9 Lessons Learned During a Quarter Century in One Location

It’s hard to believe, but I have been preaching here at Rochester for 25 years.  They gave me a wonderful celebration back in May to honor that anniversary.  It was a great day down memory lane with friends and family both physical and spiritual.

It got me to thinking about what I have learned over my time here.  Since this was my first pulpit work, I have learned a lot of lessons. All good lessons, but some the hard way!

1.    Love God, family and your church…. In that order.

 This really should be something that goes without saying, but I have witnessed far too many ministers who didn’t learn this lesson in its entirety. Most every minister loves God, you rarely go into ministry if you don’t.  However, when you’re in the trenches, you sometimes forget to focus on that love.  You’re so busy doing ministry that you don’t develop a deep relationship with God.  If you don’t keep that goal in focus, all other areas of your ministry will eventually collapse.

When I interviewed for the work here, we were pregnant with our first child.  I was asked about the commitment I would have to the church once the baby came.  I told them at the very beginning, I wouldn’t sacrifice my family for the church.  If they wanted someone who was committed to the church over their family, then they needed to hire someone else.  Over the years, I have mostly stayed true to that and they have been good on their end as well.  Too many churches and ministers have sacrificed the minister’s family in the name of church.  I believe the Bible is very clear that isn’t God’s intention for the minister.  It’s not healthy for you personally, and it’s a terrible cost to lose your children to a belief you care more about the members of your congregation than you do them.

However, you DO need to love your church.  They are your spiritual family and often become part of your family as we tend to minister far from our physical families.  I have been blessed with a wonderful group of people and most funerals I do, break my heart almost as much as it does their survivors.  When people move away I feel a loss.  I was deeply touched when we were going through a very difficult time in our family and I told our elders that I have seen churches let ministers go because they didn’t want to deal with the situation.  One of our elders looked at me and said, “I don’t see you as just our preacher.  I see you as one of our congregation who happens to preach for us.  We’re family and we’re here for you.”  That’s what loving your church and being loved by your church builds.

2.    It’s a calling, not a job. 

You will very quickly find that people die or deeply need you on your day off, in the middle of the night, while you’re on vacation or otherwise “off the clock”.  First, find an honest measuring mechanism for you to decide how important it is to handle the urgent.  Can you hand it off to someone else?  Is it something that you really need to deal with right now?  Are there souls at stake if you wait until tomorrow?  Those are all questions you need to answer in dealing with the call from Mrs. Smith.  Many times, the situation can wait, but many times, you sigh and then go help a hurting heart or whatever else is the issue.  It’s a calling, remember?  It’s who you are, not what you do.

3.    Find time for you. 

Having said all that, you need to make time for yourself.  Don’t feel guilty.  Don’t get bullied into working 24/7.  Even Jesus needed times of rest.  You’re not better than He is, are you?  I have a set day off for the most part and the church is pretty good about respecting that day.  I have vacation time when I only answer the phone if an elder calls me.  I make time for my kid’s activities, dates for my wife and I, and I still get done what needs to be done.  When I don’t do those things, I get so burned out, that I become dry and useless to everyone.  That isn’t a good place to be, believe me.

4.    Be organized

I am about to get some people mad at me.  I know several preachers who tell me they get up in the pulpit and just preach what God lays on their heart.  That might happen from time to time, but most of time it’s because they are lazy or don’t prioritize.  Look, ministry done right can eat you alive.  You have to find ways to make sure what needs to get done gets done.  I’m a big planner person.  I have designed my own planner to organize my day, week and month and keep notes, and other things in it.  You don’t have to be that organized, but if you aren’t organized the urgent will always eat the important and you will feel behind your entire time. Find a good organization system that works for you and then work the system.

5.    Accept criticism with grace

Let me tell you, it’s much easier to write that piece of advice than live it. You will get attacked if you’re doing your work right.  Much of it will be unfair and you will have to learn to shrug it off or go to the gym and beat the crud out of a punching bag.  Some of it will be true and you need to be honest enough to evaluate the criticism and what you need to do about it.  Lashing out at the person feels good for the moment but doesn’t solve the issue.  Find a couple of people with whom you can have honest conversation.  See if they agree with the criticism and have any suggestions to grow and be a better minister.  They are also wonderful for praying with you and your heart when the criticism is unfair and hurtful.

6.    Keep those sermons!

I knew a new preacher who never kept his sermons…for his first 2 years of preaching.  Then, he realized if they were a good sermon the first time, they will be a good sermon again down the road.  What I have found is that when I repeat a sermon or series, I have often changed and the only thing about the sermon that’s the same, is the main points!  Other times, I only need to tweak the sermon and change the really good illustration because they always remember those!  If your church is growing numerically or spiritually that sermon will be new to many of them simply because they are in a different place in life and the sermon hits them differently this time around.  In the 25 years I have been here, less than a quarter of the people were here before me.  The rest have moved, died, or are new to our congregation.

7.    Keep Studying

One of the best compliments I ever received was by a member who said, “you know, I was just visiting a church where they were complaining about their long time minister. He was stale. You seem fresh all the time.”  That member saw the result of my continued desire to learn and grow.  I try to read blogs almost every day about ministry, I try to listen to podcasts of other preachers, I go to workshops every year and do many other things to stay fresh and relevant.  I even teach the teens and young adults most Sundays to try to keep connected to what matters to them and keep up on latest vernacular, so they can get a kick out of the old man trying to use their words.

8.    Keep praying

The longer I am here, the more important I see a good prayer life.  These aren’t just church members I am praying for, these are my friends.  I have watched them from birth, I have buried their parents and spouses, I have performed their weddings, I have laughed and loved with them, and I have sat by their side while their hearts break.  My prayers aren’t just perfunctory, their heart felt.

9.    Be involved in the community

We live in a small town, so community is important here.  I was honored to be able to serve on the school board for many years, but beyond that I have always looked for ways to be involved in the community.  I have served on boards, helped in community projects, and been involved with my kids’ school activities just to name a few things.  One simple way is just getting coffee and working at the local coffee shop when I can.   I have had so many great conversations simply by NOT being in my office all the time.

Long term ministry doesn’t just happen, you have to work at it.The longer you can stay in a location, the better your ministry is because you have developed relationships in so many key areas. God bless you and your ministry and God bless the churches you worship with