Lessons Learned Along the Way
March 30, 2006
Shortly before Christmas Dr. David Olford called and asked if I would consider speaking in early January at an evening session of the Stephen Olford Center for Biblical Preaching in Memphis, Tennessee. He told me that I would be addressing 40-50 men who were taking a basic course in expository preaching. About half were students taking a Doctor of Ministry course for credit and the other half were men in pastoral ministry who wished to sharpen their skills. As we talked Dr. Olford invited me to speak on the general topic of “Lessons Learned Along the Way.” That’s a wide theme that a speaker might develop in many different directions. As I prepared my talk, I found it helpful and encouraging to look back over thirty years of pastoral service and think about things I have gleaned first as an assistant pastor in Midlothian, Texas, and then as pastor of churches in Downey, California, Garland, Texas, and most recently in Oak Park, Illinois.
I was particularly glad to take on the assignment when I realized that I would be speaking to men who are just starting out on the pastoral journey. It is both a high calling and a daunting challenge to lead the people of God. What follows is not a full statement of my preaching and pastoral philosophy. It is rather a gathering of lessons I have learned that may be helpful to others.
1) Remember Your Call to the Ministry.
Last week I received word regarding a friend who serves on the staff of a local church. After only a few months on the job, he suddenly resigned. While there were various issues involved, it came down to the fact that he and the senior pastor did not see eye to eye in several areas. He plans to stay on the job for a few more months, but reality may dictate a quicker exit.
Not long ago someone approached me to talk about a pastor friend who is in trouble in his church. When I asked if anyone has talked to the pastor directly, the answer was no. The reasons for the dissatisfaction came down finally to something involving his family and something involving his preaching. Does my friend know of the dissatisfaction with his ministry? I imagine the answer is yes, but I can’t be certain because I haven’t spoken to him in quite a while.
Almost everywhere I go, I talk to pastors who are frustrated and church members who are upset. Having said that, I do not think that it is harder to be in the ministry today than it was five hundred years ago. It’s not like Martin Luther had an easy time of it. Jonathan Edwards, arguably the greatest theologian America has produced, was voted out of his own church. As Howard Hendricks says, if you’re going to be a shepherd, you’re going to get sheep dung on your sandals. Call it an occupational hazard. And sometimes ugly things happen that embarrass us all.
There’s no fight like a church fight. We hear a lot of talk about church politics and how people hate it. Well, I don’t like it very much either for a lot of reasons, but politics is nothing but the science of human relationships applied in a group setting. If you have two people, you have politics. Just ask any married couple. And when you have 300 people, you have a lot of politics. It grows exponentially as churches get larger. You can’t get around it.
Sometimes people inside the church are misguided. Sometimes they are unfair. Is it harder to be a pastor today? No, but I do think that ministers in the 21st century face some unique challenges. Churches are more competitive today. The Internet has made it possible to hear thousands of preachers in thousands of churches and compare them directly. And the pace of cultural change has unsettled many long-established traditions. It’s hard to sort out what should stay and what needs to change and who should lead the change and how fast you should go. Expectations are higher today than they were 30 years ago and patience in the pew is lower. The result is an epidemic of resignation fever.
Perhaps I am not the one to speak about this since I felt led to resign my own church last September and move on to whatever God has in store for us next (a still-unfolding plan, by the way). But then perhaps my own experience allows me to share this story. An earnest, godly young man shared with me his displeasure over the church politics he had observed first hand. “Why would anyone want to go into the ministry when you see how churches treat people?”
My answer was simple. You go into the ministry because God called you, and you stay there because the joy of seeing lives changed by the power of God outweighs the trouble you will inevitably face. It’s a matter of relative values. I am not “down” on the local church in any way, shape or form. The church of Jesus Christ is still the best hope of the world. Though filled with fallible men and women who make many mistakes (leaders included), the church is the body of Christ on earth, the temple of the Holy Spirit, the pillar and ground of the truth, and the guardian of the Good News of Jesus. The church (not the building or the organization, but the people as the redeemed people of God) is the place where sinners are saved, broken people are made whole, and the life of Jesus is made visible to the watching world.
