Lessons After 40 Years in Ministry
(What Do You Learn After the First 20 Years?)
Having read Brian Croft’s 20 Lessons from 20 Years in Ministry*, I took off from his lessons, agreeing with many, adding to some, and developing others. The original Croft lessons are labeled (BC). Any developmental lessons to his I have added are labeled (CS).
1. God’s Word is sufficient to build Christ’s Church (BC), but systems matter (CS).
One of the major lessons in church health I have learned after being a church health consultant since 1998 has been that church systems either hamper or help to build the church. God’s Word provides the foundational building blocks and sustains the church, but outdated or understaffed or wrongly staffed systems can throttle a church and actually destroy it or limit its effectiveness.
2. The Gospel is powerful enough to change lives (BC & CS).
Here I fully agree with Brian. There are and have been decent support group materials and programs and retreats that have helped, no doubt. But I have found that faithful teaching and preaching and application of God’s Word is totally sufficient to build good marriages and solve the most intricate and difficult personal problems.
3. An effective pastor is one who feels deeply (BC), and who thinks clearly about people and issues (CS).
Authenticity of emotion speaks volumes to a younger audience looking for reality in their leaders and in their churches. But we must not let emotion override or replace clarity of thinking and planning and calculating. Authentic emotions plus clear thinking gives effectiveness in leadership and ministry.
4. Hang onto your family (BC & CS).
I could not agree more. I began ministry in the days when ministry was all consuming and took time away from family and needed time with kids and spouse. That was a mistake I have regretted with my first child, and have been trying to make it up to him through the years. Family always comes first after God, and ministry is further down on the list of priorities. It is so hard to regain a spouse’s love and trust if you put ministry commitments over your family.
5. Don’t underestimate the value of older members (BC), but understand their limits in growing a church in the modern age (CS).
The older I get, the more I see the wisdom and need of older members in a ministry and a church. However, not all older people think kingdom directed thoughts, and some actually want to practice nostalgic church patterns and programs which do not work anymore, especially for a younger generation. I have learned to avoid those older members stuck in their ways which do not advance God’s work and God’s kingdom.
6. Pursue being wanted, not needed (BC & CS).
John Maxwell has well said, “people don’t care about how much you know, until they know how much you care.” Every leader and minister is expendable. We need to let go of our egos and our self-proclaimed expertise as ministry goes on. There is always someone better than you are in everything. The sooner we realize this, the better and more effective and blessed our ministry becomes.
7. Don’t neglect your soul (BC & CS).
Good pastors and church leaders first care for their own spiritual condition and health before attempting to care for the souls of others. To do the latter without the former is at best worthless and at worst hypocrisy. You cannot lead where you have not been in the spiritual realm. Self-discipline, self-control, exercising the fruits of the Spirit are crucial to a healthy and lasting ministry.
8. Faithfulness is worth the harshest of criticisms (BC), as long as we understand faithfulness is not the same thing as theological or ecclesiological narrowness or denominational pride (CS).
Like Brian, I have had to make some very hard decisions in ministry and leadership. But I have seen the “faithfulness card” played too often by narrow and bigoted ministers and leaders who claim to follow God just to push their own agendas on people. Good people have been dismissed from churches and ministries because they have disagreed with the leadership. Or they have been silenced or shuttled to the sidelines. We need to make sure our faithfulness to God is really what God wants, not what we think God wants.
9. Authentic brokenness is better than unique giftedness (BC), but this again depends on the type and place of ministry and leadership (CS).
I value and champion authenticity and humility in ministry and leadership. But I also value skills and wisdom in ministry and leadership. Congregations and ministries value authentic brokenness in their leaders, but they still want strength and wisdom and giftedness in their leaders. And they don’t want or value excuses that seem to come from humbleness. They want leaders to lead and with the skill sets to do so.
10. Training men for pastoral ministry is an unspeakable joy (BC), as well as mentoring other leaders in ministry (CS).
I have had the privilege in forty years of ministry to mentor and train and help develop dozens of ministers and other church leaders. This is an absolute joy and fulfillment of ministry. One of my sons is entering professional ministry, and I have had the privilege to see him develop and grow and become a friend of mine, as well as a son, and ask for advice and help.
11. The burden to care for souls is too great for one person (BC & CS).
Amen to this reflection! Care-giving needs to be shared by many gifted people within a ministry or congregation, and not expected only from the senior leader. I have seen a “ranching type” of care giving approach reap vast benefits for the whole of a congregation’s needs and wants. The senior leader trains and organizes and even oversees other caregivers who use their skills and gifts to care for others. This works in smaller as well as larger churches.
