The Difficult Path of Ministry: Lessons from the Highs and Lows of the Past Four Years
Facebook just reminded me of where I was three years ago. Thanks, Facebook! That got me thinking about the past four years of my life and some lessons I’ve learned along the way.
Last Year: Leaving is Hard—Harder Than We Think
This time last year, the church we planted in Miami, Christ Centered Church, had just finished hosting a worship service at Marlin’s Park (the baseball stadium). It was a huge success, but the day was filled with mixed emotions. We saw so much momentum on that day, but my wife, Lindsay, and I already knew our family was leaving Miami. At that time, we had not told anyone, including our staff and leadership team. I had hoped that the day’s momentum would serve the church well moving forward, but I knew I would not be there to steer the ship. I would meet with each of our leaders to share the news in the coming weeks, and I knew they wouldn’t understand—at least not in the moment. I wasn’t sure what would happen to the church, but I knew that the move was the right one for me and my family. I loved Miami. I loved our leadership team. I loved C2 Church—sometimes I had loved it too much. It was HARD to leave, but the Lord had us shifting gears in ministry; it had taken me almost two years to see it.
Pastors, I suppose that no matter how good or bad a particular ministry is, any ministry we give ourselves to fully will be hard to leave. We leave during good seasons, and we wonder what might have been if we had stayed. We leave during difficult seasons, and we wonder what we could have done to lead in a way that would have produced better results. The truth is, we never really leave. We think about the people and places we’ve served often, and we trust the Lord is in control of them all.
Two Years Ago: You Can’t Sprint Forever
Two years ago, I was frantically rebuilding the C2 Church leadership team, and I knew I was running at a pace I could not sustain. Earlier in the year, we had relaunched as C2 Church after being a campus of another church for less than 6 months. In the process, we lost our entire staff and leadership team. It wasn’t their fault—if anything, it was my fault for leading us into the merger with the other church, but even with the gift of hindsight, I believe I can say that it just happened. One by one, for one reason and then another, the staff and leadership team members stepped away. Mostly, the culture we were being squeezed into through the merger did not fit the culture we had established at C2 Church, and the leaders did not feel like they fit any more. Leaders who can’t find space to lead won’t stay in any organization. They will find other places to lead.
The team we lost was more than a team--they were my family. We were soldiers that went to battle together and forged foxhole friendships. We had given blood, sweat, and tears to the vision of C2 Church, and we all loved the church and her people. Now, the leadership team was down to me and my wife, Lindsay. We went from being a fully staffed, fully funded mega-church campus to a self-sustaining church plant with one paid staff member in 11 days, and we did it all while trying to maintain the high standards of pastoral care and ministry function we had always pursued. The pace required of me as a leader in that season was unsustainable, but honestly, it was the only thing keeping me from collapsing after the emotional trauma of an unsuccessful merger followed by the un-merger. That collapse would come two to three months later. It was a collapse that has only been surpassed to this point in my life by the one that had occurred one year earlier (see Three Years Ago).
What is it about leaders that often keeps us running at a pace we know we can’t sustain? If that’s you, it’s not helping you or your church in the short-term, and it won’t help you or your church in the long-term. With few exceptions, we should run today at a pace we can sustain for decades.
Three Years Ago: Greif and Pain Make Us Better Leaders
Three years ago, I was a little more than one month away from falling off the cliff into the deepest grief I’ve ever experienced, but I didn’t know it. We were quickly transitioning our staff, leadership team, and members from pursuing the advancement of God’s Kingdom as Christ Centered Church to doing so as a campus of the other church. As we were shifting our vision and strategy to align with the vision and strategy of the new church, the strategy of the new church was shifting. We didn’t know that.
When I first started to sense that something was not lining up, I hoped and prayed it was assumption on my part. A few difficult meetings later, I realized that my assumptions were reality. Let me be very clear here—this was not something that the new church did intentionally. Their strategy shift came from a change in leadership. New leaders mean new strategies. Once I shared the issues with the new leaders, they helped accommodate us as much as possible, but as we hacked away for four months, it became increasingly clear that there really wasn’t a place for us at the new church. They were willing to let us stay, but it was a square peg in a round hole. The church was gracious in the process of relaunching C2 Church, and I am thankful for the friendships I developed while serving with them. I pray the Lord uses them greatly to reach a city I still care about deeply and which I think about daily.
