I was 24 years old when I became the pastor of a small congregation in rural New England. Feelings of excitement, hope, and inadequacy were all combining to make a pretty intense emotional smoothie in my heart!
Four years later, God has been abundantly faithful in spite of my many mistakes and shortcomings.
Being a younger pastor has many wonderful blessings, but also some unique challenges. Here are just a couple of the tensions that I am still learning how to properly manage as a younger pastor.
1. Be passionate, but be patient.
With youth comes a lot of excitement and passion. Embrace it! An older pastor wisely told me, “You only get to be the exciting, young pastor for so long. Don't waste that!” Allow your passion for God and people to fuel your labor. No one should ever have to wonder if we are working diligently or enjoying the ministry that God has called us to.
For me, the difficult side of passion is that it often partners with frustration. I would come into a service with a message that I knew God had prepared for His church, and I would see little visible impact. Or I would work diligently planning and promoting a special Sunday that would yield no immediate fruit, and all of the sudden that passion and zeal had turned into feelings of failure and discouragement.
The social media age carries some blessings, but also many challenges for me. On any given Sunday afternoon, I can jump online and see hundreds of wonderful reports of God working across the world! My heart is thrilled when I hear of churches growing and souls being saved! But on more than one occasion, I have read those reports in my office following a Sunday where I had very little of the sort to report, and my mind quickly ran to compare what God is doing in our church versus what I read of Him doing elsewhere.
I shared this challenge with a mentor who shared such a helpful truth with me. He asked me how many meals I remembered my mother preparing for me as I grew up, and I could only reply with 5 or 6 (and my mom can cook!). He replied, “You don't appear to have missed very many meals even though you may not remember them all!” The importance of a faithful diet of God’s Word over years will pay dividends in the life of a church. Be patient! Every week may not be a filet mignon, but every week the Word is opened and preached properly, growth is happening! Concentrate on leading and developing a healthy church, and it will grow.
Preach passionately! Evangelize passionately! Love your people passionately! But allow God to determine the timing and amount of visible impact.
2. Be innovative, but be respectful.
I am proud of the innovative spirit of many millennial pastors and Christian leaders. The church should always show forth a creative spirit as we serve the Ultimate Creator. Try new things! Some will work great and others will fail miserably. Have the courage to try!
Innovation will always have opposition, but one of the most important things I’ve had to learn is that just because someone opposes an idea or change that I propose doesn’t mean that they are wrong and have to be convinced of its validity.
Respect your people.
When I became the pastor of New Hope in 2013, my wife and I were the youngest family there by about a decade. There were many things that I felt needed to be changed or updated in the way that we ministered. About a year into making many of those changes, I had a conversation with a godly older member of our church. In a very gracious way he told me, “We are so happy to see our church growing and thrilled with many of the changes you've made, but the way you explained the changes initially felt like our church was being taken away from us. I get it now, and I see that wasn't your heart, but we were scared.”
Don’t make all of your decisions based on those you pray will someday come to your church. Pastor well the people you already have.
Respect your heritage.
I am proud to identify myself with the godly men who have invested in me. Does our church look identical to their ministries? Of course not. But I love those men and fully acknowledge God’s hand is upon them and often seek their wisdom and guidance. Every generation will innovate and minister differently than the ones prior to it; however, it is possible to do that without disregarding or discrediting those who have poured themselves into you.
3. Be the leader, but be teachable.
I’ll never forget the first time someone in our church asked me, “Pastor, where is our church headed?” It felt strange and awkward, then heavy and humbling. Real people with real lives were now looking to me for guidance and help. We have a solemn responsibility weighing upon our shoulders—the responsibility to lead His church. We cannot negate our responsibility to be the leader regardless of whether we feel properly equipped to do so.
I’ll also never forget the first time someone in our church pointed out a flaw in how I was leading. Our church had begun to grow, and I had ignorantly begun to feel that I knew what I was doing. They weren’t coming in a critical spirit, but yet it stung like criticism. I immediately began to think of all the ways they were wrong and I was right, but what made it hurt even more was that they were 100% right and I, the leader, was 100% wrong.
You are going to make mistakes, and it is vitally important that we don’t begin to view anyone who helps us to see those mistakes as our enemy. That individual loves me and my family. Their intention was never to damage or discourage, but simply to help and communicate. Be the leader but be teachable.
4. Be yourself, but be holy.
Largely, our generation has little desire for the distant wonderment of people. We want real friendships and connections with the people we lead. I committed early in our pastoral ministry that I wanted to be myself. I wanted to be the same person in the pulpit as I was in the parking lot. I have found that it’s much easier to acknowledge your youth and enjoy it. Everyone knows you’re young. Own it, and be yourself.
When wanting to reach unbelievers in New England, authenticity and transparency are must haves. Holiness, however, should still accompany that transparency.
It is a misstep to excuse our carnality with authenticity. It is still possible to “be real” and be godly. If people see the “real you,” they shouldn’t be relieved about their shortcomings or failures, but encouraged to continue to be conformed to Christ. Our church members shouldn’t think we’re perfect, but that shouldn’t be because we’ve celebrated our sinfulness.
God rarely places us in positions that we feel completely prepared for. And even if you initially felt ready, it probably didn’t take long before you realized the many situations and questions that you were not prepared to face. That’s a good thing. Because youth in the pastorate is yet another way for God to receive glory when He builds His church in spite of our numerous shortcomings and mistakes.