I first felt God’s calling upon my life to be a pastor as a senior in college in 1996, but God didn’t open the door until 2010. By then, I had completed seminary, gone on missions for three and a half years, “tricked” my wife into marrying me and had three children. I give this background story just to note that by the time I finally became a pastor I was excited, and I thought I had church planting all figured out. Boy, was I wrong! I had all the theory. I had taken all the classes. I had read all the books, but I was completely unprepared for the life lessons that God taught me during the past couple of years. I’ve tried my best to summarize the 10 lessons I have learned and am still learning. They don’t teach these things in seminary.
I’ve divided these lessons into two categories. Lessons 1–5 are general, ministry-related lessons and lessons 6–10 are personal.
1) Preach the Word.
This first one sounds obvious—but it isn’t. I have seen many pastors, myself included, fall into the trap of preaching what I know or what I am comfortable preaching. Especially in a church like mine, which is comprised of mostly college students, it’s easy to preach topical sermons tailored to the congregation. In my case this would be messages about purpose and meaning and direction in life. It takes a lot of work and discipline, but I committed to preaching the Word expositorily [CK1] when I started two years ago. The first book was Romans (not easy!), then 1 Corinthians. I plan to continue chapter by chapter until we reach Revelation, and then circle back around to Genesis.
This approach ensures that I am preaching what God says and not avoiding controversial passages about topics like marriage and gender roles. God’s Word should regularly surprise me and force me to wrestle. I would miss out on this molding if I stuck to the easy and familiar. One other practical note—I also plan to take regular detours and cover one of the four gospels every few years so that the life and teaching of Jesus remain prominent in our church. This is important in our congregation when we might only have four years with some of our college members. I want to cover at least one of the gospels with them before they graduate.
2) Invest in people, not programs.
As the pastor, you definitely will shape your congregation, but we mustn’t forget that your congregation will also shape you. Without acknowledging the latter, we can create ministry buckets and force every newcomer into one of the buckets. I can put my “org-chart” hat on and place college students in the college-ministry bucket, young adults in the young-adult bucket and members in the small-group bucket, but this mentality focuses more on programs than people. God did not call you into the ministry to run programs. He called you to shepherd people.
You will feel responsible to meet everyone yourself, but you can’t. You have to invest in a few, then pray and entrust the rest to God. Teach your core group to feed themselves from the Word of God. If they remain at your church for 20 years, and they are still relying on you to unlock the mysteries of Scripture, then you haven’t done your job. Self-feeding is important.
Small church plants don’t have the luxury of hiring leaders. Most of your leaders, at least in the beginning, will be homegrown. Give them a chance to lead early on based on their gifting and passion. It’s OK if they fail. Many lessons are learned on the job as we fall flat on our faces.
Be open to God’s leading. Instead of ministry buckets, we have missional groups at our church. If you are a college student or a college staff member, your mission field has already been defined. But if you are a 30-something with kids, your mission field has yet to be defined. Is your mission field other 30-somethings with kids, or is it mercy ministry?
Gather committed members into these missional groups, and start with the typical small-group elements like accountability, fellowship and sharing prayer requests. Don’t stop there though. Make praying for God’s leading an ongoing prayer request in these missional groups. You’ll be surprised as He compels individuals and entire groups to tackle a particular mission field where they can make disciples. Five years later when you look back, don’t be surprised if the church is very different from the picture you had in your head at the beginning.
3) Enlist a plurality of leaders.
It was important for me to start with a plurality approach to leadership, which in our case is a plurality of elders. It protects the congregation because if I go off the deep end and begin abusing the people or teaching heresy, there will be a team in place to put me in my place.
You may be a pastor because you think your ideas are better than the next guy’s. I know I thought that way before I became a pastor. “Why is he doing it this way? If I were the pastor, I would do it this way.” We’ve all been there. Given our penchant for placing too much confidence in ourselves, a top-down approach to leadership will encourage blind spots and a narrow “it’s my way or the highway” perspective. A plurality approach to leadership provides invaluable training as you engage in consensus building and help sharpen your ministry philosophy.
In addition, find some outside pastors. We need outside voices to make sure that the inside voices are not going off track.
4) Be careful whom you bring into leadership.
You will be tempted to bring people into leadership before they’ve been tested. Or, if you walk into an established church, you will be tempted to grandfather-in leaders from the old church to the new church plant. Don’t do it.
Be patient, plant seeds, water and wait to see whom God grows. Look for character—godliness, humility and the fruit of the Spirit. Pay attention to those without titles who are taking initiative on their own to disciple and care for others in the church. These are your future leaders. If you bring people into leadership before they are ready, or you bring the wrong people into leadership, your church will stall and possibly die off.
5) Serve your wife and disciple your kids.
The smaller the church is, the more you will want to get out there and meet people, disciple [CK2] people and start new initiatives. In that process, it is easy to make ministry an idol. It’s important that you never forget that your primary ministry is your wife. If you don’t have a copy of Tim Keller’s book, The Meaning of Marriage, go order it right now! Keller preached nine sermons on marriage in the early 90s, and I highly encourage you to download those as well. You want to begin your ministry with a strong theology about marriage, and I can think of no better authority on the subject.
Find a babysitter and go on regular dates. Dating doesn’t end with marriage. If you are willing to spend a solid, undistracted hour with a person whom you are discipling, why wouldn’t you spend at least the same amount of time with your wife? Sitting next to your wife while watching TV doesn’t count as quality time.
Second, teach your kids the Word of God. At our church, we don’t have enough resources to have a separate kid’s class on Sundays, so we pay for a babysitter for the toddlers. Kindergarteners and older are invited into the adult service, and they sit with their parents. I provide questions and activities for the kids based on the message. The questions and activities are designed to encourage spiritual dialogue between parents and their kids. It’s not enough to keep our kids fed, put a roof over their heads and drive them to soccer practice. It is our spiritual responsibility as parents to raise our kids in the Word.
Lastly, if your wife or your kids are suffering because you are a pastor and they can’t handle it, be prepared to walk away from the church. Remember, your first priority is them. You can always minister later or in a different capacity.