If you could begin all over again, what one thing would you have focused on more? Or, put differently, what wisdom would you give to a new pastor if you were asked this question: What should I focus on? Here’s a reflection by Bob Smallman, pastor at Bible Presbyterian Church way up in northern Wisconsin where, if you’re not looking, you can get bitten by a muskie.
First of all, I am glad by God’s grace that we can’t “begin all over again!” Once around is enough for me. I’ll never understand why reincarnation appeals to so many!
For context, I’m 61 years old, and Linda and I are in our 30th year in our current parish. I was at my first congregation, a church plant, for nearly three years. And that would be my first suggestion to someone starting out: don’t try to start a new church right out of seminary! In fact, knowing what I know now, I would have looked hard for an assistant/associate position to get several years of seasoning. That first church just about finished me off, and only my wife’s faith in me and a return to seminary for an advanced degree kept me in ministry.
It’s almost impossible to answer the question, “What ONE thing would you have focused on more?” because the pastorate (at least in smaller and medium-sized churches) won’t let you do that (and I don’t have the iron will of a Eugene Peterson to stay focused!). With the exception of an incredible half-time youth director (who’s been with us for 15 years and built an amazing youth ministry), I am the only paid ministry staff member. Because we’ve invested our personnel dollars in youth ministry, we don’t even have a secretary (though a volunteer does put the Sunday bulletin together). So I am the classic “jack-of-all-trades” pastor — and I love it! It has forced me to lean heavily on the ministry skills of my people (and made me wish I were a better mentor/trainer than I am).
But if I could go back (now) and talk to myself as I was first starting out, I would say to myself, “Relax! It’s all going to turn out not just ‘fine’ but way better than fine!” As I confessed to my church members (and to my wife and grown children) a while back, I spent so much of my early ministry years living in fear. Fear that I wouldn’t be a good enough pastor. Fear that I wouldn’t be a good enough parent. Fear that I wouldn’t be able to financially support my family adequately. And all of that energy that I invested in fear (and a fair amount of corresponding inner anger and depression) was so unnecessary. If only I had listened to my own sermons on God’s grace and faithfulness.
Perhaps these are lessons that only age and experience can teach; but for a long time I found it very hard to live in the kind of grace that I was offering to my people. Sad to say, I’m not sure I was truly content with my ministry, my life, or myself until my late 40s.
So what wisdom would I give to a new pastor if were asked the question, “What should I focus on?” Focus on God’s grace and faithfulness — for your people, but especially for yourself!