Friday, August 07, 2009

Ten Things I've Learned In Ten Years

Realizing that there's no way I could condense ten years into anything coherent, I'm going to share ten things that I have learned in the last ten years as a pastor.

1. Calling matters.

There will be times when God's call on your life and to that place of ministry is the thread that holds everything together. There is no doubt in my mind I was called here to New Hope, and that I was God's choice to lead it. Have there been times when I wondered what God was doing? Sure. But I never have had a doubt about the call to New Hope. I've talked with other churches occasionally during the time I have been here, but God has never given me a clear "Go to a place I will show you..." I do not know how some pastors move so often. Growing to love a community and a group of people is an awesome experience. Seeing God at work - is so rewarding, especially over time.

But that conviction of being placed here by Almighty God is a bedrock of faith. Not every day is a great day. The cliche of a pastor's "Blue Mondays" has more than one grain of truth in it. So during times when things aren't going all that well you need the courage of conviction. "Here I stand, I can do no other" isn't just for that Luther guy. It's for every one of us on the line.

2. Context is key.

There are things you will be able to accomplish in some places easily that would be incredibly difficult if not impossible in others. Mistakes on gauging context WILL bite you. I definitely underestimated the extent of the traditional reversal at New Hope from what it started out to be and even the appeal of traditional forms and structure. I relied too much on what the search team told me and had too little information outside that.

Speaking of context - It's a military culture here. Took a while to understand it and operate with harmony within it for change. Now I wish I had become a chaplain when I had the chance so I could have ministered to the great people and their families who serve this country so well. New Hope sits within earshot of the loudspeakers on base. I can hear the "Star Spangled Banner" played on them every afternoon if I step outside my office at the right time. So there is and will always be a large group of younger people, and younger families with children who came here from somewhere else, and will most likely leave. There is also a large group of retirees who still are involved as employees of contractors on base. And then there is a group of older people who have stayed here after their service. The city of Valparaiso is home to more of the latter two groups than the former.

Yet when we drove up the first time and saw a little league field and elementary school across the street, I knew that children's ministry would have to be a big part of what we did, and that community involvement would be a key to advancing the Kingdom here. We've really gotten some chances to do that in the last year that we never had before and I can see more in the future.

3. Music = Worship = My Church- for many people

You can preach well, love deeply, teach with passion and lead with clear direction, but for some people what the music choices are is what the church is. Change that in any way shape or form and fight's on. Very few people can find happiness in blended worship. But my calling is not to make people happy, but to lead them to the cross. So it is not so unexpected when I hear the occasional gripe. From time to time we do need to stop and explain why a new song is worthy of considering as a hymn in the same breath as "It is well with my soul" and other great songs of the faith.

4. If your staff isn't sold out to the vision you are in trouble

One of the biggest shocks to me was a staff member early on who would say all the right things in meetings with me, would say that he understood perfectly what I was trying to accomplish in following what I believed to be God's direction, and then do everything he could behind the scenes to sabotage it. His deliberate misstatements to others, use of his cronies, and frequent use of "some people are saying..." should have been an indication that I needed to work to find a way to hold him accountable or find an exit strategy. But I came in believing that if there were disagreements, we would talk them out and then support each other as we ministered in our giftings.

While I could never see prior to this why a pastor would come in and change the entire staff (and still couldn't imagine ever doing it myself), I understand what would drive a person to that decision. I'm much more upfront now that I ever would have been at the beginning. That's important. Don't assume people understand what you want if you haven't told them.

5. Some of the same people who wanted you to come will later want you to go

This was a hard lesson to learn. Some people are like rivers - easy to navigate going with them, but life threatening if you head upstream. Within three years, it was apparent that I was seeing the context and direction we needed to head very differently than some of the leadership that brought me there. Working fairly slowly, I tried to bring them along. Working fairly quickly, they tried to toss me overboard. Once that happened, I sought godly counsel about the issues and about the people involved. On the issues, the insight was that I was right on target. On the people, the background was that this was not the first time they had done this. In other churches they had raised protests when pastors didn't happen to share their opinions on how the church should be. Still, it was difficult to have the same people who were so sold out for my calling here to turn so dramatically.

