Lessons Learned In Ministry
Ten things we’ve learned in our first ten years of ministry. Actually we ended up with fifteen I think – so you can pick the ten you want to hear. ☺ The fun thing was how easy this was to do. We simply sat down and the ideas were right there. We have learned a lot.
1. Don’t defend yourself. God will be your defense if you don’t defend. (This doesn’t mean don’t answer charges at a board level for instance. But it means don’t fight to prove you are right… or good.) We learned this in the year just before our first stint of seminary – when a woman in the church we were in (we were very new believers but had experienced something of a ‘call’). The woman had a complaint against us and told everyone. We naively continued to be friends to all (as we thought was the Christian way) and did not defend. Eventually when everyone in the church knew about it but us, people started asking why we were not speaking badly of her. We discovered that God preserved our reputation BECAUSE we did not engage her. The lesson we learned: let God defend us. And this has proved to be one of the most important things we’ve done as a rule… we do not defend ourselves to our critics.
2. When you don’t have enough money, and extra comes in, use it to buy an experience instead of a thing. (And – you can live on less than you think.) Never do our kids – ever! – talk about the houses we lived in or the furniture we had. But they do talk about our experiences. When you get an extra $100 from somewhere, instead of buying that new chair you have been coveting, take the family rafting. You will build a host of memories that will be retold as family lore for decades. (We lived pretty shabbily for most of our family life – the kids had second hand clothes etc. We did help our kids buy one of their name brand products – for instance one fashion jean instead of five Wal-Mart jeans. They had very little clothes but always had some things they liked.)
3. Spend time with your critics. On a Sunday when one of the old German farmers was displeased with the service (we used guitars? Or Steve preached about freedom instead of rules) they would come out of the service and harshly critique Steve to his face. But on Monday morning Steve would phone them up and say, “Uncle Dave, do you want to take the boat out?” Steve would go over and help the old man load the boat on his truck and they would go out on the lake. After a couple hours of listening to the old man complain Steve would quietly say, “Uncle Dave, why don’t we just enjoy our fishing?” And they would have a great afternoon. This happened over and over with a number of critics the first years of our first church. Eventually those old men became Steve’s greatest supporters, men who would defend him and who truly loved him. When you avoid critics you miss a great opportunity to make a friend and supporter out of a person.
4. Your kids will pick up your attitude about the ministry, time, people, their state of security – everything. I have to say this is mainly directed to the woman of the house. The children will feel about the ministry life the way you do. If you talk about how people are miserable and how they misuse you, and how you hate it, all the children will grow up to resent the church. I worked hard to make the ministry the greatest privilege a family could have. I often pointed out to our children how many ways their dad was available to them in unique ways, celebrated how blessed we were, etc. Our children grew up thinking they were the luckiest kids in the world. They all still respect their dad and his work with deep feeling.
5. Use Caller ID. Always return your calls.
6. If you plan an event it MUST happen – cancelling events creates distrust. Trust is built by doing what you say, over and over. Even if no one is coming, follow through to your best ability. And learn how to be selective. Every idea is not worth doing.
7. When times are very, very hard, remember that you are NOT your work. Steve and I have a little inside covenant that when things at church are ridiculously difficult we will dress us and go to a great restaurant and talk about our life, our dreams, our kids and all the good things of our life. We cannot let the smallest people define us. We must keep some of our identity private.
8. Have friends within the church. The myth of not being able to have friends is just plain wrong. You do need to wisely choose mature friends who will not put your friendship on display. We have hosts of deep relationships with people who have been in our churches, and several very close friends. We did learn to be wise, but because we do not talk about people in front of others we seldom have an occasion where we ‘reveal too much’ of the church.
9. Sometimes the spouse just needs to stay home from church. Sometimes a kid needs to stay home and just take the morning off. The pastor’s family is not the prisoner of the church. The nicest gift Steve gives me now and then is to say, “Hon, your week has been too much. Sit on the porch this morning and I will take you out for lunch when I get home.” No guilt. One time one of our staff members called to say he was going to be a little late for his responsibilities because his wife was in the bathtub sobbing. Steve WISELY said, “Friend, we will cover all your responsibilities. You take care of your wife. Don’t come this morning.” It took some work to fill in his places in short order but it was necessary. Later that day we arranged child-care for them and sent them away to a local resort for a couple nights. The church footed the bill.
10. Always show up on time. Always be prepared. You have no guarantee that everything you do will always be top notch, but go prepared and if things go wrong, just look at it and say, “Well, that didn’t go too well.” Prepare like it is all up to you but then release it all to God.
11. The best thing to do when something goes wrong in a service is to smile – laugh. When things go wrong everyone looks at the pastor and if he smiles and is relaxed they will all relax too. The way the pastor responds in a moment will begin to set the tone for the church..
12. You cannot pastor people if you don’t love them. To love them you must see their lives as they see them. Go walk through a barn, pluck chickens, sit in court and watch them work.
13. About working on your own sermons vs ‘buying’ sermons. The other guy’s sermon from the net will most likely be better than yours. It will sound better, he will have ideas you haven’t thought of. BUT if you use his sermon:
A.- You impede your own spiritual growth because you don’t have to struggle with the scriptures and,
B.- You rob your people of the word that God gives you for your people. If you love them and do real work with the scriptures you will feed them well and they will grow. We encourage READING – not just church growth books, but real literature, thinking, beautiful ideas. And try to learn to read poetry. Anyone who is going to spend their life communicating better saturate their mind in rich writing.
14. Find someone ahead of you and ask for their advice, often. Steve connected with an older pastor whose name was Johnny Bell. Steve would call Johnny and say, “I am thinking of doing this.” Johnny would say, “DON’T DO IT! They will kill you if you do that!” Johnny was nothing like Steve, but he became a treasure in Steve’s life. I know that Johnny prayed for Steve and cared for him and spoke plainly to him. This saved Steve many immature mistakes.
15. Don’t let people use you as a ministry spouse to become a critic of your husband. People who want to get to the pastor but don’t have the courage or ability often use the pastor’s wife … and they dump on her the issues knowing she will take them to the pastor. This makes the wife an unsuspecting critic of her husband, and we all know how healthy that is. This is how I learned to deal with this. When someone would come to me with a long criticism about how things needed to change, I gave them the very best ear I could. I listened, responded, even prayed with them. Then I would say approximately this, “Thank you so much for sharing. I know you will be so relieved to know that I won’t share one word of this with the pastor. I know you would not want me meddling. So if you want him to know this I know you will let him know but BE SURE that I won’t tell him.” Then I smile real big and hug her/him and move on. They stop giving me criticism and I never did take them to my husband. This process created an environment where I was no longer the recipient of criticism and my life in the church became much more peaceful.