In just a couple of months, I will round out my eighth year in full-time ministry. You might say that I’m slowly getting the hang of it. And when I say I’m getting the hang of it, I mean that I’m realizing just how much I have to learn, and how much I need God’s grace to learn it. You also might say that I’m a slow learner.
Yet the funny thing is, I first came into full-time ministry with the impression that a lot of the pastors and leaders I had known throughout my life were doing things all wrong. Secretly, I presumed that I was going to do things the right way: “Move over, guys—let me show you how it’s done!” Hello, misguided, youthful arrogance!
The longer I serve the local church, though, the more I have come to treasure the wisdom of seasoned leaders whom I have had the privilege of knowing. Learning from these spiritual giants has been incredibly valuable for me. As a result, I have found myself applying the counsel I received from them—counsel that I dismissed at worst, or didn’t yet understand at best. So allow me to share what was passed on to me—wisdom that could only be gained from years spent in the trenches of ministry.
“People are not your source; God is your source.” When my dad first began to sense that he was called to pastoral ministry, my grandfather—who is now deceased, but was a pastor himself for many years—took Dad to lunch to help him process things. As Dad recounts it, my grandfather looked across the table at his then thirteen-year-old son and said, “Just remember: people are not your source; God is your source.” I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard my dad repeat that story and those words. Unfortunately, when you’re young and your parents tell you the same stories over and over, you foolishly write it off: “Yeah, yeah, we’ve heard that one before, Dad.” But now that I’m eight years deep into full-time ministry, I’m glad my dad told me that story so many times. When I’m tempted to place impossible-to-bear burdens on others, I can hear those words in the back of my mind, reminding me that people make really lousy saviors. When my heart gets realigned with that reality, I can simply enjoy the people I lead for who they are in Christ, instead of using them to assuage my fears and insecurities. A leader who holds fast to the true source of life is utterly free to love others well.
“Always lead from overflow.” A few years ago, my wife’s grandfather retired from full-time pastoral ministry. Shortly before he retired, I asked him what advice he would give to a young guy aspiring to leadership in the church. Without any hesitation, he spoke four simple words to me: “Always lead from overflow.” In response, I initially thought, “Yeah, okay, that seems like pretty good advice.” But over the years, I’ve come to value it as detrimental, life-or-death advice. For me, learning to lead from overflow has been the difference between joyfully persevering in ministry and being crushed by its inherent anxieties and pressures. Spiritual leaders ought to be worshiping God regularly in secret long before they ever step out to lead in public. Faithful ministry stems from the reality that God is powerfully at work in the ruthlessly prayerful, Bible-devouring lives we lead behind closed doors. If that isn’t true of us, we have nothing to offer. If you don’t believe me, Jesus puts it quite convincingly: “Apart from me, you can do nothing” (Jn. 15:5).
“Your biggest challenge will be learning to lead from your character, not your ability.” This was one of the first things my pastor told me when I came on staff at the church where I serve today. I’ll admit, when he said it, I had no idea what he was talking about. But as the years have passed, I’ve come to realize how profound it is. Too often, churches assume that those with the most natural charisma and talent are the ones who are best suited to lead. So we make the mistake of putting them upfront without giving any real consideration to the patterns of their lives. Before long, though, we’re shocked when they collapse in a fit of moral failure. But the truth is, without godly character, a person’s charisma and talent are liabilities, not assets. For better or worse, a leader’s trajectory in life and ministry will be determined by the quality of his heart. Sadly, poor character is only fortified as a leader places more and more confidence in his own ability. Yet, on the other hand, natural ability and Christlike character, when combined, can create the competency required to lead effectively at a high level.
So there you have it—priceless words of counsel from seasoned leaders that have made all the difference in my life and ministry. I keep coming back to their wisdom to fan into flame the gift of God that is in me (2 Tim. 1:6). And every time I do, I become more and more grateful to God that less experienced church leaders like me are standing upon the shoulders of giants such as these.