6 Ministry Lessons I Wish I Had Known When I Started

6 Ministry Lessons I Wish I Had Known When I Started

When I talk to my friends from seminary who are still in ministry, we often chuckle about how unprepared we were when we first started. There’s no way to be perfectly prepared for ministry, but this article explores 6 ministry lessons I wish I had known when I first started.

One of the final classes I was required to take in seminary was a one-credit course on how to handle messy situations in the church—affairs, addictions, board members who behave badly. Within the first two years of ministry not only had I experienced every topic we had discussed, but tons of other messy stuff I had never anticipated. Turns out that just because you’ve mastered divinity doesn’t mean you’re prepared for ministry.

That was a long time ago. Here are six lessons I’ve learned that I wish I had known when I first started.

1. Tending to my own transformation is the most important work I can do.

"The most important thing is my own transforming self."
– Ruth Haley Barton

As a church leader I can often get obsessed with changing everyone and everything else—a frustrating board member, a staff member that isn’t cutting it, a congregation that’s bent on maintaining the status quo. It’s easy for me to spin my wheels and use up my juice trying to change things other than me.

A radical shift took place in my leadership as I started to give my primary focus and best energy to joining the work God was doing in me. I wanted to be a change agent, but first I needed to become a changed agent. Tending to my own transformation changed the kind of person I was bringing to literally every leadership situation and space I found myself in.

"The greatest gift you can give your church is a healthy soul."
– Pete Scazzero

While I can still lose my way by fixating on changing people and situations, I’m learning that attending to God’s transforming work in my life is the best place to focus my efforts.

2. Start small, not big. Go slow, not fast. Trust God’s agency, not my own.

When I first jumped into ministry, I landed in the “attractional” end of the ministry pool. It was all about attracting people to our building, wowing people with our ministry programs, and getting people to say salvation prayers.

I thought we were crushing it. I believed our growth as a church was clear evidence of God’s blessing. But the more I immersed myself in the life and teachings of Jesus, paying close attention to how Jesus discipled people, the more uneasy I became.

  • Jesus started small, not big. He began with twelve.
  • Jesus went slow, not fast. He took three years to train them.
  • And Jesus trusted God’s agency—not his own—to accomplish God’s purposes in the world.

So I began to shift my focus from running programs to investing in people. I started small, not big. The pace was slow, not fast. Small and slow, trusting God to transform.

Transformation can’t be microwaved. You can’t bake a cake faster by turning up the heat.

3. Exchanging consumption for participation is essential for discipleship.

"God can do more with 12 disciples than 12,000 religious consumers."
– Alan Hirsch

When I first read that quote, it ruined me. We live in a culture of consumerism, which shapes the way people approach church. Many people choose a church based on how much they like the spiritual products the church is providing. And over the years I’ve seen many people show up at our church because they were no longer satisfied with the products their previous church was serving up. 

  • The kids ministry just wasn’t cutting it anymore. We love what you’re doing!
  • The preaching wasn’t feeding me anymore. We love the preaching here!
  • The youth ministry hit a rough patch. We love the momentum here!

Over time these spiritual consumers who began attending because they initially liked our programs and products were the same ones that would later leave frustrated and disgruntled with the way we were doing things.

Consumption is always detrimental to discipleship.

You can’t consume your way into a fully formed disciple of Jesus.

The only way to grow as a disciple is to participate your way into it.

So we began auditing every single ministry at our church by evaluating what kind of participation was required for those present. As we began to gut our community of consumeristic spaces, our attendance shrank but our spiritual maturity soared.

4. Ask “God questions” instead of “church questions.”

As a church leader I tend to be church-focused and solutions-oriented.

When I see a problem in our church, my default is to immediately spring into action and provide solutions. The fact that I’m paid to lead serves to amplify the expectation that this is what I’m supposed to be doing. It’s my job to fix things.

A shift happened for me when I realized that my default to provide solutions often betrayed a lack of trust in God’s ability to lead. Rather than trusting that God was already present and at work, I was assuming that God was checked out and it was my job to provide fixes.

As I began to attend to this, it led to a fundamental shift in orientation. Instead of asking what I need to do to fix this church problem, I began to ask questions aimed at discovering where God was already at work.

Instead of asking what I need to do to fix this church problem, I began to ask questions aimed at discovering where God was already at work.

I traded church-focused questions in for God-focused questions and it made all the difference in the world. Not only did I begin trusting God more in my leadership, but so did others as they learned to rely on God rather than on my cheap fixes.

5. Power is always at play.

My understanding of power dynamics has been a journey.

I went from ignoring it (phase one) to nearly getting crushed by it (phase two).

Then I tried to avoid it (phase 3), but that didn’t work either. When you don’t acknowledge power, people are more likely to get hurt by it. And the truth is that power is always at play.

So here’s where I am now (phase four): Acknowledge it and share it. 

I’m learning to identify when power is at play, acknowledging its existence, and share it.

One example would be my relationship to individuals on our staff team. Many of the people that report to me on our staff team are also my friends. I’m both a friend and a boss. There is a power dynamic, a dual dynamic, at play.

Acknowledging and talking about these dynamics openly and honestly brings them out into the open, creates shared understanding between us, gives me accountability, and fosters collaboration for better navigating our relationship.

If you are in leadership, you have power.

Don’t ignore it. Don’t abuse it. Don’t pretend it’s not there.

Learn to identify it, name it, own it, and share it.

6. Resisting the temptation to quit requires lots of supportive relationships.

I’m just going to be honest. I’ve been through a lot of hard stuff in ministry.

I’ve been one of the first on the scene after a suicide, been with parents as their infant takes his last breaths, watched people struggle and lose the battle to cancer.

Pastors have a front row seat to tragedy and are often at the center of controversy.

If you are going to lead, you are going to take hits. Leading is not for the faint of heart.

If you are going to lead, you are going to take hits. Leading is not for the faint of heart.

A friend of mine once asked pastors and faith leaders on Facebook if they were doing okay. More than 167 people responded, most with some version of “no.”

There have been times when my answer would also have been “no.”

On more than a few occasions, I’ve been tempted to call it quits. And while there are many variables that have kept me putting one foot in front of the other (regular time with Jesus being at the top), one of the biggest has been supportive relationships.

We will all go through seasons where we might be tempted to call it quits on something God has called us to do. In those moments, not only is it important to stay connected to Jesus, but it is vital to have supportive relationships with other people. Such relationships don’t form overnight. They are cultivated by making regular relational deposits over time.

Reflection Questions:

  • Where might God be inviting you to focus on your own formation? 
  • Where is God calling you to be faithful in a small and consistent way?  
  • How has consumption hindered your growth as a disciple?
  • Where are you relying on your solutions rather than joining God’s activity?
  • How have you been hurt by power? How have you hurt others?
  • Who are the people in your life that help you stay the course? 

Mac McCarthy

Lead Pastor
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