A couple of weeks ago, my wife and I went to dinner with some friends we hadn’t visited with in a long time. The conversation, as we sat down, centered around the general life challenges of raising kids, because we and our friends have been blessed with rearing children in the middle of this crazy culture.
For the first 20-30 minutes, no one mentioned pastoral ministry and the responsibility given to pastors by God, but then, out of nowhere, our dear friends asked this simple, yet profound, question: “Tell me, what have you learned in your first five years of being a senior pastor?”
I spent the next 30 or so minutes giving some answers off the top of my head. The conversation was good. Some tears were shed, and then we wrapped up our dinner to hurry home to the sitter we had hired to watch our little ones.
It must have been three or four days before their question came to mind again, and I began to ponder what they had asked— “What have you learned in your first five years of being a senior pastor?” I began to think about things that I wished I had said during our dinner together, things that would have come to mind had I been able to think deeply about their important question.
This post comes after much pondering over that simple and yet complex question. I want to begin, however, with a disclaimer. I am by no means sharing what I have learned in these five years with the notion that I am some kind of expert in pastoral ministry. Rather, I intend to share with my brothers and sisters in Christ what the Lord has taught me personally these last five years. I certainly have a long way to go when it comes to leadership and understanding, and I do not consider myself an authority on pastoral ministry. I have, however, experienced some unique things in my first five years of senior leadership that may be helpful to those who read this.
I’ll frame what I say like this: Here are the top 5 things I have learned in my first 5 years of senior leadership in a local congregation. So here it goes!
- God’s People are Precious
This is number one for me. There have been many challenges, some of which I’ll allude to later on, but this first lesson stands as an ever-present reminder of why I accepted the call to pastoral ministry in the first place. It is true that “sheep” bite. In fact, this was one of the lessons that our former pastor told my wife and me before he retired to Texas in 2018. Pastor Rene Monette and his wife Vicki sat Estelle and me down several times before they left, and they told us that loving God’s people would be something we would have to fight for. We didn’t really understand what they meant at the time. In some ways, because of our inexperience, we thought that it wouldn’t be as difficult as they made it seem. We have come to learn that they were right. God’s people…his sheep…bite. The sheep bite other sheep. Lead sheep bite the sheep they are called to lead. Everyone bites everyone! It’s amazing, when I think about it, that we even choose to gather to worship together every Sunday.
Despite all the struggles that have come from being a flawed leader leading flawed people, my heart has never been more grateful to the Lord for giving me the privilege to love and shepherd His people. So many faces and situations come to mind from these past five years. I have sat with many precious families as they mourn the loss of their loved one. I have spoken at many funerals where words could not do justice to how difficult the loss was. I have prayed with believers who are terminally sick, and I have had the privilege of believing for healing. Walking with God’s people at their lowest points is something that has shaped my life. It has sanctified my heart and grown my compassion in ways that would not have been possible otherwise. From COVID 19 to Hurricane Ida, the lows of the first five years have been significant.
Of course, many celebratory interactions have happened with the people I am called to lead…adoptions, baby dedications, weddings and birthdays. I have gotten to watch new believers grow in their faith and new converts publicly testify through believer’s baptism, and I have watched mature believers continue to thrive and use their gifts.
In all the ups and downs, God’s people are precious. My heart has only grown to love His church even more through all that Estelle and I have walked through in this first season of pastoral ministry.
- God’s people need His word.
I am an expository preacher. Expository preaching, simply put, is making the main point of the Biblical passage the main point of the sermon. I also believe in systematic exposition, which means walking God’s people, Sunday after Sunday, through books of the Bible. So, the main diet of God’s people on Sundays is the systematic exposition of Holy Scripture. I have preached through Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, 1 Peter, 2 Peter, Jonah, Sections of Psalms, and Malachi, and I am currently preaching through the gospel of John.My conviction is simple: God’s Word is divinely inspired and the primary means of the sanctification of His people. God’s people need God’s Word so that they can become Christlike in every area of their lives. Therefore, my responsibility is to base what I say every Sunday on the authority of God’s Word and to preach the Word in its proper context and not to use it as a springboard for what I want to say.
Expository preaching is like holding up the diamond of God’s Word and turning it here a little and there a little for God’s people to behold Christ and become more conformed into His image every day. After five years of preaching weekly to a local congregation, I am more convinced than ever that God’s people need His Word.
There are many things I could preach from week to week, many topics or ideas that could be helpful. My conviction, however, is that there is nothing more relevant and helpful to God’s people than God’s Word. Sheep need sheep food. God’s Word is the food that His people need. It is what conforms us into the image of the Son. His Word is what shapes our thinking about who God is and what pleases Him. My job is not to convince God’s people to believe me because I am an authority on any given subject. My job is to simply open the Word and call people to believe it because it is what God has spoken. A steady diet of God’s Word, preached with conviction and passion, stirs the affections of God’s people to worship the Lord in spirit and in truth. It is impossible for people to worship a God they do not know, and Holy Scripture is how God has chosen to most clearly reveal himself to us.
Not only is it the joy of my heart to feed God’s people His Word week after week, but it is also the joy of my heart to be shaped by the Word as I am studying week after week. Not only is God’s Word shaping the minds and hearts of the people at Living Word, but it is also shaping the shepherds who are teaching it. What have I learned in the first five years of being a senior pastor? I have learned that my commitment to hold high the Word of God as the sole authority to which God’s people must submit is needed more now than ever.
- God’s people need protection.
