20 Lessons in 20 years of pastoral ministry

Originally posted on Practical Shepherding

By: Brian Croft

This week completes 20 years of serving in vocational ministry of some kind. I spent my first 8 years serving as an associate pastor in a variety of roles in several different churches (May 1995 – August 2003). These last 12 years have been spent as Senior Pastor of Auburndale Baptist Church (September 2003 – May 2015). There are several lessons to reflect upon, many through pain and suffering. Here are 20 in light of my 20 years:

1. God’s Word is sufficient to build Christ’s church.

I remember my first Sunday as Senior Pastor, I sat alone in the sanctuary wondering if the doors of this church would be open a year later. I realized in all my cleverness or worldly wisdom I could not save this church. I believed then that God, by his Spirit and through his word, was sufficient to build his church and revitalize it. Over a decade later, I have watched God do that very thing.

2. The Gospel is powerful enough to change lives.

Programs, gimmicks, or personality do not change people’s hearts. Nor do these things give life to a church that had been in decline for over thirty years. For twenty years, I have watched the gospel free people from the bondage of sin and give hope to the hopeless. I have watched the gospel unite old and young, black and white, rich and poor, and give life to our church. The gospel of Jesus Christ is enough to change lives and revitalize any local church.

3. An effective pastor is one who feels deeply.

The church has bought into this phony idea of strong biblical masculinity being a stoic, unemotional, unrattled man. The Bible paints a different picture, one in which true masculine strength is a man who feels deeply so he is able to love passionately and sacrifice willingly. Feeling deep emotion causes our heads to descend into our hearts, allowing us to empathize with hurting people. An effective pastor is one who owns his weakness, is secure in Christ enough to be vulnerable, and suffers with others.

4. Hang on to your family.

I was once told, “You can always have another ministry. You only get one wife.” I would add your children also grow up so fast and they need their dad. Make sure you balance ministry and family life in such a way that your wife and children still feel like they come first, even in the midst of the grind of ministry. I learned to take all my vacation time. I learned not to answer the phone during dinner, devotions, and my day off. Don’t forget, if you lose your family, you may lose the right to serve in ministry (1 Tim. 3:4-5).

5. Don’t underestimate the value of older members.

Because it is hard for older, existing members of a dying and declining church to accept a young pastor and a different direction, it is easy to view them as obstacles. I know this because I did. Yet, the longer I stayed at my current church, the longer both I and these long time members battled to love each other and work together. I thought I was the one being very patient with them in the early years. As time went one, I realized how patient they were actually being with me as a young pastor trying to grow.

6. Pursue being wanted, not needed.

For the first several years as Senior Pastor, I was told that I would probably be the last pastor of this church. When I left for my sabbatical a couple of years ago, my hope was to come back and realize how much I had truly become unneeded. That is what I experienced and expendability never felt so good. Yet, I still feel more wanted than ever. That should be the goal for us as pastors: that we build leadership around us so the church is not dependent on one person, and yet we are fruitful enough in ministry that we are still wanted by our church. Not the best formula for job security, but a wonderful plan for a healthy church.

7. Don’t neglect your own soul.

Paul told the Ephesian elders to, “Take heed to yourselves and your flock” (Acts 20:28). Pastors know to take heed to their flock, but often forget the call to take heed to themselves. For twenty years, the moments where I was not at my best or was batting with sin more could always be traced back to some kind of neglect towards my own soul. Pastors, cut something out and do what you must to care for your own soul. If you are not refreshed by the Lord’s grace and Spirit daily, you will not be at the right place to minister that grace to others.

8. Faithfulness is worth the harshest of criticisms.

There have been hard decisions made in every church I served. Members have been disciplined out of the church. Men who just completed seminary were counseled not to pursue ministry. Attenders were not allowed to become members. Other members were removed out of neglect. Unpopular decisions to defend the gospel in the community were mocked. I have endured many harsh words in every church position because of decisions made seeking to obey Scripture. There was a year my name was so slandered that people knew me only through those painful words spoken when I would walk into a store or coffee shop. The harshest words are worth enduring with the hope that when I stand before Christ He will count me faithful.

9. Authentic brokenness in a pastor is better than unique giftedness.

So many men are envious of the gifts of others. Pastors are no different. We tend to think we need the mind of D.A. Carson, the preaching passion of John Piper, and the charisma of Matt Chandler, or we will not serve our church well. But I have learned that a pastor who will own his brokenness, weakness, and neediness for Jesus in an honest and authentic way before his congregation is valuable and serves a church faithfully. Modeling how to walk humbly with Jesus is worth more than the most exceptional ministry gifts.

10. Training men for ministry is an unspeakable joy.

Other than seeing conversions to Christ, one of the greatest joys of these last twenty years has been training men for ministry, sending them out, and then watching them flourish in that new ministry. Although it is hard and painful to send some of your best, most gifted out from you, it is worth it and a great personal joy.