6. Small Church is hard

Years ago I was asked to go and talk to the pastor of a church in Mobile AL about planting a church with them there. We all piled into the car and drove over and spent the day looking, talking, and praying. He was an awesome pastor who is still at that church. Obviously I did not feel called to that opportunity, but the trip was rewarding anyway. I'll never forget what he shared about the context of New Hope and what I would face. "Small church is hard, David. It can be the most rewarding thing you will ever do with your life, but the highs are balanced by many lows as well. Unless you can find a way to deal with both and stay focused on Jesus, a bigger church would be much easier on you and your family."

Well, he was right. I LOVE New Hope. Bunny and I absolutely love the people God has given us. We'd do anything we could for them anytime they needed us to. We've shared great joys and great sorrows together over the years, and as a result relationships have grown deeper. Much deeper.

But every week here is a challenge. So many times we both are called on to do things that we aren't gifted in. Too many times Sunday morning will reveal a hole where a teacher didn't show up, or equipment died. There's very little margin. It is small church. You are constantly reminded of what you cannot accomplish. So you have to decide what you can and do it.

7. Do not try to please people

This was a lesson that took a while to sink in. Most people, pastor's included, want to be liked. That desire can, if you let it, have you second guessing everything. If you find yourself thinking "I wonder if ______ will like this?" then you have fallen into that trap. This is different than building consensus. There are times when you have to get input to gauge what is possible and what the cost of change might be. But personalizing it? No.

Over the years, as relationships develop, you do gain the ability to predict what people will think initially about ministry initiatives and decisions you might have to make. But again, if it is God's will as you understand it, you'll work knowing that to present the idea/concept/activity/whatever in the best way for them to prayerfully consider it.

8. There's a big difference between meekness and weakness

Meekness, as all of us who struggled through the King James years knows, means "strength under control." Weakness means you are a wimp. I have been weak when I should have been meek. Some people will take full advantage of any tendency by the leader toward weakness. I've apologized for nothing far too often, and even for things that I didn't do wrong. I learned quickly though that such actions did not advance the Kingdom nor teach people how to act in respect even while disagreeing.

Confidence, born out of your relationship with God, will enable you to follow Him no matter whether or not the path you are walking is going to be received with approval or not. An understanding of the Holy Spirit's role in not just your life, but the life of those you serve will mean that you will consider carefully the implications of every decision. Love for the people God has placed you with combined with those two will provide the basis for the loving harmony that makes real progress possible.

9. You can never get enough joy in your life

This is an emotionally draining job - if you put your heart into it. Bearing other's burdens is not light work. Many times the ups and downs can take their toll. So you have to seek out, find, and immerse yourself in those things that give you joy as often as you can. The kids Bunny and I have watched grow up over the years will never know how much their smiles and laughter have given us. Those times with the grown ups where we shared a meal, swapped stories, laughed until we cried, have mattered. The school plays, band concerts, chorales, etc that we attended with the parents of our New Hope kids - awesome.

Oh, and those days off where Bunny and I headed out to Henderson beach for an hour or so with the sound of the surf, the smell of the ocean, and the freedom of no worries - priceless. My wife has brought me joy from the very first time I had an inkling of her interest in me. Sharing our life together is awesome.

10. Own your failures, give away your successes

Remember, I'm not saying go weeping down the aisle in contrition when your ideas flop. But don't run away either or try to blame someone or something else. It's okay to fail as long as you learn from failure (fail forward as John Maxwell would say). I'd agree with several others that if you are seeing no failures in what you are attempting, then you are playing it too safe.

When something works great, find the people who contributed and make sure they get the credit they deserve. It is an awesome thing to see people grow spiritually right before your eyes as they take responsibility and see their efforts prove fruitful for God. It's a pastor's dream moment.

There they are. Ten things I have learned in ten years.

1 comment:

  1. What an outstanding post. Excellent advice for us all.