Pastor, take the long view of ministry and persevere in plodding
Ministry is plodding. Sometimes it’s falling forward. Sometimes your feet feel so heavy, you don’t think you can go another step. You just keep putting one foot in front of the other.
I recently celebrated my sixth year of ministry as a pastor of Arbor Drive Community Church. Six years might not seem like a long time, and in the grand scheme of things, it’s not; but for a church revitalizing pastor stepping into an unhealthy church seeking to usher in life and health, six years can be an eternity.
For those in this context, six years is also (in my opinion) a milestone— at least it was for me. Thom Rainer cited a Lifeway Research study that indicated that the median pastoral tenure in 2016 was six years. Yes, some stayed longer and some left earlier, but six years is not a long time.
Yet, it would seem that on average six years is a milestone. As I’ve reflected on the last six years, I’ve been amazed to see God’s grace and faithfulness. No, we haven’t experienced dramatic numerical growth or expanded to multiple campuses, but we have grown in health. I’ve thought back on what I wish I had known walking into this calling.
I want to offer some reflections, but some background is important.
Inexperienced pastor in a messy church
I came to Arbor Drive while still in seminary. I had wanted to plant a church because, well, that’s what all the cool kids did, but then I took a class a church revitalization class at SBTS taught by Al Jackson. God used that course to change the trajectory of my ministry. I became convicted that God loves both established and struggling churches. He wants to use men to bring life back into them.
Armed with that conviction and youthful vigor (read: ignorance), I set out to find an unhealthy church to serve. After courting a few churches that just didn’t feel right, God called me to Arbor Drive.
When I hit the ground, I had no seminary degree (I was taking classes online full time), no experience (I had preached three sermons before coming here and had never been a pastor), and had no exposure to unhealthy church life (the church that sent me was relatively healthy). I had no clue what I was walking in to, much less how to deal with it.
But looking back, here are several things I’ve learned that would’ve helped me had I known them before taking this church.
1. You must take the long view.
I knew it intellectually and even recited a quote that I’d heard in my candidating Q&A: “Most pastors overestimate what they can do in five years and underestimate what they can do in 20.” That’s all well and good when you haven’t even started, but I realized quickly how true that was.
Most revitalizations are not the ones you read about in books. They aren’t the ones that experience explosive growth and multiplication. They don’t grow in health over three years. Most are a result of years of toil, labor, pain, and suffering (intermixed with momentary and fleeting successes and breakthroughs). Especially in the early years, it can seem like you’re taking one step forward and ten steps back.
That’s where a long view comes in.
I’ve learned that God is not typically in a hurry to accomplish his purposes—and certainly not mine. This is the case throughout Scripture. In Genesis 3, Christ is promised. He shows up in Matthew 1. In the prophets, new covenant blessings are promised. In the New Testament, they become a reality. God isn’t in a hurry and he’s not working on our timeline. Change takes time. It takes perseverance. It takes faithfulness in the midst of adversity.
It took less than six months for me to become frustrated that nothing was changing. After all, I was faithfully preaching and teaching God’s Word. I was shepherding the best I could and in spite of that, people still weren’t moving, the elder board was still a mess, we still had a church boss family, and there was constant conflict.
This didn’t go away quickly.
I was four years in and was at the hospital with my wife after having our second child when I got a call from a church member informing me that there was an underground movement to get me fired. It’s easy to quit in those moments. It’s easy to give up and think it’s better to move on . . . if you don’t have a long view.
When I was in the army, we had a saying, “focus on the front sight.” In other words, focus on the right thing. It’s keeping the goal in mind (the target) while focusing on the thing that gets you there (the front sight). I knew change takes time but there was a youthful arrogance that would continually whisper in my ear that I was the exception.
That led to frustration because I was focusing on the target and frustrated when the shot was missing. Front sight focus. Take a long view but focus in the right place.
When we step into a revitalization, we can be bombarded with myriad problems and it can become overwhelming. We can work and labor and see very little fruit. We can see all the things we think need to change. We fail to see that changing them might undermine our long-term goal.
2. Remember: God often works slowly.
God typically makes big changes over long periods of time. Stop and breathe that in. That was a profound insight for me. I once read it takes 10,000 hours of doing something to master it. The same is true in the Christian life. Think of yourself as a young Christian. How many dumb things did you believe? How many bad habits did you have? How aware were you of subtle sins in your life?
The Christian life is like the stock market. On a graph, you’ll see hilltops and valleys, but the general trend is up. God works on people that way. Consistency and exposure are tools God uses to change hearts. It’s the fertilizer in the soil the Spirit uses to cause growth. As Paul said, we plant and water, but God gives growth, and he does so in his timing. We can’t fabricate authentic heart change. That has to be a work of the Spirit, and he does it line upon line, recept upon precept, here a little, there a little (Isa. 28:13).
