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17 Lessons I’ve Learned My First 25 Years in Ministry

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I have been in fulltime Christian ministry for 25 years. (Hard to believe.) I have served as a music minister, a senior pastor, a writer, and as a leader in a parachurch ministry.

16 Lessons I've Learned My First 25 Years in Ministry

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The last quarter century has taught me lessons I’ll never forget. I learned them in the trenches of time, disappointment, and even failure.

Although some of these principles may seem to apply to those in vocational ministry, all have application to us as believers. Whether we’re parents, singles, marrieds, or even disillusioned with church—these apply.

In no particular order (except the first one), here are 17 of them.

17 Lessons from 25 Years

  1. More important than anything is your relationship with God. You’re a Christian before you’re a minister, a parent, or a boss. Take care of your soul. You cannot give others what you do not have yourself. Everything flows from this priority. Everything.
  2. Don’t shortchange time with your family. If I can borrow a principle from Jesus’ words, “The poor you will always have with you.” The ministry will always be there, but you will not always have your kids (or your marriage, if you’re not careful). See life in seasons. Your children are your most important disciples.
  3. Don’t let people’s praise or criticism define you. You’ll get both. But remember, you serve God.
  4. Be yourself. Otherwise, you won’t last long-term. You’ll burn out. Besides, God made you who you are to minister to others in a way only you can.
  5. Stay accountable. Otherwise, you’re a scandal waiting to happen. Invite accountability. If you are unapproachable, you will not be as effective. You’ll also start hiding stuff. Accountability has huge benefits.
  6. Have the courage to evaluate yourself. I once had a Sunday School teacher tell me, “I have 22 years of teaching experience.” Actually, he really had 1 year of teaching experience repeated 22 times. Invite feedback from trusted individuals and take it to heart. Evaluation is the key to progress.
  7. Take the risk to be open with those you work with—but not with everyone. I learned this the hard way. As Proverbs says, “A man of many friends comes to ruin.” You will probably be betrayed at some point. It’s okay. So was Jesus. It’s worth the risk to be authentic, and, on occasion, to be misunderstood.
  8. The ministry is bigger than your ministry. Cut someone slack if they aren’t “involved” to the level you think they should be. Someone has to engage the rest of the world. Not all ministry occurs in the four walls of the church or in your particular ministry. God has many who have not bowed the knee to Baal.
  9. Be careful about promoting levels of spirituality. There are no varsity and JV Christians, defined by how involved you are, how many verses you’ve memorized, and if you have your quiet time each day. There are different gifts in the body, different priorities, and different season of life. Your passion in ministry is only one of God’s passions. Allow others to have their emphases without it threatening yours or diminishing theirs. God is pleased with you because of Jesus, not because of your activities.
  10. Pull your weight. Don’t expect that because you’re in the ministry others owe you a free lunch, special treatment, or a pass on your behavior. Be a model, not a freeloader.
  11. Give your best every time, and don’t save it for later. Whether it’s an illustration, a story, or an effort at loving someone. There will be more where that came from. God provides daily bread.
  12. Don’t confuse excellence for perfection. One honors God; the other is an idol. Sometimes Jesus forces lack upon us so we’ll trust Him. Fish and loaves are the norm.
  13. People will hurt you and not appreciate your sacrifice. Be neither surprised nor cynical about it. Let a thick hide guard a tender heart. We have to remember “it is the Lord Christ we are serving.”
  14. Care for those under your care. If it’s a staff, make sure they get a fair salary, adequate time off, and don’t require they sell their soul. Model this by not selling yours. Even Jesus was not a workaholic.
  15. Allow those who work for you room to fail. If someone does something poorly, first evaluate if you have given them adequate training. A graceless place stifles creativity and creates a context of fear. That’s not of God. Work hard to affirm others.
  16. Give others the benefit of the doubt. When in doubt, don’t assume the worst but the best. Have a conversation with them before you evaluate them. When in doubt, default to grace.
  17. Failure can be a stepping stone to growth. Determine to learn from your failures—however severe they are—and lean into the grace of God to move forward. God is not done with you. (If He were, He’d take you home.) Giving up after failure shows it’s all about you. But it’s about God. Getting up after failure shows you believe that.

I could offer many more lessons. But these are some I’ll never forget. I wonder what the next 25 years will teach me?


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