12. Pastors will give an account for every soul under their care (BC & CS).
Hebrews 13:17 keeps me humble and often brings me up short in my care for others and ministry to them. I agree with Brian that it is those difficult souls that take the most out of you, but God has given them to you to love and perhaps rebuke and challenge. And there will always be difficult people. I have learned that people are basically the same everywhere, and that the ministry grass is not at all greener on the other side of the tracks or fence.
13. The most crucial pastoral quality might be patience (BC), or at least taking the long view of ministry (CS).
Pastors require many godly qualities, but patience may be the most important because of how it affects other qualities. Patience helps prevent pastors from overreacting. It helps them make decisions and evaluate their church with a long-term perspective and plan in view. We grow in discernment and wisdom when we’re patient, but these qualities are typically absent when we ramrod our agendas through (BC).
14. Be content-driven with music (BC), and flexible with the worship needs of people (CS).
I agree that biblical truth must inform all of our worship, including worship music. That music must also match the communication needs of the people coming to services. And that means often a balance between old and newer forms and formulations of musical styles. Forcing a group of people into a style that does not speak to their worship needs is counterproductive and can be unnecessarily divisive.
15. Learn what not to do (BC) in ministry programming as well as personal priorities (CS).
I believe more clearly now than ever that ministry is like a funnel, big at the inception end and small at the concluding end. We try many things, some good, some not so good, some neutral and some a waste of time in ministry programming and personal achievements. Failure is always an option in ministry programming, so long as it accords with Scripture and seeks to advance the kingdom of God in a certain area.
15a. Not everyone can do everything (CS).
The pastor or minister who thinks he or she can do it all is sadly deceived or mistaken. We all have gifts that differ and gifts that God has distributed to us that are usually different from gifts He distributes to others. We cannot and must not do it all. I have learned through the years that less stress and more productivity in ministry comes from focusing on what you were made to do rather than trying to do what others tell you to do or what you pridefully think you can do.
16. Prayer changes me the most (BC & CS).
I have learned through the years, especially the last twenty years that prayer walks, prayer retreats, taking weekly time off for sustained prayer really do work miracles and solve problems in ministry and churches. The busier you are, the more prayer is needed. I have learned that talking to God and especially listening to God prevents many church catastrophes.
17. Choose battles wisely (BC), and know you cannot win them all (CS).
We need to pick and choose what we fight for and campaign for in ministry and church leadership. Not everything really matters. And, I have learned to lose graciously as well as win graciously. We will not and cannot please everybody, and if one tries to do so, he or she will end up immensely frustrated and may leave ministry altogether.
18. Expect suffering (BC), and plenty of it (CS).
Ministries that matter and lives that matter to God go through plenty of suffering. Nothing really important comes without a great deal of pain and travail. Some of this pain may be brought on by tough decisions, and some of it will come simply through the travails of life and ministry itself.
19. Numbers are not a helpful gauge for determining church health (BC), but they must be figured into church effectiveness (CS).
While nickels and noses are not really the barometer for church wide health and vitality, they should be considered as normal outcomes for effective ministry. As a church health consultant, I fully agree with Brian’s note here, but ministries that attract no one or drive people away in the name of health or so-called biblical purity are misdirected. Healthy churches do indeed grow in numbers and nickels. Not usually into mega-churches or vast campuses but growth in all areas will be noted.
20. Jesus is always enough (BC), and the gospel is always the bottom line and the main thing (CS).
Our worth is not measured by how successful or influential or powerful our ministry has been. Character is always the bottom line here, and character is developed by closeness to Jesus Christ and His gospel. Churches that matter make the gospel the main thing, because at the end of the day, it is the main thing.
*Editors’ note: The article by Brian Croft originally appeared at Practical Shepherding.
Brian Croft is senior pastor of Auburndale Baptist Church in Louisville, Kentucky. He is also the author of Visit the Sick: Ministering God’s Grace in Times of Illness and Test, Train, Affirm, and Send Into Ministry: Recovering the Local Church’s Responsibility to the External Call. Brian blogs regularly at Practical Shepherding.
Carl Shank is an executive pastor and church health consultant at Pequea Church in Lancaster County, PA. He has been in the ministry since 1973 and a consultant with ChurchSmart, Inc since 1998. He can be reached at carlshankconsulting.com or email at firstname.lastname@example.org.