I was recently asked what pitfalls I saw in ministry. Below is what I wrote in response. The list is not exhaustive and in no certain order. Even if you’re not in vocational ministry, the principles can easily be translated into volunteer church leadership. nw
- Thinking it will always be wonderful. It will get hard – very hard. The morning after I gave my life to vocational ministry one of my pastors looked me in the eye and said, “Nick, remember this: if you can be happy doing anything else, God hasn’t called you.” I was 15. I’ve never forgotten it. There have been many times over the past 38 years I wanted to toss in the towel but, as with marriage vows coming in to play when marriage gets hard, I thought about that pastor’s statement to me. It helped me remember the “vow” I made to God. This helped me stay the course, regardless of how difficult the road sometimes becomes.
- Thinking that Christians will always act like Christians. This dove-tails off No. 1. Set aside your naiveté that Christians always get along and love each other. Keith Green once reflected, “The thing that kept me from coming to Christ was Christians.” When I was a teenager attending church, growing in my faith, loving Jesus, etc., I was certain that church life was every bit as wonderful as it was for me as an “average person in the pew.” I was wrong. I remember my first experience of seeing the underbelly of church. I was perplexed. I couldn’t believe people who call themselves Christians – even holding leadership positions within the church – could be so vindictive, hateful and mean. It was disheartening. Then, as I read about Jesus in the gospels I learned that, often, those most given to gossip, criticizing and division were the church people of the day. Nothing has changed. Sadly, since that first time I witnessed the ugliness, I’ve seen it far too many times.
- Forgetting to personally “abide in the Vine.” Never let your sermon/Bible study preparation substitute for your own, personal daily intimacy with the Lord through prayer and Bible learning. Even Jesus made a habit of spending time alone with the Father. Be a disciplined student of the scriptures. Stroll through the Kingdom at a slow pace and “take in the scenery.” Meditate on God’s Word. Memorize his Word. The Bible is sufficient for all aspects of human life. There is no other authority for right and wrong. Be a person of prayer. About the Scottish reformer, John Knox, Mary Queen of Scots, said, “I fear the prayers of John Knox than an army of 10,000 men.”
- Limiting God in regard to your ministry role. Don’t limit God’s plan to use you by pigeon-holing yourself into a life-long ministry role. I’ve served as a Youth Pastor, Music Pastor (some years those roles were combined), Small Group Pastor, Teaching Pastor, and counselor. Even a cursory reading of the Bible reveals that God calls us by “assignment.” For example, Samuel was a prophet, a priest, a judge, and anything else God wanted him to be during his lifetime of ministry. So, just because you’re presently serving as a Lead Pastor (or any other ministry role) doesn’t mean God doesn’t want to use you in a different role later on. Always be humble and available. This is about God’s story, not ours.
- Believing you no longer need to learn. Read. Read. Read. Rick Warren is famous for saying, “If you stop learning, you stop leading.” Never for a second fall into the trap of believing “you’ve arrived” and have no need for further learning. It may be further formal education, but I’m primarily referring to conferences, seminars, networks, and being a devoted reader. Unfortunately, there is plenty of material out there that is little more than intellectual and spiritual pabulum. But, if you dig deep enough you will find a treasure trove of wisdom, inspiration and practical counsel from people who’ve “been there, done that.” Someone once said, “The easiest lessons to learn are from the mistakes of others.” (I could write an encyclopedic set based on how many mistakes I’ve made over the decades.) C.S. Lewis cautioned his readers not to forsake the “old books.” Newer is not always better. Lewis called this mentality “chronological snobbery.” I encourage people to alternate new books with old books. Read Augustine, Aquinas, Thomas à Kempis, Thomas Kelly, the Reformers, Moody, Spurgeon, Bonhoeffer, Tozer, Lewis & Chesterton, just to name a few. Read about the prayers of George Muller, and the quiet, worshipful life of Brother Lawrence. Additionally, I would encourage people to read not only books on theology and doctrine, but also the classics that appeal to the imagination, such as Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, Lewis’ Chronicles, Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, and more recently, Redeeming Love by Francine Rivers. Why? Because these literary geniuses knew/know how to get their readers to lock in: appeal to their imagination. This is precisely why Jesus used parables to teach biblical principles: it appeals to the imagination of listeners. Imagination gives meaning to the data i.e. it helps the proverbial “light bulb” turn on when people say, “Oh! I get it now!” Reading this latter genre helps balance the heady academics of systematic theology and the like.
