Three months ago I resigned from my job as a pastor. You can read about that here. You can read some of my thoughts on being in charge here. Just before leaving I had lunch with one of my mentors who had supported me and prayed with me as I struggled through the decision to leave. We had a great conversation about what I had learned about myself, how I had grown, and what life and faith might look like post-pastorate. One of the questions she asked me was what advice I would give to someone about to lead a church. At the moment the only piece of advice I had was “get out while you can,” but I was told that was not the answer she was looking for. After the last few months of transition, spiritually and emotionally as well as the physical transition of a cross country move and a new job, I have had time to reflect on my years as a pastor, especially the last year being in charge and came up with a few pieces of advice I would pass on to anyone going into the pastorate. I am not an expert. These come from my own experience in ministry and may not apply to every pastor.
1. People will oppose you. Don’t take it personally. You have come into this church; you’re not the same person who used to be their pastor. You do things differently. People don’t like change. Be prepared for people to complain about every change you make. Also, be prepared for them to tell you to your face how much they like your new idea and tell someone else how much they hate it. One thing I had a hard time realizing was that many people won’t be upfront with the pastor or boss about what they don’t like. You may get church members telling you “Everyone’s been complaining about…” but when pressed they can’t give you specifics about who exactly has been complaining or why.
2. There are sheep, goats, and wolves in every group you try to lead. Sheep will follow you anywhere and do anything you ask. Goats will butt heads with you on every issue, but they mean well, and eventually they will follow you. Wolves will tear you to pieces. Sometimes you don’t know who the wolves are until you’re already bleeding. Love the sheep even when their blind obedience gets annoying. Love the goats even when their constant opposition gets exhausting. Love the wolves, they are, after all, people created by God, and you don’t know what happened to make them so vicious. But you don’t have to take their harassment.
3. Don’t be afraid to question your work and your calling. But don’t let anyone bully you into questioning your calling. There will always be people who think you’re not good enough, not conservative enough, not liberal enough, not mainstream enough, not radical enough, not out-going enough, not quiet enough, etc. to be a pastor. God uses all personalities to build his kingdom. There isn’t a cookie cutter Christian, so why should there be a cookie cutter pastor? It’s important to examine your life and calling, ask the hard questions, and make the changes you need. but don’t change who you are based on what someone wants you to be.
4. Use your resources, that’s what they’re there for. While I was in charge I joked that I was best friends with the human resources representative from the denomination’s district headquarters because I called about everything. I wanted to make sure I didn’t make a stupid mistake, or an illegal move. I had built up a support system of experienced pastors who I could turn to for any question, whether about the Bible, about congregation life, or about business. Sometimes I sent an email to a person at headquarters saying, “Can you help me with this or tell me who to ask?”
5. Listen to your congregation’s stories. People want to be heard. They’ll tell you ten stories about their grandchild or their cat or their garden before opening up about their walk with God.
6. Praise liberally. People work better when they know they’re appreciated. Even when you need to correct someone, encouragement goes a long way. This holds true for staff members, leaders, Sunday School teachers, even misbehaving children. Love and encouragement don’t cost money, so give freely.
7. Build a support system. Find your supporters outside work and family (although, I also strongly encourage finding them inside work and family, too). They’ll be there when you need a sympathetic ear, a prayer partner, or a relief from work stress. Most important, they’ll be the ones to remind you to laugh and enjoy life. Personally, I chose to find a local support group so I could have face-to-face interactions with them every week.
8. You can have your opinions, but you don’t need to express them. I learned this one the hard way more than once. You can talk about your hobbies, but keep your opinions to yourself on controversial subjects. Sometimes it’s hard to know what is even controversial as I discovered in my first congregation when I mentioned tattoos around one of the older members. This can get especially tricky on social media if you connect with church members through those forums. Use wisdom, take criticism in stride, and find people who will listen to your opinions without judgment. This is where your support system can be very helpful. Whether they agree or disagree, they can listen without feeling like your opinions betray your position as spiritual leader.
9. Stay connected spiritually. This is the most important advice I have. It looks different for different people, and your spiritual life changes as life changes, but it’s important to remember to prioritize your own relationship with God. Remember, you have to put your own oxygen mask on before you can help anyone else with theirs.
Those of you who are pastors, do you agree? What would you add to this list?