5 Lessons From 20 Years of Church Ministry

It's May and that means Graduation Season! This has me reflecting on my own journey towards a college degree, and the 20 years that have passes since.  In May of 1998, I completed my degree program at Mid America Christian University in Oklahoma City.  Commencement brought to a close 11 years (I graduated High School in 1987) of on-again-off-again college attendance, having pursued 4 different Majors in 3 different Universities, in 3 different states. During which I time I got married, worked full-time, and our first child was born. Not the recommended way of earning a degree... which I finally received my B.A. in Pastoral Ministry/Bible that May.

Upon graduation, I continued to do pulpit-fill (which I had begun to do in my senior year) at a few small churches in rural Oklahoma. A few months later, I landed a full-time position as Youth Pastor at Red Fork Church of God, Tulsa, OK. After serving there almost 6 years, I accepted the call to serve as Associate Pastor with Coral Springs Community Church, Coral Springs, FL. After a nearly 3 years that changed my life forever, I accepted the call to take the Lead Pastor role with Oaklawn Church of God, Hot Springs, AR. It was after more than 8 years there that the call came to relocate to our current (& hopefully final) home, Natchitoches, LA, to take the lead in planting a brand new church: Awaken Church. And all of the sudden, I am a 20 year veteran of full-time vocational church ministry.

To say that I have learned a lot in the past 20 years would be an understatement. I've learned enough to know that I still have a lot to learn! However, here are 5 lessons that I've learned (mostly the hard way) over these 20 years, that I hope may encourage someone wrestling with going into, or staying in, church ministry as a career.

1. Keep JESUS the Subject!  This should go without saying, right?  Actually, this was the first and biggest lesson I've learned over the past 20 years. And truth is, I have to re-learn this on a regular basis. It's actually really easy to make all kinds of other things the subject - a project, a favorite aspect of the job, history/heritage, doctrine, strategy, style, others... and the one thing that I ended up causing quite a bit of hurt over - self! Always, always, always keep JESUS the subject, and everything else subject to Jesus!

2. Family Before Church. Wait, isn't it supposed to be God first? Yes, absolutely, but a lesson I learned the hard way is that working for God is not the same thing as God.  Letting God take the first place in my life doesn't mean letting church work take the first place in my life. In a major wake-up call, when my oldest son was only 5 or 6 years old, I realized that if I worked to "save" hundreds of people, it meant nothing if I neglected and lost my own family in the process. There have been events and emergencies that took me away from quality time with my family - those things are going to happen.  The lesson is to make that time/energy/presence up to my family by taking it away from something else.  There are only so many hours in the day, and we tend to cheat something out of the energy & time it deserves - never let that which gets cheated be the family!

3. Hold on Loosely to People. The people in your church are not yours, they belong to God. Love deeply, yes. Build friendships, yes. Let people close (not necessarily everyone), yes! But here's the reality check, and it's not fun: people will leave. And it will be people you have loved deeply.  It will be people you have invested in.  It will be people you knew had your back. Things happen, and people leave.  They leave the church, they leave the vision they once championed, and they leave you. It hurts. Prepare your heart for these seasons by (#1) keeping Jesus the subject!  And in these seasons, its ok to seek counsel.  Real talk - see a therapist, or share confidentially with a Pastor who's been in the game longer than you.

4. Let LOVE Be Your Politics.  The two things people say you should never discuss are religion and politics, right?  The lesson I've learned is let the love of God be both my religion and my politics. This has more to do with how I talk about what I talk about than what I actually talk about. And know this - church politics is a real deal, and I've yet to meet a pastor who says, "Oh, I love to play church politics!" Fact: most of us answered the call to do this with a desire to change the world (or at least or community). No one that I have met became a pastor for the debates about carpet  color, or arguments over whether the food bank should be closed down so a roof could be patched. Not a single Pastor signed up to debate, defend, or defund areas of church ministry. Most of us come from the place of if this is God's church, then it doesn't matter who's been here the longest or who gives the most money.  While there will be people that you connect with and love deeply, there will be just as many people that you will never connect with, and who you just don't like.  Love them anyway. When they threaten to have you run off, love them anyway. When they make very wrong assumptions, love them anyway.  When they hear/spread gossip, love them anyway. When they say (behind your back usually... but we always find out eventually) "he may be a good preacher, but he's worthless as a pastor," love them anyway. When they criticize your kids, love them anyway. Love doesn't mean giving in to the nay-sayers nor the politics-players. Love means being respectful, and caring about that person, even when you have to look them in the eyes and say, "You're wrong."

5. Sabbath is NOT a Suggestion. God created something for us - Sabbath. Not a day, but a practice of ceasing. In most cases, full-time church ministry is totally unlike other occupations. You will feel like you're always on call, that you're always working, and then will feel guilty about taking a vacation or even a day off. Get over yourself (again a lesson I've learned, and am I regularly re-learning)! The cliche "Pray as if it depend upon God, but work as if it depends upon you," is not doing you any favors. Yes, work diligently!  Yes, go above and beyond! But please, I'm begging you, don't log your hours spent working and then figure up your salary on how much that is per hour. Trust me, you will end up depressed. Jesus spoke about Sabbath and rest - Jesus walked the talk! If Jesus needed days off, and seasons of vacation, then certainly we do!  You may need to devise a plan for this. You will probably need the help of others, instead of doing it all 24-7-365 yourself. But cease.  Rest. Take at least one real day off each week. And take your vacation time! Not taking your vacation time is not a badge of honor - it actually shows that you aren't making Jesus the subject and you're not living family before ministry. Plus, you're going to burn out, or (as was my case about 5 1/2 years in) you're going to crash and burn. Stop feeling guilty for living as God intended!

There's obviously more, but if I could share just a handful of lessons I've learned in my first 20 years of full-time vocational church ministry, this is it.  What would you add to the list?

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