10 Lessons Learned from My Early Ministry

10 Lessons Learned from My Early Ministry

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Recently, the cabinet of my annual conference met to begin the appoint-making process. In the coming weeks, the future of many United Methodist pastors in my annual conference will be on the line. Among them will be newly graduated seminarians, eager to take leadership of their first appointments.

I received my first appointment in 1987. Needless to say, with all the bravado I brought from seminary, the experience of a “first” appointment not only challenged me, but it changed me, as well. After twenty-six years of pastoral ministry, I’ve learned a few things. Some of these nuggets, I’d like to pass on to some of the new blood. So here are my “Top Ten Lessons Learned from Early Minstry.”

1. All ministry is predicated on relationship.

Whether you’re in the pulpit or on the prayer bench, by a graveside or by a bedside, the depth of relationship you have with your congregation, corporately and individually will determine your effectiveness as a pastoral leader. Your church/churches will receive you as their pastor because of your position, but they will accept you as their leader because of your person. This doesn’t mean you have to be available at all times, but you must be accessible when needed.

2. Don’t try to tell them all you know by August.

Chances are, if you can preach a fairly well, care for the sick and don’t abscond with the church funds, you will be asked to return after your first year. There is no need to give them a year of Barth, Bonheoffer and Bultmann in the first half of your first year. And if Jesus comes back before the next Annual Conference, it won’t matter anyway.

3. They don’t care how much Greek you know, but you should.

Most people don’t care about how many Greek words you know, or how many hours you read, speak or spell them. What they do care about is that you spend time prepare a word for them, specifically a word from God for them. You have a choice to make: either to impress or influence your flock. Which will you choose?

4. Plan your sermons because funerals happen.

After twenty six years of pastoral ministry I’ve learned that no one dies on schedule. And funerals happen all the time, as well as other events in life. Put together a preaching schedule using a manageable time-table. (I started out a month/season at a time.) Use a lectionary calendar or worship planning calendar. Plan a series based on the lectionary or a theme or book of the Bible.

5. You won’t spend 20 hours a week writing a sermon.

Sorry to burst your bubble, but life gets in the way of ministry sometimes. A lot of times, in fact. Hospital visits, district and conference meetings, continuing education, personal needs, meals, illness – yours, family, all will play a part in your life in ministry. Find ways to redeem the time. Plan your preaching (see above) and work your plan.

6. It’s their music, not yours.

OK, so you think authentic worship only occurs using Hillsong music? But if your congregation thinks the Cokesbury hymnal is real church music, here’s my advice: use the Cokesbury hymnal. Use whatever hymnal they use. I believe in indigenous worship. Use what is meaningful to your congregation and then leverage that with your preaching. And above all, don’t try to tell them why their music/worship style has no meaning just because you don’t like it or can’t relate to it.

By the way, don’t expect them to learn And Can It Be? the first time they sing it.

7. Do your paper work! Your superiors will notice. 

If you are a UM pastor, reports and paper work area necessary evils. How do I know this? Just read the Book of Discipline. That’s all I need to say about that.

8. It’s not going to get any easier.

Long before he was elected to the episcopacy, Bishop Mike Watson said to me, “When you get a bigger church, you get bigger headaches.” Grow where you are planted and be content. You’ll be running with the big dogs soon enough. Don’t look for bigger porches, just now.

9. Don’t take yourself too seriously.

It may come as a shock to you, but the future of the Kingdom of God does not depend on you exclusively. It doesn’t rise or fall singularly because of what you do or don’t do. The kingdom already has a King and you are not him. So, at the end of the day, take a rest and know he expects you only to be faithful, not successful.

10. Never underestimate the power of prayer.

Just before graduation in 1987, Dr. Tom Carruth invited me to lunch. After a few minutes of casual conversation, and half way through the entrée, Dr. Tom looked at me and said in no uncertain terms, “I know you are excited about beginning your first appointment, but if you don’t rely on prayer and the Holy Spirit, then you’re going to be in a lot of trouble.” Dr. Tom, who is now with the Lord, knew my heart well. He loved me enough to let me know that all my gifts, graces and goodness would avail me little without earnest prayer and total reliance of the Holy Spirit’s enabling and sustaining power.

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