This month marks my fifth year in pastoral ministry. I understand this is not long compared to the decades of my preaching heroes—Martyn Lloyd-Jones, John MacArthur, Alistair Begg—but it has been long enough to learn some lessons along the way. Here are five lessons I’ve learned as I reflect on the past five years.
Prayer is just as important as preaching. I put some decent sweat, sacrifice, and many a sleepless night to get through seminary, in order to be equipped as a preacher. My assumption was that in pastoral ministry the most important thing is preaching. I was half-right. In Acts 6:4, the early church leads by example, being devoted to both prayer and the ministry of the word. I initially underestimated the power of prayer in ministry when I first started. I’ve come to realize just how important my own prayer life is, and how effective ministry can only be built on the prayer life of the entire church.
Pursue godliness over greatness. I think every pastor begins ministry hoping that God will use his ministry to do some great things. I still hope for that. Yet I’ve come to learn that should not be the priority for me. The sobering reality is that at least five younger, very gifted and talented pastors have been removed from their ministry recently by character disqualification and moral failure. There is a good reason that a wise professor in seminary had us memorize the following verse, “Pay close attention to your life and your teaching; persevere in these things” (1 Tim 4:16 HCSB).
Always remember that God’s Word is enough. There are a lot of trends to chase out there in ministry. Attend any leadership conference and you will find conversational buzz about the latest strategy that will help grow your church. In this digital age, I sense a subtle but growing pressure for pastors and churches to be innovative if they want to have a productive ministry. There is a place for all of this, but it does not replace the power and sufficiency of God’s Word. Paul gave Timothy a simple directive for productive ministry: preach the word (2 Tim 4:2). The Word of God is enough for our evangelism and discipleship.
Even a smaller church can have a global vision. I came to realize that my name does not have to be David Platt and I don’t have to lead a megachurch to have a strong missions focus. Every church—even smaller ones in rural areas like mine—can have what I call a GGV (Global Gospel Vision). I’m thankful that our church has gone along with giving sacrificially for the advance of the gospel among the nations. I’m happy that our congregation has been able to help support and send people overseas to places like China, Kenya, Amsterdam, Philippines, Taiwan, and North Africa.
Betrayal and indifference cause the deepest wounds. On a more personal note, I learned that the early years in the ministry of a newly minted pastor is spent learning self-awareness. A pastor fresh out of seminary needs to learn his strengths and weaknesses, his rhythms of work and rest, and how he works most efficiently. He will need to learn how to properly handle stress and the ebbs and flows of church life. He will also learn quickly that every leader faces critics. I’ve learned that criticism for me is like a bee sting. It initially hurts really bad, but the pain does not last too long.
But what cuts me deeply is when I have been betrayed, or when people respond indifferently to the Word of God. I still have scars from the few times I’ve experienced betrayal in ministry. Similarly, when I sense that people show little concern for the ministry of the church, or have a low-level commitment to Christ and his Word, or when commitments are not made or kept because it requires too much personal sacrifice—these things can cut me deeply.
I’ve learned that in these moments of betrayal and indifference, I need to remind myself of how my Savior spent his final hours on this earth. He was betrayed, and the world stood by indifferently as he hung on the cross out of the greatest act of divine love ever to touch this earth. I’ve learned that ministry, at some level, will always involve a death to self.
“Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church, of which I became a minister according to the stewardship from God that was given to me for you, to make the word of God fully known” (Col 1:24-25 ESV).