Tuesday, August 6, 2013

What I Know Now: 5 Things I Wish I Knew Then

Two years ago today, I preached my candidate sermon here at FCC for the job I currently hold of senior pastor.  It went well in that I apparently hoodwinked enough of my current congregation into believing that I knew what I was doing, even though the ink hadn't dried yet on my seminary diploma.  The church extended a call to me and, with few exceptions, I have been having the time of my life ever since.

There's a lot I know now that I wish I knew when I first took this job (or if/when I had taken any pastorate--none of what I am about to say really is exclusive to my particular gig).  And while I imagine that is true for just about any job, it is especially critical in ministry, I think, where a single error can quickly mushroom into something bigger.  Molehills can easily become mountains, especially if left untended.

So, what do I most wish NOW that I knew THEN about how to do this thing called pastoral ministry?  Here are my top five--in no particular order--bits of hard-earned wisdom I have learned on the job:

1. It's a marathon, not a sprint

Ministry is not a punch the clock, 9-to-5 job.  You work Sundays.  You work evenings.  Sometimes, you work on your days "off."  This isn't a gig where once you're off the clock, you are 100% off the clock.  One phone call can change everything.

All of this is to say that there is no proverbial finish line, despite the metaphors that Paul loves to use about running the race in 1 Corinthians and 2 Timothy.  There is always something more that could be done or will need to be done on any given day.  Pacing yourself is clutch in jobs like these where the work never really ends.

2. Safeguard your sermon time

I will usually set aside Wednesday every week as a day for study and writing--and even that will be insufficient to complete my sermon.  I often find myself shoehorning in a couple hours on it on Tuesday or Thursday (or, more rarely, Saturday...but I REALLY try to avoid that) as well.  And that's on the low side--I know some preachers who will spend 15+ hours on their sermon and studying.

The trick with sermon time is that it really is flexible--I will write my sermon outside my office as often as I will in my office--many times, I'll work at my kitchen table or at a local coffeehouse (I find being surrounded by other working people helps keep me accountable).  But with that big of a chunk of flexible time, it is REALLY easy to allow other obligations to nibble into it bit by bit, and before you know it, you're the frog being boiled alive...except instead of a frog, you're a pastor wondering where the day went and why your sermon is nowhere near close to done.

3. Never take for granted what people care or don't care about

I am sometimes surprised at what things folks in my congregation will choose to push back against me on, and at some other things that they are perfectly fine with and don't put up any fuss about.  While the surprise remains, I have to remind myself to not do another person's objecting or debating for them--in other words, I shouldn't assume people will or won't react a certain way to a new idea.

Mostly, this helps in the whole run-up to the thing I'm pitching: reminding myself of this maxim keeps me from spending too much time stressing and worrying about how things will turn out, and it also ensures that I maintain my faith in my congregants as complex individuals, rather than typecasting them in my mind one way or the other.

4. There's no such thing as "comfort zones"

I'm willing to bet that many of y'all may have this idea rolling around in the back of your minds that being a pastor is kinda like being a professional Christian...you get paid to sit in your little prayer office, surrounded by the familiar words of long-dead theologians, and you get to pray and read Scripture and commune with God all day, and then descend from the mountain every Sunday to communicate your week's revelations to the mere plebians in the pews.  I'm willing to bet this because as a kid, I thought the same of my pastor.

And...no.  Just...no.  Yes, I get to pray a lot.  Yes, I get to read Scripture a lot.  But the past two years have also been a crash course for me in building maintenance (with a speciality in aging historical structures), landlord-tenant relationships, television and print media, and website construction, among many, many things.  All of which, really, I am grateful for in the end, because this is a job that will--and should--push you.  Always.  The minute we stop letting ourselves be pushed, we start losing our effectiveness as pastors and as churches.

5. Don't take it personally

Okay, maybe I did save the biggest one for last.  But it's definitely true.  People will say things to you that they don't really mean, or people will treat you in ways they can only do because you're a pastor, as opposed to any other person at all in their lives.  And it isn't about you.  Really.  I promise, it isn't.

The same goes for what people in other churches might say about you or your church because they don't necessarily know you.  Churches are petri dishes of homogeneity--you're not likely to find much ideological (or racial, social, or economic for that matter) diversity in a lot of churches.  So it becomes easier to label the other churches as outsiders or heretics or somesuch.  Again--it isn't you, it's their impression of you.

These are just some of the things I wish I had known from day one, but that I have since learned and still try to take to heart every day.  What about you?  What do you wish you had known about church when you first arrived?  Or what do you wish you could have picked up on quicker?

Yours in Christ,

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