“We do not preach ourselves, but Christ Jesus as Lord and ourselves your servants for Jesus’ sake” (2 Cor. 4:5).
It’s for good reason the Lord sends new, young pastors to the tiniest congregations. There’s so much to learn.
God bless all those little flocks which have to endure the green, inexperienced shepherds, many of whom go right on making the same mistakes as every pastor before them. Their patience is amazing—sometimes I feel like going to the first three churches I served and saying, “Would you please forgive me?”
Perhaps the biggest lesson which pastors have to learn before they’re able to do their best work for the Lord is this: You’re not ready to pastor a church until you get over yourself.
Being the God-sent leader of a congregation can be a heady feeling. Suddenly people are looking to you for guidance, deferring to you as though you were somebody, insisting you take the honored place at the table. You can even find Scriptural justification for your occupying the pulpit and speaking for the Almighty God. Truly amazing.
All for nothing you have done.
And therein lies the trap for the unwary. But it’s not a new thing. You’re just the latest in a long line of God’s children who have to come to terms with their own indebtedness.
God said to Israel, “When you arrive in Canaan—the land I’m going to give you—and you suddenly find yourself living in houses you did not construct, eating produce you did not grow, and drinking from cisterns you did not dig, then beware lest you forget the Lord” (Deut. 6:10–12).
Look what I did by my hard work, dedication, commitment!
It’s an easy trap to fall into. You get called to a large church, you are awarded a doctoral degree, your alma mater gives you some kind of recognition, the denominational magazine features your profile.
Look at me. I did all this because I’m so good, so talented and gifted, so dedicated and hard-working. God is honoring me for my faithfulness.
Pride goeth before a lot of things, but in particular it precedes a fall. A comeuppance. A humbling. And believe me, friend, you don’t want the living God to humble you. Ask Nebuchadnezzar how that worked out.
Perhaps the best advice anyone could give to young pastors is this: Get over yourself.
Woe to the young pastor who finds success and acclaim too early, before he learns his own frailties and weaknesses, before he learns that it is not up to him to direct his own steps and that only in Christ can he do all things! Woe to the young successful pastor who has not had time or reason to get past himself.
Such a pastor will become a holy terror, brimming with pride over his accomplishments and sloshing out disdain for all the other pastors around him. Those pastors of small congregations are singled out for his scoffing. If they were sharp like he is, surely they’d be more successful by now. After all, look at him. He did it.
So the Lord does the young pastor a great favor: He sends trouble his way. The Lord sends him critics, church bosses who resent a young whipper-snapper thinking his calling grants him the right to act like a pastor. Mean-spirited gossips. He finds out the deacons are considering firing him, that some wealthy member is upset at him and a staff member is betraying him. The town gossip makes up something about him.
He writes an article of which he was proud, only to discover critics are taking it apart sentence by sentence and reading heresy into some of his best statements. He gets disinvited to speak at his seminary.
His best efforts to grow the church yield only slight notice from the congregation, his staff begins to plot against him and the offerings dry up.
Welcome to the ministry, son. The Lord is still on the throne, and you will survive.
The Holy Spirit is trying to make you into a champion spiritual leader. And that is going to require a lot of aches and pains—which will feel like rejection, forsakenness and failure.
“It is good for me that I was afflicted,” said the Psalmist, “that I may learn to trust the Lord” (Ps. 119:71).
God is forever at work refining us, defining us, confining us, maturing us, preparing us for more strategic service. Putting the gold into the fire to burn out the impurities. (See 1 Pet. 1:7.)
He’s trying to turn the young pastor into a solid preacher, one who looks to Him and answers only to Him. One who can be depended on to plant himself at the feet of Jesus, to seek His will, and to wait until he receives it, then go forth to do it.
No one is born to that privileged position. It’s the result of many things, but mostly “a long obedience in the same direction.”
So, let the young pastor determine to grow, to become more Christlike, to say with John, “He must increase, I must decrease” (John 3:30). And we may say, that sounds so holy—less of me and more of Jesus—but in my experience, the lessening of “me” is extremely painful. So, don’t ask for it unless you mean it. The Lord will take you up on it!
And so I say to the young pastor …
Quit taking personally all that happens in the church, pros and cons. True, if the church does well, you get a lot of the credit whether you deserve it or not. And likewise, if it fails to thrive, like a coach whose team does not win enough games, some will blame you. Coaches get replaced every year because, even if the problem was in the personnel or a thousand other things, he is the one replaceable factor. Even so, the pastor must not internalize all these things. It’s not about you, pastor.
Quit promoting yourself. Stop advertising yourself.
In time you will come to appreciate that this is all about the Lord Jesus Christ. In time you will be overcome with gratitude that the Lord could use a loser like yourself.
In time you will stand amazed at the grace and mercy of Christ. You will weep thinking of the cross. You will want to drop to your knees every time you enter the house of the Lord.
It’s not a brief journey, but infinitely worth the effort to lose yourself in him and find that he is enough (2 Cor. 3:5).
Joe McKeever spent 42 years pastoring six Southern Baptist churches and has been writing and cartooning for religious publications for more than 40 years. This article was originally published on McKeever’s blog.