Ten lessons after ten years of pastoring
Full of gratitude
Our leaders offered me some great affirmation on Sunday night for completing ten years of service as a pastor for Circle of Hope, and I offered gratitude back to them. It’s been quite a journey, but I am grateful for every minute of it so far. Being a pastor for Circle of Hope has been a wonder-filled and humbling experience. It’s hard to believe that I was just 24 when I started my work on our pastors team, and now, somehow, I serve as longest tenured full-time pastor on our staff (and yet, still the youngest). I instinctively try to underplay this accomplishment, but from what I understand, serving for a decade in the same charge is significant for pastors. And in reflecting, I offer you ten lessons I’ve learned from my time as a pastor.
1. Pick your battles
Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace.—Ephesians 4:2-3
I used to have a fight every week over every song the worship team would pick when I first started. And when we designed our worship meetings, I remember the intensity that I brought, and the arrogance about how sure I was that I was right. Many things became a showdown, and it didn’t matter if it was a big or small thing, I didn’t want to give up any ground. Looking back, I appreciate that intensity, but boy, there was some love lost in those disputes. Too often I didn’t see the people I was relating to, and just saw the bigger picture (and really, my bigger picture). Sometimes, you hear pastors talk about the nerve they have and how you won’t ever make everyone happy if you are leading. While that’s true, I used it too often as an excuse to ignore the harm I was causing.
Sometimes we think the angrier we are, the more intense we are. And we watch chefs on TV yell at their line cooks and we think “that’s the kind of power I want to have. He doesn’t take any bullshit!” But I think that’s actually weak. Anger is often an expression of incompetence and inexperience; of stress and bad time management. If you’re frustrated with the result, instead of blaming someone else, consider how you may have led better.
As I grew older, I learned that right relating mattered more than being right. And I also learned when it was important to fight a battle, to have a conflict and to let things go. I’m grateful for those who have stuck with me! Through the humility that I began to learn, the leaders that surrounded me grew too. In fact, modeling the love of Jesus, even in leading, was far more transformational than any point I could have made.
2. Don’t be afraid to admit you’re wrong and apologize
Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves.—Philippians 2:3
In a similar fashion, it’s really hard to admit you’re wrong when you are young. I used to double-down and get defensive. But I learned that apologizing and admitting mistakes is key to building trust with your community and with your leaders. Guarding your power by never being vulnerable may be a way to protect yourself, but it isn’t a good way to foster community.
Early on, I was confronted with pain I caused to a few members of our community after an article came out praising our church. They had a different experience with us, and I remember avoiding the dialogue all together. In hindsight, I wish I had simply apologized for mistakes I made even before I was a pastor. Eventually I did have an opportunity to reconcile with them, but there was a lot of pain in between, in part because of my defensiveness. Defensiveness doesn’t heal relationships, and it corrodes your own soul, too.
One of my hardest trials was a rather contentious stakeholders meeting we had before we consolidated our congregation on North Broad with the one on Frankford Ave. People were confused, upset, hurting, worried. And I remember admitting how I had faltered and I wished I'd done better. I didn’t get pummeled, but I tried to lead with humility. And that was a key part of building trust with a new community that was forming. I remember the feeling (and I think the advice someone gave me), was to not apologize or admit that I did anything incorrectly, but that would harden hearts, and I decided to bear mine. The risk for more pain is always there when I open up, but the opportunity for love is there as well.
3. Learn to let people go
Now is your time of grief, but I will see you again and you will rejoice, and no one will take away your joy.—John 16:22
There’s almost nothing as painful for a pastor as losing a member of the fold. They might need to move, or they might have had a conflict and needed to leave, or maybe the church wasn’t a good fit for them. In a time where evangelism and outreach are hard, losing someone is especially painful and it can feel personal. But most of the time it isn’t personal, and it’s OK. We aren’t going to be the best fit for someone, and because we attract a lot of twenty-something college students or recent graduates, I think we should expect people to move to other places for other opportunities. But I didn’t expect that, and I got mad when they moved. I too often felt like they were doing something wrong, instead of feeling my own loss. Anger can sometimes disguise sadness and loss. I can feel like they have wronged me because I feel their loss.
Eventually I learned it was OK to let people go. And to bless them. We are a great place for building and keeping faith, but not the only place, and not the only opportunity. I wish I would have graciously let people go in my younger days, but I’m glad I learned that it was OK, nevertheless. We want to build committed partnerships here, but that doesn’t mean never letting someone go. And plus, Philadelphia is a great place to move, and for every person that leaves, more people seem to be moving in (our population is actually growing).
4. You aren’t as special as you think you are
Do not be arrogant, but tremble. For if God did not spare the natural branches, he will not spare you either.—Romans 11:20-21
I think Circle of Hope is a unique place and I know it because the aforementioned people that move away often tell me that. But I also know that a lot of churches perceive themselves that way, and it isn’t necessarily because of their doctrine or theology or ecclesiology, but rather the relationships are unique. I don’t think I am a replaceable person, and neither are you, and so when we are separated we miss each other. We’re special, but not necessarily more special than other places.
I think that there is a certain hubris that I got over about how cool and unique I was and we were as a church that actually made us a little “smaller” than I wished. I wanted to acknowledge that God has given us something unique to do, but that doesn’t mean God hasn’t blessed others too. I think that overstating our uniqueness just makes us look insecure. But confidently stating the good that we have is more inviting. Hyperbole seems desperate, honesty builds trust.
