Lessons Learned (in 25 years of pastoral ministry)

Soon I will reach the 25-year mark of serving in some form of pastoral ministry.  In these years I have accumulated much experience, made more than a few mistakes, and gleaned some wisdom along the way.  In these years I have also learned (and re-learned) many lessons that I now pass along to those who care to read them and benefit from them, especially for those who may be new to this type of service in God’s kingdom.

In no particular order, and without much explanation, here are twenty-two things that I have come to realize about serving in church ministry.

  1. Ministry is often simultaneously encouraging and discouraging. In more recent years, I found myself having never been more encouraged and discouraged at the same time in all my life.  Even so, it is worth it in the end.
  2. Even though generally docile, sometimes the sheep bite, kick, and butt their heads – and sometimes they run off by themselves. Loving, patient shepherds who extend a lot of grace and mercy are truly needed.
  3. You will never please everybody, no matter how hard you try – so stop trying.
  4. There will always be someone who feels you are not “deep enough” or who feel they are not “being fed” by your preaching and teaching ministry.  The opposite is also true – some will say you are too deep.
  5. There will always be people who criticize your preaching and teaching to some degree.
  6. There will always be some who insist that you preach, in the name of relevance, according to the secular calendar (e.g. Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, etc.); the world’s calendar is often seen as more important than the Church calendar.
  7. There will always be lay people, well meaning or not, who will tell you how to do your job even though they have not held such a position themselves or been formally (or even informally) trained to minister in a pastoral, teaching, or preaching capacity.
  8. There will always be people who disagree with your style or approach to ministry – and some will constantly let you know that and will infer, imply, or outright say that your way is wrong and their way is not. It’s better to agree to disagree here and not get caught up in proving who is right when there are often multiple ways and approaches.
  9. Some people (wrongly) elevate their preferences to the level of absolutes and offer their critique of you accordingly while insisting in some way that their way is the best or only way.
  10. Much of what happens in any church when it comes to disagreements is a battle of preferences and an occasional conviction; this includes pastors. I learned to pray for the Lord to help me set aside my own preferences and agenda for the sake of peace and the pursuit of His agenda, and for my own emotional and spiritual health.
  11. The rumor mill and gossip chain will always exist and will be active, no matter how much its existence is denied. This is deadly to the life and health of the local church and must consistently be addressed.
  12. When sin or sinful situations are addressed, a common reaction from people in the congregation is, “It’s not me”; usually, such people are in denial.
  13. Trusted relationships are vital; it’s hard for a pastor to find and keep real friends.
  14. God’s grace and empowerment are needed to do the work – you cannot do it in your own strength.
  15. Prayer is absolutely critical for all things related to life and ministry! Failure to pray will suffocate both.
  16. Beware the siren songs of life that distract you, tempt you, and lead you into perilous waters and malicious traps that destroy not only the soul, but also the ministry that you are engaging in. Stand strong and join the resistance!
  17. You must follow the Lord where He leads, not go somewhere yourself and invite Him along for the ride.
  18. Sometimes you just have to serve out of obedience to the Lord.
  19. Remember that it’s all for God’s glory and fame, not yours or mine. This is especially difficult for people who enjoy being in the spotlight, whether out of pride or out of a need for affirmation.
  20. While it’s not about me/us or being appreciated, sometimes it helps to be thanked and shown appreciation for what we do.
  21. As a leader, don’t forget to also be a follower yourself.  Who is your pastor?  Who are the people investing in you?
  22. It really is about love and relationships! Love God entirely, and love people in practical ways – that is the recipe for “success”.

Are there more lessons to share?  Yes, but these are the ones most prominent in my mind.  Are there more lessons for me to learn?  Absolutely!

For what it’s worth.

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Five Pillars of Church Disciplemaking Ministries

One of the key ministries of the local church is to engage in making disciples – lifelong worshipers of the living God and followers of Jesus Christ – among all age groups and ethnic backgrounds.  In all my years of education, reading a lot of books about discipleship and church ministry, and serving as a pastor, it hit me a couple of years ago that there are certain elements that should exist within a local congregation that would help with this process.  So I present for your consideration the following pillars of disciplemaking ministries in the local church.