If you focus on the problems of the local church, you’ll probably stop going and you’ll certainly resign from the ministry. But if you look at what God is doing, you’ll smile and say, “This is the best place in the world.”
2) Use Technology to Multiply Your Ministry.
If I were teaching preaching in a seminary, I would encourage all the ministerial students to do two things each week. First, write out a complete manuscript of your Sunday morning message. Second, post it on the Internet. During my seminary years, I owned an IBM Selectric typewriter. Remember those? If you wanted to change fonts, you put in a little metal ball. And if you made a mistake, you had to use the ribbon with correction tape or you had to use one of those little papers where you re-hit the wrong letter so that white powder covered the mistake. Or you just used White Out to cover up your mistakes. Today’s pastors thankfully don’t have to use that messy, cumbersome system because the personal computer has revolutionized writing, printing and publishing.
In his book on preaching, Martyn Lloyd-Jones said that in his early years, he always wrote out one of his sermons in longhand each week as a kind of personal discipline. Writing a sermon teaches you to think clearly and concisely. Writing helps you find new ways to say old truths. Writing wipes away the cobwebs (or it at least helps you identify where they are). Writing forces you to confront the central question of any sermon: What exactly do I want to talk about? That’s always a challenging question, but you can get to the answer quicker by writing out your thoughts. And while I’m at it, let me offer this piece of advice. Use your Delete key and your Backspace keys liberally. After publishing 27 books, the only sure rule I know is that there is no good writing, only good rewriting. Ernest Hemingway revised the ending of Farewell to Arms over 30 times. When someone asked him why, he replied simply, “Because I wanted to get the words right.” And he didn’t have a personal computer to help him out.
I have found it very helpful to post my sermons on the Internet and to send them out by email. Starting about eight years ago, I began sending out a weekly sermon via email to a few friends. With very little publicity, the list grew to 100, then 200 and eventually to 500. Today the weekly sermon goes out to over 2400 people all across America and around the world. I have a friend in military ministry who forwards my sermons to sailors in the US Navy. A man in Ghana (a country I’ve never visited) uses my sermons in his pastoral ministry. So does a man in Uganda. Some friends in the United Arab Emirates read the sermons weekly. Just this week I heard from a man in Singapore who forwards the messages to Christian workers in the Philippines. I know of a Bible study group in New Zealand that uses the sermons each week.
I am glad to talk about this because the Internet has flattened the world and leveled the playing field. A pastor in a small church in Kansas can post his sermons and make them available to anyone, anywhere with a computer and an Internet hookup. Writing sermons is a good discipline anyway, but writing them and posting them allows you to multiply your effectiveness for the sake of the gospel.
As a side note, I also encourage young men in the ministry to use technology to their own advantage. That’s why I started writing a daily weblog several years. Every pastor understands that time is precious and the demands of the ministry never really end. In a growing church, especially in a larger city, it is physically impossible for the pastor to have a personal relationship with all his people. I discovered that by writing a daily weblog, I could share my life with hundreds and even thousands of people every day. I could talk about upcoming events at the church, offer links to useful articles, write commentaries on events in the news, send greetings to people in many places, and I could open a window into my own life and the life of my family. I found that people felt close to me by reading the weblog. It let them know what I was thinking and doing, thus strengthening the bond between us.
So the lesson is. Don’t fear technology. Use it to your own advantage to multiply your ministry.
3) Exegete Your Own Community.
