I took my first vocational ministry position the summer I graduated high school (1994), becoming the youth minister for Zion Chinese Baptist Church. (You read that right.) In the 23 years since, I’ve heard a lot of good words on ministry and ministry life, and while a lot has been good, a few choice bits of wisdom have stuck with me since I heard them and have proven truer and truer over the years. Here are just five.
1. “The core you start with isn’t the core you finish with.” — Bill Hybels
Hybels did not say this to me personally, but he said it in a workshop at the 1996 Willow Creek Church Leadership Conference. I don’t know why it stuck with me then—I was a youth pastor at a Willow model church, but I wasn’t thinking in terms of church planting or anything then. I’ve sifted out a lot I’ve heard from the church growth guys, but this one I’ve kept, and it’s pretty true, in a variety of ways. I’ve had guys I was close with, been on leadership teams and in the trenches with, decide the whole “living a Christian life thing” wasn’t for them. Your biggest fans can turn into your biggest critics, and often do. Mainly because they are your biggest fans because there’s some kind of idolatry they’re getting out of you, seeing you as a functional savior in some way. And then you disappoint them and BOOM: it’s all over. But even if nobody turns on you or falls out with you, the longer you go in ministry, you see how the seasons of life and the growth of a church or ministry takes the rose-colored glasses off of “doing ministry” with the same people forever. Some people get to do that. Most don’t. The core you start with is not the core you finish with.
2. “You must renounce comfort as the chief value of your life.” — Mike Ayers
Mike was my first pastoral mentor, the guy whose ministry actually kept my wife and me sane and in ministry after I’d had a bad experience at a previous church that almost made me give up church altogether. He was the first guy to really take me under his wing and trust me and empower me and take me seriously, even as a young punk. I served as a youth minister at his church and learned a lot, especially about loving the lost and building relationships. Mike and his family have been through a lot themselves, so when I heard him say this line in a sermon, I knew it came from a place of authenticity. It stuck with me. And it’s exceptionally important for all Christians, including pastors, who can get too comfortable with praise and growth and too despondent with criticism and conflict.
3. “Whatever your elders are, your church will become.” — Ray Ortlund
It’s no news to regular readers that Ray is my Yoda. I don’t remember the context of him saying this, but I remember him saying it, and I took it to heart. When we went about establishing eldership at Middletown Church in Vermont, I remembered this sound word of wisdom. So I looked not just for guys who met the biblical requirements for eldership, as high a bar as that is; I also tried to get guys with different personality types and outlooks and perspectives on theological non-essentials. And I also became a stickler for the biblical qualifications that many churches seem to gloss over—long-temperedness, gentleness, good public reputations, and so on. If my church is going to become like the leadership that is modeled for them, I wanted conformity on the biblical qualifications and orthodoxy but high maturity and as much diversity as possible otherwise.
4. “Don’t say something about someone you won’t say to them.” — Andy Stanley
I heard this in a Stanley teaching series called “Life Rules,” which with only a few caveats I recommend. I’ve used it numerous times. As you can imagine, I don’t resonate with a whole lot Stanley says these days, but this word of advice has stuck with me, and I’ve used it with great fruitfulness. In Christian community and in pastoral ministry, the opportunities for gossip and other relational sins are practically infinite. I am a great sinner who screws up a lot, but I’ve tried to maintain this rule for how I talk about people. If I have a problem with someone, I either swallow it, or I take it to them. If I’m not willing or able to do that, I certainly can’t talk about it with others. There’s so much crooked speech in the church, it’s ridiculous. Stanley’s advice is good for keeping the lines straight and the accounts current.
5. “You don’t just wipe away the web; you’ve got to crush the spider.” — Steven Taylor
Pastor Steve was one of my pastors when I was a kid. I think I was in the ninth grade when he said this in a sermon at Sandia Baptist Church in Albuquerque, New Mexico. I confess I have forgotten a lot of what he preached, but this line hooked into my brain and got me. For a kid with a tender conscience and struggling with lust, my eyes were opened to how I ought to approach the war on the flesh. Pastor Steve said you don’t just wipe away the effects of sin; you’ve got to be “extreme,” go to the source of temptation. In my adolescent way of thinking at the time, I went home and took the TV set out of my room. Since then, I’ve been able to apply this principle to even deeper actions of spiritual warfare, looking to the idolatrous roots of my behavioral sins as often as I can. But the advice is still good. Don’t just wipe away the web; crush the spider.