This is Part 2 in a 4-part series.
37 Things I Learned in 37 Years of Ministry (Part 1)
37 Things I Learned in 37 Years of Ministry (Part 3)
37 Things I Learned in 37 Years of Ministry (Part 4)
Recently, I retired from full-time ministry after 37 years. Here are some things I learned over the years. They are not in any particular order.
Most are pretty obvious, but I still needed to learn them. Most would apply not just to pastors, but to every Christian. I’m still learning and Jesus still has lots more to do in me. I hope these encourage you.
11. Fear the Lord.
The fear of the LORD leads to life, and whoever has it rests satisfied; he will not be visited by harm. (Prov. 19:23)
The fear of the Lord is one of the most important things for every pastor and Christian to cultivate. Not a groveling, don’t-hit-me-if-I-make-a-mistake kind of fear, but a healthy fear, knowing that we serve a holy God who will lovingly discipline us if we willfully sin. A fear that knows that even if no one else sees me, God does. When traveling in an airport, the enemy would often whisper, “Check out that newsstand. Nobody knows you’re here.” By God’s grace, the fear of the Lord would lead me to pray, “Please deliver me from temptation and sin. Help me to be pure and holy.” The fear of the Lord truly leads to life.
12. God is at work in His people, no matter how slowly they change.
And I am sure of this, that He who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ. (Phil 1:6)
Paul was confident that since God began a good work in the Philippians, He would complete it. Over the years when God’s people struggled with sin or were slow to change, I believed His Word that He would finish His work to make them like Christ, even if it took a lifetime. I once said to a struggling young married couple, “If you guys keep pursuing the Lord, you won’t believe how different your marriage will be in five years.” They pursued Jesus, and He changed them. Today, after more than 30 years, they have a wonderful marriage and children who pursue Jesus.
13. Because God is at work in His people, we should be patient with them.
And we urge you, brothers, admonish the idle, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with them all. (1 Thess. 5:14)
God’s people, including pastors, are slow to change. (Read that sentence again, taking a deep breath between each word.) This doesn’t mean we don’t exhort, encourage and help. But we shouldn’t be frustrated when believers don’t conquer a sin in ten minutes. We pastors can forget how slow we are to change. If you want a reminder, just ask your wife. We should be patient with one another because God is so patient and long-suffering with us.
14. Diligence and faithfulness are more important than gifting and talent.
This is true in almost all areas of life, and especially for pastors. Most of us aren’t incredible speakers and won’t lead churches of thousands. But what God looks for is faithfulness. Be as diligent as you can right where you are. Work hard at studying the Word and preparing messages. Be as faithful as you can to care for the flock under your charge, even if it is only a small flock. All of us should be as diligent as we can in prayer and God’s Word. Work hard in school or on the job. Be as faithful as you can to raise your children for Christ.
15. Don’t take things home with you.
As a pastor there were always church situations I could take home with me. People in conflict, people unhappy with me, situations that seemed impossible to change. But God tells us:
Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. (Phil. 4:6-7)
God doesn’t just tell us DON’T WORRY. He adds, DO cast your cares on Him. DO pray and make requests. DO thank Him for as much as you can. So try to leave things in God’s hands by prayer and thanks and don’t take them home and try to figure out every scenario that might happen.
16. Don’t be offended when others disagree with you.
I once read that strong leaders often interpret disagreement as disloyalty. Over the years God gave me fellow pastors who were not afraid to disagree with me. Sometimes when I proposed an idea, my fellow pastor would ask, “Have you thought about how much this will cost? Or how much time this will involve?” Sometimes fellow pastors disagreed with me about a direction for the church or an approach to a counseling situation. Often my wife disagrees with me (and she is a really supportive wife). Don’t be offended when others disagree with you. You’re not always right about everything. Disagreement can be healthy.
17. Respond to anger with gentleness.
A soft answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger. (Prov. 15:1)
All of us, including pastors, will be criticized. Years ago, one Sunday morning a man suddenly unloaded on me because someone failed to include his child’s photo in a display. God gave me the grace to respond gently and tell him I would try to find out what happened. Later he asked my forgiveness. He had been going through a difficult season and had presumed the worst. Don’t give in to your initial temptation to fight fire with fire or anger with anger, but pray for grace to respond with gentleness.
18. Sympathize before giving advice.
How often I have failed to be “quick to listen and slow to speak,” and failed to acknowledge someone’s pain before firing off advice or a Scripture. Try to enter into people’s pain before telling them what to do. Romans 12:15 tells us to “weep with those who weep.” We can’t usually know what another person is going through. Sometimes it’s best to say something like, “I can’t even begin to fathom what you are going through.”
When we come to Jesus in our struggles or pain, he doesn’t say, “Just buck up! Just stop it!” No, He can empathize because He has been through it (Heb. 4:15). Let’s offer compassion to those who struggle. Offer to pray for them. And down the road, in God’s timing, we can try to encourage them.
19. Reveal your own struggles, weaknesses, and failings in your preaching.
Pastors aren’t a sinless breed. We struggle with sin and temptation. Timothy struggled with the fear of man. Paul needed a thorn in the flesh to keep him from pride. I have always appreciated when a pastor shares about his anger toward his child, or his prideful desire to be noticed. Over the years I sought to share my struggles and many times someone would thank me because he too struggled in a similar way and if God would help me, he believed God would help him.
20. Love children and try to relate to them – be a fun pastor!
“Whoever receives one such child in My name receives Me.” (Matt. 18:5)
I’ve always said that if a pastor can relate to children and teens, he can relate to anyone. One of my greatest joys is when a child comes up to me on Sunday and gives me a hug. Just as with your own children, try to make memories with the children in the church.
Like the time I was teaching a bunch of 4th – 6th graders at an event called “Celebration.” To illustrate the dangers of giving in to anger, I told a story about how friends once threw an M-80 firecracker into a room I was in and how loud and terrifying it was. I then produced a fake M-80 I’d made with a long wick. I didn’t tell them this wick could not be extinguished. I told them I’d light the wick, but not to worry.
After a few seconds, I’d stomp it out. The idea was that anger is like that wick – the more we give into it, the more likely it is to explode with bad consequences. I lit the wick. It sparked and smoked like a giant sparkler. Kids squirmed nervously. “Okay,” I said, “time to put it out.” I placed the fake M-80 on the stage and stomped on it. But it wouldn’t go out. “Oh no!” I yelled. “It won’t go out.”
Suddenly kids bolted out of the room, past adult helpers, out of the building. “Wait!” I cried, “It’s fake!” Too late. Fortunately, nobody got hurt. I made a memory and didn’t get fired. My motivation was to have fun with kids. Went too far. But many years later, kids in that class, now adults, have told me they still remember that and other fun memories from my classes.