Pillar 1:  Biblical Knowledge

  • Importance of reading, studying, and memorizing scripture
  • Bible content
  • How to read & study the Bible

Pillar 2: Spiritual Formation & Deeper Life Education

  • Emphasis on Word, Prayer, Worship
  • Process of sanctification
  • Spiritual growth as individuals and as the Church/local congregations

Pillar 3:  Whole-Life Discipleship

  • Following Jesus – from conversion to growth as a disciple to ministry in the church and in the community
  • Integration of faith, work, and economics as recipients and stewards of the gospel of Jesus Christ and His kingdom

Pillar 4:  Equipping for Ministry

  • Spiritual gifts recognition (and relevant ministry training)
  • Training for specific ministries
  • Training opportunities outside of the church (seminars, workshops, conferences,    courses at local colleges or seminaries, online courses, etc.)
  • Basic theology, church history, local/regional/global outreach
  • Mission education & mobilization

Pillar 5:  Leadership Development

  • Elders, deacons, Governing Board members, etc.

How and where can such things be implemented?  Depending on the needs and context of the congregation, here are some suggestions:  worship services, Sunday school, small groups and Bible study groups, training opportunities within church and outside of church, learning communities, book discussion groups, sharing of resources, mentoring and coaching relationships, and on-the-job training via direct ministry involvement.

May the Lord continue to sanctify each of us personally and corporately, and may He give us desire, wisdom, vision, and courage for making disciples in our churches!

For what it’s worth.



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Legacy of Love: A Review of One Blood by John M. Perkins (with Karen Waddles)

When older people are in the latter years of their life, it is important for us to listen to their years of wisdom being shared as they leave their legacy for us to learn from and build upon. This is the case for John Perkins, an elder statesman of the Christian faith and of civil rights (among other things) who has written another masterpiece that is full of needed insight and prophetic words for our time – One Blood: Parting Words to the Church on Race (Moody Publishers, 2018). For Perkins, this is his bottom line urgent message that he wishes to directly inject into our way of thinking and our way of living in these days of confusion, hatred, and violent behavior. It is a message of recognizing that we who are humans are one race who together must set aside our differences and move toward biblical reconciliation that Perkins would say removes our tensions while restoring our relationships as we love one another in practical ways.

The book itself is a life-time of lessons shared as a blueprint for needed change. The key to this change, which is consistently reinforced throughout the book, is found in the Church. As noted in the introduction, “[C]ommunity development can only take us so far – because this is a gospel issue. The problem of reconciliation in our country and in our churches is much too big to be wrestled to the ground by plans that begin in the minds of men. This is a God-sized problem. It is one that only the Church, through the power of the Holy Spirit, can heal. It requires the quality of love that only our Savior can provide. And it requires that we make some uncomfortable confessions.” The recipe for this pursuit of justice is what Perkins lays out simply, boldly, and clearly: know who we are as human beings and as the Church of Jesus Christ, practice lament, confession, forgiveness, and repentance, persevere, pray, and pursue love. To help show us that these things are realistic and possible, there are even four stories of local churches who are putting these things into practice highlighted for us to glean from.

As a Christ-follower, I have always committed to trying to live in the way that Perkins describes here (and in his other writings) – so I find this as another fresh reminder of things that I need to be doing myself, even as I find myself gaining some new insights along the way. As a pastor, I have consistently tried to model this and teach the same ideas to the people in my spiritual care (as a college professor, the same is true in the classroom and with my students) – so I find myself vigorously nodding in agreement when, in chapter one, he writes that “the black church can’t fix this. And the white church can’t fix this. It must be the reconciled Church, black and white Christians together imaging Christ to the world.” He adds later, at the chapter’s end, that it’s “going to take intentionally multiethnic and multicultural churches to bust through the chaos and confusion of the present moment and redirect our gaze to the revolutionary gospel of reconciliation.”

Most of the time, I find at least some degree of disagreement with an author or a book. But honestly, in this case, I am finding it difficult to find anything significant – or anything at all – with which to disagree. I’m not saying that this is the perfect book or that John Perkins is a perfect man who never has anything wrong to say. I’m just saying that this book, One Blood, is one of the most important books to read at this time in our nation’s history. It is a gold mine of wise instruction that will serve well as a very practical tool for use in ministry, teaching, and discussions with various people. I believe this book to be an invaluable resource for the Church, with implications reaching far beyond the black-white struggle that is most prominent in our culture and throughout our communities. I highly recommend this book to all who follow Jesus, and even to those who don’t. I especially commend it to pastors, church leaders, denominational executives, college and seminary professors, and anyone interested in pursuing true reconciliation within a context of broken relationships, especially those broken along ethnic lines.

Well done, Dr. Perkins, well done. Thank you for your faithfulness to Christ and to the cause, and for the influence you continue to have in our lives!

