7 Things I’ve Learned In 30+ Years Of Pastoral Ministry

I’ve been in pastoral ministry since 1980, when I came on staff as a pastor-in-training in our church. I was ordained in ‘81, and became Senior Pastor in ‘82. In the last 30+ years I’ve learned a lot, made plenty of mistakes, and feel like I still have a long way to go. I don’t consider myself an expert on pastoral ministry, but thought I’d share a few things I’ve learned over the years (not in any particular order) to encourage you. So here we go…

Our example is every bit as important as important as our words

Brothers, join in imitating me, and keep your eyes on those who walk according to the example you have in us. Philippians 3:17

Paul told his churches to imitate him. People are watching us – our neighbors, relatives, fellow believers, and our children – and as one man said, our kids can smell hypocrisy a mile away. Once at a local deli counter, the man fetching my cheese said, “Hey, aren’t you the pastor at that church on Wayne Avenue?” I’d never seen him before but thought at the time, This guy knows I’m a pastor. What if I’d had a bad attitude if he sliced my Muenster too thick? None of us are perfect, but we should make it our goal to act like Christ wherever we are. Would people want to imitate you in the way you go through hard things, or how you react when someone blasts you in anger, or how you act when your plans go awry, or your kids disobey?

Every day we have countless opportunities to model humility, kindness, gentleness, holiness, thankfulness – to model Jesus – for fellow believers and a watching world. And our example is every bit as important as our words.

God’s people want to please him

This may seem ridiculous, but early on I thought I needed to convince people to obey Jesus against their wills. When I led worship, my unconscious mindset was: These people don’t really want to worship Jesus. I have to whip them into it. I’d give exhortations like, “Come on everybody, let’s worship Jesus like you really mean it.” I had to preach so as to whip them out of their lethargy to serving God. Now I think differently. Generally, God’s people want to please him. That’s why they’re there on Sunday. Sure, they get beat down by life and fall into sin or unbelief at times. They need to be encouraged to lift their eyes to Jesus and trust him, but he’s given them new hearts and his Spirit. Deep down they want to please him, obey him and worship him.

Anything good that happens is God’s doing

Lord, you establish peace for us; all that we have accomplished you have done for us. Isaiah 26:12

We’re so prone to look at our accomplishments and be proud of ourselves. Look what I did! There’s nothing wrong with feeling good about something we’ve done. After all, when God created the earth, he looked at what he had created each day and saw that it was good. But ultimately, if we do anything good it’s because God has gifted us, helped us, and prospered us. We need to remember that all we have is a gift from God, and we have nothing but what we’ve received, and in response, try to regularly give him thanks for all he does for us.

In every negative criticism there’s almost always some truth

Even if someone’s criticism is completely off, there’s almost always something we can learn. James tells us to be quick to listen and slow to speak. Often when someone brings us negative criticism, our first reaction can be to defend ourselves or write them off. Someone’s critique may not be 100% correct, but I’ve found there’s almost always something I need to see or learn from it. Once I was working through some things with an offended brother and a friend gave me this great advice: sit down with him and take notes, without defending yourself or responding until he shares all that’s on his mind. Then, if there’s anything to ask forgiveness for, do so. If you’re not convicted of sin, tell him you’ll seriously consider all he shared and thank him for caring about you enough to meet and talk. Later, after considering what he said, you might respond to some of his points.

Preach every message to yourself

Pastors, teachers, parents – preach to yourself first. Though I hope my teachings affect others, I want God’s word to search me first. Never “pulpit punch”. That is, never try to address a particular individual in the church through your preaching. If you need to talk to someone about something, go to them in private. Sometimes when people say, “Mark, you were preaching directly to me in that message. I felt like we were the only ones in the room,” I say, “Thanks for listening! I was preaching to myself.”

Disagreement is not disloyalty

Sadly, strong leaders sometimes interpret disagreement as disloyalty. Don’t be offended when people question you or disagree with you. Challenging one another can be really healthy. Husbands, if your wife disagrees with you, that doesn’t mean she doesn’t support you or stand behind you. She’s probably trying to help you. Pastors, you don’t always have to be right. Recently a fellow pastor graciously pointed out some areas of weakness in my life, not because he was being critical or disloyal, but exactly the opposite – because he cares about me and wants me to focus on things I’m good at.

Sometimes you have to take the high road

Once I was trying to work through some issues with a brother who I felt had wronged me. He just couldn’t see what I wanted him to see. We had a number of conversations and I just couldn’t make my point. As I shared my frustration with another brother, he said, “Mark sometimes you just have to take the high road. I think you’re wanting something from him you’re not going to get. You should just forgive him, pray for him, then trust the Lord that if he wants him to see something, he’ll show it to him.” Life-changing advice. The man never did see what I wanted him to see, but I was able to put it in God’s hands and it never bothered me after that.

I’ve learned a lot more over the years, but that’s plenty for now. Hopefully more to come in future posts….

I’m a pastor at Saving Grace Church in Indiana, PA. I’m married to Kristi, have 5 kids, and a growing number of grandkids. I enjoy songwriting, oil painting and coffee, not necessarily in that order.