You must learn the history and heritage of the community you serve. Learn the history of your church. Don’t act as if the world began the day you showed up to bless the church with your presence. Take time to read the local papers, study the history of your community, and learn who were the movers and shakers. Where did the first settlers come from? Why was the town started? Who started your church? When? Why? The pastor ought to become a repository of knowledge about his own congregation and his community. I did this most thoroughly during my years in Oak Park. I came early to understand that the essence of Oak Park is wrapped up in two names: Frank Lloyd Wright and Ernest Hemingway. Wright lived in Oak Park for twenty years as a young man, and there are more Frank Lloyd Wright homes in Oak Park and River Forest than anywhere in the world. Hemingway was born in Oak Park, grew up there, and attended the same high school as my three sons. When you read about Oak Park, you’ll read a lot about Wright and Hemingway. They are the prevailing cultural icons. The heroes we choose tell much about us. Go to Washington and you will find monuments to Abraham Lincoln, George Washington, and Thomas Jefferson. Come to Oak Park and you will hear about Wright and Hemingway. Both men were brilliant, extraordinarily gifted in their respective fields, unquestioned geniuses. Yet while he was in Oak Park, Frank Lloyd Wright had an affair with a married woman. When Ernest Hemingway graduated from Oak Park High School, he went off to World War I, came back with trumped up stories about his war record, left Oak Park again, and moved to Paris where he met F. Scott Fitzgerald, John Dos Passos, Gertrude Stein, and others who would form “the lost generation.” He married, divorced, remarried, divorced, married again, had innumerable affairs, wrote brilliant novels, fell into deep despair, and in 1961 took a shotgun and blew his brains out in Idaho.
You can’t understand Oak Park without understanding Wright and Hemingway. Today it happens that I live in Tupelo, Mississippi, birthplace of Elvis Presley. You can’t come to Tupelo without knowing about Elvis. Thousands of loyal fans visit the city every year, and you see his face in many places. There are still people in town who remember him when he was young boy, growing up dirt poor, before he traveled to Memphis and became the bestselling recording artist of all time. In Oak Park you don’t hear much about Elvis; in Tupelo not so much about Hemingway and Wright. Every town has its own set of heroes and villains, and every town has a story that needs to be studied and then brought into your ministry. Wise is the pastor who cares enough to immerse himself in the history of his own community. That knowledge helps him shape his ministry so that it fits the particular people God has called him to serve.
Read the history. Visit the local cemeteries. Read your local paper. Talk to the oldtimers. And listen to the stories you hear. Every community has a history you need to know.
4) Learn Your Church’s History.
This point is simply an extension of the one previously made. Just as no community or village or town or city falls out of the sky, just as it has a history that you need to know, even so your congregation came from somewhere. The first church I pastored was started as a mission work from the First Covenant Church of Los Angeles. The second church I pastored was a church plant (mostly of couples in their early 30s) from a large Bible church in Dallas. The third church I pastored started in 1915 because a tiny handful of people from five mainline denominations in Oak Park wanted a new church that would A) preach the Bible as the Word of God, B) preach the gospel and win the lost, and C) send missionaries to the ends of the earth. The first church was a neighborhood congregation that still had a remnant who remembered the original Swedish Covenant heritage. The second church was so young that anyone over 40 (and we only had a few) was a “senior saint.” The third church had a long history in Oak Park. I was the 12th pastor and in my early years, I talked often about how creative and daring the founders of the church had been. They started the church thinking it would take at least $100 to get it going. I found an early handwritten ledger that shows they started the church with $53 in the bank and $74 in bills. But they persevered and the church came into being. Soon they began planting branch Sunday Schools in neighboring communities. Some of those later became flourishing local churches. In 1926 they sent out a missionary who was supported by the church continuously for 67 years until his death in 1993. I loved finding those stories because it gave me an entrance into the heart of the congregation. For one thing, it told the longtime members that I cared about their history, that it was noble and exemplary. Second, the newer members of the congregation didn’t know those stories so they enjoyed hearing them for the first time. Third, it gave me a platform to inspire the younger generation to do at least as much as the oldtimers had done. I started my ministry by going “back to the future” because in our history, I could find all the faith-building stories I needed.
5) Analyze the Needs of Your Congregation.
This is not something that is easily or quickly done. And the analysis necessarily changes over time as the church changes and the community changes. In Oak Park I began giving annual State of the Church messages that allowed me to cast a bold vision for the future. In one of them I said that the church of the future needed to become …
Those five things don’t always go together, but the idea of becoming more conservative and more contemporary at the same time seemed to catch the attention of many people. Over time (a decade at least) all five things came to pass.
Several years ago as I thought about the church I pastored in Oak Park for sixteen years, I made the following five observations about the congregation:
1) Down deep the people truly love the Lord. There is no question about that. If you got to know them personally, as I did for many years, you soon learned that their love for the Lord was genuine and heartfelt.
