Lessons from My First Year of the Pastoral Ministry
It has been little over a year since I began to serve my first congregation in Grove City, PA. However, I feel as though it was only yesterday that I had led my first public worship service, preached my first sermon, administered my first Lord’s Supper, and enjoyed my first fellowship meal with my congregation. It is amazing how fast time can fly and how quickly our days can go by in busy ministry.
Words would always fail to capture the depth of gratitude and joy I have for my congregation. To tell you an honest truth, I cannot think of a better congregation to serve as a freshly ordained minister without any previous full-time pastoral experience than my current church. This small congregation (which had about 20 members at the time) helped me and my family to feel at home the moment we began to serve the church. This committed and vigorous congregation helped me to expect bright and hopeful tomorrow even when I saw many empty chairs every Sunday morning. This encouraging and loving congregation helped me to find strength and comfort when I was doubtful and discouraged about myself.
At the same time, just as you would inevitably experience many trials and errors when trying something new for the first time, my first year in pastoral ministry was not always smooth sailing. During this short 13 months of period, there were moments when I had to particularly seek God’s help and guidance due to unique and unforeseen issues.
In this article then, I would like to share with you the lessons I have learned from my first year of the pastoral ministry. Accordingly, my hope and prayer are that these lessons I have learned from my first year would also help my aspiring and fellow ministers to know what to expect as they prepare or find themselves in their first year of pastoral ministry.
I. Don’t Choose to Die on Every Hill
Whether you are called to a thriving congregation or a church in need of revitalization, clashes of thoughts and opinions are inevitable between a new pastor and an existing leadership. This becomes even more apparent and true when a pastor is young and filled with excitement to implement his thoughts and convictions from the seminary. For example, when one of my friends from seminary, upon accepting a call from a church, told me, “I will have to change a lot of things about that church.”
However, what a young and fresh minister ought to understand is that attempts to change everything at a church he serves during his first year is a guaranteed recipe for disaster and failure. For one, you have not established strong relationship of friendship and trust with your congregation. As such, it would be unfair of you to demand the leadership and the congregation to simply trust your judgement and change their accustomed practices. For another, you are not as wise and capable as you think you are, and your judgment and direction may not prove to be right in the long run. Accordingly, you may experience conflicts with the leadership and the congregation, who holds on to their accustomed ways and disagrees with your directions.
This wise saying from my mentor has always proven invaluable during my first year in the ministry: “Ministry is like steering a ship. If you steer the ship around abruptly, everyone will go overboard. If you steer the ship around slowly, everyone will be safe on the board.” Similarly, a young minister must understand that not every hill is worth dying on, and some are better left alone.
II. Be Bold and Decisive
At the same time, a young minister will face moments in his ministry where he must be bold and decisive. This may be particularly more difficult and challenging if you are non-confrontational and timid by nature.
For example, when I began to serve my congregation, I quickly found myself in a tight spot dealing with an issue of children’s noise in worship during Sunday services. The issue became somewhat controversial and volatile because the congregation and the church leaders were divided in their opinions, each having a good biblical basis for their arguments. One side of the congregation and the leaders thought we must exercise charity and kindness as Jesus called children to come to him (Luke 18:16). Then, others from the congregation and the leaders thought we must defend and preserve the orderliness and reverence of worship before God (1 Cor.14:26-40).
Although the elders of the congregation and I sought best resolution for this issue, we couldn’t come up with a fast and perfect answer that would satisfy everyone. When the elders finally decided that the pastor and an elder should confront the noise, my timidity got in the way of effectively and immediately resolving the issue. And as the problem lingered for longer, it brewed deeper and more visible discontentment and damage in the life of the church. On the hindsight, therefore, boldness and decisiveness would have spared unnecessary tensions and stresses for everyone involved in this issue.
III. Know You Will Make Mistakes
Third, a young minister must accept the fact that he will make many mistakes during the first year of his ministry. Especially when the young man has years of experience in a pastoral internship, pulpit supply, youth ministry, or other ministry-related jobs, it is easy for them to think that he is ready to dive in and successfully serve the congregation.
Despite having years of experience in a pastoral internship, youth ministry, and pulpit supplies, my first full-time pastoral ministry repeatedly revealed my many shortcomings and insufficiency as a minister of the Gospel. For example, there were sermons that I could have organized and preached better, decisions that could have been made more effectively with the elders, connections that could have been better established with visitors and de-churched individuals, and times that could have spent more with my family. I have made many mistakes that I can even count past 13 months. And all young ministers will make similar, if not identical, mistakes in their first year of ministry.
Nonetheless, when you do make mistakes, shake off the dust on your knees, stand up, and keep plowing on. Listen to the prophet Zechariah’s words as he said, “For whoever has despised the day of small things shall rejoice (4:10)”, and continue to walk on the path that the Lord has called you to be on in your life.
IV. Surround Yourself with Mentors
Perhaps at this point, you may be intimidated and overwhelmed by the perspective of ministry. Perhaps you are doubtful as to whether you will make it through your first year, and you are skeptical as to whether you can best serve your congregation. This is why I believe the fourth lesson I learned is very important: surround yourself with mentors.
When I moved to Grove City, PA, first thing I did was reaching out to fellow ministers in the town. I emailed and asked local OPC, PCA, EPC pastors to grab cup of coffee with me so that I can glean from their experience and wisdom in ministry. They were very welcoming and kind to this new and young minister in town, and many of them continue to support me and help me even to this day.
I also surrounded myself with many experienced and seasoned Christians in my congregation for guidance and directions in my ministry as well. From the day one of my pastoral ministry career, I have earnestly prayed that the Lord would surround me with men of God who can co-labor for the Gospel in ministry. The Lord has indeed heard my prayers and brought many God-fearing, Christ-centered, Gospel-loving men and women in my life.
You cannot do ministry alone. You certainly cannot do ministry with pride and self-reliance, thinking you got what it takes to serve a church. All young ministers need mentors, encouragers, and co-laborers who can support and build the Kingdom of God together. And young ministers must also cultivate spirit of humility (Phil. 2:3) so that he would listen carefully to what others have to say about their fruitful ministries.
V. Trust and Rely on God
Lastly, but most importantly, every young minister must trust in God through every circumstance of his ministry. When we begin our ministry as young ministers, we must be all like Solomon in 1 King 3 when he was crowned to be the king of Israel after David’s death. In these passages, we can read Solomon’s honest and earnest prayer, confessing and acknowledging before God his insufficiency and inadequacy in leading the people of Israel. For example, Solomon prayed:
“And now, O LORD my God, you have made your servant king in place of David my father, although I am but a little child. I do not know how to go out or come in. And your servant is in the midst of your people whom you have chosen, a great people, too many to be numbered or counted for multitude (7-8).”
And with this prayer, Solomon have asked God, “Give your servant therefore an understanding mind to govern your people, that I may discern between good and evil, for who is able to govern this your great people? (v.9)”
In the same manner, we must also asked for such wisdom to lead God’s people as the minister and the ambassador of Christ. And we must trust and rely on God that He would indeed give us wisdom and power, so that our ministry will be built not on man’s ways or man’s wisdom, but by God’s Spirit (Zec. 4:6).
Although I have written this article with aspiring and newly ordained ministers in mind, I also believe these lessons are applicable to any men and women serving the church in various capacities. You may be a man newly ordained to be an elder of your congregation. You may be a man who began your first diaconal ministry in the church. You may be a man or woman who began to serve worship teams, Sunday school classes, or even nursery.
My prayer is that the lessons I have learned from my first year in ministry will also benefit you. And that it will help you to serve God’s kingdom and your church with love, humility, and joy in our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.