites preaching as one of his or her primary strengths in ministry. My hunch is that only about 60-65% of the preachers who hold this opinion about themselves are correct. I say this, not to be unkind, and certainly not to champion my own preaching abilities. Rather, I say it to highlight an area of ministry in which self-awareness is often somewhat distorted.
It is enormously important for a preacher and teacher to devote a substantial amount of time to reading and hearing the preaching and teaching of others. I suggest this, not so that one will be led to duplicate another’s style, but so that preachers and teachers will immerse themselves in the educational and transformational art of other artists. Personally, I subscribe to THE LIVING PULPIT and HOMILETICS, both of which I find to be helpful resources in the discipline of preaching. I also subscribe to the sermon tape ministry of both Willow Creek and Church of the Resurrection. This enables me to experience the preaching and teaching ministry of other respected communicators, many of whom approach communication very differently than I do.
Whether a pastor wants to or not, he or she must be diligent in visitation to the hospitalized and the homebound. Preaching and teaching might be more widely-observed than visitation. But faithful visitation is what parishioners will remember most.
A pastor’s ministry of pastoral care will deepen if he or she is intentional about devoting at least an hour or two at the beginning of every week to the task of writing personal notes or cards to various parishioners who may be particularly blessed by such a tangible act of ministry. Words of thanks, encouragement, affirmation, and hope are often easily and effectively communicated through this process.
Good preachers are normally good writers. If a pastor is a good writer, then he or she would do well to utilize those writing skills often in the life of ministry. If, however, a pastor is not a good writer, then practice and growth in this area are essential. (If this is an area of struggle for the pastor, it is not a bad idea for the pastor to partner with a good writer—someone who might be willing to review all written work before it ever goes public.) One’s ability to write well is inseparably linked to one’s growth as a preacher.
Pastors must engage in good and prayerful preparation before their meetings with the Committee on Lay Leadership (formerly the Committee on Nominations and Personnel). The administrative health of a church, not to mention the pastor’s sanity, depends upon the good work of this committee. This matter deserves careful thought all year long, so that a pastor’s vision for the administrative network of a church will always be well-developed.
Lone-rangerism is one of the most pervasive stumbling blocks in the way of healthy ministry. Pastors must guard against it with a passion. In this regard, it is impossible to overstate the importance of a pastor’s participation in a covenant group that will hold the pastor gently and lovingly accountable for his or her discipleship and walk with Christ.
Back to preaching: Most preachers are not gifted enough orators to preach from only an outline, since much of good preaching depends upon the nuances of good segues and artful linguistic transitions. Therefore, pastors would do well to create the sermon in its entirety, segues and all. Beyond this, the sermon becomes more effective when it is internalized to such an extent that the preacher is able to preach it conversationally and without enslavement to a manuscript.
Pastors who make the time to attend a regular worship event in which they have no leadership responsibility whatsoever will ultimately find this to be a precious and wonderfully rejuvenating practice.
The book of Proverbs proclaims that, without vision, people will perish. Therefore, churches are in desperate need of visionary pastors—pastors who are always about the business of dreaming and seeing beyond where the church is currently living. Pastors, then, would do well to keep a running journal of their visions. They would also do well to bring those visions before a team of “visioners” in the church for the purpose of clarification and development.
Much like the early church, the church of 2007 is in a season of holy experimentation. Pastors must therefore help their congregations to develop a “let’s try it for Jesus” mentality when it comes to the development of new ministries. The failure of a particular ministry experiment never bothers me. A church that refuses to experiment, however, breaks my heart.
The dangerous blending of patriotism and discipleship in the contemporary church can distort our prophetic sensibilities. The proximity of the American flag to our altars, for example, is often more than a matter of interior design. Churches need pastors who, while remaining patriotically sensitive and appreciative, can nevertheless help congregations to understand the church’s proclamation of a kingdom that transcends national identity.
Church growth is as much about who leaves as it is about who comes.
Western Pennsylvania has one of the most compelling cultural blends in all of United Methodism: the parochialism and fortitude of Appalachia on the one hand, and a midwestern proclivity to grassroots sensibilities on the other. This is our context for ministry, and it is a blessed one.