In June I will have served under appointment in the UMC for 9 years, will have been commissioned as a provisional elder 6 years ago, and ordained as an elder in full connection for 3 years. You can see a much younger me in the top left of the picture taken 6 years ago just before I was commissioned as a provisional elder. 10 years is a significant number for me because according to some surveys around 50% of pastors will have left the ministry by either the 5 or 10 year mark. Additionally, only 1 out of 10 pastors starting in ministry will actually retire from a ministry position at the end of their careers. I want to make it till the end and I pray that I will continue to be supported and mentored by other pastors. So as I near year number 10 in ministry I wanted to reflect back and give some advice to the me of 9 years ago.
- Create and maintain a regular practice of spiritual discipline. You have probably already heard this before but you can’t pour from an empty cup and you can’t lead others where you have not been. You have spent lots of time studying Scripture and your job as pastor will also lead you into Scripture as you write sermons, prepare studies, and give counsel. However, you CANNOT substitute this for your personal spiritual development. There is a reason that you went into ministry and it started as you heard a call and feel in love with God and the Bible. Writing sermons and doing spiritual “stuff” for work will not feed you in the way you need. I write this first because it is the most important. Also read this often because it is so easy to forget.
- Make time for yourself and your family. I never really understood why Jesus said that the poor would always be with us. It seemed so cold and unloving and not in character for the one who was moved with compassion for the needs of the crowds who gathered around him. I think that after a few years in ministry I finally understood part of what he meant. There will always be something to do: someone will need advice, someone will need help with a bill, someone will need to meet, someone will want to see the lights on at the church, some group will want to have a meeting, and it goes on and on. There will never be a perfect day to set aside for your family but pick one and keep it. Learn to say no, even to things that seem worthy and important. If they really need you there they can reschedule or set up a team that can help so that the burden is shared and not always falling on you. You need time off and your family needs to know that they are your top priority. I don’t want to succeed in ministry but have my family hate the church. There will always be something to do or as Jesus said the poor will always be with us; however, you still need to take time away.
- Stop looking at the wrong numbers. In the UMC we love numbers and we have even created dashboards so we can compare numbers. If you look at numbers it is easy to get discouraged wondering why you aren’t a good enough leader to match the numbers of some other pastor or church. I have written about this before but numbers don’t tell the whole story. Instead of looking at numbers look for stories of transformation. When we count let’s count what matters: how many people or hours did you church work to make a difference in the community through volunteering, how many people have come to know Christ and what was the impact on their life, and what leaders are leading others in small groups for spiritual growth and accountability. Numbers don’t mean anything if they don’t translate into lives and communities transformed by the power of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. So get off the dashboard and count what matters.
- Don’t look at the clergy compensation report. In the UMC we report everything and that includes the compensation of pastors. I know it’s out there and you are curious but trust me nothing good comes from this action. Theodore Roosevelt once said “Comparison is the thief of joy” and how true that statement is. You will see how much your friends make and wonder why they are making more or less, you will see some who just starting out are making as much or more than you, and see that a few make tens of thousands more than most. What good comes from this? You cannot change what others make and you might not be able to change your compensation either. You can go from being content to dissatisfied simply by looking at numbers. Your situation hasn’t changed, the facts about your job haven’t changed, and your church hasn’t changed but you are now unhappy. Work hard, ask for raises, and do your best but don’t look at others and ask why.
- Invest in what matters. You will be busy and often work some long hours. You can easily been pulled into a schedule that is filled with meetings, paperwork, and busy work that at the end of the day leaves you wondering what you actually did all day. Here is something I have learned and that I’m trying to apply to my life: you and you alone set your schedule. Yes, you should work hard and there will be weeks of 40 hours of work and even more; however, you get to decide how you invest those hours. The administrative work must be done but it can be done much more efficiently. There are plenty of resources on how to reduce meetings by moving to a unified board structure. This will free up lots of time lost in meetings and actually get more work done and allow your leaders to lead. Speaking of leaders, spend time investing in their lives. You cannot do all the ministry work of the church and hiring staff to do it all is expensive and unhealthy. Our laity actually want to be able to give and serve in meaningful ministry. They don’t want to be stuck in a boring meeting but if you help them match their passion and gifts with an active ministry they and it will thrive. There are people in your church who can run a children’s ministry, lead a youth retreat, and help with pastoral care. You can’t do it all so invest in your leaders and watch the ministry grow far beyond your ability to do on your own. Spend a lot of time out of the office. Find a place where you can get to know people who aren’t in your church: a local coffee house, a local eatery, or simply a park. Serve in the schools (make sure you are taking leaders with you so that you can empower them to lead this in the future) and get to know local leaders. Help the church get beyond the walls. This will all take a lot of work but at the end of the day you will be able to see what is happening and feel like the work was purposeful.