How to Succeed in the Ministry (Without Really Trying)

I found out some sobering news last week.  I now have the longest tenure of any Protestant minister in the city of Oxford.  Father Joe at St. John the Evangelist has some years on me, and there are at least a few men out in the county with more seniority, but inside the city limits my tenure among the Baptists, Presbyterians, Methodists, Episcopalians, etc. is, of all the churches I’m aware of, the longest.

My pastorate at Grace Bible Church consists only of about seven and one-half years, so I did not earn my new title as Oxford’s “senior” minister because I’ve given my life to this town.  How, then, did this happen?  It’s not that Oxford is a particularly hard place to live and runs off pastors in droves (and I can say that as an unapologetic fan of Mississippi State).  It’s mainly because I made it to town during the later stages of a few long-term pastorates, all of which ended in the past few years.  In other words, my relative longevity in town is pretty much an unimportant bit of trivia.

Nevertheless the news prompted me to take time and reflect on what it takes to make it long-term in the ministry.  Misplaced priorities and understandings of the nature of the work will shorten a pastorate.  I am obviously no authority on this subject, as my total ministry experience is just shy of fifteen years, but I can back these ideas up with Scripture and my testimony of how they’ve served me well thus far.

1. You have to love to teach the Bible.  Paul tells Timothy, “Preach the Word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage—with great patience and careful instruction.”  2 Timothy 4:2.  Pastors must spend many hours in the Word each week.  If you don’t enjoy lots of studying, reading, and thinking about how to communicate the Bible to your people, you simply won’t enjoy being a pastor.  Period.  Nor will you be much help to your people.  Shepherds must feed their sheep (John 21:15-17).

2. You have to really like your people.  Notice I didn’t say, “Love your people.”  Christians are to love everyone.  That’s not an issue unique to pastors.

But if a pastor likes his people, if he genuinely enjoys their company, it will be so much easier to spend the years with them: meeting with them on Sunday mornings, Wednesday nights, during innumerable Bible studies during the week, eating lunch with them, counseling them, and welcoming them into your home.  One of my favorite verses on this front is 1 Thessalonians 2:8: “We loved you so much that we were delighted to share with you not only the gospel of God but our lives as well, because you had become so dear to us.”

One of the big questions a minister must ask before taking a church is, “Can I legitimately see myself making friends in this church?  Is there any possibility of an overlap of interests?”  If the answer is, “No,” he probably won’t be a good fit for that pastorate.  Pastors need to be realistic about this.  You, and in particular your family, simply won’t thrive everywhere.  It’s not for no reason the International Mission Board at one time would not send families with teenagers on overseas appointments.

One of the biggest compliments I can give Grace Bible Church is that I can be J.D. here.  That would not be true in every church.  Many pastors feel the need to pretend, and that can only go on so long.

3. You must protect your family.  The ministry is a jealous mistress.  The temptation will be to use your family to strengthen your position in the church by demanding things of them no other wives or children have to do.

If you’re going to make it in the ministry, keep your family out of it.  By that I mean get it straight in your head the line between your responsibility as a pastor and your responsibility as a husband and a father (the three do not overlap).  The people in your family must have lives outside the confines of the local church, and pastors must resist the temptation to resent it when the church as an institution isn’t as important to their family as it is to them.  How could it be?

My goal is for my wife and kids to feel no more pressure to be involved in church or present for any particular church activity than anyone else not on staff.  That hasn’t always been my goal, and I’ve often failed even when it has been, but something will give if you don’t protect your family.

4. Be content with singles and doubles.  A friend reminded me of this recently.  Another temptation pastors face is to try to schedule a bunch of exciting events each year.  It’s easy to get the ecclesiological adrenaline pumping when a dynamic speaker comes to town, when launching a new program for the children, or when bringing in a musical act Christian radio can’t stop playing.

But event-based ministry also burns people out eventually, especially pastors.  Special events are great in moderation.  But homeruns every month aren’t a realistic expectation, and they suck up all the oxygen that could otherwise be used to create the space for real, deep, meaningful relationships to develop.

Pastors need to be in love with the weekly rhythm of sermon preparation and delivery, worship, group times of prayer, Bible studies, visiting with members, meals with community groups, and, yes, even staff meetings.  Rarely with that focus will it feel like you hit a homerun.  But when you make the weekly rhythm your focus you’ll find four weeks of solid base hits adds up to the same thing (and you’ve got the bases loaded for next week!).

Paul tells Timothy, “Until I come, devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to preaching and to teaching … Be diligent in these matters; give yourself wholly to them, so that everyone may see your progress.  Watch your life and doctrine closely. Persevere in them, because if you do, you will save both yourself and your hearers.”  1 Timothy 4:13, 15-16.

Over time the Holy Spirit will do his work, build your people up, open their eyes to the beauty of the gospel, and make them more like Jesus.

5. Success in the ministry doesn’t feel like something you worked for.  Here I get to the title of this post, obviously stolen from the movie How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying (Robert Morse, who also played Bert Cooper in Mad Men, is hilarious in his role as J. Pierrepont Finch).

Of course, pastors must work hard.  Again, Paul tells Timothy, “Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a workman who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly handles the word of truth.”  2 Timothy 2:15.

But, as a pastor, if one day you look up and you truly enjoy the people in your church and are amazed by the way they’ve grown in and serve the Lord, you will not feel as if it’s the result of anything you did.  You’ll know the Lord did it and just feel thankful that you are a part of it.

In that respect pastors are much like farmers.  My favorite parable Jesus told about the church can be found in Mark 4:26-28: “This is what the kingdom of God is like. A man scatters seed on the ground.  Night and day, whether he sleeps or gets up, the seed sprouts and grows, though he does not know how.  All by itself the soil produces grain—first the stalk, then the head, then the full kernel in the head.”

Pastors who shoot for success eventually drive off members, crush those on staff, and alienate their families.  Pastors who shoot for faithfulness will, over time, find they lead the kind of church they always hoped they’d have.  To paraphrase C.S. Lewis, aim for faithfulness and you’ll get success thrown in; aim for success and you’ll get neither.  Faithful pastors will have the kind of mindset that enables them to one day be, unlike me, a truly senior minister in their town.  Not because of fortuitous circumstances, but because they delighted to give their life to one church and one community.

 

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