After my first year as a pastor, I wrote an article for a publication that was meant to be a funny commentary on the things I learned that I never expected to learn in parish ministry…things like the incredible large-ness of cows….and the exquisite quality of food at a church potluck dinner.
While most people enjoyed the article, some even re-published it, and one group even thought it good enough to give an award, a few didn't like it at all. Some, in fact, were angry with me for writing it and I was told that it was "inappropriate." What I learned from that experience was to keep my mouth shut, particularly when it came to my feelings about the church and the people in it. It was a matter of survival for me in that situation. In the end, I learned that it didn't matter what I said or didn't say. And I learned that honesty, while often costly, is rarely a mistake.
Now that I've been a pastor for over 5 years, I've learned even more things I never expected to learn. I've learned, above all, that no matter what I say or don't say, do or don't do, someone will choose to take offense. So, for you who choose to be offended, please accept my heartfelt apology in advance. Nothing I say is intended to hurt or insult. Mostly, I just try to be honest and, sometimes, even funny.
Here are some things I have learned in my 5 years in ministry, and hope to pass on to future pastors (without scaring them off)...
Seminary is wonderful and fun and filled with a community that loves God, worships joyfully, and shares deep faith... and it bears very little resemblance to actual congregational ministry. Similar to parenthood, you will have no idea the joy and the heartache of parish ministry until you are gut-deep into it.
A pastor's first year in a church is pure bliss…a honeymoon, to be sure. He/she glides on silvery butterfly wings. The second year, folks have no problem wadding up the butterflies and throwing them at you.
People can be incredibly kind and thoughtful and will say or do things completely unexpectedly that will bring you to tears.
People can be incredibly mean and insensitive and will say or do things completely unexpectedly that will bring you to tears.
Even when you have preached every week for 50 weeks in a row and are sick of the sound of the organ, the choir, and especially your own voice, the Spirit of God still has something to say.
Your congregation will have no idea the things you give up to be their pastor. In fact, you have no idea the things you will give up to be a pastor. Things like: your privacy, your personal space, frequently your opinion, and ultimately your life, to be perfectly honest. There's no way around it. And you will learn to give up your need for recognition, acknowledgment, appreciation, and even self, at times.
You will have a love/hate relationship with your cell phone. Often you will feel like throwing it across the room…but you won't…because someone from church might call or text….
The positive side of the challenges is that you will find God in places you never expected to find Him. You will be amazed at how much God can do with little and how often God intervenes to make something beautiful out of something you were ready to throw away. And He will be faithful to the promises He has made to you. Always.
You will find yourself laughing with seminary friends, after about 2 years in ministry, about what you THOUGHT it was going to be…and then again at 5 years...that is, if any of you are still serving in ministry after 5 years…chances are good many won't be.
Parish ministry is a lonely vocation. You'll try to explain it, but no one will really understand except another pastor.
If you're single….yeah, you're staying that way.
Hopefully, if you're married and you work really hard at it, you will also stay that way.
Speaking God's truth is harder than it looks. Folks may not like it and God isn't in the room to take the hits….you are.
Even when people aren't nice, they depend on you to be their pastor. It is an unbelievable privilege and equally unbelievable responsibility to be the shepherd of a congregation. The pastor does not have the luxury of choosing not to love anyone in the congregation. Regular folks get to choose who they will love and get to choose to stop loving people who hurt them if they want to. The pastor must love everyone God has placed in his/her congregation, all the time. Even when he/she has been hurt by them. Especially when he/she has been hurt by them.
As a pastor and as a Christian, my greatest desire is obedience to God. I have learned that not everyone shares that desire.
Yoga helps. Good friends are crucial. And, for the love of Pete, take a vacation now and then.