I still remember the songs that we sang the day I was announced as the successive pastor at our church, so much so that when a particular song is played, I get knots in my stomach. I still remember friends walking out of the church, not knowing that they were essentially walking out of my life. I remember finding a box full of theological books on my front porch from an anonymous donor and wondering if that gift was an encouragement or a slight. I still remember holding meetings those first few months, not knowing if the church would survive. I remember my tears. The death of a godly pastor and mentor left me with a heartbroken family, a questioning church, and an overwhelmed mind. These were my first 100 days “in office.”
The year was 2016. I was twenty-nine years old. My pastor and father-in-law had just died. The physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual pain of that season of my life is unrivaled. To this day, my wife will not hesitate to tell you that 2016 was the worst year of her life. Looking back on that time, I still shudder to think of what it took to endure those months—to navigate working two jobs and leading a family. But I had big dreams and a zeal that outpaced my wisdom.
“The true Shepherd will guide you and me through it all. ”—Justin Honaker
As I write this, I am two weeks away from my seven-year anniversary as the lead pastor at my church, and though I have learned many lessons the hard way, I have learned. I often tell young couples in pre-marital counseling that I want to do my best to help them navigate the minefield of the first few months of marriage. In the same way, I want to give some wisdom to help young pastors traverse the first few years of pastoring, whatever they might face.
Seven Lessons from Seven Years
- Theology without empathy is calamity. A popular platitude says that people do not care how much you know until they know how much you care. This statement is far truer than I could have ever imagined. As a young pastor, I cared so much about proper theology and biblical fidelity. Those two things are paramount (as we will discuss in a moment), but our knowledge will not endear us to all. Early on, my mother-in-law told me a truth that she had watched play out over three decades as a pastor’s wife—you can teach them from the pulpit, but you gain their love at funerals and in hospital rooms. Like Jesus, we must love even as we lead.
- Empathy without proper theology is catastrophe. The overcorrection to the last truth is this: pastoring is only about meeting people where they are. Yes, we are called to meet people where they are with the love of Jesus. However, we are not called to leave them where they are. Being empathetic to people’s struggles without the rock-solid truth of the Scriptures will leave you incapable of actually leading anyone out of the muck and mire of sinfulness. Too often, pastors “weep over Jerusalem” like the Lord once did but are reluctant to speak the confrontational truth that Christ taught.
- Church finances are important. Like many pastors, I had a poor theology of money when I began ministry. I had watched the abuses of televangelists and charlatans. I vowed never to be a preacher who harped on money. This impulse was right, but I unintentionally fell off the other side of the horse. It has taken years, but I now know that a proper understanding of finances and good stewardship are vital if a pastor wants to lead a church over a substantial period of time. We never want to be consumed by the financial side of church leadership; however, proper importance should be given to stewarding the gifts that God has placed in our midst.
- Confrontation is necessary. For some time, I had great hopes that ministry would flow like the quiet streams that make their way through Russell County. Instead, I have found ministry to be full of unexpected twists and turns with the rising and falling, which marks dangerous waters. Furthermore, one of the great catalysts for creating dangerous waters has been the neglect of confrontation. Hear me; we do not seek it out. Paul reminds us in Romans 12 that a peaceable life is the goal. In my early years, I tended to conflate passivity with peace and confrontation with aggression. However, as I have matured in my pastoring, I have found infections easier to treat in their early stages. I do not want to create problems by needlessly pressing on my church, but solid biblical correction and leadership are wise and necessary.
- Church membership is more than a nice suggestion. Hebrews 13:17 reminds pastors that we will give an account of how we shepherd the flock of God among us. But who is my flock? Will I answer for everyone who ever visited or those who only visited the church twice? Again, much of my early pastorate smacked of naïveté and the great hope of pastoring in utopia (where everyone is obedient to the Word and people get saved every day). After this naïveté had evaporated from my mind like morning mist on a fall day, I saw the need for clear and definitive church membership. Knowing the flock of God that is among you helps define who the church is and how it should be shepherded.
- Discipling men is rewarding and maddening. Very few things are as satisfying while simultaneously exasperating as taking men under your wing and growing them toward maturity in Christ. Much like the frustration of sleep regression in a young child, watching a man take steps backward hurts the body and the soul. However, watching men open their eyes to the glories of Christ and the depth of His love, care, and guidance is exciting in ways that little else can rival. The type of life-on-life discipleship that will change a man’s life requires patience and maturity. True discipleship doesn’t just lead a horse to water but pleads unceasingly for the horse to drink—for this water is living and satisfies the soul. Hearing from one of these men’s wives about the growth she sees in her husband makes it all worth it. “He is caring for me in a greater way,” “he is becoming a better parent,” and “he is leading our family”—comments like these encourage me that the work of discipling men is worth the effort.
- Culture grows slowly. I stumbled early on here too. I thought culture could be changed with one great sermon series. If you asked my wife, she’d say that this is still one of my greatest flaws. I want change . . . yesterday. I think a good week of working out and eating right should produce significant change. But life doesn’t work like that, and church culture is no exception. It takes far more time to make significant change in church culture (especially for an established church) than we like to admit. Too often, we think of change as turning a canoe when it is more akin to turning a cargo ship. This means that we must pastor consistently and courageously for far longer than we think if we want to see the community that a true gospel culture can produce.
As I wrote this, I thought, “Surely people know all these things.” I hope that you do. As you read this, I hope you think me a novice pastor. However, far too often, wisdom is gained through the pain of experience. That probably means that these few paragraphs won’t spare you the full pain of many of these mistakes. Pastor, think of this as less of a way around the difficulties of the early years in ministry and more of a tour guide through the valleys you’ll experience. My first seven years have been challenging and glorious. I have baptized friends from my old life, watched my children grow in their faith, and seen marriages restored. I have also preached too many funerals and lamented those who have walked away from the church. If the Lord gives me another seven years, I will see many mountaintop moments and walk through many valleys, but the constant presence of the true Shepherd will guide me and you through it all.