This past May marked the end of my first 3 years as a pastor.
I didn’t think much about it, to be honest. But lately, I have been. Specifically, about the things that I’ve learned over those 3 years. I’m still very much a pastoral beginner, but I’ve managed to pick up some things as I’ve stumbled onwards.
Thankfully I’ve been surrounded by very gracious people, and I’ve had some great wisdom to call on in the form of much wiser heads than mine.
Here are 10 of my observations. I don’t think they’re universal, by any means. Some are probably quite specific to the kind of person that I am. But maybe one or two of them will be helpful, regardless…
1. It takes about 3 years to develop deep friendships.
I want to be friends with people in my congregation, and each year has made me feel more at home at the church I serve. But, I have lifelong friends (some from my school days, some from my previous church) who I am just totally at ease around. For me, it took 3 years to begin to feel that way with people in my congregation. Once that happened, it brought another level of richness to ministry.
2. Always check the communion bread.
Oh, the stories I could tell. Once, the loaf was so brick-like that I barely managed to break it. I literally had to brace myself. Now, I always check the communion bread before a service, and if it’s hard, I’ll pre-break it about a third, like Hulk Hogan would do with the t-shirts he was going to rip. These are the things you don’t learn in bible college!
3. Never, ever say anything negative on email, if a relationship is worth fostering.
This is just a blanket rule, personally. It’s never gone well for me when I’ve ignored it (which I haven’t done, in about a year and a half). The only exception is of the “would you please stop spamming me with your para-church organisation emails?” variety.
4. The times when I don’t make space for prayer, bible and theological reading are the times I pastor the worst.
Obvious, I suppose. But it’s easy to feel guilty about this stuff, like it’s not real “work”. But then I think, “I’d want the person pastoring me to be reading and praying.” I don’t think you can survive long-term without this stuff.
5. People won’t listen to you unless they know you care about them and are in it with them for the long haul.
You cannot “truth-bomb” people. Especially in an egalitarian society like New Zealand. I’ve found this in preaching especially: people only hear the hard things if they know you love them.
6. Leading as a peer and through teams takes longer but when it comes off it’s really satisfying.
Authoritarian leadership does not come naturally to me. In fact my struggle is often in the opposite direction. But the times I’ve felt most satisfied in ministry have been when people buy into to something and get involved. There was an evening service a while back where almost everything was run and led by the congregation and it was done with such thoughtfulness. I am still buzzing about that night.
7. You’re not preaching to trained theologians. But that doesn’t mean you should dumb things down, either.
This has been a hard one for me. If I’ve just read some Karl Barth, shouldn’t my congregation know?! It’s just a constant balance of making things applicable and accessible, and at the same time giving people something substantial, and more importantly, inspiring them to dig deeper in their own faith. I’m not particularly great at it yet.
8. New strategies and initiatives are interesting and worth considering, just without hysteria. You can preach the word, spend time with people and love them well, and God will still show up.
Honestly, I’m kind of sick of the whole, “Ahhhh! The church in the west is dying! Everything must change!” Sure, I believe that we need to take mission seriously, and that involves thinking through how to engage the culture. But getting overly hysterical about it seems pointless to me, and also, it both stresses and depresses me. Maybe that means my head is in the sand, but I’d rather that be the case if it means both less stress and more reliance on God being at work.
9. When you challenge yourself and others good things happen.
Maybe that should include, “when you allow yourself to be challenged.” This is just an observation that, of the things we’ve done as a church that stand out to me from the last 3 years as really worthwhile, more than half of them were things that either scared or overwhelmed me to begin with.
10. You have to fight the temptation to be a “chaplain to the culture” as Eugene Peterson says.
This is a temptation that I put on myself as much as anyone else, because I dislike conflict. For me, remembering this means that I don’t allow people to say negative things about another person to me, instead of to that person. It also sometimes means having the guts to ask hard questions (in the context of a relationship) if I’m concerned for a person’s relationship with God. For some people, this is child’s play, but for me it’s difficult.
So, there you go. That’s what has been swirling round my mind after 3 years in ministry.
I still love it, I still feel it’s my calling… here’s hoping for another 40 years or so.