Over the past couple of days I had some time to reflect on my 8 years in youth ministry as I continue to prepare to serve God as a lead pastor. This reflection brought back many memories and I want to share my journey with you all: along with some of the lessons I’ve learned that God has used to prepare me for this fresh role in His Kingdom.
I started in youth ministry as a volunteer. I led worship and some discussion, set up chairs whenever I could, and even took on a volunteer internship in Lawton, Oklahoma. Even after serving as a full-time associate pastor for the last year and a half, I’ve discovered that I still get to do many of these seemingly minimal tasks. They are tasks that no one gets recognized for, but any meaningful ministry depends on them.
In 2011, when I was 20, God brought me into my very first paid ministry position. I became the minister of youth at South Lindsay Baptist Church in Oklahoma City. I got paid $180/week and God chose to bring the youth group there from 3 committed students to 30. When I graduated from college, my wife and I moved to North Carolina, found a church home and served on a volunteer basis until God brought us to Gorman Baptist Church in Durham where we have served since November 2014. Here we saw the same trend. God took a few faithful students and multiplied the size of the group.
Here is where I began to notice God leading me to care more for the whole of the local church rather than just one ministry. I got to spend time with our senior adults, families, young adults, youth and children. My desire to serve all the people of the church has never been as strong as it is now and God used Gorman to awaken this love within me. I have seen pastors who seem to be terrible pastors, pastors who seem to be perfect pastors and pastors who seem to be somewhere in-between; but a very important realization about what it means to pastor a church was reaffirmed within me. It is more about loving and serving people, acting with meaning and true conviction, and reaching people with the Gospel than it is about being perfect. In fact, I would venture to say that there are no perfect pastors.
We make the best decisions we know to make in the best timing that we can discern and there is always someone that disagrees and condemns even when they may not know all the information or the whole story. In fact, this is true for anyone who has any decision-making authority. It brings me to two important ideas that any leader must realize.
The first is the power of relationships, and the second is the necessity of evaluation. I am not talking about building relationships for the purpose of building a church or building up numbers within a ministry or gaining clients. I am writing of genuine servant-centered relationships. In order to build good relationships with people, a pastor must always evaluate himself and his motives for making certain decisions.
As one example, there is a church where one night of the week became the biggest night for youth outreach. Someone came in with authority to make decisions and changed the game plan for that night of the week and the number of students dwindled (as did the work of reaching their families with the Gospel). The motivation behind the decision was unity of the church, and one person who entered a new position at the church and did not take the time to evaluate current ministries or the new plan made the decision. Without proper evaluation, the decisions made are less likely to be the best ones. It is also more likely that decisions will be made in the interest of one’s own ministry rather than in the interest of true local church health. We must constantly evaluate our ministries, our decisions and ourselves to be sure that we are making the best decisions possible and are truly concerned for others (benefitting them rather than just making ourselves look good). I would rather someone criticize me harshly and have made a beneficial decision than have people love me because I have made myself look good.
If constant service and evaluation is at the forefront of every decision, then it is less likely that a bad decision will be made. This also means that not every decision will be strictly utilitarian. Decisions will have deeper meaning than simply saving time, running smooth activities, or doing something that people like. Activities become deep, disciple-making events that empower God’s people to reach the world with the message of Christ. This is one of the things I loved about my former pastor. Everything he did meant something more than simply saving time or making a church service run more smoothly.
When I think about relationships, I am convinced that the pastor must connect in some way with every group of the church and show that he cares for all the people within the church. Most pastors I have seen will focus on their work for the Gospel while trying to advance their own ministry. Rarely have I seen a pastor (I can only think of one) who has loved so deeply that he spent time just being present in ministries where he did not have a specific leading role or was expected to be there. For example: If there is a young adult event and the pastor shows up even though he is not expected and he shows up simply to hang out and learn with the group, he is full of a love for the local church. On the other hand, if a pastor never goes to anything that he is not expected to attend or where he does not have a specific leadership role, I have to wonder whether he loves the local church or only loves his own ministry. Sadly, most pastors I have seen only have a love for their own ministry and desire nothing more than to have more influence. This is one of the great downfalls of our churches. As pastors, we would do well to realize that our ministry is not about us. While many would vocalize the same sentiments, they would prove differently with the way that they interact. Having a relevant, Biblically accurate sermon is not enough. We must genuinely connect with our people.
Youth ministry, for me, was not a stepping stone to the pastorate. I followed God’s direction into the youth ministry and figured it was where I would serve my whole life. Even though it was not a stepping stone for me, God used my time in youth ministry to prepare me to lead and serve a local church. I find that God is always preparing us in the present for the future. He doesn’t seem to put us into position for the purpose of preparing us, but He gives positions for very real purposes and, while we are in that position, He prepares us for what is next.
One of the greatest ways God has used this position to prepare me is in the unexpected. Before I served as a youth minister or associate pastor, my planning would be so rigid and I would be so disappointed when things did not go as planned. Things never go exactly as planned. I can’t help but laugh when someone asks for the number of students we are expecting. My answer has become, “I don’t know, but my guess is _______.” Youth ministry teaches us that we never really can know the number of students that will show up at an event. This is a nightmare for planning. Students who write their name down don’t come and people show up that have never been before. Truthfully, I don’t think I’d change this. When we are more rigid in our planning, we really do limit the guest friendliness because we are so concerned with making everything perfect that we miss people. Yeah, we might have a more consistent attendance, but we might reach less people with the Gospel. So, I’ve learned to take things as they come. This has been an invaluable lesson over the past 8 years and it would be a good lesson for many pastors to take hold of. Organization and details are important, but should never be rigid and unchangeable. Things happen. If we can’t roll with them, sometimes we get run over by them.
I also think of my time between when I was a volunteer, when I got paid about $180/week and now and, if I am to be honest, the pressures and the degree of demands have not changed much. I am convinced that if a church can, it should pay its pastoral staff a full time wage because the demands on them far surpass the demands of a regular full-time laborer and the church ought to provide for them so that they can serve the church well. I will strive to provide well for any staff member serving under me because the demand on them will be great. I know that some of the pastors I have served under have been unaware of the amount of work I’ve done, just as I was unaware of the amount of work they were doing. It is not that we did not care to notice, but were focused on our own tasks. I never want to assume that a position is not worth the church failing to be generous in its compensation of that individual; especially for the support staff (for they are often overworked and under-recognized), and especially if we have hired someone that can be trusted with the tasks and responsibilities he/she has. If they are not trustworthy enough to be paid a good wage, why would we hire them at all?
There is much more, but these are some of the most important lessons I’ve learned and I don’t want this to be too long. I love the students I have at Gorman and they will always be family to me. At the same time, I am excited about what God is going to do at Eastside Baptist Church in Sallisaw, OK. I am a young man; but so was David, Joseph, and Timothy. They were not perfect, but God used them all to shake the world for His glory. Thus I arrive at my final statement: God does not depend on me to accomplish His work, so I should depend on Him and conform all of my work to His. Thank you all for your continued prayer.