It’s hard to believe I’ve been at my current church for seven years now! When the average tenure for a pastor is fewer than four years, it is a great blessing to be able to lead alongside people you love for so long, to be known not simply as a pastor but as a friend.
I received a good deal of advice as I entered my first lead pastorate. Among the philosophical gems was, “Don’t make close friends with anyone. It just makes it harder to say goodbye when you have to leave.” Yay. Thanks for that. Another nugget was, “Year one, you can do nothing wrong. Year two, you can do nothing right. Year three, someone leaves…” And so it was that, armed with such inspiration, I charged off into this venture. I am thankful to the Lord that, though it has been difficult at times, I have not experienced the pitfalls of which I was warned.
On the occasion of my seventh anniversary in the pastorate, I wonder if I’ve really learned anything. But as I begin to record some of the fingerprints this endeavor has left on my soul, I soon realize how difficult a task to pare a list of lessons down to just seven! I pray that what follows may benefit the pastors among us as well as those who love and support them.
Seven Things I’ve Learned in Seven Years as a Pastor
1. Plan to Stay
Slow down. Think long term. Lead like you’ll be there forever. I think this mindset may be the most simplistic but also the most foundational to the six lessons that follow. Often when we enter a situation, we come with preconceived ideas of what we want to do and when we want it to happen. The obstacle to those dreams, however, is that we walk into a context that preceded us. If we are not careful, we will start driving in one direction with no thought to the reality that the context will also likely out-live our time in leadership. In the process we can injure what is for the sake of what we hope will be. Think of it this way: you approach a remodel very differently if you’re flipping a house than if you are moving in. If we take the same approach as we lead, we are more likely to do so with personal and organizational integrity instead of just slapping on programmatic Spackle to cover serious structural or systemic issues.
2. Be Realistic with Yourself
You are not Tim Keller. You are not Craig Groeschel. I hope that is not news to you. In reality, Dr. Keller and Mr. Groeschel are likely not who you think them to be, either. They are men. Great leaders and teachers to be sure – but they are men. You are a man (at least in my denomination you are). Christ is our savior. “Great” spiritual leaders have no greater information nor greater message. The soundness of leadership is not founded on diction, erudition or charisma but on the clarity of the Gospel message. May God grant that we have leaders in churches of 50 that love and teach the Gospel with as much passion and vigor as men who lead congregations of 5,000. God intends to use you where you are – not where you hope to be. So be careful of the way you define greatness.
3. Be Real with Your People
Be honest. Be approachable. Be wrong. How does your interaction with your people lead them to see you? To be sure, bearing the title of Pastor carries with it some odd level of otherness that makes relating to those in your care a bit more work. Who can approach you? Do your people know that you do not have special access to God that they can not enjoy? Are you appropriately honest with your own struggles? The pastorate can be insular if we let it. However, that is detrimental not only to the relationship we have with our people but also to our own spiritual well-being. Being approachable and committed to community allows a pastor to extend and experience the great grace of God. We are able to show compassion and we are able to receive compassion. One of the most powerful moments for you may be to sit with someone or even say before your people, “I was wrong” and to receive God’s grace through them.
4. Serve Them, but Don’t NEED Them
I have a propensity in my own life to desire the approval of men. That is a dangerous definition of identity. If we lead in such a way as to gain the approval of our people, we will not say some things that need to be said. AND we will not hear some things that are being said to us. Often, when my ears are somehow dull to what God is saying to me, He will say it through others. If, fueled by a need for approval, I interpret their correction as rejection I will first become defensive, then depressive and I will not receive the instruction that Christ has meant for me to hear. Yes, you will have the occasional “vessel” that is less teddy bear and more porcupine, but remember that there may be a corrective of Christ in the confrontation.
WARNING: if you are prone to need the approval of people, the pastorate is going to be rough, rough, rough. However, our loving Father is gracious. He desires that we find our identity and fulfillment in Him alone. And in order to break you of your need for the approval of men… He will at times graciously deprive you of that approval.