The loss I felt in that season is like nothing I’ve experienced before or since. I wept. I got angry. I looked for easy solutions. I experienced all the symptoms of grief. But the Lord did not waste the opportunity; He used that season of my life to teach me how to feel the pain of others. I am a task-oriented person, but I know ministry, and for that matter, life, is all about people. People are not means to an end or cogs in a process. People are the point! Second only to love for God and pursuit of His glory, people take priority. After experiencing such a deep sense of loss, it has been easier for me to feel the pain of others. I’m very thankful for that.
“Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.” Psalm 23:4
Pastors, before experiencing real grief, we can preach and teach this passage because it is the truth of God’s Word. After the experience of real, deep grief, however, we can preach this passage as those who, with David, have walked into the valley to find the outstretched hand of our Shepherd waiting to take our hand and guide us through.
Four Years Ago: Thank God for the Grace and Privilege of Impactful Ministry
Four years ago, I was experiencing the greatest excitement and joy I had ever known in ministry. Christ Centered Church was coming up on its third birthday. Our attendance was higher than ever, and we were within striking distance of financial self-sustainability—that’s the holy grail for new churches, especially in large cities. I had the joy of watching our staff and leadership team function well, and the church was growing spiritually and numerically. Every day matters eternally, but it that season, the eternal impact of each day was more apparent to me. I’m so thankful the Lord gave me the privilege of experiencing a season like that.
Pastors, growth only comes by the grace of God. If we see people saved, it is only by the grace of God. If our attendance increases, it is only by the grace of God. If we develop leaders, it is only by the grace of God. If we help one person take one step towards maturity in Christ, it is only by the grace of God. When we experience seasons of abnormal growth and impact, we must thank God for those seasons, enjoy them, and realize that many pastors more faithful and gifted than us have served entire lifetimes without the privilege of seeing significant visible results.
This Year: Healthy Leaders are Better Leaders
So what about this year? I’m happy to report that I feel like a much healthier leader now than I have in a few years. God walked with me through the hardest times, and I pray that by His grace, I am a better husband, father, leader, pastor, and teacher of His Word. I will walk down hard roads again, and perhaps the next leg of the journey will be more difficult than the last. The Lord will not leave me. He is faithful. He is my Shepherd.
I’m also happy to say that I have a clear and compelling vision for First Baptist Tillman’s Corner where I currently serve. They are a healthy church, and I know we are ready to pursue the Great Commission in Mobile, the Southeastern United States, and to the ends of the earth until Jesus returns or calls us home.
Leaders, your emotional, psychological, physical, and spiritual health matters. You can lead when you are not healthy, but you can’t lead to your full capacity. It’s like running with a strained hamstring. You can press through, but you won’t run your best race; and at any point along the way, a strain could become a tear. Rest is not the enemy of leadership. Help is not the enemy of a great leader, and the best leaders know when to say, “I need to make sure I’m healthy before we take the next hill.”
Every Year: Real Friends are Invaluable
Some of you know the story of the past four years as well as I do. You were there, and you walked with me. You took the phone calls, read the text messages, prayed, drove to my house, bought me lunch, sent my wife and I on getaways, and helped me in more ways than you could ever know. Today, when FB reminded me of where I was three years ago, you’re the first ones I thought of. You know who you are. Thank you.
As pastors and leaders, we must surround ourselves with people who will preach the gospel to us when we are dancing on the mountains and when we feel lost in the valleys. They don’t always know what to say, but they are the kind of friends who are in it for better or worse. They won’t leave us. Build those friendships in calm waters, and build them to be deep and strong. When the waves begin to crash against the boat, the light of other ships forging through the storm to come to your aid will be like beacons of God’s grace and mercy.
I’ve shared my heart in this article, and mostly, I’ve done so for myself. My mind was flooded with these thoughts by this morning’s FaceBook memory, and I had to get them on paper. I hope and pray that what I have shared here might be helpful to other leaders and pastors.