2) They are willing to serve the Lord. Like every church, we always had a long list of vacancies in our various ministries, and every year we scrambled at the end of the summer to find enough teachers and helpers to begin the fall program. But every year, without fail, the Lord touched the hearts of our people and they responded magnificently. I found that if you presented the right opportunity in the right way, the people were very willing to serve. Someone always stepped forward.
3) Almost everyone in the church is overcommitted. We all know about the 80/20 rule, which says that 20% of the people do 80% of the work and 80% of the people do 20% of the work. I’m sure there is some truth to that. And really, it’s always true that an inner core of people in every congregation rises up to do the heavy lifting that must be done to move the Lord’s work forward. But I’m not speaking about that at this point. I discovered that almost everyone was overcommitted at home, on the job, in the neighborhood, in the community, in their families, in their extended families, in their church and outside the church. Everyone is busy all the time.
4) Almost everyone is overstressed. This is the natural result of being very busy and overcommitted. The demands of life create heavy burdens that wear you down after a while.
5) People are easily distracted. This is probably true of most churches, especially churches in metropolitan areas. People love the Lord, they are willing to serve, they are very busy and thus overcommitted. One of the marks of an overstressed life is that you cannot keep your mind on anything for more than five minutes. People sometimes ask why I move around so much when I preach. One answer is that I keep moving to keep people’s attention. We live in an overcommitted, overstressed, over-busy generation where people are easily distracted. I discovered that it was easy for us to get the attention of people in the congregation, but it was almost impossible to hold that attention for very long. We would announce some great new initiative, and for fifteen minutes it was like the second coming of Pentecost, then fifteen minutes later people had forgotten what we had told them. That’s a mark of an overstressed generation. If you live in a big city, that’s just the way it is. And it’s not that much different in small towns. We’ve got cable TV, high speed Internet, instant messaging, video iPods, and satellite radio with 150 channels so you can listen to your favorite station coast to coast. We live in an age of communication overload. Today when we teach young men how to preach, we tell them to change the subject every five minutes because that’s the only way to hold people’s attention. It wasn’t that way fifty years ago. We communicate in bite-sized chunks because we are an easily distracted generation.
That leads me to make one observation about modern preaching. Because we are easily distracted, it’s important for preachers to get to the point and not dawdle in the pulpit. For the first few months after leaving Oak Park, Marlene and I had the privilege of attending many different churches. I found it instructive to sit in the pew for the first time in 26 years and simply take in what was happening all around me. As Yogi Berra said, “You can learn a lot just by watching.” Here’s something I noticed early on. Sermons seem a lot longer in the pew than they ever seemed in the pulpit. I was amazed at how quickly my mind would wander. I recall one Sunday last fall when we attended a very fine church that happened to have a guest speaker. It was obvious that he was known and loved by the congregation. When he got up to speak, he started talking about this and that. He gave a few personal anecdotes, he updated us on his family, he told about what he had been doing lately. There was nothing wrong with anything he had to say, but after about ten minutes, I wanted to stand up and say, “Do you have anything on your mind that you want us to know? If you do, please tell us because we want to hear it.”
This is not a call for shorter sermons, but it is a call for purposeful preaching where every word counts. Preacher, this Sunday if you have something to say, tell us plainly. Don’t keep us in suspense. Don’t trick us or play with us. Tell us why you called this meeting. Don’t be afraid to put your purpose statement right up front. John Piper does that often in his sermons. Good for him. Tell us why you think it matters that we listen. And do it quickly because we are easily distracted.
6) Stay Long Enough to Make a Difference.
Dr. Criswell (who pastored the First Baptist Church of Dallas for more than 40 years) said that after five years, the church takes on the personality of its pastor. Over time the church becomes the lengthened shadow of its leader. If the pastor loves Greek, there will be Greek classes and people carrying Greek testaments into the worship services. If he believes in small groups, there will be small groups everywhere. If his heart beats for world missions, the church will become a sending base for missionaries. If he thinks the key is youth ministry, that will dominate the church. If he loves John Calvin, so will most of his people. If he likes to talk about football, he’ll have a lot of football fans in his audience. And so it goes. Whatever the pastor favors, the congregation will favor also.
