Your First Decade Of Ministry
By Keith Drury
When you’ve finished school and been ordained, what’s left? Is there more preparation, or are you now trained for life? What can you expect in the first decade of ministry? How will people treat a young minister? What should you look forward to in the first decade or so of local church ministry?
Those of us who teach ministerial students see it often. Bright students leave college or seminary and enter the ministry, launching their life’s work and assuming all preparation is in the past. Then they hit the wall. Things don’t go as well as they had expected. Their great ideas are harder to implement than they had imagined. People don’t flock to hear them speak at the church they’ve planted. Church people don’t seem as impressed with them as their professors were.
Consider Michael. While only a junior in college, he launched a major community outreach program that reached more than 300 high school students. Now Michael is pastor of a church that has hovered around 32 people for the 2 years he has been there.
Or, how about Christine. She delivered the senior address at a college chapel service and blew the socks off more than 1,000 students. Last week the middle-aged ladies in the Women of the Word Bible study asked her to conduct one of their lessons. These women think they are giving this young girl a break by letting her teach a Bible study for a half dozen women.
Or consider Andy. He always stood out in college and seminary. He was constantly told that he was the most promising ministerial student. Today Andy is in his third year of carving out a new church plant in a suburb of Denver, Colorado. About 40 people attend — on a good week, that is.
What happens when talented young people graduate from training and enter the ministry? In the first few years, many of them hit the wall as they come up against the hard realities of ministry. It is not as easy to plant a church as it is to lead a worship service on a college campus. Young ministers often find that the reality of being in the ministry is somewhat different than what they expected. Although they’ve been through several years of training in college or seminary, people begin to treat them as if they were freshmen again. When this happens, they sometimes come to doubt their abilities. They wonder if the problem is this church, a church that simply doesn’t recognize their gifts and training, or whether they were perhaps mistaken when they believed God called them into the ministry. Some ministers actually give up and drop out in these early years, deciding they failed in the ministry or just weren’t cut out for it.
You can do better than to give up when the ministry gets hard. Being prepared for these first years of ministry will help. You need to know what those first 10 years might be like. This e-mail to Michael, a frustrated young minister, will help you get the idea.
Sure you feel like a failure. That’s because you have your head screwed on wrong. You think now that you’ve entered the ministry things should just explode for you because you’ve prepared so well for the last 4 years. You imagine that life should be all downhill after graduation. That’s the trouble. You’re acting like you’ve finished preparing for the ministry. In fact, you’ve only just started. You’re out of school, but not out of training.
Face it: you’re still a student. So act like it! Keep learning. Keep growing. Keep developing. That’s your job for the next 10 years or so, learning to minister. For all practical purposes, you are still in school, but this time it is just the “college of life.” You’re a freshman again. If you see life from God’s perspective, looking from the end of your life backward instead of looking from this point forward, you’ll recognize that you are in the second stage of what Leadership Emergence Theory calls inner-life growth. You thought you were finished training when you left school, but you were just starting. College introduced the inner-life growth stage. Now you are in the second half of that stage, the in-ministry half. Schooling got you started, but it represents only about 25 percent of all your training years.
When you look back on your life from age 70, you’ll probably categorize all of your 20s (and maybe much of the 30s) as preparation. From that perspective, which is also God’s point of view, you will see this 10- to 15-year period as the time when God developed you into the servant He needed for your Big Task, which almost always comes later in life. You’ll remember two parts to this preparation stage: the schooling years, and the early ministry years. You’ll tend to see them both as training.
So, how will you respond to this idea of an extended preparation stage? The advice you would get from wise old ministers is to quit trying so hard to succeed and try harder to develop. Stop acting as if your whole ministry is going to be judged on what you do in your 20s. (That very thought will someday make you chuckle!) Realize that this decade or so of extended training is a common experience among leaders. Moses spent 40 years in the desert; Paul spent a decade in Arabia and Cilicia before his emergence in Antioch; Jesus spent 10 years of adulthood in Nazareth. During this first decade of your ministry, worry less about success and more about growth. You’re still in school. So let God develop your character, sharpen your skills, and deepen your spiritual life.
If you are in school now and preparing for the ministry, you might sigh at the notion that there is still more training to get even after your education is finished. But don’t be discouraged. God will use you in the lives of others while you are growing and learning. In most denominations you will have at least a few years after your education before you are ordained. During those years you will be getting more experience, making sure of your calling, and developing competence. In fact, you will probably be ordained part way through the first decade of experience, sometimes as quick as a few years after your initial education is complete. But, even after you are ordained you’ll have lots of development ahead of you. So, what are the “courses” in this decade-long period of your life? There are at least three: developing character, sharpening your skills, and deepening your content.
College and seminary do not prepare you completely for the storms you may face in your 40s and later. Most young ministers are not even ready for success. Few things destroy a young leader faster than premature success. God needs more time to prepare you for your later work. Your character needs to be refined. Your heart needs to be worked on. At 25, you may have experienced many temptations, but not enough kinds of temptation. Temptation is great preparation for future ministry. Facing and beating temptation develops the character God wants from you in the future. At 25, you’ve not had enough criticism or opposition, and you’ve not experienced great failure. All of these are experiences that develop the strength you will need for the Big Task that lies ahead. During these years of extended preparation, let God refine your character. Give Him a decade or more to do it. That’s your primary assignment in this phase of your life.
