20 Things I Learned During 20 Years of Life as a Pastor

This summer I marked 20 years as a pastor. It’s been quite a ride. In some ways it flew by. In other ways the start of my ministry seems like it happened in another lifetime.

Here are 20 things I have learned, one for each year in the ministry:

  1. You can’t please all the people all the time. If you try, you will find yourself incredibly frustrated. I learned this within the first six months of being a pastor.
  2. Be true to yourself. Don’t try to be someone else. People want you to be you, and they will love you for who you are.
  3. After God, your family is #1, not your church. Your family was there before your church, and will still be there after your church. Give them the time, love, and care that they need.
  4. Make sure that you are involved in the selection of church leadership. You must be able to work with those who are chosen to be leaders in the church. If not, at best there will be ineffectiveness; at worst, there will be conflict.
  5. If possible, hand write a birthday card to every member of the congregation on her or his birthday. It’s a great way to show people you care, remind inactive members that they are missing church, and even people who have left the congregation remember it as a personal touch from their pastor.
  6. Some things just aren’t worth changing, or “choose your battles.” Some things, some people, some programs are not worth fighting with or about. Wait for the things that really matter, like doctrine or unity, then put your integrity on the line.
  7. When “change” is necessary, do it slowly and with love and care. It may not happen at the speed you would prefer, but it will be much more palatable for all involved.
  8. Visit with people at home or at work. Meet them in settings away from the church. You get a whole new perspective.
  9. Pray for your people and for your church. And let them know that you are. And ask them to pray for you.
  10. Hire support people and other staff members who share your vision, passion, and strategies. It will save you time, effort, energy, and even heartbreak.
  11. Create significant time and space in your schedule to study and write your sermon. Creative and engaging preaching is born out of solid study and significant time to engage the text and culture.
  12. Make your day off a day off. Make sure to take time for personal sabbath. Burnout is significant amongst pastors. If you don’t “come apart” for a while each week you will come apart.
  13. If your congregation doesn’t have a sabbatical policy, encourage them to put one in place. One of the most significant times I spent in my twenty years of ministry was a three-month sabbatical in my eighteenth year of ministry. It should have happened much sooner than that.
  14. Go to conferences and classes that stretch you. Be an avid learner. Don’t be afraid to go beyond your comfort zone. Attend conferences where you know no one else. Take classes that are outside of your areas of strength.
  15. Read, read, read. Read theology. Read classics. Read about leadership. Read about writing. Read about relationships. Read.
  16. Become adept at social media. Sorry, but it’s not going away.  It’s going to make you more effective in ministry not just tomorrow, but already today.
  17. Say “thank you.” Then say it again. People love to be appreciated, people need to be appreciated, and people will be much more willing to help and serve when they are appreciated.
  18. Find friends outside of the congregation. You need people in your life with whom you don’t always have to be “on.”
  19. Work on becoming a better speaker, teacher, and presenter. The Gospel deserves the best speaker, teacher, and presenter you can be.
  20. Take care of yourself. Exercise. Eat right. Care for yourself emotionally.
What things have you learned in your work that would be valuable for others to know?

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6 thoughts on “20 Things I Learned During 20 Years of Life as a Pastor

  1. This is a great list! I'm thankful to have learned many of these lessons early on in my ministry. I'll add one more Rev. Tom Rogers told me shortly after becoming a parish pastor.

    "Not only is there always more that you could do, there is always more you should do. But you can't do it all." – It's been very freeing for me to think about this when I feel like there's just too much to do.

  2. It is amazing our class of 91 went out 20 years ago. There's a lot of fine pastors still in ministry and some who have fallen by the wayside. I'd offer a strong amen to you list of 20. I think we are in for our best years ahead.