10 Difficult Truths About Ministry I Wish I Knew When I Started
Five years ago, I left a career as an engineer to serve the local church full-time. The first day, I walked into the church building giddy, like a school girl who just saw the finest dude ever. I think I skipped twice, then I noticed the lady cleaning the church building staring at me. Awkward.
I was so excited. Working full-time for the local church would be a never-ending honeymoon.
The honeymoon lasted like three months. I remember leaving the office one afternoon thinking, “What have I done? I didn’t sign up for this.” The demands of ministry were overwhelming. The demands of people were exhausting. Not to mention I was hanging out in an office most days. I mean, why are pastors in an office all day? Was I really supposed to read books and prepare classes for eight hours? What about the people?
Five years later, I still wonder why pastors are closed up in an office all day, but I love local church ministry. I embrace the opportunity to work for the bride of Jesus. Are there days I want to quit? Certainly. But, those thoughts don’t come nearly as often.
The path to this point wasn’t easy (the path moving forward won’t be easy either). But some truths about ministry would have helped me avoid a few potholes. These truths aren’t easy to accept, but they would have saved me nights of doubting and frustrations due to unmet (and unrealistic) expectations.
Here we go!
1.) SATAN TARGETS EVERYONE, BUT HE’S ESPECIALLY TARGETING YOU.
Two weeks before transitioning into full-time ministry, I went through the darkest time of my life. Before this season, I never struggled with depression. It just wasn’t an issue for me. But as I agonized over whether to jump into ministry or remain an engineer, a cloud of darkness hovered over my mind. To this day, I have no explanation other than Satan. The day before I made the decision to quit my engineering job, the dark cloud dissipated.
Here’s what I wish I knew before I got into ministry … while Satan targets everyone, he especially targets church leaders.
In the gospels, Satan directly attacks two individuals … Jesus and Peter (that’s not to say he didn’t attack others, we’re just told explicitly about Jesus and Peter). In Matthew 5, Satan tempts Jesus in the wilderness. In Luke 22:31, Jesus tells Peter, “Satan has asked to sift you like wheat.” Jesus, whose death established the church, and Peter, the guy who built the church, are explicitly attacked by Satan.
Coincidence? I think not.
Satan hates God, so naturally he hates the bride of Jesus, the church. How do you destroy the bride of Jesus Christ? Remove those who lead it. If you’re in any type of leadership role in the church, that’s you. This shouldn’t scare you. The power in you is greater than the power in the world. Just be aware that you’re under attack.
2.) DON’T DRAW A CROWD. MAKE DISCIPLES.
To be honest, drawing crowds isn’t difficult. If you appeal to the interests of other people, you will draw a crowd. And the cultural temptation to build a large ministry is strong. When pastors and church leaders ask you about your ministry, the first question will probably go something like this, “So how many people did you have Sunday?”
Most of the voices around you say draw a crowd. Don’t listen to them. God doesn’t call you to draw a crowd. He calls you to make disciples. Discipleship is messy. It’s time-consuming. But it is the fruit of ministry. Who cares if your most recent event had 100 people? You had 1,000 people in worship last Sunday? So what? Are those people on a trajectory toward Jesus?
Relentlessly, scandalously, unapologetically point people to Jesus. Self-seekers will leave. They left Jesus too. That’s OK.
Don’t build a church of self-interested, self-centered people. That’s not a church. That’s a rotary club. Build a church of people on a path of self-denial. It’s the only path to true life.
3.) GOD ISN’T IMPRESSED WITH YOUR EXHAUSTING SCHEDULE. REST.
The American ministry culture seems to equate exhaustion with faithfulness. “Man, I’m exhausted. I don’t have time for my family. I haven’t spent intimate time with God in weeks. But look at how many events are on the schedule.”
I bought into the cultural pressure. My first two years in ministry I flooded the schedule with events. I wanted to schedule more events than any church around.
At the end of year two, I almost left ministry. I was exhausted, burnt out and becoming increasingly cynical.
Look, your peers might be impressed with your exhausting schedule. But God isn’t impressed. He doesn’t need your exhaustion. He needs your faithfulness. He needs you to trust him as the all-powerful God of the universe. Your ministry isn’t validated by the number of events on the schedule. This cultural expectation in the American church to fill the schedule with events needs to stop.
Rest. Your ministry isn’t dependent on you.
4.) NOT EVERYONE IN THE CHURCH WILL SHARE YOUR PASSION FOR JESUS.
When I started, I was pumped about teaching, discipling and building relationships with people, most of them Christians. I mean, who wouldn’t want to spend every day with sold out, committed followers of Jesus?
It didn’t take long to realize sold out, committed followers of Jesus are the exception, not the rule. Instead of running ahead of the crowd, leading and guiding people as they run behind me, many days I feel like I’m behind the crowd, pushing and pleading for people not to give up.
But here’s what I realized. God doesn’t place everyone on the same journey. People learn and grow at different speeds. If you expect everyone to instantly think, act and live like you, ministry will become burdensome. Instead of being cynical because not everyone is “sold out” like you, adopt the attitude of Jesus … take people where they are and lead them.
Not everyone will share your passion for Jesus. Not all Christians are head-over-heels in love with Jesus like you. That’s why you’re in ministry. Help people taste a deeper, more intimate relationship with Jesus. Point them to the inexhaustible well of God’s grace, mercy, power and love.
Remember, you’re only at this point because someone took you where you were and led you to Jesus.
5.) MINISTRY ISN’T A COMPETITION.
I’m a recovering “competition addict.” Here’s a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Any idea that ministry is a competition is from Satan. God didn’t call you into ministry so you could build your church. He called you to build THE church.