For what it’s worth.

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Take Courage: A Review of The Way to Brave by Andy McQuitty

When I was first introduced to The Way to Brave: Shaping a David Faith for Today’s Goliath World by Andy McQuitty (Moody Publishers, 2018), my first reaction to the title was one of, “Here we go again, another book about David and Goliath and the need for us to have courage to face the giants of our lives.”  I had literally judged the book by its cover.  As part of the book’s launch team, I quickly started reading it and immediately discovered that I was wrong.  Though there is great personal and individualized application to be gleaned in this book, it was clearly written with the American church of the 21st century in mind.  Using the backdrop of our current post-Christian state where it is becoming more evident that we who are Christ-followers are being pushed to the fringes of society and culture as the waters of hostility toward us are slowly being warmed, McQuitty provides here a helpful and simple guide to survival as he urges us to courageously stand firm in these days by sharing from David’s story and his encounter with the foreboding Goliath.  Out of David’s life (and other saints of old), we are given five principles to ponder – five components of what is involved with standing strong and being brave.

What caught my attention right away were two things that pushed me to want to read this book further.  The first thing was the introduction itself, which painted a picture of our current reality in a simple way.  None of this was new to me.  However, I found the following reminder to be especially insightful and something that I needed to hear:  “But history proves that consistently pleasant experiences for the church over time have a debilitating effect on faith.  Spiritual muscles atrophy, conviction softens, and courage wanes in an amicable environment where devotion to Christ is rarely (if ever) challenged.  On the other hand, an increasingly hostile environment that challenges our devotion to Christ on a regular basis tones our spiritual muscles, drives conviction deep, and creates a great thirst for courage by reminding us of the fundamental reality of our life’s journey.”  I was intrigued, I was hooked – McQuitty had my attention.

The second thing that got my attention, and really set the stage for the rest of the book for me, was the first chapter (which begins to develop the first step in the way to being brave).  Again, McQuitty shares:  “Christ’s call to His church…is the same as God’s historical call to His people throughout history.  It is not to build defensive walls to keep people far from God out, but rather to plant beautiful gardens, places of shalom, to beckon people far from God in.”  As a pastor seeking to lead people to live in a way that impacts our communities for God’s kingdom, I really resonated with what is developed so well in this chapter.  Consider also this insight:  “So it should not surprise us that a main goal of the prayer [Jesus] taught us to pray was to lead the church to be not only the world’s primary beneficiaries of shalom but also the world’s primary place-makers of it… If that prayer were answered, if the kingdom of God…showed up in the day-to-day realities of our life and world, it would look like a community of people pursuing shalom by seeing, feeling, and responding with the heart of God to brokenness and injustice in the world.”  To that I say a hearty “Amen!”

As I read the rest of the book, I continued to glean insights into how to effectively live and minister in this world that we live in as the pastor from Texas makes a strong case for the need to live with courage while providing some steps to take to make it so.  Along the way, I did find much of what was written as the book went on to be not as attention-grabbing or deeply impactful as the first part of the book.  Nevertheless, through the use of biblical and historical examples, pastoral insight and wisdom, and many stories (of others and his own), McQuitty has given the church a resource worth checking out.  This book will serve as a good source for personal enrichment as well as a timely discussion piece for small groups, book clubs, and even church leadership teams.

For what it’s worth.


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Community Transformation: Seeking and Serving the Common Good in Our Communities

We all desire to see our communities flourish and thrive, even when we mask that desire with our complaints.  We want to experience a full life (what the Jews refer to as shalom) as individuals and as families – and we want the people in our communities to experience it, too, knowing instinctively that when we all flourish then things are good for the areas in which we live.  When we come together to work for the common good of our neighborhoods, we begin to see a healthy environment where people want to move to and live – and we no longer feel the need to be ashamed of where we live.  Indeed, when we work together toward thriving at all levels of society, with everybody contributing their part to the greater good and betterment of society, great things happen – relationships are restored and remain peaceful, morality is practiced voluntarily, social justice begins to be seen, and economic prosperity sets in.  And even though things aren’t perfect, they are nonetheless better – and we are given a glimpse into God’s future eternal kingdom that even now fiercely makes itself known within history.

How do we do this?  How do we move toward seeking and serving the common good so that our communities can thrive and flourish?  Let me suggest twelve ingredients that should be part of the mix in order for this to happen.

