What I Wish I’d Known: Reflections on Nearly 40 Years of Pastoral Ministry
What follows has been adapted from a brief talk I delivered to the Oklahoma chapter of The Gospel Coalition on October 2. Here are 10 things I wish I’d known when I first started out as a pastor.
1. I wish I’d known that people who disagree with me on doctrines I hold dearly can often love God and pursue his glory with as much, and in some cases more, fervency than I do. The sort of intellectual pride that fuels such delusions can be devastating to ministry and will invariably undermine any efforts at broader Christian unity across denominational lines.
2. I wish I’d known about the inevitable frustration that comes when you put your trust in what you think are good reasons why people should remain loyal to your ministry and present in your church. I wish I’d been prepared for the feelings of betrayal and disillusionment that came when people in whom I’d personally invested so much love, time, and energy simply walked away, often with the most insubstantial and flimsiest of excuses.
3. I wish I’d known how deeply and incessantly many (most?) people suffer. Having been raised in a truly functional family in which everyone knew Christ and loved one another, I was largely oblivious to the pain endured by most people who’ve never known that blessing. For too many years I naively assumed that if I wasn’t hurting, neither were they. I wish I’d realized the pulpit isn’t a place to hide from the problems and pain of one’s congregation; it’s a place to address, commiserate with, and apply God’s Word to them.
4. I wish I’d known the life-changing truth of Zephaniah 3:17 long before Dennis Jernigan introduced me to it. I’m honored when people thank me for writing a particular book with comments such as “This was very helpful” or “You enabled me to see this truth in a new light,” or something similar. But of only one book, The Singing God, have people said, “This changed my life.” This isn’t some vain attempt to sell more books, but a reminder that most Christians (including pastors) are convinced God is either angry or disgusted with them, or both. I wish I’d known earlier how much he enjoys singing over them (and over me).
5. I wish I’d known how much people’s response to me would affect my wife. For many years I falsely assumed her skin was as thick as mine. Regardless of a woman’s personality, only rarely will she suffer less than him from criticism directed his way.
6. I wish I’d known how vital it is to understand yourself and to be both realistic and humble regarding what you find. Don’t be afraid to be an introvert or extrovert (or some mix of the two). Be willing to take steps to compensate for your weaknesses by surrounding yourself with people unlike you, who make up for your deficiencies and challenge you in healthy ways to be honest about what you can and cannot do.
7. I wish I’d known it’s possible to be a thoroughly biblical complementarian and to include women in virtually every area of ministry in the local church. In my early years in ministry, I was largely governed by the fear that to permit women into any form of ministry was to cross an imaginary biblical boundary—even though the Bible never imposes any such restriction on their involvement. I tended to make unwarranted applications by extrapolating from explicit principles something either absent or unneccesary. Aside from senior governmental authority in the local church (the role of elder) and the primary responsibility to expound and apply Scripture, is there anything the Bible clearly says is off-limits to females? Trust me, men, we need them far more than we know.
8. I wish I’d known it was okay to talk about money. Don’t be afraid to talk about money. Just be sure you’re humble and biblical and don’t do it with a view to a salary increase for yourself (unless you genuinely and desperately need one). For far too many years I allowed my disdain for prosperity gospel advocates to silence my voice on the importance of financial stewardship in Christian growth and maturity. I didn’t formulate a strategy for calling people to lifelong financial generosity without sounding self-serving.
9. I wish I’d known about the delusion of so-called confidentiality. Pity the man who puts his confidence in confidentiality. You can and must control the information that comes to you, but you can never control the information that comes from you. Once information is out and in the hands of others, never assume it will remain there, notwithstanding their most vigorous promises of silence. Be cautious and discerning about to whom you promise confidentiality, under which conditions (it’s rarely if ever unconditional), and in regard to what issues and/or individuals. “Sam, you don’t appear to have much trust in human nature, do you?” It’s not that I don’t trust human nature. I’m actually quite terrified of it! What I trust is Scripture’s teaching about human nature.
10. I wish I’d known about the destructive effects of insecurity in a pastor. This is less because I’ve struggled with it and more due to its effect I’ve seen in others. Why is insecurity so damaging?
• Insecurity makes it difficult to acknowledge and appreciate the accomplishments of others on staff (or in the congregation). In other words, the personally insecure pastor is often incapable of offering genuine encouragement to others. Their success becomes a threat to him, his authority, and his status in the eyes of the people. Thus if you’re insecure you likely won’t pray for others to flourish.
• Insecurity will lead a pastor to encourage and support and praise another pastor only insofar as the latter serves the former’s agenda and doesn’t detract from his image.
• An insecure pastor will likely resent the praise or affirmation other staff members receive from the people at large.
• For the insecure pastor, constructive criticism is not received well, but is perceived as a threat or outright rejection.
• Because the insecure pastor is incapable of acknowledging personal failure or lack of knowledge, he’s often unteachable. He will resist those who genuinely seek to help him or bring him information or insights he lacks. His spiritual growth is therefore stunted.
• The insecure pastor is typically heavy-handed in his dealings with others.
• The insecure pastor is often controlling and given to micromanagement.
• The insecure pastor rarely empowers or authorizes others to undertake tasks for which they’re especially qualified and gifted. He won’t release others but rather restrict them.
• The insecure pastor is often given to outbursts of anger.
• At its core, insecurity is the fruit of pride.
In summary, and at its core, insecurity results from not believing the gospel. The antidote to feelings of insecurity, then, is the rock-solid realization that one’s value and worth are in the hands of God, not others, and that our identity expresses who we are in Christ. Only as we deepen our grasp of his sacrificial love for us will we find the liberating confidence to affirm and support others without fearing their successes or threats.
Sam Storms is lead pastor for preaching and vision at Bridgeway Church in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma.