I’ve written on this subject in another essay: When Loving You Is Killing Me: Thoughts on the Small Church Pastorate. After almost three years, I’m in a slightly different place with this story. Less bitter. More aware of my own failures.
Twenty years ago, I became a pastor. I’d wanted to be a pastor since I was a teenager. By God’s providence and my own choice, I spent my career up to that point as a youth minister and associate minister. Throughout those years, I wanted to be a pastor, and it often caused me a great deal of frustration that I wasn’t a pastor.
Then, in 1988, I received a call from a church in the Louisville area to be their pastor. The interview and prospect process went wonderfully, and I was affirmed with an almost unanimous vote. There was never a point in my life when I was happier, when my hopes were higher or I was more certain that I was on the right track.
Four years later, I sat in the sanctuary of that church and prayed to God one of those prayers you always remember: “Lord, I’ll go anywhere and do anything, if you’ll just get me out of here.” I was miserable and couldn’t see how I could continue another year.
A few months later- 16 years ago- I became the campus minister at the ministry where I currently serve. God used that experience to make me the person I’ve been in what I believe has been a faithful and positive ministry here.
My pastorate wasn’t a failure in any headline making way. Far from it. Attendance held up, though we didn’t grow. (A growing new megachurch of the same denomination was just down the road.) One or two fringe families left over matters unrelated to me. Finances grew. Mission giving grew. Facilities were improved substantially. New ministries to the community were started that have lasted to this day. Our ties to our denomination and visibility in the community increased. My congregation loved me, for the most part, and I loved them. I still miss them and grieve what I see as an abbreviated pastorate.
In my work with a pastoral counselor this year, I’ve come to see that the four years I spent as a pastor were important years in my life, and I have spend much time reflecting on them. There is much in those years I need to account for, much I need to repent of, much I need to forgive and very much I need to let go of. My high hopes for being a pastor became a root of bitterness that I struggle with to this day. As it becomes more possible that I will see the pastorate again sometime in my future, I come again to reflect on those years.
What did I do wrong in my first- and only pastorate? What went wrong? What can I share that will benefit other new pastors, especially those going to their first church?
1. I was woefully ignorant of the character of the pastor. I knew the job of the pastor from being close to pastors for many years. I understood pastoral skills. But I did not know or have the character of a pastor. Most new pastors don’t. I should have been mentored- actively- by older men in the ministry. Instead, like Rehoboam, I made other young pastors my friends and confidants.
I did not have the character of a praying man. I wasn’t humble. I was blind to many of my own sins and flaws. Many of the personality characteristics that made me a very successful youth minister and associate minister worked against me as a pastor. I’d been warned that this was the case, but I didn’t listen.
Most of all, I had never been tempered or matured to the place I could be useful to God and others. I had ideas, knowledge, words and talents. I did not have a pastor’s heart or character, and I did not know how to get them. The agony I felt at the end of four years was the agony of being a shepherd when you do not have a shepherd’s heart.
2. I had youth ministry problems from day one. I hesitated in solving those problems because the lay youth leader was connected to prominent families and loved by many in the church. As a former youth minister, I wanted to mentor him, which he did not want. By the time I did act, damage had been done that would never heal, and my attempts to make things better during the years to come led me into other problems and stupid solutions.
I could have seen much of this coming early on and dealt with it much better. Instead, I had to spend a lot of good will on rooting out this problem, and I paid for it. The worse errors in judgement I ever made in church I made in this area- the one area where people still seek out my advice as an “expert.”
3. The church was tired of seminary student pastors. I should have realized this, but I attempted to return to seminary to finish the last phase of a doctoral program, and my leaders- who had said they would support this- changed their minds. This was wrong on their part, but it was dumb on my part. I was 4 years out of seminary when I came to the church and they had no idea I would ask to go back, even for just one class. To them, seminary equalled part-time pastor.
4. I followed a successful pastor with a radically different style and personality. Till the day I left, I was compared to him. When I would do things that pastor would do, like go “door knocking” in the neighborhood, I was barely supported at all. I just wasn’t Brother Billy and our more private family wasn’t his extroverted family.
5. I believed that preaching would change everything. It changed almost nothing. My preaching rolled off most of my people like water off a duck’s back. They were used to good preaching and to preachers with their “ideas” of change. I never realized the extent to which they would resist even the smallest changes. The processes for change that had worked in the large churches where I’d been a staff member were useless in a rural setting. The affirmation I’d always gotten as a preacher vanished. The difference between between a non-pastor who preaches and a preaching pastor was huge and unanticipated.
6. For reasons I still do not understand, a key lay leader became my most resistant, persistent opponent. This has been difficult to let go of, and I have written before on how small church politics is the undoing of many pastors. Why did this leader start to use his influence against me? Why did it get so personal and mean-spirited? One revealing incident made it clear to me that he wanted someone as pastor who would come to him first to make all decisions because he perceived himself as the church’s financial backbone. I did not and would not respond to that kind of approach. I had a much broader base of leaders I consulted, some of whom he disliked srtrenuously from past intra-church conflicts. I was unaware of how small town, family, and local politics can influence church relationships.
At the end of the day, this leader had few specific complaints against me- if he did he would have fired me- but he opposed everything I did from his position as patriarch and deacon. He made the decision that he could not, and the church should not, follow my leadership, but just freeze me out. His influence was substantial. I felt like I was really done as pastor at that point.
7. My wife worked part-time, as did many of the church wives. Of course, in our case, different expectations applied. It became obvious to me over time that this church could not easily or naturally support a pastor with a working wife. My wife is not a high profile co-pastor running half the church and most of the programs. She is an introverted, quiet, godly person who works in her own chosen areas (as a teacher, musician and creative ministries leader) and does not live on the phone or go from house to house entertaining. Many of the people in this church expected my wife and myself- even with two small children- to be “visiting” in homes constantly. Our need for privacy and predictable family life was a negative.
This was particularly frustrating because I was meticulously faithful in pastoral care and visitation, including weekly visits to every hospital and nursing home, with frequent visits to shut-ins. I drew the line at extended family outside of the congregation, however, and this didn’t go over well.
The unspoken expectations of family are the mine fields of every pastorate. We stepped on a few.
8. I was financially irresponsible in my personal life. During this time- before I was converted by Dave Ramsey to the true religion- I was a financial mess. I wasn’t a public scandal or bankrupt, but the church knew what they paid me and could easily see that I was not a good money manager. At one point I had to drive a church vehicle for several days while my car was repaired. This minor matter was apparently a major humiliation of the church in the eyes of some.
I now realize that in a small church, people notice your clothes and your shoes. They see small things and they draw conclusions. People at banks talk. I was not, in those ways, the pastor they wanted. I didn’t spend money the right way as far as they were concerned. I didn’t manage what I had wisely, and I now realize it.
Oddly, in our current ministry we make less than half what we made at that church 20 years ago, but we now have a much healthier relationship with money and God has blessed the steps we’ve taken to be debt free and responsible. It’s been a significant area of growth.
9. I invested much of my time in relationships with people who wanted to reach the community. This included former alcoholics and some people the congregation didn’t know well. Some leaders weren’t comfortable with ministries to these kinds of people or the amount of emphasis I put on them. They had a nice facility, but were not sure they wanted it used for clothing ministry or outreach to alcoholics. I pressed on. They dug in. Ministry happened, but I wasn’t popular for leading the church in that direction.
10. I got involved in a ridiculously stupid controversy over the length of the service. Ten minutes can make a huge difference to some Baptists. One of my leaders personally attacked me in public over this in the most demeaning way I’ve ever been attacked person-to-person in public. I still wince at his words. It forever changed my feeling about my leaders and about Baptists. It was the elephant in the room for months and years to come. Pray I can let go of it.
11. During my time as pastor, the church lost a beloved worship leader and family to the mission field. Beloved to the point it is impossible to describe. Really. These people are good friends to this day and are saints in every sense of the word. When they left for another ministry overseas, the church could not cope. We went through 3 worship leaders in 3 years, all disasters in comparison. All three were good to outstanding, but the church was grieving the loss of the previous staff member and just could not move on.
All my efforts to bring in and support new staff just made the situation worse. I’m sure this showed up in my preaching, unfortunately. It certainly showed up in deacon’s meetings. As a former staff member who had always been loved and supported, I just didn’t get why we couldn’t just move on.
12. I got involved in Calvinism. There were several Calvinists in the congregation, and they were quite pleased with my interest. Other leaders, however, immediately went cold on me. A church nearby was a leading Calvinistic church in the area, and some in our church feared the influence of this church on ours. My interest in Calvinism caused me to bring in people as speakers and preachers that some in the congregation strongly suspected of coming to “convert” us to Calvinism. The shadow of Calvinistic controversy seldom came out in the open, but it was definitely a factor.
(If you are a new IM reader, I am not a Calvinist today.)
I never did a single thing to the service or the church’s structure because of Calvinism. We had invitations. We never had elders. We had revivals. The current pastor is a 5 point Piper man and the church is fine with it. But in my case, it soured and frightened key leaders.
My “failure” as a pastor wasn’t because of any shocking major blunders or failures. On any checklist you can find, I did most everything right and competently. But small things and very human failures ate away at my pastorate until leaving was a great relief to everyone. The man who followed me had a similar pastorate, but one that ended in divorce and leaving the ministry. Today it is a good church with a solid reformed Baptist pastor much loved and supported.
One evangelist that came to our church took me aside and told me I was a wimp. I was letting the church push me around and I was too weak and afraid of my leaders. This isn’t usually a description of me, but in many ways he was correct. I was still a church staff member waiting for the pastor to be the star quarterback. I would be a key player, but I wasn’t comfortable being the leader.
The experience made me a better leader where I am, and gave me much insight and wisdom for other ministers and my own future ministry where I am.
None of us are what we think we are, and life seldom turns out the way we think it will. It was a short journey from my excitement at a near unanimous call to my despair pleading with God to move me anywhere else. In between, I learned about myself, about churches and about the true nature of ministry. As I continue to work through the experience and its effect on me 20 years later, I am still learning.