The competitive attitude of many church leaders cripples the church, both locally and globally. And while it’s great to point people to your ministry and invite people to join your church, it’s also entirely possible to build your church at the expense of building THE church.
Don’t build YOUR church at the expense of THE church. Ministry isn’t a competition.
Here’s what I wish I knew when I got into ministry. If any church, anywhere, baptizes someone, every church wins. If your ministry helps people experience Jesus, every church wins. Why? You’re not primarily building your church. You’re primarily building THE church. And the church is larger than your physical location. The church is every man and woman gathered in every city, state and country across the world.
Rejoice with other pastors when they convert people to Jesus. Can you imagine what might happen if every church stopped competing against other churches and started competing against Satan?
6.) YOU’RE ULTIMATELY NOT SERVING THE CHURCH, YOU’RE SERVING JESUS.
It wasn’t until I suffered two huge wounds at the hands of Christians that God awakened me to this truth. As a pastor, you’re not working for the church. You’re working for Jesus. If you make the church more important than Jesus, cynicism and negativity will destroy you.
People will hurt you. They will let you down. But Jesus will never disappoint you. He’s the perfect boss. Wake up every day and work for him. This will free you to love people, regardless of the words they speak or the actions they take. It will free you to make hard decisions and say what needs to be said.
7.) THE GOSPEL TRANSFORMS LIVES. DON’T GET DERAILED BY “CHURCHY ISSUES.”
Early in ministry, I spent too much time debating “churchy issues.” Is baptism essential for salvation? Which worship style brings people to Jesus? Which denomination has the most correct doctrines? And, sadly, much of what I considered discipleship was really convincing people what to believe about certain issues.
I mean this sincerely and honestly … to those people discipled by the “issue-driven Frank,” I’m sorry. I led you to believe the proper stance on a particular issue was as important as the only reason for your salvation … Jesus Christ.
The gospel is most important (1 Cor. 15:1-3). It’s the only thing that matters. “Churchy issues” are most church leaders’ attempt to elevate their own prideful ego. It’s a manipulation and control tactic. That was my goal.
And I’m sorry.
I want you to know today that it’s all about Jesus. It’s always been all about Jesus. If you have Jesus, nothing else matters. If you don’t have Jesus, nothing else matters. He’s the source of eternal life. He’s the reason you have hope. He’s the source of every good thing.
If every person at your church knows the right verses about baptism, worship style or the Lord’s Supper, but they don’t know Jesus, you aren’t winning. The ultimate question, the only question, is, “Do the people you’re leading know Jesus?”
8.) DISCIPLE THOSE IN YOUR CHURCH MINISTRY WELL. DISCIPLE YOUR FAMILY BETTER. DISCIPLE YOURSELF BEST.
What good is it if you gain the whole world but lose your soul and your family? Too often these are sacrificed on the altar of church ministry. I believe family is your second most important ministry, behind your ministry to yourself. This isn’t to say family comes before church ministry. It’s not an either/or thing. It’s both/and. You lead your ministries well and your family well. Don’t choose one or the other. Don’t excel in one at the expense of the other.
I believe there’s a hierarchy of discipleship that leads to a fruitful ministry. You must start by discipling yourself well. You must then disciple your family well. If you disciple yourself and your family well, your church ministry stands a much greater chance of producing fruit. If you put church ministry above self-ministry or family ministry, trust me, everything starts falling apart.
9.) BE WILLING TO SOUND DUMB, BE WRONG, APOLOGIZE AND CONTRADICT YOURSELF.
Early in ministry, I was careful with my words. I didn’t want to sound stupid. And, on more than one occasion, the Spirit convicted me that my take on a particular doctrine was wrong, and I refused to change my stance. Sounding foolish was a higher value than listening to the Spirit of God.
As a pastor in 2015, you’re under a microscope. Everything you say is dissected and scrutinized. Don’t be mad about that. Accept it. But don’t allow the microscope to enslave you. If you’re studying, praying and seeking God, He will reveal new layers of his character to you. And it’s possible that the Spirit will reveal something about God that shatters your previous understanding. Embrace it.
If you never change your mind about some aspect of God’s character, you’re either God or you’re not being led by the Spirit. So, at worst, you’re equivalent to Satan, and, at best, you’re a legalistic Pharisee.
“How about what’s behind door #3, Frank?”
Exactly. Embrace your limitations and weaknesses. Admit your faults. Be transparent. God doesn’t need you to be perfect. He needs you to point people to his perfection.
10.) YOU WILL CONSIDER GIVING UP OFTEN. LEARN TO FIND GOD IN THE DAILINESS OF MINISTRY.
If I had a dime for every time I thought about giving up, I would take the dimes and retire. Not give up, just retire.
When I started full-time ministry, I thought ministry equated to a lifetime on the mountaintop. Youth conferences with thousands of teens. Sundays where I’m preaching and multiple people give their lives to Christ.
I didn’t look for God in the dailiness of ministry. I didn’t think he was there. Now I realize he’s primarily there. And it’s not until you embrace the days where seemingly nothing happens that you’re prepared to experience the days where everything seemingly blows up.
God is working in the messiness of ministry. He’s working in the days when an angry Christian verbally attacks your competency, family, and everything in between. He’s there in the moments of loneliness when you question ministry, the church, and even when you question Him.
Let’s be honest, pastors and church leaders aren’t leaving their positions because they’re tired of being on the mountaintop. They’re leaving on Mondays, when they’ve spent countless hours pouring into a group of people and it seems like nothing is happening.
Pastors often leave because they equate God’s presence to mountaintop experiences. Embrace his presence when it appears nothing happens. You might find God is doing more than you realize.
There are many points and lessons I didn’t include. Now it’s your turn.