We asked pastors of some of the nation’s largest churches to reflect on the wisdom they’ve gained along their ministry journey. There’s a lot we can glean in the words that follow, regardless of the scope and circumstances of our own ministry.
Valley Bible Fellowship in Bakersfield, California
We went through a period without much growth for a couple of years. We started a discipleship program and gave away more ownership to the people. I decided to invite a group of men who had been in the church for 15 to 20 years to commit to a discipleship program where they would meet with me on a regular basis, and I would pour my life into them. In return, they would pour themselves into just three men, who, in return, would each have three men under them. Now, the women are doing the same thing. We feel that this simple strategy has made people feel like they are a part of the team and not just a member of the congregation at large. They feel a sense of ownership, and that has brought new life back into the church and seems to be promoting growth once again.
About eight months ago, I was spending some time talking to God about my health issues when a journal page from five years earlier fell to the floor. On this page, I had written about my diagnosis of leukemia in 1997 and how I was given approximately four years to live by the UCLA medical staff, only to receive several prophetic words given to me by various people. Many of them were telling me that God would give me 15 more years to live, corresponding to the healing story of Hezekiah in the Bible. I wrote those words down, and I always kept in mind that I should keep an eye out on that 15-year date.
Long story short, the leukemia came back on the very week of the 15-year date, and UCLA staff told me that my life was once again in danger. After a week of prayer, it miraculously went back into remission and has remained that way ever since. God used that reminder to tell me once again what he told me on the week the cancer came back. He was in charge of when I died, and I would live until he was through with me. Things were really not under my control at all.
I have learned that the old cliché is true: “Who I am is more important than what I do.” I have a tendency to let the machine of the large church undermine my spiritual character, and I start forgetting about the fact that I have a lot of hurting people under me trying to help keep the machine going. They have real problems they are struggling with and sometimes feel ignored for the sake of the success of the church. Sometimes when I get in a business mode, I don’t even like me. I have to continue to be willing to let the people take precedence over the machine, and for me it is a constant struggle.
Loving people is the greatest thing you can do to build a successful church. It doesn’t really get any deeper than that. Learning the different faces of love and how to appropriate them in various ways is something I wished I had seen early on. I usually always end my texts and Facebook postings with, “I love you guys.”
Loving people requires that you often apologize when you get off track. Many times I have gotten up in the pulpit and said, “I want to apologize for my actions and my spirit in regards to what I said last week.” Then I explain. You can’t do that too much, but at times it may be a necessity. Don’t be afraid of letting the people see that you make mistakes too.
I have to avoid dogmatism in many areas of Bible teaching, some more than others. I have to be careful and remind myself that knowledge is progressive in nature and that there is a lot I don’t know yet. I am always reading and researching, and I am not ashamed to share my new revelation as I receive it. I am always open to listening to an argument that goes against what I have believed to be true.
I make it a point to read as many secular books as I do spiritual books. I think once we become close-minded and believe that Christians are the only ones who have true wisdom and knowledge and stop learning from the world around us, then we will lose out on a lot of what God wants to teach us. God is not restricted to only using Christian resources to teach us the things he wants us to know.
True, sincere love for others can break down any walls that may exist. You don’t have to agree with the way people live and believe to love them. I think that many people in the world and in the church walk around with a chip on their shoulder and are looking for a fight, especially on social media.
As leaders in our community, we should encourage our people to look for opportunities to learn why people think like they do and stop taking part in the social media negativism. We should refuse to get caught up in dissecting people and categorizing them. When all is said and done, we are all messed up in one way or another. How can one messed-up person judge another messed-up person? I have never understood that.