5. Humility is Essential (and it is Either Graciously Granted or Painfully Gained)
This easily could have been listed #1. No character trait or giftedness is more integral to the life of a church AND the life of a pastor than humility. Truly, every item on my this list must flow from a heart that is humble before God. If a man does not have a sober assessment of himself, he will find most if not all of the requirements of pastoral leadership to be burdensome and heavy. Repentance is essential to the life of faith – that is no less true of a leader than of his people. However, an unwillingness to be contrite will be the enemy of your own repentance and an enemy of your ability to lead. You will end up using the pulpit to accomplish your purposes rather than humbly submitting yourself and your people to God’s purposes. Worse, you may end up unable to distinguish between the two. There will be ample opportunity for you to become prideful. People will tell you what a great sermon you delivered. They will tell you that you saved their marriage. They may even (ironically) extol your humility. Those moments provide both a great temptation as well as a great opportunity. Rather than reject the praise openly while cherishing it secretly, point it rightly. “Yeah, that was a good sermon, wasn’t it? Wow, what a great passage! If we just consider all that we have in Christ, it is truly amazing.” You do not lead because you possess some innate ability. You lead because our great God has graciously placed you in a position.
One of the greatest quotes to encapsulate this idea that I have read comes from John Piper’s Future Grace in which he says, “Humility follows God like a shadow.” No one, seeing the majesty of the mountains out the window, praises the pane of glass.
6. You’re Not Meant to be Their Hero
I have AWESOME news for you. The salvation of the people in your care is not dependent upon you! The success of their marriage is not hanging on your ability to counsel. You are ten parts Clark Kent and zero parts Superman. You have a role you have been given in the body. Play your part. You are not a spiritual Walmart. Jesus is where they find hope, point them towards Him and away from you. Seek him TOGETHER.
One of the best ways I see to accomplish this is to expect the same from your people as you expect from yourself – do what the Lord has given you to do. I am not the greatest at administration. But there are others around me that are fantastic administrators. They can see a situation and within minutes they have developed a plan to address what needs to be done, who needs to be involved and probably have the beginnings of a shopping list of things that we don’t have but will need.
At times, the press of being paid or the weight of having authority may cause us to hold onto tasks we should give away. In the process we become exhausted and our people become dependent on an inappropriate source. Properly aligned, the whole body functions as it is animated by the Son who holds it all together. Feel the freedom of being a part of the body and not its head. It’s good for everyone.
7. Aim Right and You’ll Never Miss
Finally, I suppose the thing I have learned the most as a leader over the past seven years is that the Gospel must saturate you, your teaching and your structure. There are literally thousands of things into which I and my church could pour our energy; there is no shortage of outlets even as a small church. A local church, at its core, is the Spirit’s weaving together people who have been saved by the grace of Christ that they may celebrate, communicate and continue in the Gospel. That is extremely simplistic, but it is so for a reason. If that is true, then we are able to assess if that definition is motivating the activities we undertake and the instruction we are giving.
If we value community, we want to do so because it is a reflection of what Christ has done in the Gospel – not because it seems a better vehicle to get more people involved (even if it is). If we value social involvement, we want to do so because it is a practical out-working of the Gospel in the lives of believers – not because it is cool to have a cause. If we build a structure in which to meet, we want to do so with a sobriety of stewardship and hope – meaning we don’t want to place hope of the Gospel’s advance in a building. It is a tool at best, an albatross at worst. If we start any endeavor aiming at a faithful representation or communication of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, we cannot miss. It is the “why” of any church project.
Wow. Even as I finish the list, there is so much more. I am not even sure these are the most important lessons. As I wrote, so many other trails emerged from the initial path. But I suppose that is what this is, a synopsis of my own journey over these seven years. It is a memoir of the ways in which God has been so good to me and provided counsel. I love what I do but it does not define me. That is a struggle at all times as I am sure it is for you whether you are a pastor, a plumber or a policeman. What I am always called back to and what I believe we should all be called back to is that Christ is supreme. I am not. Regardless of our profession, let our aim be the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ both in and through our lives.
Jay Sampson is the Teaching Elder at Heritage Church in Shawnee, Oklahoma where he pastors literally tens of people every week. A father of three and aspiring fantasy baseball champion, Jay has been teaching at Heritage since 2007. Weekly podcasts can be found at www.heritageshawnee.org.