So how do you know if you’re running well—or even running in the right direction? The answer to that may look different depending on how far along you are in your pastoral course.
Through the years I have had good friends say to me, “Mike, we want you to finish well.” I have always appreciated such sentiments. These are people who care enough for me to make certain I don’t trip before reaching the finish line. They are watching my back, since they have seen too many evangelical figures make the headlines because of a moral or ethical failure. They have seen the devastating effects that a pastor’s sin can have on the local church—and the church at large—not to mention the pastor’s family, who must live with this indelible stain on their reputation for the rest of their lives. It doesn’t end there, either. The consequences snowball down through the ages as future generations hear about the hypocrisy of their great-grandfather as he made a mockery of the gospel he preached. If that doesn’t make you nervous, it should. The fallout of sin is greater than we could ever imagine (just ask King David).
What does finishing well look like? That is a question I asked myself several years ago as I pondered the exhortations to run the race in such a way as to get “the prize” (1 Cor. 9:24). Does that mean there are a series of hurdles a pastor must clear to make it into the Pastoral Hall of Fame? Are points given based on the number of converts, baptisms, or dollars under our church leadership? The race is not just for pastors, of course. The words “well done, good and faithful servant” (Matt. 25:21) will be heard by many who have no official ministry title.
Having given this much thought over the years, I decided that finishing well means finishing with the fewest regrets. It means coming to the end of your life knowing that Christ was exalted over the years, regardless of how much money you raised or how many people came through the doors of your church. I desire such a freedom from regret for myself and all pastors.
So how do you know if you’re running well—or even running in the right direction? The answer to that may look different depending on how far along you are in your pastoral course. But whether you are just starting out or the finish line is in sight, it is always a good time to assess how you are doing. And it is never too late to pick up the pace.
Let’s look at this in three different stages of your life as a pastor.
Stage 1: Imagination
- The young pastor looks into the future and sees explosive growth in his church, based on his great expository and visionary skills. I call this the imagination stage. If you are starting out as a church planter or have taken over an existing church, here are a few pitfalls you will want to avoid:
- Remember that all members of the body are a gift to the church. We must never see ourselves as better than others in the body, even though we carry a great responsibility. There is only one Savior, and you are not him. Enter with humility, and you will avoid being humbled.
- Give all your expectations to the Lord. It is his church and not yours. He may call you to preach to thousands, to hundreds, or to tens. Your writing might become a New York Times best seller. It may end up as an insert for the church bulletin. God will be glorified in either.
- Build your team around humility, not talent. It took me years to get this right. If your staff and lay leaders lack humility, even the most talented person can become more than a thorn in your side. This is not to downplay talent or giftedness, but if those are mixed with pride, you are in for a long haul of sleepless nights, awkward meetings, and tension on every side of your ministry.
- Don’t brush small problems under the carpet. This is one of my greatest regrets. I love to make peace but run from conflict. That has cost me dearly. You don’t need to chase down every concern, but when you sense something is rotten in the state of Denmark, it is time to check it out. Stamping out a small spark is easier than putting out a raging fire. I have the burn marks to prove it.
- Stay in touch with your people and your team. The people in your congregation will keep you in touch with reality, and your team will help address the issues.
- Decide early on how you will allocate your time. Scripture gives us limited direction here, but such decisions must be made based on where you have been called to pastor and your own personality. No matter how much you do, there are things that will be left undone. You must prioritize.
- Develop good relationships with those in leadership and those outside. This will give you balance in how you perceive the ministry. Leadership can’t always see the forest for the trees, and those in the pews can’t always see the trees for the forest. As with eyesight, both eyes are needed for proper depth of field. Don’t be a one-eyed church.
- Seek wisdom and direction from older pastors. They have been around the block a few times and know where the loose man- hole covers are. Talk to them and lean on their experience.
