A young seminarian asked me, recently, what practical advice I’d give to a young pastor starting out. I stammered. I wasn’t sure where to begin. What would I say? Not about theology, or cultural engagement, or morality, or exegesis—but practically speaking?
So, after making up a list of thirty or more possibilities, I narrowed it down to ten—ten practical bits of advice for young ministers starting out.
ONE: Take a lot of time to write your sermons. There are a hundred-and-one reasons for doing so. But here is a key one—your audience is used to stellar one-man shows, and won’t hesitate to switch the channel (its called tuning out) when you fail.
Sure, Stephen Colbert, Jon Stewart, and Oprah, are all exceptional. As pastors, we can’t expect to match any of them for comedic timing or penetrating interview skills. And, frankly, most people in church audiences are looking for something else, something more, that these personalities rarely offer. You should have that, “something more.”
In general, however, modern audiences schooled by fabulous television hosts won’t accept sloppiness or boredom either. To me, preaching to today’s audiences is the biggest, most difficult challenge ministers face. And so, at a minimum, young ministers must invest a great deal of time crafting their messages, massaging the delivery, and improving their craft.
TWO: Pastoral Visitation. If one sermon a week takes twenty hours, make sure that at least a few more hours are spent doing pastoral care. Your congregation won’t believe you love them if you don’t know like (I know this is trite) a shepherd knows his or her flock. Visits can be in the office, at their homes, over a coffee at the corner café, or whatever. But they need to be real. Don’t neglect getting to church early and staying long. But get out there and visit.
THREE: Make sure that funeral sermons are personal. I’ve met a few pastors who say that they do the same funeral sermon over and over—or the same wedding sermon over and over. Big mistake. Funerals, baptisms, weddings are formative experiences that may be remembered for a life time. Make sure that you have something to say that is personal, pointed, and real to the people involved that will build your personal relationship with them. What’s more, many of the people who attend such events never get to church otherwise—so make the most of their visit by speaking memorably to them.
FOUR: Apologize. Often. Because we all make mistakes. Apologies invite real relationships and trust. They open doors. They are always a lesson offered. Apologies disarm battle fields. The defensive pastor fails sooner rather than later, because after a while the pastor’s “stubbornness,” or “tin ear,” becomes the issue.
A corollary of the apologize rule is the congratulate rule. When the congregation, or volunteers, or committees have nothing to apologize for, because they've done a great job, say so loudly and publicly!
FIVE: Don’t wimp out on stewardship leadership—but don’t ever, ever use guilt to raise funds. Support the finance team by showing a great deal of interest in their work. Commend them for what is often an anonymous (and busy) job. Congratulate the congregation on every success and challenge met. Lay out needs with clarity, and, if you can, wit. Remember, if the church doesn’t ask, it won’t receive.
SIX: Try to learn all the kids’ names. This is hard for me. I stumble. I remember one week and then forget the next. But kids want to be recognized. They want to be noticed. They need to grow up confident that the church values them as individuals. So learn their names. The parents will notice too.
SEVEN: Every church has a leadership team—a council or consistory or deacons or whatever. The leadership team members come and go. Be nice to them. But, besides the leadership team, every church has the real opinion leaders, people whose influence remains strong whether or not they’re on the official leadership team or not. The smart pastor soon figures out who these people are, establishes a gracious relationship with these people, listens hard to what they have to say, seeks their input on critical issues, and stays in touch with them at all times.
Every pastor has a vision (or should have one). Achieving that vision depends on support. So you have to know which relationships to cultivate so that you have a place to stand when you need that support.
EIGHT: Laugh. Church should have its serious side, but it should be fun too. Don’t make fun of other people. Use humor in your sermons. Laugh at your own foibles. Every minute of genuine laughter in the church earns a solid hour of spiritual satisfaction, and the desire to return for more.
NINE: Establish some clear work boundaries when it comes to time on the job. I used to put a very polite note in the bulletin, occasionally, requesting parishioners to not call me between 3:30 pm (when school was out), till 8:00 pm (when the kids were in bed). I also let people know what my days off were (yes, ministers should not work more than five days a week). In such announcements, make sure to add that you are always available in case of emergency. And I love my time off!
Ten: A “Thou Shalt Not,” bit of advice. Don’t do counselling. “Cure of souls,” that is, seeing people to pray with them, or assure them of God’s love, is one thing. And as a pastor, ministers need to get to know their flock (see 2, above). But you didn’t go to school to get a degree in psychology. You have little to no idea of just how complex the skills or clinical best practices that a good couples counsellor or family counsellor needs to learn over years of school and many hours of supervision. You have little to no idea of the many different theoretical approaches involved in different forms of counselling. My observation is that most pastors deeply immersed in counselling are making it up as they go, and using their counselling as an excuse to avoid spending the time they should on number one and two on this list.