What I Wish I Had Known or Done: Reflections on nearly 40 years of pastoral ministry3
What follows is the substance of a brief talk I delivered to the Oklahoma chapter of the Gospel Coalition on October 2, 2013. I will post it in two parts. The first article identifies a few things “I wish I had known or done” but, sadly, didn’t. In the second installment I’ll focus on some lessons I’ve learned, maybe a small bit of pastoral wisdom as well, and put them in the form of encouragement for the future. But let me first speak about a few things I wish I had known when I first started out as a pastor.
(1) I wish I had known that people who disagree with me on doctrines that I hold dearly can often love God and pursue his glory with as much, and in some cases more, fervency than I do. The sort of intellectual pride that fuels such delusions can be devastating to ministry and will invariably undermine any efforts at broader Christian unity across denominational lines.
(2) I wish I had known about the inevitable frustration that comes when you put your trust in what you think are good reasons why people should remain loyal to your ministry and present in your church. I wish I had been prepared for the feelings of betrayal and disillusionment that came when people in whom I had personally invested so much love, time, and energy simply walked away, often for the most insubstantial and flimsiest of excuses.
(3) I wish I had known how deeply and incessantly many (most?) people suffer. Having been raised in a truly functional family in which everyone knew Christ and loved one another, I was largely oblivious to the pain endured by most people who have never known that blessing. For too many years I naively assumed that if I wasn’t hurting, neither were they.
Related to the previous point, I wish I had known that the pulpit is not a place behind which one might hide from the problems and pain of his congregation, but rather a place from which to address them, commiserate with them, and apply God’s Word to them.
(4) I wish I had known the life-changing truth of Zephaniah 3:17 long before Dennis Jernigan introduced me to it. I’m honored when people thank me for writing a particular book with comments such as: “This was very helpful,” or, “You enabled me to see this truth in a new light,” or something similar. But of only one book, The Singing God, have people said, “This changed my life.” This isn’t some vain attempt to sell more books, but a reminder to pastors that most Christians (including pastors) are convinced God is either angry or disgusted with them, or both. I wish I had known earlier how much he enjoys singing over them (and over me).
(5) I wish I had known how people’s response to me so deeply affected my wife. For many years I falsely assumed that her skin was as thick as mine. Regardless of a woman’s personality, rarely will she suffer less than he from the criticism that is directed his way.
(6) I wish I had known how important and helpful it is to understand yourself and to be both realistic and humble with regard to what you find. Don’t be afraid to be an introvert or extrovert (or some mix of the two). Be willing to take steps to compensate for your weaknesses by surrounding yourself with people unlike you, who make up for your deficiencies and who challenge you in healthy ways to be honest about what you can and can’t do.
(7) I wish I had known that it is possible to be a thorougly biblical complementarian and also to include women in virtually every area of ministry in the local church. In my early years in ministry I was largely governed by the fear that to permit women into any form of ministry was to cross an imaginary biblical boundary, even though the Bible itself never imposed any such restrictions on their involvement. My tendency was to make unwarranted applications by extrapolating from explicit principles something not there or necessary. Aside from “senior governmental authority” in the local church (the role of Elder) and the “primary” responsibility to expound and apply holy Scripture, is there anything the Bible clearly says is off limits to females? Trust me, men, we need them far more than we know.
(8) I wish I had known that it was ok to talk about money. Don’t be afraid to talk about money. Just be sure you are humble and biblical and don’t do it with a view to a salary increase for yourself (unless you genuinely and desperately need one!). For far too many years I allowed my disdain for prosperity gospel advocates to silence my voice on how important financial stewardship is in Christian growth and maturity. I never formulated a strategy for calling people to life-long financial generosity without it sounding self-serving.
(9) I wish I had known about the delusion of so-called confidentiality. Pity the man who puts his confidence in confidentiality. You can and must control the information that comes to you, but you can never control the information that comes from you. Once information is out and in the hands of others, never assume it will remain there, notwithstanding their most vigorous promises of silence. And be very cautious and discerning about to whom you promise confidentiality, under which conditions (it is rarely if ever unconditional), and in regard to what issues and/or individuals.
“Sam, you don’t appear to have much trust in human nature, do you?” It’s not that I don’t trust human nature. I’m actually quite terrified of it! What I trust is what the Scriptures tell me about human nature.
(10) I wish I had known about the destructive effects of insecurity in a pastor. This isn’t because I’ve ever struggled with it but moreso due to the impact of it I’ve seen in others. Why is insecurity so damaging?
• Insecurity makes it difficult to acknowledge and appreciate the accomplishments of others on staff (or in the congregation). In other words, the personally insecure pastor is often incapable of providing genuine encouragement to others. Their success becomes a threat to him, his authority, and his status in the eyes of the people. Thus if you are insecure you will likely not pray for others to flourish.
• Insecurity will lead a pastor to encourage and support and praise another pastor only insofar as the latter serves the former’s agenda and does not detract from his image.
• An insecure pastor will likely resent the praise or affirmation that other staff members receive from the people at large.
• For the insecure pastor, constructive criticism is not received well, but is rather perceived as a threat or outright rejection.
• Because the insecure pastor is incapable of acknowledging personal failure or lack of knowledge, he is often unteachable. He will always be resistant to those who genuinely seek to help him or bring him information or insights that he lacks. His spiritual growth is therefore stunted.
• The insecure pastor is typically heavy-handed in his dealings with others.
• The insecure pastor is often controlling and given to micro-management.
• The insecure pastor will rarely empower others or authorize them to undertake tasks for which they are especially qualified and gifted. He will not release others but rather restrict them.
• The insecure pastor is often given to outbursts of anger.
• At its core, insecurity is the fruit of pride.
• In summary, and at its core, insecurity is the result of not believing the gospel! Thus the antidote to feelings of insecurity is the rock-solid realization that one’s value and worth are in the hands of God, not other people, and that our identity is an expression of who we are in Christ. Only as we deepen in our grasp of his love for us and sacrifice on our behalf will we find the freedom and confidence to affirm and support others while never fearing either their success or threats.