We asked a few veteran pastors what advice they have to share with seminarians about to receive their first calls. Here’s what they had to say.
Ministry is messy. Don’t be surprised. Just as you know in your heart that you’re a broken person, so you will be called to serve people, 100 percent of whom are also broken. Offenses and hurts will be many. When offended and hurting, choose forgiveness over bitterness every time. When offending and hurting others, own up to it and repent. Humble yourself and be ready to ask for forgiveness just as often as you extend it. When the people you serve see that you are a genuine person, a saint and a sinner, grateful to be forgiven and eager to forgive, they will not only appreciate you, but they will treasure the good news of Jesus you’re called to proclaim. —Rev. Jeff Alexander, Mount Olive Lutheran Church, Greenwood, Indiana
Guard these three things to survive a long time in the ministry:
- Devotional life (personal, family, and staff)
- Family (day off, vacation)
- Health (make time to exercise)
Get to know your people before making any changes/adjustments within the church.
Continue learning; read books from every genre.
Visit your people and invest in their lives.
Read your Bible daily and consistently.
Develop an accountability group of pastors for confession, discernment, and guidance.
Get involved in community groups/organizations.
Don’t forget you are a sinner too.
Listen, discern, pray, and then speak.
It will take a while for the church to see you wholeheartedly as their pastor. Don’t take offense or develop a chip on your shoulder. When they do, be ready when to serve.
Remember it is never about you, it is always about Jesus and your neighbor. ALWAYS.
—Rev. Eric Ekong, Trinity Lutheran Church, Jackson, Michigan
The habits you form in the first two months will persist for the next twenty years: If you are disorganized at the onset of your ministry, then you will always be disorganized. If you neglect making pastoral visits in the beginning, then you will likely always neglect pastoral visits. If you have a habit of prayer and Bible reading early on, then your ministry will always be filled with prayer and Bible reading. If you begin your ministry with an unwavering focus on Jesus, then your ministry will always be about Jesus. —Rev. A. Trevor Sutton, St. Luke Lutheran Church, Haslett, Michigan
Back in the 80s, families brought their atlases to Call Day. As I walked back to my chair in the auditorium, I looked at my wife and parents as they stared at the map of Oklahoma. Lahoma? It wasn’t on the map. Fifteen minutes later, I looked back again; my wife gave me the thumbs-up. Lahoma had been found! It was a small, rural community just ten miles west of Enid.
Learn the culture! My first call was a chance to learn a new culture, and that’s what I did. When I was a child, my grandpa had a farm. For us, that meant finding places to explore and hide, walking with him out to the pasture, and watching him milk the cows. That’s all I knew about farming. My afternoons were filled with visits to people in the congregation and community. I learned the two-finger steering wheel wave while driving down the country roads. Combines and tractors became great meeting places. Dinner out of pickups during harvest time became a family tradition. The diner, coop, and school gym were where the community gathered.
Love the people! We listened. We asked for advice about gardening. We eagerly listened to their stories about how God sustained their faith during poor crops, family tragedies, and death. We were loved and loved the people in return. We were the church together. —Rev. Joel Christiansen, Lutheran Church of Webster Gardens, Webster Groves, Missouri
Unless you’re in the pulpit, shut up and listen. Smile all the time no matter what, and use your teeth. Before you change a thing, ask God to do it for you every day for three months. When somebody doesn’t like you for any reason at all (especially the petty ones), don’t be surprised, and meditate on AC II V. In every situation, remember that (unless you’re planting the church) this pulpit has been here for a long time and done just fine without you: you’re the least necessary part of the entire picture, even as the Office you carry is essential to it. Your greatest temptation will be to despair, your greatest sin will be trying to harness Law and Gospel to motivate people to do what you want, and your greatest weapon will be Jesus’ Gospel to you: “I will build My church” (Matthew 16:18).
These words from Hermann Sasse have always been my shield:
The humble preaching of the Gospel and the administration of these simple Sacraments are the greatest things that can happen in the world. For in these things the hidden reign of Christ is consummated. He himself is present in these means of grace, and the bearer of the [Office of the Ministry] . . . actually stands in the stead of Christ. This certainly puts an end to any clerical conceit. We are nothing. He is everything. And that means that the terrible sin of pessimism, which is the pastor’s greatest temptation, is finished with as well. It is nothing but doubt and unbelief, for Christ the Lord is just as present in his means of grace today as he was in the sixteenth or the first century. And “all authority in heaven and on earth” . . . is just as much his today as it was when he first spoke that promise to the apostles. And it remains so into all eternity. (Herman Sasse, “The Lutheran Doctrine of the Office of the Ministry,” The Lonely Way, vol. 2, 139; emphasis added)
He then quotes August Vilmar as well:
Let him who still confesses the present Lord now declare his support for his office, which is still present. And let him who bears this office know that now the life and death of the church depend upon him— not on his person, which we know full well is weak, sick, and fragile as is our own. But the life and death of the church depend upon the authority which the Lord has given to him, and upon his unshakable faith in this authority , upon the confidence he has in his office, in which and with which the Lord of the church himself is present with all his redeeming, saving, and world-judging power. (August Vilmar, quoted in the same Sasse essay; emphasis added)
—Rev. Jonathan Fisk, St. John’s Lutheran Church, Oakes, North Dakota