- Being ignorant of what the word “pastor” actually means. The biblical word for pastor means “shepherd.” Not CEO. Not boss. You are not God’s gift to ministry or your church. You are a servant-leader who’s been called to “wash the feet” of your people, a shepherd who’s been called to lovingly shepherd the flock God has loaned you (and could just as easily remove from your leadership.) Jesus used the words, “My house…”, and “my sheep.” Make no mistake: the church is his; the people are his. You’re merely a steward. And you will certainly give account.
- Forgetting what your identifying characteristic should be. I’ve been asked numerous times by Search Teams what I think they should look for in a pastor. My reply is always the same: Jesus said, “By this all will know if you follow me, if you have love for one another.” You might be a gifted orator. But if you don’t preach/teach with love, and treat people likewise, you will quickly find your attendance decreasing. Paul said it best, “If I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love [for others growing out of God’s love for me], then I have become only a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal [just an annoying distraction].” Your people won’t remember a lot of what you preach and teach. But, they will remember every last thing regarding how you treated them.
- Minimizing the hatred of the enemy. As a ministry leader, you will always be in the cross-hairs of Satan. Satan knows that in order to take out the sheep, he must first take out the shepherd. He will tempt you with immorality, money, pride (never ever begin believing your own press when the nice people of your church tell you each Sunday how wonderful your sermon was). Guard your marriage. Date your mate. Be a connected parent to your kids. The list of friends of mine who are no longer in ministry due to moral failure or bitterness is too long to share.
- Believing you can do it all. Don’t fall into the trap of “Lone Ranger Leadership.” Even Moses’ uncle called out Moses when Moses was trying to “do it all himself.” There’s a reason Paul spent so much time describing the Church as a Body: the Body functions as God intended it when it cooperates and collaborates together. Indeed, the Church is not an organization, but rather a living organism. God has placed people in your church who are far more gifted in ways you never were nor were intended to be. Use them. Allow them to exercise their gifts. I would encourage the reading of books written by solid, humble business leaders such as Jim Collins, Patrick Lencioni, Michael Gerber, and John Maxwell. Resources like these can help with leadership components such as team-building and empowering volunteers. However – there’s a huge caveat. I listened to a preacher share the following story: “I have a friend who said, ‘I just finished a book by the CEO of IBM. I now know how to lead my church.’” The preacher then mused, “I was taken back. I thought, ‘What did the CEO of IBM know that God doesn’t?” As stated earlier, the Bible is sufficient for all aspects of life – including leadership. So always weigh what is written in leadership resources against the leadership principles laid out in scripture.
- Not being able to respectfully and logically defend your biblical worldview. Know why you believe what you believe. This is Christian Apologetics (cf. 1 Peter 3:15). We are well into the post-Christian culture: the age of doubt and relativism. Everything is subjective. Our grandparents took for granted that there was a God and that the Bible is true. That ship sailed a long time ago. People today want to ask hard questions. But, most of the time they can’t find a Christian who will (1) allow the question at all, or (2) has the confidence to engage with them in conversation. Equip your people to have intelligent dialogue where the Christian faith is concerned. Biblical illiteracy is at an alarming level in North America. The evidence for the existence of God, the historical reliability of the New Testament, and the resurrection are overwhelming. Help people to confidently defend their faith. This both makes them a desired interlocutor as well as strengthens their own faith.
For the Kingdom, Nick