There is nothing strange about this since, as Dr. Lee Roberson loved to say, “Everything rises and falls on leadership.” Jesus told us that when a student is fully trained, he becomes like his master. This principle applies in every area of church life. If a pastor stays at a church for any length of time, it will reflect both his strengths and his weaknesses. Because of that, the temptation sometimes becomes overwhelming for a church without a pastor to seek a man who is “balanced” in all areas. This usually produces a boring pastor and a bland church. Better to find a pastor who excels in some given area (usually the pulpit ministry) and then build around him a staff that can fill in the gaps where he has no special gift or interest. It is not surprising that quite a few business books make the same point. Seeking “balance” asks us to find a man who is pretty good in all areas but outstanding in none. He is a pretty good preacher (but not excellent), a good people person (but not naturally warm), an adequate visionary (but not gifted in seeing the big picture), a functional administrator (but not able to manage a large staff), a good leader (but not great), and on it goes. Churches would do better to find a man who knows his strengths and then free him to work and lead in that area.
What Dr. Ryrie Told Me
As I reflect on my own experience, I realize that when I graduated from seminary I had no clear idea about my strengths and weaknesses. Like a lot of seminary graduates, I thought I could do everything well. That’s not a bad thing. One reason you go to seminary is to learn how to do the work of the ministry. You’re supposed to graduate with a sense of self-confidence that enables you to tackle a hard job and get it done. It’s a good thing for the young to feel like they can take on the world. There will be plenty of time to feel your limitations later. In my last semester at Dallas Seminary, I took Senior Theology from Dr. Ryrie. One day during a break in class, he asked me what I was going to do when I graduated. I told him that I had been called to pastor a small Evangelical Covenant church in Downey, California, but I didn’t know if I should take the church or not. Dr. Ryrie smiled and said, “It doesn’t matter. No one stays very long at their first church anyway.” Then he walked away. I remember feeling slightly put off by that comment. But of course he was right. One of the purposes of a first pastorate is to learn who you are and what you can do well and (even more important) what you can’t do well. During that first pastorate one of the men took me to visit a certain business establishment. When he introduced me as his new pastor, the owner of the business reached behind my ear and said, “Yep. It’s still green.” I was maybe 25 or 26 years old, and I was green behind the ears. But the nice thing about that is that if you stick around, time takes care of your inexperience in the ministry.
Ed McCollum, my father in the ministry, told me that the only way to learn how to preach is to preach. And you have to do it over and over and over again. In my first church, I taught a Sunday School class, preached on Sunday morning, preached in the evening, and taught on Wednesday night. There was one period in that small church where I opened up on Sunday morning, made sure the bulletins were ready to be handed out, my wife played the piano, I led the singing, preached the sermon, and then I led the closing hymn and gave the benediction. It is a good thing for a man in the ministry to have that experience because it teaches him to appreciate what others do on Sunday morning.
The researchers tell us that there is a correlation between church growth and long pastorates. To be sure, there are some pastorates that last for years where no growth takes place. But when all is said and done, there is a manifest advantage to staying in one place for many years. I found in Oak Park that attitudes toward me and my ministry changed over the years. No doubt I changed as well. It takes time for a community to take the measure of a new pastor. They have to see his face, hear his voice, get to know him, see him around town, watch him ride his bike day after day, watch his wife as she goes to the grocery store, observe his children, take the measure of his character, study how he handles hardship, and in general decide if he truly wants to be part of the larger community. Different pastors do this in different ways. My predecessors in Oak Park joined the local Rotary Club and found that a fruitful venue for building friendships outside the church. I ended up speaking and writing on crucial moral issues that were being debated in the community. Over time the local newspapers published many of my letters and articles. Our three sons attended the local high school and all three played football. My wife became the administrator of Oak Park Christian Academy.
Although I came to Oak Park as a stranger, by the time I left, we had become a part of the community in a way that had never happened in any of my other pastorates. When we departed, one of the local newspapers published an article plus an op-ed plus an editorial wishing us well. That could never have happened had I left after five years.
7) Know When It’s Time to Leave.