Brothers, a long view allows for healthy growth—growth brought about by the Spirit’s work in the heart. Don’t be content with behavior modification. It might seem like a win, but it’s short- lived.
We spend 18 years as parents preparing our children to grow up and launch. We start small and build, giving them more responsibility, expecting more of them as they mature. Be that kind of pastor. Don’t expect your people to act like 30-year-olds when they are spiritual toddlers. Give space for God to work and don’t try to manufacture it on your own.
3. Remember these watch words: Consistency, exposure, and theological triage.
Not everything that needs to change needs to change right now. That’s a hard sentence to write. Most things you see at first glance that need to change are usually symptoms of deeper issues that must be addressed. Every decision costs at least some leadership credit—it can build it or tear it down.
There is a line in the movie “Top Gun” that is apt for this: “Son, your ego is writing checks your body can’t cash.” I’d revise that to say, “Your preference is writing checks your leadership can’t cash.”
Are there things I wish were different even today? Sure. Are they worth the cost in leadership credit to change? More often than not, the answer is “no.” I’ve learned a couple of things over the years.
First, dealing with symptoms never solves the problem. The easy solution is to change the songs you sing wholesale and upset a bunch of people. The harder solution is to help people see that singing is preaching and the theology we sing both proclaims the truth and teaches us theology.
Second, many of the things I thought were a big deal really weren’t. It’s much better to deal with big issues and let little ones slide than deal with small ones and have no credit to spend on big ones.
Third, patience has a way of winning the day. I’ve seen God work out all kinds of issues that simply because I waited, I took the long view. If I hadn’t, it would’ve cost more than it would’ve gained. That allows you to spend your credit on big things. Stay long enough and most, if not all. of the small issues will end up changing on their own.
Consistency and exposure.
Learn to do theological triage, which teaches us to deal with the chest wound before worrying about the finger splinter. Master triage and being strategic. Always think through what this will cost, how it will move toward the goal, and ask whether it should be done at all, and assess the secondary or tertiary consequences.
4. Be willing to celebrate small wins.
Having a long view can be exhausting. It can seem like nothing is changing and no one is moving. You’ll be tempted to abandon this philosophy and move to something more quantifiable and pragmatic, something that “works.” But if you believe the first premise (God works in steps, not leaps) then you’ll have an opportunity to celebrate.
We celebrate milestones in our child’s life. We celebrate the first time they smile or the first time they get on all fours or the first steps. No parent says “man, why isn’t my two-year-old playing basketball yet?” That’s insanity. Yet that’s how we pastors tend to view the church. We don’t celebrate small wins.
Become a master of celebrating small wins; celebrate things members say they’ve never seen before in the Bible or a shy member greeting a new visitor. Look for small things if you want to see God working. A long view forces us to see change as incremental. So celebrate incremental change.
I remember when we had my first baptism at Arbor Drive. It was the first baptism this church had seen in more than six years. I made a big deal of that. I saw that as God’s faithfulness and evidence he was working. When I challenged the church to get out of debt by raising $60,000 in six months, there were a lot of barriers, but when I stood before the church six months later and reported we’d sent our last check to the bank and our property was debt free, it was a win. We could’ve done it in four months or even before I became pastor. Still, it was a win worth celebrating
5. Be a plodder.
Keep plodding. In a marathon, you hit walls (or so I’m told… I don’t run that far unless being chased by a bear). You come up against moments where you’re tempted to give up. You’re five miles in, you look ahead to see how far you have to go, and it seems impossible.
In U.S. Army Ranger School there’s a saying… “I’ll quit tomorrow.” No matter how hard it is, you say “I’ll quit tomorrow.” You know what you say tomorrow when you feel like quitting? You get the idea. Ministry is plodding. Sometimes it’s falling forward. Sometimes your feet feel so heavy, you don’t think you can go another step. You just keep putting one foot in front of the other. Here is the unique thing: you don’t do it by your own strength. You keep the long view and keep going with confidence that Christ loves his church. He died for her. He cares for her. It doesn’t depend upon you. The results are not yours to own if you’re walking in faithfulness. You get the liberation and freedom of knowing it doesn’t depend on you and the strength to keep going from God working in you.
One day you’ll die and will stand before God. I want a legacy of faithful plodding done in his strength and dependence upon him. When you cross the finish line you don’t focus on the walls you hit. You enjoy the euphoria of finishing and all the toil was worth it. Paul told Timothy to stay in Ephesus and not give up (1 Tim. 1:3). In the cave David strengthened himself in the Lord (1 Sam 30:6).
Take a long view and, by God’s grace, you’ll keep running the race.
Editors’ note: This article originally appeared at Practical Shepherding.