I’m getting older. It had to happen, I guess. While I still think of myself as that 20-something (30-something early in the morning) young man, the rest of the world takes glances at my white hair and gray whiskers and thinks to itself, “Old guy.” Sometimes well-meaning younger dudes referring to me as “older statesman” or “pioneer” or some such thing that’s meant to be a compliment but depends for its value on my being old. Turns out there are a lot of ways of calling folks “old.”
But I’m okay with being older. I enjoy it. I’ve aged out of most trends. I’m settled in life and career, so I don’t have to muscle my way through the ever-changing contexts and challenges many younger people face. And every once in a while I can just do what I want without explaining it to anybody. They look at me and think, “Well, he’s old. Leave him alone.”
It’s not so bad getting older. One other benefit is you’ve hopefully learned one or two things that might be valuable to those coming behind you. Not earth-shaking, new and novel things. But, well, “old” things that have enduring value. From time to time, someone younger asks you for those nuggets they call “wisdom” but you call “life.” Like the other day. A very enthusiastic young man emailed to ask me questions about how to balance life and ministry and how to fit in things like rest and reading. I’m old enough to get emails like that fairly often. So, on the off chance it might be helpful to others, here’s an email I sent to a young pastor trying to find balance to do it all in his family and ministry. This old man hopes it helps.
Dear Young Minister,
I pray you’re well, brother. CONGRATULATIONS on the new role there at the church! I pray the Lord gives you grace and favor in all of your callings: Christian disciple, husband, and now pastor.
Thank you for the great questions and for the opportunity to speak into your ministry there. I’m not sure I have profound wisdom for you, but perhaps these basic thoughts might be helpful. Feel free to write back with follow-up questions.
1. Don’t Build a Culture of Discipleship
Instead, build relationships with as many people as you can in the church. You’re not engaged in a project. You’re called to simply encourage people in their walk toward heaven with Christ. If you task yourself with building a “culture of discipleship,” which sounds really huge and vague at the same time, you put a lot of pressure on yourself and the church. Remember, a church is a family. What’s critical is relationship. As a new, young pastor, build relationships. That will give you context for delivering meaningful encouragement to folks.
2. Don’t Balance Your Life
“Balance” is a real trap and myth. I’m not saying you should commit to a life of overwork. I’m saying that priorities is a better principle for ordering your life than balance. Plus, the priorities are set for you in the scripture. Put things in order:
* God first
* Your wife second
* Your children third
* Your ministry fourth
Keep that order and you’ll also find that the priorities have a way of pushing blessings down through each level. If you keep a close walk with the Lord, that tends to bless your relationship with your wife. If you love your wife well, that will spill over into the entire family. If you care for your family well, then you will be both qualified for and a blessing in your ministry.
This, of course, means you have to say “no” to many very good things in order to say “yes” to the best things. Which, by the way, is one of the things pastors need to model for their people. Live this set of priorities as graciously and consistently as you can and I think you’ll achieve what most people mean when they say “balance.”
3. Rest Before You Get Tired
Burnout rates in ministry are very high because not only is caring for people demanding but also because many people make the mistake of thinking they’re “on” 24-7. Don’t let yourself begin to live and act as if you cannot or should not limit the amount of time and energy that you give to your fourth priority (ministry). Here are some thoughts on resting before you get tired:
* Every Monday morning, or maybe Sunday evening, spend an hour or two with your wife planning and reviewing the weeks ahead. Plan the nights you’ll have people over and the nights you’ll keep for just your family. Coordinate the drop off of kids (if you have any) at school or kids’ programs. Use this time to really partner and plan your life together.
* Keep your work days to 8-9 hours. There will be plenty of days when you will have a late evening or an early start. Flex your time if your pastors will allow you. You’re helped to do this if you implement the first bullet above. And don’t feel guilty if on Tuesday you’re going to have to work 12 hours and on Wednesday you work 4. You’re not cheating the ministry. You’re honoring your family and pacing yourself for the long haul.
* Plan and take your vacations. Americans are terrible at this. We don’t vacate until we’re nearly dead. It’s better to take your vacations across the year, perhaps piggy-backing some holidays to get a bit more bang for your vacation buck.
* As much as possible, rest when the rest of the world rests. If you can take Saturdays off, take them off so you can be with your family and rest when others do. Work Monday-Friday if you can. There are holidays when you have to work while others are off (Christmas, Easter, etc). But on other holidays, get out of town, turn off your social media, and rest like everyone else.
So, plan your rest and rest as planned. Rest before you get tired. You won’t regret it—neither will your people since you’ll have energy and life to serve them.
4. Making Disciples
As for discipling others, my approach is built on a few simple things:
* Books—I read them and I give them out. Think about the books that have blessed you most and read them with other people. You’ve already read it, so it doesn’t require a great deal of prep from you. Plus you get to give a part of yourself to your people, which helps strengthen the relationship with them. A couple good books read with a handful of people each year will bless the congregation greatly. Over time it’ll change people’s reading habits and preferences as you put good titles in their hands. Of course, use your Bible at every turn.
* Meals—breakfast, lunch and dinner are wonderful times to get with people in a meaningful, loving context. Practice table fellowship. Don’t over plan the time. Go with a couple meaningful questions you want to ask, but leave space to just talk about both spiritual and everyday things. Lots of life happens over a meal.
* Listening—Most of the ministry you do in people’s lives happens as a consequence of asking a few good questions and listening a great deal. Learn to listen. Refuse the pressure to have all the answers. Be Socratic in your method and people will feel heard and will often talk themselves into the solutions they need. As you listen to more and more people in your congregation, you’ll get to know your church very well. That’ll help in everything from knowing how to apply the word in preaching to your people, to knowing how to pray for the growth of the church, to standing in the gap as an intercessor against the besetting sins of the saints.
I hope something here is helpful. Feel free to follow up. But one last thing: I’m happy to encourage you and share a word from time to time. But it’s most important that you have these conversations with your pastors there. They may not have all the answers, but part of the joy of ministry is discovering some answers together in your own context.
5. On Reading:
My current reading habits are all over the place. I’m finding life as a planter a bit different than life in an established church. When I was in Cayman in an established church, my schedule looked like this:
Mondays — planning for the week, administrative tasks, meetings, counseling.
Tuesdays — reading and writing
Wednesdays — 9-12: preparation for Wednesday night Bible study; 1-5: meetings, counseling, etc.
Thursdays and Fridays — sermon prep
Saturdays and Sundays — days off
As for what to read, I tend to read things in about three categories:
1. Enjoyment—just things I’m interested to read in any given time. Could be fiction, history, theology, whatever.
2. Ministry—things that I need to understand or know in order to do the work. Could be something on a counseling issue, a theological issue the elders are thinking through, or a practical thing that helps with the work.
3. Discipleship—mine and others. I read things that help me grow in a specific area or that I’m reading with others to help them grow.
How much do I read in a given week? I really don’t know. It varies. I’ve never tried to tally it. There’s a general sense of always reading, but no quota I’m trying to hit. I guess reading is just a part of my and my family’s life.
1. Knowing God by J.I. Packer
2. The Christian Ministry by Charles Bridges
3. Sensing Jesus by Zack Eswine
4. The Trellis and the Vine by Colin Marshall and Tony Payne
5. Between Two Worlds by John Stott
Right now, Sensing Jesus is having the greatest impact on me. I highly recommend it—especially for a young man just beginning in ministry.
Much love and the Lord bless and keep you,