11. The burden to care for souls is too great for one man.

Most of the churches I have served had a single pastor model and the task to care for souls was overwhelming doing it alone. I saw it with those who bore that burden and I felt it when I inherited it as a Senior Pastor. This is why the New Testament clearly teaches that the care of souls in the local church comes not through one man, but a plurality of pastors/elders to share that load together. Maybe the most significant decision made in the last twelve years in my current church was when we moved to a plurality of pastors.

12. Pastors will give an account for all souls under our care.

Pastors often forget we will give an account to the Lord Christ for not only the souls of those who love and support us, but those who do not. When I struggled to love certain difficult people (which was often), it was the piercing words that I will “give an account for every soul” (Heb. 13:17) to Jesus that kept me from dismissing my responsibility before the Chief Shepherd.

13. The most crucial pastoral quality might be patience.

There are many crucial godly pastoral qualities needed in a pastor, but the reason patience might be the most important is how it affects the others. Patience allows a pastor not to overreact to one event. It causes a pastor to make decisions and evaluate his church with a long term plan in view. I learned there is a discernment and wisdom that exists in patience that does not typically exist with ramrodding our agenda through.

14. Be content driven with music in corporate worship.

I went through a very revealing change in ministry environments. I was one of the main music staff members at a church where we used the all the latest technology: theatrical lighting, enormous projection screens, and lots of “wow!” I left that for a church that sang hymns out of the hymnal. What did I learn from this radical transition?: #1, style divides; #2 life-giving truth unites. Content should drive our public gatherings. Regardless the style and feel of your weekly services, make sure people leave talking about the wonderful truths they sang, not how well the music was played.

 15. Learn what NOT to do.

In the four churches I served in as an associate pastor I learned more about what NOT to do than what to do. I saw practices and ministry philosophies that lacked biblical warrant. And unfortunately, I witnessed firsthand how many of these practices harm the souls of God’s people. Those were difficult times for me in many ways, but they helped me develop and hone biblical convictions I still hold to this day.

16. Prayer changes me the most.

I spent twenty years of ministry not praying as much as I should. Many regrets here. But when I did, I found God meeting me in my struggle and despair and comforting my soul. That became a sweet place of rest, more so than any one answered prayer. The prayers of a pastor are a special thing when he cries out for his people and his church to be strengthened. God has answered many prayers throughout two decades, but what God did in my soul as I cried out to him was always more significant.

17. Choose battles wisely.

The fact I can write this having been in vocational ministry for twenty straight years is in itself evidence of God’s grace in my life. I look back on so many decisions that I made as well as some that I chose not to do. Had I gone the other way on some of those I likely would have been fired. In my first five years as Senior Pastor alone there were three efforts to remove me. Pick your battles, don’t let them pick you. Be patient and wise. Seek good counsel. Pray a lot. A single decision can be the one that God uses to turn the ship of a struggling church, or overturn your ministry.

18. Expect suffering.

My experience has emphasized this truth so much that I would counsel anyone seeking to be a pastor, but not wanting to suffer much, to go do something else. Our families and ministries are on the front lines of spiritual attack and gospel work. Suffering will come and at times all at once. Expect it. Hang on loosely to the things of this world. Hold tightly to Jesus and your family. Allow your pastoral suffering, for it is certain to come, to make you long for heaven.

19. Numbers are not a helpful gauge to determine church health.

The common trend is to use butts and budgets to gauge church health. Having served in churches with large budgets and lots of behinds, I can tell you firsthand those criteria by themselves are broken compasses for measuring whether God is working and a church is healthy. Pastors must learn to evaluate their church and ministry in the way God does, not corporate America.

20. Jesus always has to be enough.

For most of my ministry, my identity was wrapped up in my ministry in a harmful way that led to a very narcissistic approach to my life and ministry. It has only been in the last few years that God has exposed this idolatrous approach to ministry that has led to some hard, painful soul work. As a result, I am experiencing a freedom in my soul that has caused me to hold loosely to all my ministry. As long as I have Jesus, that has to be enough. For most of my twenty year ministry, Jesus wasn’t enough. I can say he is now. Even though I get to do all kinds of exciting ministry in my life now, I could walk away from it all today if I needed to. Jesus has to be enough and I have found it has caused me to enjoy all the ministry I do even more because I get to do it, I don’t need it.

Conclusion:

There they are. I promise you I failed miserably in many different ways that led to these lessons learned. Be encouraged dear brothers and fellow pastors. The Lord often teaches us through our sins, failings, disappointments, and weaknesses. By the Lord’s grace, he allowed me to learn them as he continued to allow me to serve him. Now, I am asking God to allow me to serve him another two decades if he would give me that honor and it would fit his good and perfect purposes.

Brian Croft is senior pastor of Auburndale Baptist Church and founder of Practical Shepherding.  He is also the senior fellow of The Mathena Center for Church Revitalization at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and has written over a dozen books on pastoral ministry.  He is married to his wife, Cara, and they have four children.

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