When you graduate from college or seminary, you’ll probably think you are pretty hot stuff. When you compare yourself to who you were as a freshman, your growth will seem impressive. But God has so much more in store for you. How will He develop your skills in speaking, leading, managing, and, most of all, working with people? He will develop them as you use them. You try. You fail. You evaluate. You adjust. You try again. You learn. You copy others. You ask questions. You read. You make mistakes. You pick up the pieces and try again.
You will want to find a place of service where you can fail forward. You’ll want a place where you can try new things, get correction from wise leaders, improve yourself, then try again. Look for a place where people will help you improve. Certainly you don’t expect your college or seminary homiletics class to provide all the learning you’ll need to become a great preacher. And those Christian education courses you took couldn’t provide all the Bible teaching or group skills you’ll need for the rest of your life. You are still in training for preaching, teaching, and leadership for at least a decade after you graduate. This will be a 10-year lab course in the actual skills of ministry. You’ll learn. You’ll read. You’ll get evaluation. You’ll improve. The first 10 years of your active service in the church is really a decade-long residency.
When God does finally give you your Big Task, what will you say? What will be the content of your message? A few years of upper level courses in Bible and theology can’t provide all the wisdom you’ll need to make your life’s major impact. It takes years of experience to discover the deepest needs of human beings. It takes years of walking close to God and understanding His plan to really know His will for the church. It will take at least a decade to hammer out the implications of your own theology. You may know theology based on college and seminary studies, but when you hit the real-world local church, you will have to revisit everything you believe in order to develop practical applications for preaching and leading God’s church.
How could you be an expert on marriage and raising children at age 25? You could read and study and interview parents, but a decade of experience raising your own son or daughter will bring bonus wisdom and credibility you could never get otherwise.
How about Scripture? Most men and women entering the ministry, even after seminary training, have merely scratched the surface of God’s Word. Nothing will drive you deep into the Scriptures like preaching to needy people. All these experiences develop content in your life. They give you something to say to people. They supply you with the wisdom for which people hunger. Of course, you will continue deepening your content throughout your life, but during these first 10 years you will see a giant leap in the “finishing school” of life.
Sometimes graduates of seminary or college say to God, “Give me my Big Task now, Lord, and I’ll cram for it. I’ll develop the character, skills, and content I need quickly.” But be careful what you ask for. God may answer that prayer. You may find yourself leading a ministry far greater than your character, skills, and content. And you may fail too early in life, where the consequences are too big. Instead, wise ministers go for the long haul. They know God develops character, skills, and the content over many years and seldom accelerates the process. So even when you have finished your education, there is ahead of you a decade of greater development. Developing your character, skills, and content is like raising children. It takes years to get the job done, and it can seldom be hurried without serious consequences.
Going the Distance
Your first decade in the church is a period of extended preparation for ministry, but even that won’t make you a finished leader. People change. Ministry methods change. Society changes. Satan shifts his strategy constantly. Thus you will need to keep learning and growing throughout your life. This learning curve will seem steepest when you are young, but there will be other periods of your life when you will leap ahead in learning. Many ministers go back to school — even after many years in the ministry — to sharpen their minds and develop their skills. Ministers frequently attend worship services and seminars to enrich their spiritual lives and get new ideas. In answering the call to the ministry you are answering a call to lifelong learning.
As a young person, it will be tempting for you to cram a whole life’s ministry into the first decade. Unfortunately, some actually do that! They are so passionate about ministry, so committed, so intense, that they burn out by the end of their first decade in the ministry, some even before that. They tried to win the world to Christ as if they were the only foot soldier in God’s army. They take little time off, have no hobbies, skip their vacations, and do without sleep. And sure enough, their ministries explode with growth! They soon begin to get famous in their district or denomination. But 6, 8, or 10 years later they are gone — poof — like falling stars that disappear, burned out and cold. They did indeed cram their entire ministry into a few years, then leave the active ministry before age 35. This is burnout.
Some others flameout. They lose their heated passion and become spiritual zombies, finally abandoning their call. Still others spin out, getting involved in immorality that gets them removed from the ministry. Either way, if you burn the candle of life at both ends, you can burn it up too fast.
To avoid burnout, flameout, or spin out, you (and you alone) must learn to pace yourself. Ministry is not a 100-yard dash. It isn’t even a marathon. Ministry is a long-distance trek. It is like backpacking a 1,000 miles or more. It requires taking a long view, pacing yourself, and making sure you don’t break your (spiritual) ankle and get eliminated from the journey. While there are times when a burst of speed is needed, a trek is completed with a dogged, determined, steady pace. God is more interested in your next 50 years of ministry than your next 50 weeks. Go for the long haul.
Excerpted from The Call of a Lifetime: Is the Ministry God’s Plan for Your Life? by Keith Drury. Copyright 2003 by Wesleyan Publishing House. Used by permission. All rights reserved.