“Life moves by pretty fast. If you don’t stop to take a look around once in a while, you might miss something.”
There’s a lot of truth to these words from the 80’s comedy Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. When it comes to ministry, so many of us are in a hurry to get to a place of meaningful influence that we can easily miss some of life’s more subtle lessons if we don’t take Bueller’s advice.
I became a Christian at age 17, preached my first sermon at age 18, started my first ministry at age 19 and became a pastor at age 26.
I had no formal theological education, zero ministry training, and no mentors when I started.
It was clear from the first day that I was in over my head. Ministry was more demanding than I expected. I was completely unprepared and I wasn’t going to make it very long if I didn’t get some things figured out quick.
Maybe you can relate.
For that reason, I did everything I could to learn as much as I could as fast as I could. I read books, listened to podcasts, consumed blog content and followed all the big name preachers so that I could increase my knowledge on all things ministry.
But the most important lessons are the ones I learned from experience.
What are they?
10 Lessons From the Trenches
I’d like to share a few of those lessons with you in the hopes that they my serve you as you minister in the trenches of your own ministry. Here’s the 10 biggest lessons I’ve learned in almost 10 years of ministry.
1. You never outgrow your need for the Gospel.
This phrase is cliché, but that doesn’t make it any less true.
God has used ministry to teach me that I need him as much today as I did the moment I first believed. I need Jesus to save me from the power of my sin as much as I needed him to save me from the penalty of my sin. The longer I’m in ministry the more I see that I am woefully inadequate, but that Jesus is wonderfully sufficient.
2. Gospel imperatives are just as important as Gospel indicatives.
I could spend hours thinking, writing, talking and preaching about subjects like penal substitutionary atonement, but I’m learning that good theology does not always equate to good ministry.
Ten years of ministry have taught me that my good works go a lot farther than my good words. People are sometimes enlightened by a good sermon, but they are almost always impacted by a good deed. Don’t get me wrong, it’s critical to preach the gospel to your people, but it’s equally important that you live out the gospel among your people. People are influenced by your teaching, but they are impacted by your living.
3. Focus on the process, let God take care of the outcome.
I got into ministry because I felt called to participate in what God was doing to advance his kingdom in this particular way. This desire was good, but early in ministry I began to feel pressure to produce results. Before long, I tried to control every ministry detail in hopes that I could manufacture ministry results if I could somehow manipulate the variables. This was exhausting and futile. God has since made it clear that he is sovereign over the results. I just need to be faithful with the process.
Now that the pressure is off, I’m free to work hard in ministry without wearing myself out on ministry.
4. The most important person to lead is yourself.
Over the course of ten years, I’ve learned that as a leader people will follow your life more than they will follow your words. They will use your language, follow your behavior and adopt your habits.
If you want to lead others well, you have to lead yourself well first.
5. The value of suffering cannot be overstated.
There’s something about suffering that is good for the soul. It’s through hardship that God strips away all of our false securities so that we can know the true riches of Christ’s finished work. The last ten years have convinced me that the most effective leaders are those who learn to see suffering as their intimate friend. All of my most satisfying moments with Christ have come during seasons of intense affliction.
6. Get yourself a coach or two.
One of my biggest leadership failures has been trying to go at it alone.
Books, podcasts and blogs are good, but they are no substitute for someone who can assess and speak into your life.
One of the best ways to accelerate your leadership is to find someone who can show you the way because they’ve already been the way.
7. Experience is the best teacher.
There is no substitute for rolling your sleeves up and giving yourself to ministry. You can learn a lot about ministry from a book or a podcast, but you can only learn to do ministry through experience. Never let your learning about ministry out pace your doing in ministry.
8. Plans rarely work as well in practice as they do in theory.
Things rarely go as planned, so don’t get too caught up in having the perfect approach. Make your plans diligently, but don’t get frustrated when you run into unexpected breakdowns or roadblocks. They’re a part of the process. In fact, your failed plans may just be the means by which God’s Spirit wants to work in people’s lives.
9. If you’re unwilling to do something right the first time, be prepared to do it over later.
This last year, I had to go through the painful process of removing a few people from places of leadership. I was so eager to see progress in these leaders and our church that I rushed the process a bit. I now have to start the process over.
Do yourself a favor: take the time to do things right the first time. It will be slower, but it will save you a lot of headache and heartache in the long run.
10. Character is non-negotiable.
Competence will never compensate for character. It may hide character defects for a season, but make no mistake about it: your true character will be revealed over time.
Make your character a central focus in your ministry because godly character will always make up for a lack of ministry competence, but ministry competence will never make up for a lack of godly character.
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