7 years ago today, my husband Jeff and I began our ministry as co-pastors in our congregation.
7 years ago today, we began the journey of figuring out how to juggle co-pastoring and co-parenting.
7 years ago today, a congregation confirmed the call we had experienced in our lives, and entered into a relationship with us that has grown into something beautiful.
We’ve learned so much, and I am so incredibly grateful for the church and community where I serve. Though I came to teach and preach, I have learned and been inspired. Even though I came to serve, I have been served. I came to bless others, and they have blessed me. As my husband and I celebrate 7 years of ministry, I wanted to share 7 things I’ve learned in the first 7 years of ministry.
1. It’s not about me. Not even remotely. I’m not a pastor because I’m particularly smart or eloquent. It’s not about bringing something I possess to people who are in need of it. Ministry is a daily exercise is laying down what I want in order to live how God wants. And I mess up a lot.
2. It’s not about numbers. The size of the church is not indicative of the health of the ministry. A vibrant church of 20 people can be ministering with faithfulness, growing in love, and abounding in compassion. A church of 200 can be doing the same thing. Large churches and small churches can be desperately unhealthy. Even though numbers can give a tiny amount of feedback on how a ministry is going, they are far from the whole picture. Growing larger does not need to be (nor should it be) the primary goal for small congregations because growth is not the same as health and vitality.
3. Rural ministry is not a stepping stone. Because many rural churches are small with limited staff, and because many pastors have bought into the idea of climbing the corporate ladder, rural ministries have come to be seen by some as “stepping stone” ministries – stepping stones to bigger churches with multiple staff. I never really thought this was a great way to look at rural ministry, but after serving in the same congregation for the last 7 years, I have to say that I view this stepping stone mentality as not only unhelpful, but very detrimental to the health of rural churches. This revolving door of pastors has left many congregations leery of trusting pastors. Why invest and trust when you’ll just leave us in a year or two? I noticed a change in my ministry when I entered my fourth year of ministry in the same congregation. We had built a rapport. We trusted each other more. We had each other’s backs on things. And meaningful, lasting change has become possible. Rural ministry requires a unique gift set, and the churches and pastors benefit from longer pastorates.
4. Sometimes you have to say “no” to something in order to say “yes” to something else. “No” is a very hard thing to say, but it gets easier every time I do it. Over the last 7 years of ministry, I’ve learned that saying “no” is a requirement. Not only does “no” lead to healthy boundary-setting, but it is also essential as congregations wrestle with the call God has placed on them in their communities. A minister cannot be and do everything. A church cannot be and do everything. Making the choice not to do something frees up the time and resources to do what really needs to be done.
5. A class in basic home/church/office repairs and in clergy taxes would have been most helpful. “Pastor, the copier is broken and I can’t get it to work!” comes the desperate call on a Saturday when the bulletin won’t print. And so, I put on my office equipment repair hat and go try and fix it, which really means I just pull the drawers open and close them again, and pray that the problem will fix itself. I have laughed in understanding as friends have rigged the toilet in the church building with a paperclip to keep it from running nonstop, as colleagues have had crash courses in sump pump repair, and as I have learned (the hard way) far more about maintaining a large building than I ever thought I would need to know. Add to that the crazy, complicated world of clergy taxes, complete with the laundry list of things that do or don’t count as deductions, and these basics of ministry can feel very overwhelming – at least at first. After 7 years, I have a much better handle on these things than I used to, but I could’ve used a remedial course in some of them before I entered full-time ministry.
6. You can’t fix it. When someone comes to you with a difficult problem, you can’t fix it. Don’t even try. When you are sitting in a hospital room with someone, praying with someone, or counseling someone, it will feel like you aren’t doing enough to help. Many (if not most) people who answer the call to ministry have helping personalities. We want to fix things. We want to help and make a difference. One of the very first – and most humbling – things I have had to learn in ministry is that I can’t fix it. But, I can sit with someone through the pain. I can offer an embrace, smile as I share someone’s joy, and pray with someone through a difficult time. I can’t fix it, but I can be there.
7. You can’t do it alone. Pastors often report feeling lonely and like they have no close friends. This might seem strange when you consider how much time pastors spend with people. But, ministry is a unique vocation with unique challenges and unique joys. No one gets those challenges and joys quite like someone else who has lived through them. The colleagues in my monthly pastors network have been people I can lean on in tough times, people who celebrate with me during wonderful times, and people who pray for me when I can’t find the words to pray. If you are in ministry, or considering entering ministry, colleagues will be invaluable to you. And, if there are no local pastors nearby, lean on connections through social media.
The past 7 years have been some of the most fulfilling, challenging, stretching, and beautiful years of my life so far. And I’m always learning something new. Thanks be to God for 7 amazing years!
Are you in ministry? What things have you learned along the way?