Just a couple of weeks ago, I celebrated my ninth anniversary as pastor of Pray’s Mill Baptist Church. I am not “the” pastor, but one of several pastors who love and serve this local church. My title is “senior” pastor, but I’m not the senior among our elders who lead—but given the position of lead pastor within our church.
As I’ve reflected recently on these nine years, I wanted to share nine lessons that I’ve learned, lived, and believe others should think through related to their local church as well.
1. Serving your home church brings both unique blessings and unique challenges.
When my wife and I moved to Louisville to attend The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, we never expected in a million years to return home to serve our home church. That was nowhere on our radar.
I’m often told that my story is unique. While it’s certainly unique, it has brought some of the most unique blessings that I couldn’t have dreamed up myself. I enjoy the blessings of serving as pastor in my hometown and being very near my family. Not only does my family live here, but so does my wife’s family as well. We both grew up here in the context of Pray’s Mill Baptist Church as children. It’s pure joy to see my children enjoying their grandparents on a weekly and often—daily basis.
With the blessings come unique challenges. Pastoring people is not always easy. It’s one of the greatest joys and privileges of my life to serve the people who served me as a boy, but it’s also a unique challenge to stand in the pulpit week-by-week and refuse to compromise the truth of the Word even if that means it will confront close friends, close family members, and those that have been members of our church long before I was born. Yet, that’s the calling of a pastor—to preach the Word.
My job as a pastor is to prepare people to meet God. It has been both a joy and great sorrow to shepherd members all the way to death’s door—some of whom have served me and my wife when we were little children growing up in our church. I’ve preached nearly 40 funerals in these nine years of people that I’ve viewed as my family members. Sure, we often call our church our “family of faith” but I’ve experienced great sorrow in burying dear loved ones during these years that I trust will be turned to joy on the day of Christ’s return!
2. Patience in ministry is essential.
The work of pastoral ministry itself requires patience. Moving too quickly, even if it’s in the right direction for the good of the church, can cause people to lose trust in their leaders.
Sometimes we as pastors preach grand truths from the text of Scripture and just expect people to automatically grasp the truths in one sermon that have taken us years to work through leading up to that one sermon. Patience with people is key—and it’s part of the fruit of the Spirit (Gal. 5:22-24). Sometimes slower is better—that goes for leading people in practical decisions as well as preaching through books of the Bible.
3. Servant leadership is crucial.
When it comes to the offices of the church—there are two (elder and deacon). The office of elder (often called pastor) is for leading the church and providing necessary oversight. The office of deacon is for serving the church and providing necessary practical care. While elders are not deacons, it’s essential for the pastors to work at servant leadership. This is a lesson that I’ve learned through the years and one that I believe helps place us in the most Christ-like position among God’s people—that of a servant leader (Mark 10:45). We must not forget what Jesus said to James and John when they asked him a question in Mark 10:35.
4. Transparency in leadership is the best way to lead.
When I came to serve as pastor of Pray’s Mill, the church had been through a rough patch. The people had experienced troubles among leadership and this had caused many in the church to lose confidence and in some cases—have a negative view of pastoral leadership altogether.
One thing I promised upon entering the church as pastor was to lead with transparency. When we have our member meetings (church conference), I lead the other pastors in sharing ministry ideas, upcoming plans, and as we look over the numbers and business of the church as a gathered assembly. We also allow for questions to be raised from the floor and we seek to provide clarity when necessary on the rationale for our decisions as leaders. I believe that leading with transparency is important and it allows the people to watch you lead, explain your decisions, and carefully guide the church in a specific direction.
5. Shared leadership is a blessing from God.
When I first arrived as pastor, I was the senior pastor and really viewed as the pastor of the church who led a staff of supporters. It was my goal to lead the church to embrace the biblical position of a plurality of elders and to experience the joy of having a team of pastors caring for, overseeing, and leading in the spiritual growth of the entire church.
I led the church patiently in that direction by pointing it out in the text of Scripture as we arrived at such passages when I initially preached through Acts. It would be about year four that I officially began the process of teaching on the subject and another year before we would change our by-laws to reflect the biblical position. We then waited a full year before we ordained our first elders in the church to serve alongside me.
Today, our elders are regularly preaching in the context of the church when I travel and we share in a rotation on Sunday evenings. It’s a joy to see these men serve the church and it’s also a joy to have them sit across the table from me and serve as my pastors as well. Without a doubt, this is one of the greatest joys and blessings I’ve experienced in my entire pastoral ministry.
