Narrating Grace

8 Lessons I’ve Learned After 8 Years of (Mostly) Solo Ministry

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I’m not a seasoned pastor by any means, but this list is full of what I’ve learned at the beginning of my career in ministry.  The lessons, both painful and enlightening, are still fresh in my mind, so here they are, written as for a new pastor:                 
1. Network.
Having a group of other pastors to talk honestly with and glean ideas from is essential.  If you aren’t part of a weekly text study, join one.  If you can’t find one, start one.  It’ll be your lifeline and your weekly sanity check.  The resources you’ll share and receive will be invaluable.  My first call was in a very rural area and the pastors in my text study shared my weekly frustrations, lonely days and celebrations.  I developed a beloved friendship with a wise pastor whose passion for rural ministry still showed after 40 years.  Recently my family and I visited him and his wife in their new retirement home.  We hadn’t seen each other for a few years, but the continued warmth and support was evident as they served us a special lunch and he set up his trains in the basement so my son could play.  You’ll need the help and support of fellow pastors, and a few of these relationships become sacred.  Be active about searching them out.            
 
2. Listen to friends and family.
You’ll also need to be intentional about keeping up your friendships outside the church and spending time with your family.  Ministry lends itself to living in a bubble and it’s important to leave it periodically.  Get some real-world perspective.  Have fun.  If they think you’re working too much, burning yourself out, or becoming weirdly focused on liturgical traditions/writing down every single sermon illustration you notice/rehashing a conversation with a congregation member, you are.  Listen to them.   
           
2. There will always be another Advent.
I remember planning my first liturgical season.  I was convinced it had to be the best! Lent! Ever! After a few seasons of this, I realized there will always be another Advent—that’s the beauty of a church year.  Pace yourself.  Church work is a marathon, and if you run at a sprinter’s pace you’ll tire quickly.  You don’t need to find room this year for every beautiful confession or every single Advent hymn. 
4. Failure is the only option.
Get comfortable with spectacular, public failure because you’ll experience a lot of it.  You can’t preach most Sundays for many years without preaching a terrible sermon.  And by terrible, I mean a sermon you preach as quickly as possible and immediately burn.  I guarantee you’ll plan some wonderful programs and no one will show up.  The bulletin will have embarrassing misprints and you’ll forget the name of the baby you’re about to baptize.  All of these are great learning experiences and will only make you better prepared for what’s ahead.  They’re painful but necessary.  They also make you appreciate the programs that do work and the sermons you’re very proud to preach.  And don’t forget the Holy Spirit works mysteriously in the midst of it all.  Pastors need lots of grace, and ministry doesn’t let us forget it.
Besides, parishioners love to see your human side and tease you for your mistakes.
5. Ministry is all trial and error.
Don’t let the failures get you down.  Risk is an essential part of ministry.  You’ll take all sorts of creative, personal, and public risks.  Often you won’t know what works with a congregation until you try it.  If no one shows up for a program, use that information to hone your future planning.  If you try something and many people get angry, you’ve discovered an area of passion. 
People will complain and grumble.  Trying to please them all will paralyze you and your ministry.  Let go and embrace risks as an individual and as a community.
 
6. Strategize.
So many people want so much of my time that I need to do lots of prioritizing—and saying no.  Know what’s essential.  I once had a rural pastor tell me there are three things every pastor needs to do: preach the best you can, visit people in their homes, and love their kids.  I find if I faithfully do hospital and home visits, preach thoughtful and well-prepared sermons, and honestly engage the youth of the congregation I serve, I receive a lot of grace when it comes to evening meetings and bulletin misprints.  Good preaching takes time, and that means something else has to give.  Every context is different, but you’ll need to find out what matters most to a congregation—and you—so you can prioritize.
Play up your strengths and interests and recognize your weak areas.  Don’t just go with a canned Confirmation program.  What interests you?  Do you love world religions or pop culture?  Are you a musical or movie or sports buff?  Incorporate your passions into your teaching and preaching.  If you’re excited about a topic, chances are the congregation will be too, and you’ll all have more fun.  Look for people with different strengths than yours and let them handle your weak areas.  You’re not expected to do everything, even though we pastors like to think we can.
Enjoy the slow weeks.  You’ll have lots of crazy weeks with funerals and retreats and Holy Week (sometimes all in the same week).  When you encounter one of the magical weeks without Confirmation or sermon planning, take an afternoon or an extra day off, and enjoy it.  And for goodness’ sake, take all your vacation!
7. Find good feedback.
You need good feedback to hone your skills and tap into the congregation’s passions.  You’ll need to double-check your missional direction.  Find a few trusted people in the congregation to give you honest, helpful, constructive feedback and check in with them often.  Be careful they don’t become feeders for congregational complaints.  Rather, use them as your eyes and ears in the congregation.  What’s working well?  Why is a certain area lacking energy?  Let them take the pulse of the church for you.
8. People like to feel useful.
Stop prefacing requests with “I’m sorry, but…” or “If you’re not too busy…”  This has been the hardest lesson for me to learn.  I don’t like asking for help.  It’s been difficult for me to realize I’m inviting people into opportunities to serve, and many people like to feel useful.  By depending on the same few people I know will say yes, I end up with burned out volunteers.  Reach out and give new people the chance to participate.  Don’t be afraid of failure or people saying no.  Just keep asking.  Better yet, find people who have the gift of invitation to support you.  At one church I served, one woman recruited over 100 Vacation Bible School volunteers every year.  It was her ministry.  What a blessing! 
I end with a bonus lesson that overarches this whole list: trust your instincts.  You can read a ton of books about evangelism, pastoral care, preaching and administration.  Yes, there is always more to learn.  But only you know the church you serve.  You know their points of pride, their insecurities and their idiosyncrasies.  Trust yourself to translate what you’ve learned into their context.  Sometimes you need to leave the books on the shelf and go your own direction.  Just like your own list after eight years of ministry may look very different than mine.
Ministry is exhausting, unpredictable, and frustrating.  It’s also exhilarating, profoundly meaningful, endlessly creative, and full of joy.  Pray for strength and patience, and know you’re not alone.  Take good care of yourself.  And remember—in the end it’s God’s ministry, not yours. 
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