My story of ministry may not be unlike many others. I find myself looking back over 15 years of vocational ministry and being amazed at the seasons that have shaped me the most. What may come as a surprise is that they are the seasons that I, in many ways, did not desire. They are the seasons that usually young ministers try to avoid altogether. But may I offer up some wisdom for you? Learn to embrace these seasons and value them for what they can produce in you that is vital to pastoral ministry.
I’m grateful that…
1. I sat under leadership that I disagreed with for a long term.
In my earliest years of vocational ministry, I had the privilege of sitting under someone that had spent decades in ministry. I remember in one of my last interviews with him before accepting the position, that he asked me about a particular theological position that I held. I affirmed that I did believe that. He then he asked me not to directly teach that position because he did not hold that viewpoint. Because I was in year two and he was in year 42, I agreed. I served under him for 4 years. That wasn’t the only thing on which we disagreed. Personally, I disagreed on certain ministry philosophy aspects. These disagreements I kept to myself most of the time. I didn’t grow embittered towards him or his leadership. I love him. Many people know that he is still one that I consider as a mentor to me in ministry.
That season taught me so many things that I hold dear to this day. But primarily what that season instilled in me was humility. Humility is always a tricky subject matter, because it always seems like boasting to talk about having it. But let me just say this, I needed to be humbled. It is easy to have all these thoughts about what you want to do, and teach, and implement your vision. But we all need extended time serving and leading within someone else’s vision.
A guiding truth during this season that kept me there, not begrudgingly but willingly, was I have more to learn than to teach.
I’m grateful that I sat under leadership that I disagreed with for a long term, because it instilled in me humility.
2. I served in vocational ministry before going to seminary.
The knee-jerk reaction to someone making public their call to ministry is usually to start seminary shopping. I’m grateful that my experience was quite different. I had the privilege of serving for 6 years in full-time vocational ministry before going to seminary. Everyone’s experience or opportunities could be different from mine. If you have the opportunity to serve in vocational ministry before seminary, though, do it. Doing actual ministry under established ministry leadership helped me to discern how God really wired me for ministry. I learned pretty quickly that I wasn’t wired for youth ministry. I also didn’t thrive in ministry circumstances where I was asked to come in and build on someone else’s foundation. I actually thrived when I was asked to start something from nothing. I also learned what it really takes to make disciples and have compassion for people.
So, when I finally got to seminary I was able to discern all the information into what I really needed to do ministry. Seminary can equip you with things that primarily academics, seminarians, and other pastors care about. There are some things that I learned in seminary that were never brought up, asked, or even relevant to my 6 years of actual ministry. Now I’m not saying that seminary isn’t important. I believe it is a vital step for those called to a life of vocational ministry. I’m grateful that I served in vocational ministry before going to seminary because it instilled in me a self-awareness of how God wired me for ministry. It also instilled in me a level of wisdom and discernment for all the intake of knowledge I was receiving.
3. I suffered real loss and church hurt.
This one is really sticky. Just to be clear, when I was going through these seasons, they were terrible. I don’t wish this on anyone. But now that I am over a year removed from them, I can speak to their positive effects. First, in January of 2021, my dad called me to tell me that they found cancer wrapped around his spinal cord. This caused his lower extremities to fail, kidneys to fail and his body to deteriorate. It was horrific. My dad died in May of 2021 from this disease. It was the hardest season of his and my life.
In the midst of that season, I was dealing with church drama/hurt that began before my father’s diagnosis and continued several months after. People that I had called my church family, I couldn’t even call friends. I couldn’t sleep. I barely ate. I dropped nearly 20 pounds from the stress of it all. When I would see a text or a missed call from these people it would be panic inducing. It was traumatic.
In both of these circumstances, much water has gone under the bridge. I’m in a better place and at peace with it all.
Something began to happen not too long after these seasons. Something that I never had much of before. I had empathy. Before these seasons the best that I could provide to people I was ministering to was, “I’m sorry.”. Now it is always and immediately, “I know.”. There is something so much more powerful in the moments of ministry when I can look at that one who is hurting, traumatized, and anxious and say, “I know.”.
I’m grateful that I suffered real loss and church hurt because it instilled in me empathy.
4. I became old and uncool.
So much of my early days in ministry relied upon me being relevant. Looking a certain way was almost as important as the content presented. To be seen as their peer, even when I was their leader, was a natural desire. I can look back at pictures of me playing football, video games, being goofy, all to curry favor so that when it came time to teach they would listen. Now I’m out of shape, bald, in my 40’s, and I don’t care. Even if I did, I can’t hide it anymore. It seemed like virtually overnight I became everyone’s spiritual dad. I fought it. I squirmed. Then I embraced it.
I’m not the one that gets the invites to the young adult gatherings but I am the one they call when they need wisdom and biblical counsel. When they need a home cooked meal, a quiet place to study, a free place to do laundry, I’m getting that call. I have grown to love it. So much of my early days in ministry, I could get by on my abilities, hobbies, looks, skills, and personality. Now I find myself relying upon the Lord and His abilities, His Spirit, His Word more than ever.
I’m grateful that I became old and uncool because I rely upon the Lord more than me.
5. I was not placed in the lead pastoral ministry too quickly.
The Lord began to place in me a calling towards church planting in 2006. I planted, along with 3 other pastors, Mosaic Church in 2020. I wanted to plant a church so bad. I had opportunities to do so, multiple, in fact, by 2010. The Lord never gave us peace about them. I’m so glad He didn’t. I wasn’t ready. Not even close. I had the ability to lead, cast vision, make disciples and teach. Unfortunately, I could have gone a pretty good way on mostly my ability and personality. I’m grateful that the Lord protected me from myself. What I didn’t know then, that I’m continuing to learn, is that I needed humility, self-awareness, wisdom, empathy and reliance upon the Lord. All these things have developed over time. They couldn’t be microwaved into my life. They couldn’t be instilled in me sitting in a seminary class. They came in their time for the rest of my time. Which instilled in me patience.
In pastoral ministry you have an opportunity to weaponize truth and your authority to get results when and how you want it. But this is not the act of a shepherd. I’ve never seen a shepherd shout from the hilltop down to the sheep to get up to where he is. A shepherd lovingly comes alongside the sheep. He gently and slowly leads the sheep to where he knows they need to be. He goes at their pace, so that none get spooked and run off. His hope is for all of them to arrive safely to their destination. To shepherd is to have patience.
So I’m grateful that I was not placed into lead pastoral ministry too quickly, because it instilled in me patience.