God’s Word, pressed onto the hearts and minds of God’s people, is needed now more than ever because God’s people need protection. This third lesson could compete for first spot on my list. Actually, it wouldn’t be in competition; my third lesson is informed by my number one lesson—God’s people need protection because God’s people are precious.
On June 29, 2007, the first-generation iPhone was released. It was the first of its kind, the internet in the palm of your hand with a browser similar to a home computer. I remember the first time I saw one. My thoughts went in two directions. I first thought about how amazing it was to have the wealth of knowledge that the internet provided with you wherever you went. My next thought, almost simultaneous with the first, was about having the wealth of garbage that the internet provided in the palm of your hand wherever you went.
With every successive year, technology and our dependence on it have increased, and because of this, we have raised a generation of people who live their lives every day influenced by instant access to information. Slowly, fewer and fewer people know what it’s like to not have, in the palm of their hands, instant access to all that the internet has to offer. With the seismic shift that has taken place in a short 15 plus years, there is no turning back. Soon, we will see people in public places like airports and restaurants wearing Apple’s vision pro goggles, consuming online content as though the outside world doesn’t even exist. And, all the while, no one around them will be able to see what they are looking at or watching.
I am not against increases in technology, and I have greatly benefited from instant access to information in my study and research. What I have been and am greatly concerned about is how quickly people can be influenced by ungodly ideologies. The amount of satanically influenced content that is readily available for everyone and anyone to consume could be likened to the powerful flow of water that would burst forth if the Hoover Dam was compromised and collapsed.
As I study each week to feed God’s people God’s Word, I think about the barrage of filth that His people are exposed to. God’s people need protection. They need Shepherds who do not have their heads in the sand and who are ready to speak the truth of the Word to equip God’s people to stand firm on Biblical convictions. I have learned in these first five years that I must be willing to speak the truth about the lies of the culture, because God’s people need their leaders to do just that. The church cannot shy away from being clear about the issues that are clearly in contradiction to God’s Word. If leaders will not stand, those who listen to those leaders will likely follow suit. The time for self-help, life-application, how-to-have-a-better-life pep talks is over. The culture is only going to continue to double down in its efforts to shape the minds of God’s people and the children they raise. Now is the time for clear and authoritative sermons rooted in the truth of God’s Word, sermons that will empower God’s people to not waver from the hope they have in Christ. God’s people need protection, and God has given that responsibility to His under-shepherds.
- God’s people are prone to division.
The Apostle Paul spoke to the division that the church of Corinth had found itself in: 1 Corinthians 1:11-13a says, “For it has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there is quarreling among you, my brothers. What I mean is that each one of you says, ‘I follow Paul,’ or ‘I follow Apollos,’ or ‘I follow Cephas,’ or ‘I follow Christ.’ Is Christ divided?”
Chloe’s people had spilled the beans to Paul about the division that was threatening to destroy the church at Corinth. That sounds about right for church people. Leave it to Chloe’s folks to go to the top and let the Apostle Paul know about what was going on!
This section in 1 Corinthians is very instructive for us. It shows us that the first century church was no different than the 21st century church. God’s people are prone to division. While I experienced this all my life having been raised in the church, this lesson has been one of the most challenging for me to learn as a lead pastor.
It is certainly true that not all believers in the same local congregation will walk side by side in gospel ministry. It is also true that God will move people according to His will to other congregations for specific gospel reasons. My lesson four here has nothing to do with that kind of movement within the body of Christ. As a pastor, what has grieved my heart more than anything is the division, gossip, slander and back-biting that goes on amongst God’s people, not only inside the life of an individual congregation, but also between members of different congregations. Division and discord have become so commonplace that we have come to expect it.
This kind of division can be likened to what we do when we are rooting for our favorite college football team. We fly the LSU Tigers flag. We wear the T-shirt. We argue about how great our team is, and we can’t stand the Alabama Crimson Tide. Victory is the goal. Being the best is the goal. The same can often be said about division within the body of Christ. We fly the flag of our current favorite church, and we talk bad about the church we just left. We are quick to believe the worst and slow to pray for the best. When God lists the seven things He hates in Proverbs 6, He has the sowing of discord among brothers as a part of His top seven.
There are different styles of churches and different leadership styles amongst their shepherds. We are not all called to be the same in the way we lead our local churches, but we are all called to follow the One Faith in Jesus Christ that was once for all delivered to us through the Word of God. We are clearly not called to walk in unity with those “churches” that deny Christ and His gospel, but my prayer is that we as genuine believers would stop seeing each other based upon who’s local team we are on and begin to see that we are all on the same team.
- God’s people are the answer for reaching the world.
Number 5 in my top five list is certainly not the last lesson I have learned in the first season of pastoral leadership. This post is already long, so I am just limiting it to five! After five years of being a senior pastor, and after 35 years of being a believer, I am still convinced that God’s people are the answer for reaching the world for Christ. There is much work to be done. The people whom we live with, work with, and shop with need the gospel of Jesus Christ. The great commission to go into all the world and preach the gospel to all nations must start first in our local communities. My prayer is that the sanctuaries of all Bible-believing and Christ-centered churches in our community would be filled with people who are coming to faith because of the witness of God’s people. There is no plan B. The church is God’s plan A for the preaching of the gospel and the reaching of the lost.
The Lord promised that He would build His church and that the gates of hell would not prevail against her. This means that, in the middle of a culture that has seemingly thrown off restraint, the gospel is still powerful for the salvation of anyone who would believe. So, let’s lean into where God has given each of us influence. Let’s lean into the lives of those who have not yet believed in Christ, and let’s believe that God is able to do exceedingly more than we can ask or imagine!