Stage 2: Experience
The second stage of pastoral ministry is often plagued with second guessing. That is the enemy’s calling card. He loves to keep you distracted with questions like, “Where did I go wrong with this church? Why are people so difficult? Why can’t they be like me? Have I been faking it this whole time?” Instead, I love to sift my thoughts through Philippians, where Paul is writing from jail, encouraging readers to be joyful. That’s irony behind bars, and it shows a heart consumed more by what God is doing than his own situation. Here are a few other ways you can keep yourself from running aground during this season of ministry.
- Take inventory of your history as a pastor thus far. Where do you tend to bear the most fruit? At my twenty-year mark we had a large celebration commemorating two decades of God’s faithfulness. I had a chance to see the people whose lives had been changed, but I was reminded that this had never been “The Mike Minter Show.”
- Ask yourself what midcourse corrections need to be made. Seek out honest friends who have observed you through the years. They know your blind spots. I have had dear brothers with the courage to tell me that I was running on fumes and that my messages were lacking depth. They knew I was tired. Ministry can drain you. Deep in my heart, I knew I was called to stay the course, but the pain of loss was difficult to bear. Be honest with yourself throughout your years of ministry.
- Take note of the cultural changes that have taken place. Moral, ethical, and technological manifestations are interpreted differently by generations and religious backgrounds. Every pastor should have knowledge of the cultural narratives pulsing through our society. You can get left in the dust if you are not aware of them. They can slip in unannounced and, before you know it, your ministry is no longer relevant. Don’t miss the train on this.
- Spend time with the younger people in your church, and find out how they view life. Obviously, this can be done at any stage, but after a decade or two, it is a good time to test the waters of youth. have loved sitting down with teens and asking them what life is like in school and what battles they are facing. Believe me, they will be up front about it.
- Be honest enough with yourself to discern whether you never really had a heart for this thing called “ministry.” This is a tough one, but it needs to be addressed before you build up decades of regret. Is there a fire in your belly for teaching God’s Word and caring for people? If it was there once, then get counsel on how to reignite it. The enemy loves to create doubt and question our calling. If, on the other hand, you just thought this was a way to put food on the table, it’s time to go before your leadership and seek their counsel. Resigning is not always the worst thing in the world. And if you are not called to ministry, it might be the best thing for your family.
Stage 3: The Rearview Mirror
Stage three is for the pastor who has managed to survive twenty-five years and longer. I will refer to this as the rearview mirror stage. In this stage, there is a greater longing for heaven and a desire to leave a legacy for your family, church, and friends. It can be the most profitable time in all your life. It is a time to gather with those you love and tell tales of bygone years. It is a time to laugh and see life through the lens of wisdom and experience.
As the name suggests, this phase of ministry also becomes a time of reflection, which can engender regrets, sometimes even leading to depression or deep sadness.
Obviously, we can’t erase past failures, be they ethical, moral, or just lacking wisdom. Finishing well means living in daily repentance. Finishing well means maintaining a “conscience clear before God and man” (Acts 24:16). This was a supreme desire of the apostle Paul, who had persecuted the church and must have had many regrets in mind when he referred to himself as “chief ” among sinners (1 Tim. 1:15 NKJV).
Why did God see David as “a man after his own heart” (1 Sam. 13:14) but reject Saul who seemed to have fewer sins recorded? It is because David repented wholeheartedly (as expressed in Psalm 32 and Psalm 51), yet Saul persisted in his hatred of David without repentance, making excuses for his disobedience.
Chuck Swindoll once said, “It is never too late to start doing what is right.”4 That is a very wise statement. No matter how old you are as a pastor (or retired pastor), you have time to make things right. A clear conscience is a key component of finishing well. No pillow is soft enough to soothe a guilty conscience.
As I said earlier, finishing well is finishing with the fewest regrets. Are there any loose ends regarding relationships that need to be healed? Are there people who have served faithfully and need to be thanked? Leave no stone unturned and you will finish well.
Excerpted from Stay the Course: A Pastor’s Guide to Navigating the Restless Waters of Ministry by Mike Minter. Copyright 2022. Published B&H Publishing. Used by permission.