I'm continuing to share gleanings from my sabbatical interviews with 7 different pastors. In my last post I listed out the most important things each of them said they learned in seminary. The natural follow-up question was this one: "What would you say are the three most important things you’ve learned in ministry since seminary?"
In any vocation you will learn at least as much (if not more) from "on-the-job" practical experience than from classroom learning. Plus, most professors will want the seminary experience to launch a pattern of life-long learning, with graduation being a beginning rather than an ending. With that in mind, here are the answers...
Pastor #1 (age 69) --
1) A huge piece of pastoring with people is being able to empathize with people, to be able to get in their shoes and understand what’s going on with them. Maybe that comes naturally. I don’t think all pastors do pastoral care easily or effectively. I think that’s a gift that I have. That’s something I’ve always done in my ministry – not that other people aren’t doing it too. But I like to keep that connection to my congregation.
2) To be a good leader means working very much in a team approach – with staff and such. It’s about working as a team for the same goals, and respecting each person and what they bring to the team, and not having to be in control all the time. That’s a big one. Being in charge is different from being in control. Being in charge means I know of everything that’s happening, but it also means being willing to let go and let other people on the team (who often have more expertise than I do) do what they do best – and not having to control that.
3) Learn to appreciate your congregation not only as parishioners but as friends. That’s a fine line for pastors. Appreciate them and allow the friendships to develop. I’ve always been sort of extroverted; it’s not hard for me to get to know them. And we’re not friends in the sense of going back to them. If people call me and want to reconnect, I do that without stepping on other peoples’ toes. It’s about allowing friendships to develop. As opposed to having an “I’m a pastor-professional, you’re a lay person” demeanor. But I also have a strong ethic of not going back unless the pastor asks, and even then…I’ve turned down several things at the church I used to serve at.
Pastor #2 (age 45) --
1) I've learned leadership dynamics, in terms of what type of leader are you. What leadership perspective do you come from? Are you an enforcer? A leader? An equipper? What’s your style to motivate God’s people? Are you authoritarian? For me, it’s the gift of being a teacher and an encourager. Being a pastor is like being a lead cheerleader. (Whether it’s right or wrong, that’s how it is). Ultimately, how do you engage God’s people to be God’s people? Pastors can lose sight of that fact. One problem in our denomination sometimes is arrogance. We wear robes and such – which isn’t bad by itself. It’s done to set the man apart from the office. But people become arrogant. We’re servants. What is your servant heart?
2) I've learned how to understand change that happens in people, in lives, and churches – and how people react to it any time a change happens: There’s the joke about Lutherans and changing a lightbulb that can carry over to other denominations as well: How many Lutherans does it take to change a lightbulb? One to change it, and a committee of 9 to say we didn’t need it. People react differently. Some embrace change. Some come to embrace it with time. Some will just react negatively. A pastor is better equipped if he understands how people are and their differences.
3) I've learned the whole purpose of alignment: As a pastor we can come into churches where every person is swimming in their own direction. So I’ve always been big on emphasizing the mission statement of the church. The one we developed in my first pastorate was “reaching out with the love of Jesus.” Now as I walk out of the worship service I say, “Go in peace, sharing the love of Jesus.” In my first church I would say, “Go in peace, reaching out in the love of Christ.” We go out to be the church. We come to be fed, but then to be sent and to go and be God’s church.
Pastor #3 (age 62) --
1) I’m more convinced than ever of the traditional biblical truths: e.g. the trinitarian faith, the need for redemption, God is good all the time, etc. I’m more convinced of the reality of orthodox theology and beliefs.
2) If there’s anything I say all the time it’s that it’s all about relationships. First with our faith in God, then with others (in the church), and then with others outside the church. It’s all relational.
3) I don’t take myself too seriously. I take God seriously, I take Jesus seriously, but not myself. The biggest deal is that it’s not about me. It’s not up to me. I’m a servant. I think that my role needs to be one of humility and gratitude. The old saying of WWJD? -- Well, Jesus would not assert Himself. It’s the meek, the humble. I’m very flawed; I can’t take myself seriously. The Kingdom of God is not up to me, thank God.
Pastor #4 (age 47) --
1) I’ve learned not to have high expectations; keep your expectations realistic. For me this means that I have to be authentic to who I am, and not conform to what others think I should be (e.g. more holy, working longer hours, etc). I had to learn to keep myself in check, to know who I am, what my limitations are, and what my strengths are – to know myself. This came out of Clinical Pastoral Education. I came to it late in the ministry – the need to be self-aware.
2) You need to look after your health. Get sleep, exercise, and have time to play and goof off.
3) Never neglect God’s word. You need to (no matter if you’ve been in seminary or have a doctorate) continually read the Bible every day and pray every day. Stick with the simple fundamentals. That’s what’s kept me going. Pray every day. Get in the Bible every day. Spend time with your spouse and your family. Everything else comes after that.
Pastor #5 (age 74) --
1) I’ve learned that the ministry is a time to celebrate life and peoples’ lives in the church.
2) I’ve learned that listening and conversation is more important than telling everybody what I believe and what I think – i.e. listening to other peoples’ stories, and developing the art of conversation. I may write a book on this: Theology ought to be seen and done in conversation rather than some kind of a lecture. It needs to begin in terms of story-telling, with listening to other peoples’ stories.
3) I’ve learned that the most important ministry is caring about people – whether they’re in the church or outside of it. It’s learning to care about people. Part of this for me is that the church isn’t nearly as important as I once thought it was. When I look at the life and teachings of Jesus, I see Him as involved in the world and not in the church. He wasn’t as interested as forming the church as in bringing the presence of God into peoples’ lives. And the church in many respects is an obstacle to that. I’m much more anti-institutional. It’s not that I’m against the church; I still value it, but God is at work in the whole world, and not just in the church. That’s why I was attracted to ministry in the hospital, in hospice, and in prison. Much of my main ministry was not in the institutional church in those regards.
Pastor #6 (age 76) --
1) Spiritual life is important. That’s a big difference. Academic life is important too, but spiritual life is important.
2) I like personal relationships with theology. The serendipity things from the 1970s and 80s emphasize the relational side – relationship theology. The spirit binds us together as people, so to me at least (and I’m not criticizing others) it doesn’t matter really so much what happened in the Bible story 2000 years ago if it doesn’t relate to a situation I find myself in with another person. Relationship theology unlocks us to see other peoples’ real needs – spiritually and psychologically (and sometimes physically too).
3) I've learned the whole idea of discovering a deeper understanding of the Trinity, particularly the Holy Spirit. In the 1960s I was invited to go with a man (who was actually a Mennonite pastor and farmer. He became pastor of his church by the old Mennonite practice of drawing straws. He was a beautiful man in the spirit – with no formal education at all. Maybe he had been through the 8th grade.) He wanted me to take him to a large city for a charismatic conference. So I did, and it changed my life. There was a whole experience there. I became involved in the charismatic movement. I had a profound experience of being baptized in the Holy Spirit. I probably came away from there as a real radical. I had to balance that off. Probably today now that whole experience that I still cherish lends itself into the more contemplative life.
Pastor #7 (age 57) --
1) Read. Learn what you don’t know. Learn how to become proficient at things that don’t come naturally to you.
2) Learn your way into things that you naturally recoil from. If your default tendency is to hide, don’t run away. Step into it; fix it.
3) (most important and key): Christianity is a life lived outside of ourselves. Lots of Christians in America don’t understand this; they prefer to sit and absorb. Really the Sunday service is best understood as a launching pad. It involves following the way of Jesus, and learning to live life outside ourselves.