5. Get outside influence
“For no one who does a miracle in my name can in the next moment say anything bad about me, for whoever is not against us is for us.—Mark 9:39-40
In some ways, this is a new lesson. It has been super helpful for me to relate to Christians and pastors outside of our family and our fold for their insight and influence into my life. It’s hard, sometimes, to disrupt the family structures and patterns in good ways when we are just talking to one another. And so I learned to listen to other voices and allow them to shape me too.
Seminary was really great for this. I was nurtured by many blessed professors and received influence from a wide variety of sources. I’m grateful for that. I learned that pastors should keep listening to other pastors from other churches and other eras. There is a good humility in understanding that to make a healthy church, we need to reach outside of ourselves.
6. Listen more, talk less
Sin is not ended by multiplying words, but the prudent hold their tongues.—Proverbs 10:19
I was reminded recently how long my messages used to be. Part of that is just because of inexperience, a worse prepared message is often longer (at least for me). And sometimes I just want to make a point that is extraneous but makes me look smart or allows me to use big words. But talking more or talking bigger doesn’t really help make disciples. Who can listen to a 45-minute sermon anyway?
I found that it’s better to listen and let others do the talking. I have a lot to learn about this, quite honestly, but shorter messages and longer times for talkback has paid dividends. And also, not allowing my own insecurity to dominate me helps. I don’t have to prove how smart I am. I can let others have the space and the opportunity to share.
But listening is so important to pastoring. Seminaries teach you to say all the right things, but allowing and encouraging and empowering others to share is not always high on the list.
7. Pay attention to the easily ignored
“The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’”—Matthew 25:40
It’s easy to pay attention to the loud, strongest-willed people. And often times in our societies, it is able-bodied white men that are in those positions. But I’ve learned to pay attention to the “least of these,” or the importance of doing that. This is about a posture shift, because I still struggle with this, but paying attention to folks with disabilities, women, sexual minorities, racial minorities, and children is essential. Jesus did this very thing and told us to do the same. Jesus plainly says he is in the least of these, and so if we pay attention to them, we are also paying attention to God.
Guard the ignored and oppressed, help them to hold on to faith. If they are struggling to connect and relate in our church, we have some reflection to do. I admit I have made mistakes in this regard, and I am ready to repent and make things right (going back the aforementioned point about learning to apologize).
8. It can get lonely, so be alone on purpose
But Jesus often withdrew to lonely places and prayed.—Luke 5:16
Being a pastor is lonely—I’m grateful to be surrounded by wonderful leaders, so my loneliness isn’t as acute as some. However, leading can be isolating, and though outside influences and other pastors (and our pastors team, in particular), help with this, it is still not enough. As a person of color in a predominantly white church, some of my loneliness is heightened, and sometimes my surrounding community falls short of seeing me and knowing me. It’s unrealistic to expect flawed people to eclipse my loneliness or any other pastors’ loneliness, so while I have suffered disappointment, I have learned then to measure expectations and lean on God.
One habit that I learned early on was the necessary discipline of retreating. Quarterly retreats, at a minimum, were essential and are essential for me. The idea is: be lonely with God. Be alone with God. Let contemplation, wonder, and mystery fill the space that humans fail to.
But also, on retreat, I sharpened my disciplines: I read and wrote more. And I guess that’s another lesson that I learned, keep writing and reading. Pastors, in particular, are trying to expand their mind and communication skills, so I learned to keep doing it.
9. Keep moving with what the Spirit is doing next
But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you.—John 14:26
I love the Circle of Hope proverb that I based this lesson on: “We are called to move with what the Spirit is doing next.” Where Circle of Hope was ten years ago and where we are now is pretty different. And I think that’s OK. What I learned was not to hold on to the past with clenched fists but rather to move forward with intentionally and discernment, in dialogue and in mutuality. We can rebel against the past and against tradition and find ourselves tossed to and fro by the waves of the moment. What I learned was to listen to the Spirit and move with her. That never made the changes and new directions that we went as a church easier, but it did them intentional and honest. Change is hard, but God calls us to keep moving with Her.
There’s not much integrity in never changing your mind for ten years. But true growth and discipleship shows flexibility and adaptability. If I want to keep being relevant and bring to the present, I need to be able to repent of my rigidity and move my faith into flexible and new containers. The content of Circle of Hope hasn’t changed, even if how we are in the present has. And I hope the next ten years bring even more adaptation.
10. Create a safe place for criticism and dialogue
Listen to advice and accept discipline, and at the end you will be counted among the wise.—Proverbs 19:20
Finally, I think it is has been elemental to allow people to speak their mind about our church and even about their experience with me. Leaders are up front and so we collect a lot of criticism. Some of that is unfair, some of that is scapegoating. But leaders can psychologize what their detractors say to their own detriment. I decided, over the years, with the help of my therapist, and others, to receive it. I think that dismissing it all, or hiding behind polity or procedure can insulate us from worthy criticisms. I want to be open to how I can improve and not be defensive. That’s a big lesson I’ve learned. If my message was too long or incoherent, I want to hear it. If I said something problematic, tell me about it. And the people around me do! They’ll even criticize my message right after I deliver it. I take it in stride, and I’m glad I’m part of a church that can talk back. Too many people are afraid to talk to their pastors, or when the pastor calls them, they think they’re in trouble. I’m learning about that problem and trying to work against it.
I have plenty of people who love and defend me, and I have a God who has saved me, so I don’t need to save myself. As a result, I learned to be more open to feedback and allowed myself to receive it. Sometimes, I’ll admit, I get too much of it, but I still would rather err on that side. I have nothing to fear, God is with me. That means I can be a vulnerable pastor, open to change, open to listening, and open to what God is doing next.