Fifteen tips for starting out in ministry

sheep-1547720_1920I was a young minister once! Up to the age of 50 you’re allowed to think that maybe you still are. But then I have to realise that Margaret Thatcher resigned as PM while I was in college, Scotland didn’t get a Parliament for another eight years after I left Scotland and was ordained, and I am firmly in the second half on ministry, hoping still to score a few goals. So, as I have watched an encouraging batch of young men enter ministry this autumn, several of whom I have followed through training, here are fifteen tips for starting well that I’ve picked up along the way.

  1. Preach within your range. The Bible is like a mountain range, and some peaks are a lot higher than others, so don’t set out to preach beyond your capabilities. We grow into the task of preaching, so don’t set out to preach through revelation as your first series, or John 14-17 or 2 Cor. 10-13. (I tried the latter, and am still scarred by the experience.) Preach what your congregation needs to hear most, and what you can make clear and apply well. Your preaching will reach first class standard after about five years, and test match standard….maybe! meantime, know your limits. John Chapman says ‘Preaching’s not that hard. It’s just the first forty years that’s the worst!’ After twenty four years I am starting to appreciate that quip more and more.
  1. Make a preaching plan for your first few years that takes you to a different genre of Scripture in each ‘term’ of the year. I watched my pastor in Abingdon, Simon Hutton, do this in his early years in Abingdon, and it is a great plan (which had never occurred to me). So we had Exodus 1-15, Colossians, some of Mark, Job (the best early series), Amos and Micah, and so on. As he tackled each series, so he became used to handling that Scripture genre ready for whenever he handled a similar book in future. See your early years in preaching as developing your skills gradually.
  1. If you are a sole pastor, and preach both ends of the day on a Sunday, don’t do a mega series both ends of the day. The real challenge of such ministry is staying fresh at both ends of the day, and not letting one sermon become the poor relation, and typically it is the evening sermon that suffers. Sometimes it is good to do a doctrinal or evangelistic series in the morning that doesn’t tax all your prep time, leaving you free to work hard at an evening series in OT narrative, or a closer exposition of a NT letter. When you want to put your main effort into the morning series, preach from well within your range in your evening series.

  1. If you are a sole pastor, insist that someone else preaches at least one service a month. Do all you can to train men to do this from within the church, but also ask around other local churches and bring in their trainees to preach occasionally. If your members object to this, they are asking too much of you and see you as the answer to everything, which you aren’t.
  1. While you are keen to preach to impress students and young adults, and to gather bright young families with precocious kids, work out how to preach to old Mrs Smith who left school at 15 and likes her knitting. I know this is a stereotypical parody, but it is important for pastors to empathise with those who never got a great education, but who are endowed with lots of common sense. It will make you a better preacher if you can work at your illustrations and applications to connect with someone like old Mrs Smith. How many of your illustrations draw on your male interests? It is good to try and project yourself into their world, but that requires some effort and very good listening skills.
  1. Learn to be a shepherd. Shepherding is a biblical motif for good reason. It is what Jesus does for us, and what he has called us to do. The skill of the shepherd is to know each sheep individually, understanding their weaknesses and foibles. I recommend you read two very different books. First, The Lord our Shepherd, by my mentor and teacher the late Douglas Macmillan, writing from his own experience on the hillsides of Westeross. Second, The Shepherds Life by James Rebanks is neither Christian nor free from profanity, but it does open a window into the life of the Herdwick Shepherd and deserves reading just to sense the skills and effort involved in being a shepherd. As a pastor, you need to listen, watch, not jump to conclusions but spend enough time with people to really know them. That is why long ministries work better. It takes years of Sunday lunches, hospital visits and evenings alongside them to be an effective shepherd.
  1. Identify several people with potential, even if it is at an early stage, and invest time in making them leaders in their particular ministry. It costs in time to sit and mentor them, but it is time that will repay dividends. Give them room to fail, and room to improve. You presumably have existing elders to work with, but don’t assume that everything will stay the same and they will always all be there for you. Church leaderships are in constant movement, and if you fail to train potential leaders, you only have yourself to blame.
  1. Form a ‘band of brothers’ with three other people your own age and stage in ministry, and book out 48 hours each year to go away together. Hold yourselves accountable to each other, study God’s Word together, and pray together. It will give you a new perspective on ministry, and they will be a bulwark against the disasters that so easily destroy us in ministry.
  1. Look at all the books you bought on discount in college, that you haven’t yet started. Let’s face it: some won’t have been read in twenty years’ time. So work out where the weak spots are in your theological framework or your biblical theology, and each term have just one book on the go to fill the gaps. Make it something unrelated to your preaching. Read an hour somewhere in the daytime each week during working hours. Concentrate until the whole chapter is read! Over time this will pay dividends. You have to feed others, so read.
  1. Pick your conferences well, and don’t go to too many. We are conferenced out in the UK!
  1. Outside interests eat time: school governor, prison visitor, gospel partnership steering group, denominational committees, and ‘projects’. These are the things that have nearly killed me at times. Pick one that really suits your gifts and advances the kingdom, and perhaps gets you out in the community better. It may keep you sane, but don’t let it take over.
  1. Vow never to do emails on your mobile, and don’t open your church emails until after morning coffee at 11am. Get into ministry preparation first. Sermon prep always produces avoidance activity to slow you down.
  1. Book three days of your holiday before your family holiday starts, and dig, paint or play golf until you are worth going on holiday with!
  1. Get an ansaphone at home, and vow not to answer phone calls between 5 and 7 pm. Tell your flock your family needs you.
  1. Never forget that God has called you to the most solemn and wonderful task in the world – preaching the gospel and making disciples, sending people out into mission. Somewhere between a messiah complex and despair you will come to terms with your own mediocrity and the fact that this job is anything but mediocre. Whether it is sitting at the bedside of a dying Christian, taking a school assembly, preaching through Romans or preparing a couple for marriage, it’s a privilege brother! You are the little servant of an illustrious master, and you do all this for his glory.
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