I’ve never been particularly good at this, and nothing I’ve read has helped me very much. How do you know when it is time to bring your ministry to a close? Sometimes circumstances are such that you have little or no choice in the matter. Sometimes you will have a sense in your heart that your part of the work is done. Note how I put that–”your part of the work.” Seen rightly, the work of the Lord goes on from pastor to pastor. Unless you are the founding pastor, there was someone before you and there will be someone behind you. Many churches emphasize this truth by hanging portraits of their pastors in a prominent hallway. This has the double advantage of honoring the history of the church and of intimidating the current pastor unless he has a strong self-image. But history ought to be his friend. I have always been blessed with friendly and even collegial relationships with my predecessors. That was true in my first pastorate in California, and it was exceptionally true during my years in Oak Park. I was blessed to pastor a church that has had only four pastors since 1952, an extraordinary record in an era of rapid pastoral turnover. My three predecessors honored me with friendship and support and by encouraging me to do whatever I felt needed to be done in leading the church forward. Not once did I ever sense anything but support and encouragement from them. Not once did they interfere in the slightest. Every word they offered was positive. Not every pastor can have such a good relationship with those who came before, but I always felt their friendship strengthened my ministry immeasurably.
But there comes a time to leave. It is hard to quantify when that time is, but most pastors know when the time is approaching. I believe this ultimately relates to the providence of God over the details of life. iThe Lord of the church is the Lord over the leaders of his church. He moves his people around like pieces on a chess board. And the meaning of one move may not be seen until much later. God knows what he is doing, and he makes no mistakes. So my counsel to my brethren is really quite simple: Pray that God will give you grace and wisdom to know when your time is done. Pray that you will not leave too soon or stay too long. Since we know that circumstances are the fingerprints of God, we may believe that God will orchestrate things according to his own will, and that in the end we will not be left to our own resources. When that time comes, leave quickly, quietly and graciously. Move on to whatever God has in store next.
Our Highest Joy
Here is my final word to you. Never forget that the minister’s greatest privilege is bringing Christ to his people. This is our supreme task and our highest joy. A few years ago I received a phone call early in the morning. A baby born prematurely had died during the night, and I was needed at the hospital. A few minutes later as I pulled into the hospital parking lot, the thought came to me that there is no greater tragedy than the death of a child. I wondered as I waited for the elevator what I would say when I finally saw the parents. A nurse met me and took me a small room. When I walked in, I saw the mother and father sitting together, holding the body of their infant son. He had died a few hours earlier. The medical story was quite simple. He had been born almost five months early, weighing less than a pound and a half. The doctors had told the parents early on that despite their best efforts, and some amazingly advanced technology, there was only a slim chance for survival. The little boy hung on for twelve days, fighting through one crisis after another. Finally, his little body could fight no longer. Although I stayed with the parents for over an hour, most of that time is a blur in my mind. I remember the father saying that his son had long skinny legs just like his. The mother wept as she held her baby and repeated, “Why did this happen?” Near the end of my visit, I held my hand under the baby’s head and thought about all the dreams and all the prayers that had been invested in him. Now he was gone almost before he arrived. “God must have a reason,” the mother said. “He has a reason, doesn’t he?”
During my thirty years in the ministry, I have been privileged to walk with multitudes of people through some very dark moments. I do not use the word privileged lightly. For the pastor, no two days are alike. Some days are spent studying the Bible, others seem to disappear in an unending series of meetings and phone calls and a blizzard of church trivia that is hard to remember, much less to explain. But there are moments when every pastor deals with what you might call Ultimate Reality, the real stuff of life and death, of joy and sorrow, of gain and loss, those moments when we all learn once again that time is but the nursery of eternity. I told the mother the honest truth, “God does have a reason, but I don’t know what it is.”
A few days later the father told me something I have never forgotten. “Pastor Ray, when you walked into the room, it was like Jesus walking in.”
That’s why we heard and responded to God’s call in the first place. We do what we do for the privilege of bringing Jesus into the darkest, saddest moments of life. We do what we do because God allows us to bring Jesus to our people. There is no better way to spend your life. Nothing the world offers can compare with it. To those who serve and those who lead, to those who teach and those who preach, I salute you.