6. Pastoring is different than preaching.
The church needs pastors who preach the Word and pastor the people. There are many men who enjoy preaching, but they rarely engage in the work of shepherding. In order to fulfill the office of pastor, there is more work to be done than merely preaching a couple of times per week. While that requires a massive amount of time to research, study, prepare, and then to actually deliver the sermons—the people need to be cared for by their pastors. That involves loving correction, discipline, confrontation, edification, encouragement, restoration, and weekly discipleship. All of this takes time.
Preaching sermons that are generic and almost have a “big box” feel to them is not what the church needs. They need men who are watching for their souls and preaching to the church that’s actually in the room. That will involve touching on specific sins among the church body and providing the necessary application that’s needed to guide the church to biblical correction. Far too often, congregations enjoy hearing sermons that point out sins of the church in another state or across town—but the church needs pastors who care enough for their souls to talk to the people who are actually in the room.
7. Church discipline is biblical, commanded, and is blessed by the Lord.
During these nine years of pastoral ministry, we have engaged in the work of regular church discipline. One thing I added to our quarterly church conferences (member meetings) was the final line item on the agenda which simply reads, church discipline. I wanted the people to see it frequently and think about the fact that there will be necessary times in the life of our church where we engage in loving and biblical church discipline (Matt. 18:15-20).
We have not only engaged in the process during these years, but we’ve also witnessed it work for the purpose of restoration. Unfortunately, in our last conference, we had to present a member before the church who is a husband and father in the life of our church. The church is reaching out to him actively at this time, and if he refuses to repent, we will be forced to excommunicate him. This is hard work, but it’s also a blessing to be a member of a local church that engages in the hard work for the glory of God.
8. People that you trust will hurt you.
A lesson that I’ve learned in pastoral ministry in more times than one is that people who you trust can often be those who can hurt you the most. Every pastor learns this lesson over time, but when you serve the church where you grew up as a boy—such wounds can have an extra sting. Such has been the case through these nine years. While I’m happy to report that those cases have been very limited in number, nevertheless they have occurred.
One thing a pastor must preach is that church membership is God’s will for the people of God. Such membership necessitates a certain amount of vulnerability and openness, but when you’re betrayed, hurt, or when your leadership is rejected (as Paul promised would happen with Timothy in 2 Timothy 4:1-5), it causes a pastor to pull back and be less vulnerable within the church he leads. That’s precisely what our enemy would want to happen and pastors must practice what we preach! We need the church too.
9. Often God has plans that are not on your radar screen.
As a pastor, I see leadership as having various different responsibilities. There is a spiritual oversight and leadership responsibility that is most important. There is also a visionary leadership responsibility where we as pastors look into the future and try to plan, dream, and set goals while leading the church to navigate a path that will allow the church to achieve such goals. In these nine years as pastor of Pray’s Mill, I’ve watched the Lord lead me in ways that I was not planning and it has been a tremendous joy.
When I was dreaming and planning the first annual G3 Conference, my goal was to see our church minister to other pastors, church leaders, and church members from churches in our area (Atlanta and greater Georgia or west Georgia region). The Lord had other plans. I was estimating that 250 people would show up and when the first annual conference had over 700 people in attendance, I was blown away. That pattern continued for the first four years before we moved to the Georgia International Convention Center adjacent to the Atlanta airport. In 2017 the conference grew to 2,500. It continues to grow each year. This past January we exceeded 4,500 in attendance.
As I look back on the way the Lord has grown a conference ministry from our local church to what it is today and when I consider the way it ministers to thousands of people throughout the United States and beyond—I’m amazed. It was not my dream. It was not my plan. Often the Lord has other plans and we must be prepared to follow him and lead as he directs.
My story is unique, at least that’s what I’m often told. I pastor the church where I grew up as a boy and where my wife grew up as a little girl. We have only been members of three local churches, and I’ve served as the pastor of all three—the last of the three being the very church where we grew up as children.
While I recognize the fact that my story is a bit unique, I often ask, should it be unique? Could it be that local churches should look at the little boys in the church and think about the fact that God may very well be preparing one of them to lead the church in the days to come? In fact, it could be the one that most people believe is the least likely candidate.
These last nine years have been a true blessing from the Lord and I look forward to what the Lord will do in the life of our church in the days to come.