Things to be learned in pastoral ministry

Ten things to be learned in pastoral ministry

Twenty-five years of ministerial experience condensed into ten statements worth remembering.

Tom Hoehner, MDiv, is pastor of the Covington United Methodist Church, Covington, Indiana, United States.

Whether it’s late-night talk shows or sports programming, it’s popular to have a list of items that are counted down from ten to one. I suggest such a list of lessons could be learned in pastoral ministry.

Number 10: It’s easy for the gospel to get lost in a church. Between programming, administrative needs, and the personal needs of the congregation, the gospel can get lost. People want to hear sermons that will make them feel good, and the message of repentance and faith that leads to eternal life can find itself on the shelf. If so, you will struggle your whole ministry to focus on what’s most important.

Number 9: You must sometimes define your ministry by what you refuse to do. If you try and do everything, a congregation can become lazy. We eventually need to learn to say No. The demands of a congregation will increase until your role as a pastor becomes established, and it will only be confirmed when you say, “I cannot do that.” Launch this understanding early in your pastoral assignment so that your expectations and theirs can match as best as possible.

Number 8: People are, for the most part, often going to do what they want to do. Some people will often start a project with vision and zest, only to fi nd that their heart was really not into it. We have a hard time knowing our own hearts. We must continue to love people who continue to disappoint us.

Number 7: You will have as much authority in a church as people give you. Those you serve in a church can limit your authority. Authority is like a bar of soap, the more you use it, the less you have, so use it wisely. Time and trust add to your authority, so take the time and build the trust, before you exercise too much authority.

Number 6: You will be heard with authority to the degree that you are willing to stand up for a principle. There comes a time in every ministry when you must deal with issues that you just don’t want to address. God tests every minister with this question: Do we want to please people, or do we want to please God? Power structures exist in most churches that would rather replace you than do what God really calls them to do. My experience has been that every time I get knocked down I must get right back up, but you have to be willing to lay your life on the line for what you know is truly right.

Number 5: You will never do the will of God in a church if you allow people with money to control you. Every church needs to change, and change usually costs money. People with money in a church may be the first to resist change. And yet, without change, old things will not pass away, and all things will never become new; and you will stay in a rut. I always make it my practice not to know who gives what in a church because I tell my congregation that I choose not to relate to people on that basis. Then, all new ideas in a church can be judged on merit alone.

Number 4: You have to work with the team you have. The best motif for ministry is that of a coach who encourages the team rather than a military officer who only issues commands. You can’t produce ten talents from a five-talent church. You will face the challenge many times: Do I start a ministry with leaders who are unable to do a really good job? Sometimes the answer is Yes, and sometimes the answer is No. When Jesus hands out rewards, the criteria are good and faithful (Matt. 25:21). Faithfulness is half the grade. It does not matter how bad things are, if we are faithful, this impresses God. To whom much is given, much is required. The servant with the ten talents and the one with the five talents both received the same reward because they were both faithful in fulfilling what they could do, and Jesus called them both good. Play with the team that you have and manifest love with them, not frustration (even if you are frustrated).

Number 3: Prayer carries the church where God wants it to go. In Matthew 16:18, Jesus said, “I will build my church.” The legitimate spiritual building of a church resides in the hands of God. That makes prayer the most important ministry in your church. You can have all the programs in place and all the organizations on line, but if God’s Spirit does not touch the work, it will, at times, stagnate. A sincere, intentional prayer focus will involve the Spirit of God in His church. Other than prayer, any foundation in a church is a faulty one. Regardless of where your church goes, you always need to come back to prayer. “ ‘ “Your kingdom come, / Your will be done, / On earth as it is in heaven” ’ ” (Matt. 6:10, NASB).

Number 2: There may be people in a church who are instruments of opposition in a congregation. These may be good people, well-meaning people, but people who do not want to see the church really move ahead. When there is not much going on in a church, these people just blend into the apathy. But the minute new life emerges, they are there to monitor and try to control things. Mark 8:33 is a fascinating verse. Peter does not want Jesus to go to the cross and tries to talk Him out of it. Jesus’ response is less than cordial: “Get thee behind me, Satan.” People who oppose the move of God in a church must be opposed, and, as a result, you will probably lose these people. According to John 15, every branch that bears fruit He purges, so that it might bring forth more fruit. We are often afraid to let God purge His church, but if He does, the promise brings more fruit. How can we be a loving pastor and facilitate the purging of God’s church? It’s not easy, but it has to be done.

And the number one thing that must be learned in pastoral ministry, if you have not learned it already is . . .

Number 1: Never take too much credit for your successes or too much blame for your failures.

With the right atmosphere in a church, the church will grow. Good things will happen, God will show up, and the church will be blessed. And if things are not right in a church, prayer, especially, becomes the key. Because Paul said that we wrestle not against flesh and blood but against powers and principalities (cf. Eph. 6:12), and because Jesus said that whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven (cf. Matt. 16:19), we need to pray against the spiritual forces that keep God at bay in a church. If the church becomes stagnant, we need to ask God to show us specifically what is keeping the church from moving ahead and gear our prayer in that specific direction.

Despite the frustrations of ministry, it is the highest of callings. I leave you with 1 Timothy 1:12 “I thank Christ Jesus our Lord, who hath enabled me, for that he counted me faithful, putting me into the ministry.” Jesus is our Great Enabler.

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Tom Hoehner, MDiv, is pastor of the Covington United Methodist Church, Covington, Indiana, United States.

September 2009

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