This is a guest post by Brandon Levering. Brandon is a recent graduate of the Pastoral Residency Program at College Church (check out the program’s intro video and info packet). He now serves as Lead Pastor at Westgate Church in the suburbs of Boston. Learn more lessons on ministry from Brandon at his blog and on twitter.
This week marks one year since I preached my candidation sermon at Westgate Church, and I’d like to share some reflections of what I have learned during this time.
Of course one’s initial experience as a lead pastor is shaped by so many different factors: personal gifting and conviction, prior experience and training, not least the context into which you step (e.g. solo-pastorate or multi-staff, elder-led or some other polity, recent conflict or the retirement of a beloved leader). And whereas I don’t claim to have completely learned any of these lessons, as I think back over the year, here are five suggestions as you find yourself in a similar context.
1. Set a tone that takes seriously the sufficiency of the gospel
As a young pastor, you simply have not lived enough life to know how to respond to the variety of situations you will encounter, whether in the church as a whole or in the lives of your congregants. Moreover, there’s more than a slight chance that you’re stepping into some lingering dysfunction from previous ministries. You are neither smart enough nor experienced enough to handle this. But that’s okay, because you are a minister of the gospel, and the gospel is sufficient.
The gospel of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection for us is the only thing that allows us to be honest about the sinfulness of sin, because it’s the only thing that provides an adequate solution to sin: the Spirit-empowered grace of God in Jesus Christ. If the framework of your shepherding and the drumbeat of your counsel is applying the gospel of Jesus to the situation, not only will you build a relationship of trust (by taking sin seriously), you will be pointing them to the only thing that is able to make a difference (not you, but the grace we have in Jesus).
2. Work closely with your elders
If you are fortunate enough to be serving in a context with other godly men who have been set apart as elders, don’t take this gift for granted. God’s design for church leadership is a plurality of elders (1 Tim. 3:1-7; Tit. 1:5-9), and the simple fact is that you need their wisdom, care, and accountability.
Spend time with them outside of meetings; pray with them as often as you can. Be vulnerable and transparent. You may have to help them better understand their calling as elders (too many churches view eldership as a board of decision makers instead of a team of shepherds), but don’t think that you don’t need them.
3. Keep your central calling central: Preach the Word
There is perhaps no greater challenge during your first year as a lead pastor than guarding adequate preparation time for faithfully preaching the Word. Many congregants don’t understand the necessity, and many fellow pastors in area churches have long given up protecting it.
But whereas preaching seems increasingly foolish and ineffective in today’s results-based ministry culture, the fact remains that the Spirit-empowered, faithful proclamation of God’s Word is the means God has given pastors for faithfully and lovingly shepherding the flock (Acts 6:4; 20:17-38; 1 Cor. 1:18-2:5;2 Tim. 4:1-2). As one of my mentors puts it, the pulpit is the pivot foot for the pastor’s ministry—it gives footing and provides momentum for your vision casting, shepherd care, discipleship, instruction, fellowship, leadership, counseling, and discipline.
4. But don’t hog the pulpit
I get it—you’ve been waiting for years for the opportunity to preach week in and week out, and you have your preaching series planned for the next five years. Don’t forget that any chance you’ve already had to cut your teeth in the pulpit is because somebody else shared their pulpit with you.
Yes, preaching is central to your calling. But as you begin to feel the pressure of weekly preaching and the challenge of balancing it with the rest of your pastoral responsibilities (not to mention your family), sharing your pulpit gives breathing room to your ministry. Moreover it expresses your partnership with other pastors or elders in the church, and provides a platform for training other preachers.
5. You’ll never be qualified or competent for this job
Being young and inexperienced, you have no choice but to trust in the gospel of Jesus for the ability to perform your ministry. Don’t let your growing experience change that utter dependency. The only thing that ever qualifies you for this role is the gospel of Jesus at work in and through you.
Reflect regularly on 2 Corinthians 3:5-6: “Not that we are sufficient in ourselves to claim anything as coming from us, but our sufficiency is from God, who has made us competent to be ministers of a new covenant . . .”