  1. Intentionality – there has to be an intentional commitment to the process
  2. Community Awareness – know the community’s realities, its struggles, its sins, its blessings, its real needs, and its people; listen, research, evaluate; remember that every community is unique
  3. Dignity, equality, fair treatment, mutual respect – everyone’s dignity must be affirmed, as we are all uniquely and equally created in the image of God (regardless of ethnic background, skin color, gender, age, or physical or mental ability)
  4. Love – genuine friendships that exhibit things like humility, kindness, and sacrifice; be with people
  5. Truth – honesty, integrity, trust
  6. Celebration of beauty and all that is good – including support for the arts
  7. Moral & ethical behavior – that is clearly defined and includes accountability
  8. Justice & righteousness – with commitment to love and serve one another
  9. Good work ethic – a balance of hard work and rest (while avoiding both extremes)
  10. Sound economics/economic principles – personally, I believe a free market economy is best; includes entrepreneurship & community support of local businesses, as well as alleviation of material poverty
  11. Wise governance – laws are fairly enacted and upheld, order is maintained, infrastructure is maintained, justice is practiced, entrepreneurship is encouraged, and businesses are supported
  12. Active Church – God’s people should pray and take the lead as they collaborate with government officials and programs, non-profit entities, and for-profit businesses; the gospel of Jesus Christ and His kingdom should be seen and heard

May we each put these things into practice, for the sake of all that is good in our communities!  And may God’s kingdom come and His will be done, on earth – in our neighborhoods – as it is in heaven!

For what it’s worth.

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Crucified with Christ

I’ve been thinking in recent days about how followers of Jesus are “crucified with Christ” (see Galatians 2:20). That is, we live new lives in Christ and the old selfish, sinful way of living is to be treated as dead. The trouble is this: each day – sometimes each moment – brings temptations to stay in the old, comfortable ways and only sometimes “take up our cross” to follow Jesus (see Mark 8:34). It’s as if we only want to crucify our old nature when it suits us, or when it’s convenient, or even when we want to put our Christ-like spirituality on display for others to admire. But here’s the problem, that’s not what Jesus means when He invites us to follow Him – He truly intends us to treat our old lives as dead, to the point where we can honestly say that we, like the apostle Paul, are crucified with Christ and that Christ lives in us.

To be crucified requires nails to hold us in place, but we prefer to be attached to the cross with Velcro so that we can more easily get off the cross and reattach ourselves any time we want, on our terms instead of His.

For what it’s worth.

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Paradigms in Need of Change: A Review of Immeasurable by Skye Jethani

Imagine shaking a tree to dislodge and retrieve fruit that is hanging there. As you shake, eventually the fruit comes free and falls into your waiting arms – you have received your reward, and simultaneously rid the tree of dead leaves and limbs. Imagine this scenario and you have a good idea of what Skye Jethani is doing as he shakes our ministry “trees” trying to free good fruit while also ridding our ministries of that which is dead or dying by suggesting new ways – paradigms – of looking at and doing ministry in Immeasurable: Reflections on the Soul of Ministry in the Age of Church, Inc. (Moody Publishers, 2017). More than just another book on pastoral and church ministry, this collection of essays provides some keen insights into how we can better do ministry in the Western world in the early years of the 21st century.

The world of Church, Inc., is described right away in the introduction: “It is shorthand for ministry devoid of mystery, for pastors who assume that the exercise of their calling is a matter of skill more than the gravity of their soul. It represents the exchange of the transcendent calling of Christian ministry with mere management of religious institutions and services. If ministry is encountering the heat and light of an uncontrollable sun, Church, Inc., is the tanning salon in the local strip mall.” The book moves from there to address such things as motivation for ministry, control, the biblical role of pastors, preaching, rest, consumerism, technology, engaging in ministry, and several other relevant themes. Along the way, Jethani does a masterful job providing powerful observation and wise advice to those who have eyes to see and ears to hear – and hearts to understand. It’s not always a pleasant journey, and toes will be stepped on, but the exercise of thoughtfully reading this book is helpful and is worth the occasional twinge of pain in the end as our current paradigms for ministry are not-so-gently shaken.

Are all Jethani’s pieces of advice perfect? Should the reader soak it all in without critique? No, not at all. Personally, for example, this pastor and preacher is still processing how I feel about the chapters related to preaching. I find myself not fully agreeing, but still my mind is stimulated enough to go deeper. There are other areas that any reader will likely find the same kind of tension; even so, explore the tension and take the advice that is offered.

In the end, I highly recommend this book to any and all pastors, church leaders, denominational executives, college and seminary professors, and anyone interested in effective church ministry.

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