Lessons from My First Pastorate

by Brian G. Hedges

My first pastorate was not very successful. It was a painful experience of less than two years that ended poorly and sent our family into a nine-month tailspin from which I sometimes wondered if we would recover.

But the Lord is merciful. He taught us some valuable lessons, stretched our faith considerably, and graciously opened a new door of ministry in a church where we've happily served for the last six years.

A wise mentor once encouraged me to write down the lessons learned from a trying experience. I've found that good counsel, so here are six lessons I learned from my first pastoral experience.

1. Vigilance in personal spiritual disciplines is
absolutely critical to loving and wise leadership.

This first lesson is perhaps the main one, because everything flows out of the heart (Prov. 4:23). If the heart is not kept closely tuned to the Word and the Spirit, a false step is sure to follow.

After resigning from the church, I realized how thin and shallow my time in the Word and prayer had become. I was reading the Bible daily, but I wasn't feeding daily. Having let down my guard, I relaxed in my disciplines and sought relief from the stress at church through recreation with family and friends.

As pastors, it's easy to think we're spending time with God because we spend so much time studying for sermons. But while our devotional reading and our sermon preparation may overlap some, there is still a distinction.

I need time with the Lord in His Word that's focused not on what I'm going to say to others but on what the Lord is saying to me. That must be prioritized. You can't drive a car without refueling, and you can't serve well without regularly filling your heart with God's Word.

2. Leadership can only be as effective
as relationships are strong.

Most preachers tend to be oriented toward either the study or the people, but not both. I am oriented to the study. It takes little discipline for me to read several hours a day, and preparing sermons is usually a delight.

But it's easy for me to neglect people. I've learned the hard way that poor relationships cannot sustain the love and trust that is essential to shepherding sheep.

The turning point in my first pastorate, which led to my voluntary resignation, was when I realized that I had lost the trust of several key church leaders. When I reflected on my relationships with them, I realized that I had never had a one-on-one conversation over a meal with most of them. I learned that if I don't make frequent deposits in people's lives, it doesn't take many withdrawals to get in the red.

In coming to my second pastorate, I knew from the start that solid relationships with the men would be crucial. So I started setting up breakfasts and lunches with as many men as possible. I met with each of the trustees individually before our first trustee meeting, and I scheduled breakfasts with the men who most intimidated me. I also pursued the church leaders' counsel.

This has paid off well. I love these men and feel loved by them. Several have even confessed that although they didn't initially vote for me, they're glad I came, and they believe that I am God's man for this church. The relationships have made all the difference, and leadership has come naturally as a result.

3. Make changes slowly and smoothly.

Gary McIntosh, in his book One Size Doesn't Fit All, commented that changes should be made the way a person walks through a den of snakes: slowly and smoothly. Sudden, jerky movements will get you bit!

In my first pastorate, I made one significant sudden and jerky change, and about four people bit. Almost immediately I knew that I had made a terrible mistake in the timing and manner of the change (though not in the change itself). Although the mistake was unintentional, and although I acknowledged this publicly and sought forgiveness, I never recovered the lost trust.

Someone else once told me that most churches can handle about one major change a year. I tried to make four or five changes in less than two years, and it was too much. Even though many of the changes were relatively minor, I had not yet earned enough trust.

I made very few changes in the early days of my second pastorate, and none that were sudden and jerky. But over time, we have now made many significant changes, including changes to our constitution, model of church governance, and worship style. Almost all of them have been well received by our congregation, with no significant fallout.

4. Ask many questions before accepting a call.

I naively did not ask sufficient questions of the leadership at my first church. They didn't ask me many questions either. I made assumptions about them, and they made assumptions about me. It didn't take long before I realized how far apart our convictions really were.

After resigning from my pastorate there, Holly and I quickly plugged in to another local church. It was a wonderful time of healing and renewal for us, and a good time for me to learn from another pastor.

When I started considering another church ministry, this pastor counseled me to ask a lot of questions from many people before accepting a call, which was good advice. I set up one-on-one interviews with each search committee member and several other key church leaders. My wife and I had interviews with several church couples, both younger and older, and we had an "open mic" Q&A session with the entire congregation.

We asked important questions about their history, governance structure, and expectations, and they asked questions about our vision for the church, spiritual giftedness, and beliefs about key issues. The thoroughness of these interviews protected all of us from big surprises later on.

5. When in doubt, don't.

In retrospect, probably the worst mistake I made in my first pastorate was accepting it. It was not an easy decision, which should have been sufficient warning.

For one thing, my wife and I were not initially united in the decision. She had serious reservations, but I talked her into it. Before two years were up, I knew that she had been right. I learned a critical lesson for both ministry and marriage: I need to listen to this wise and godly woman the Lord gave as my helper.

Following this experience, I resolved to never again accept another pastoral role without my wife's full support. That led me to turn down a church-planting opportunity that interested me but not Holly.

We continued to pray for the Lord to lead, and step by step He answered every single prayer in leading us to where we are today. We were in total agreement and had absolutely no doubt about God's will.

6. God works all things together for our good.

While this is not a new truth (see Romans 8:28), the Lord has taught it to us with fresh power. We've seen Him use a series of wrong choices, difficult circumstances, and dashed expectations as stepping stones to a wonderful place of joyful ministry.

There is little doubt that if we had not accepted the call to the first church, we would never have been where we are today. That doesn't justify the mistakes we made, but it does show God's wisdom and mercy which override our mistakes. (Used by permission of Life Action Ministries)