By: Steven Nelms
Number One: Be Mindful of Who You Surround Yourself With
I made it 12 months as an inexperienced, overwhelmed, underqualified pastor of a struggling church plant for one major reason; the people who were faithful to the health of the church body. Of course, there is God’s grace, but unfortunately I was rarely relying on God’s provision of spiritual fortitude. It was one symptom of prematurely diving into ministry. God was encouraging and supporting me to an extent that was far beyond my awareness, but what I mean to say is that I was not pursuing God and his faithfulness as I should have. That being said, I maintained momentum and stability largely due to the fact that I had people surrounding me that were truly men and women of God.
My stewardship team was made up of four men. They had every opportunity to make me feel like a little boy playing around in his father’s shoes. But instead they treated me as an equal. One woman in the church, our full-fledged prayer warrior, had every reason to tell me that my sermons were dreadfully awful when I first started. But instead she only complimented my passion and affirmed the potential of my gift week after week. One man was a builder/handyman that could have showed up each Sunday ready to be served after a hard week of working hard just to make ends meet. But instead he volunteered his time to handcraft a beautiful coffee bar with our church’s logo on the front. Another man was barely supporting him and his wife with the help of unemployment checks and could have asked the church for help. But instead he volunteered his company’s services for a discount and his own time free of charge to create and install our church’s logo on the front of our newly acquired office space.
I could go on and on of people who sacrificed their time, their energy, and sometimes their sanity for what they believed would be beneficial to the church. Their motive was faithfulness to what they believed was good for their community of believers. I could not have made it beyond the first 3 months after the rose-colored glasses of enthusiasm wore out if it had not been for the beautiful hearts of those sweet people. I don’t think I ever told them enough how much their hearts meant to me. Ministry, community, the church, the pursuit of God is all inadequate and ill-equipped if you are not surrounded by faithful people ready and willing to commit to the body in whatever way possible. I had the privilege of being blessed with that kind of community.
Number Two: You are only as wise as your counsel
I actually still had a couple months left in my undergrad when I took on the role of pastor. In other words, I was at the peak of a time in my life where I was convinced that I knew everything. I knew all that I needed to know and no one could tell me otherwise. If there was a topic up for discussion, I had an opinion about it. If there was a passage up for interpretation, I had an insight about it. If there was an issue up for debate, I had an argument over it. It was a beautiful time in my life when I knew everything. But alas, things change. As a young pastor of a church, I needed plenty of help and plenty of insight into what I was doing and how I was getting it done. I had the immense privilege of being mentored by two men.
One was Eddie Hancock. He obliged to be a mentor to me based only on an introduction provided by the former pastor of the church I was stepping into. He more or less told me that I was crazy for taking on this challenge, but that he’d be there for me every step of the way. And he was. He spoke into me wisdom that came from over 30 years of ministry experience where I only had 3 years of experience being a Christian. I learned about leadership from him. I learned about tolerance from him. I learned about compassion, and relationships, and faith. Eddie cared for people. And not in the abstract sense. He would not say that he cares for a particular people group or nation or ethnicity. He would sooner say that he cares for an individual person by name. And then he’d live it. Eddie would spend hours upon hours of his time speaking to people, one on one, to help them walk through and navigate the obstacles in their lives. Because above all he’d always prefer to love intensely with focus and precision. I never heard him speak ill of anyone he’d count as a brother or sister in Christ. Never would he shy away from critiquing someone, or commenting on their actions, but it was with respect and from a motive of exhortation; not belittlement or accusation. He gave me encouragement where I had none. I owe a great deal to Eddie from the week to week meetings of encouragement to the influences he has had on my overall philosophy of ministry. Everything from the method of communicating our flawed relationship with God by using dissonance in worship music to reaching a community on cold nights simply with a hot pot of chili; he taught me to see everything I did as ministry. To him I am eternally grateful.
The other was Harry Watson. He was the director of missions in Las Vegas for the Nevada Baptist Association. I don’t remember how we first connected, but we met at least once a month for the duration of my position as pastor. If there was one word I could use to describe that man, it would be holiness. He pursued it with every fiber of his being. He was not obedient to Scripture as some are, where they read a verse that says, “You should love orphans”, and so they go serve at an adoption center. He was obedient to Scripture in the sense that when God said love the Lord your God and love others as God has loved you, he simply looked for outlets to pour out that love. Some pastors have particular teaching styles and they can never alter their method or change their style. Harry would alter and change his style to the needs of his audience multiple times in one weekend. Teaching in churches where each church spoke a different language, had a different culture, and desired different worship styles, he accommodated their needs as long as he could teach them the word of God. He’d spend the time to type up his entire message for a translator. He’d stay for an hour after preaching to pray for and bless each attender individually. He’d do whatever it took to love. He has a son about whom he speaks in such a way that you would never guess that their only connection in relationship is that they both love Jesus Christ. Once a man who was taught how to measure the value of an infantry’s life, now after giving his life to Christ, he devotes his days to sharing the life-saving message of the gospel. I don’t think there was one conversation we ever had in which Harry did not bring up the importance of daily holiness. He stressed the necessity of living righteously in everything we do. And then he demonstrated that pursuit in his own life. And for that, I am eternally grateful.
Number Three: Resignation is Irrespective of Experience
I don’t mean resignation in the sense of stepping down from a position. I mean the kind of resignation that means to acknowledge, to accept, to submit to a particular idea, concept, or truth. So let me get a little preachy for a second; when we put our faith in Christ we are resigning ourselves to the truth that Jesus Christ is our Lord and Savior. This resignation, once established by grace through faith in Christ, is irrespective of experience. Experience might have brought me to faith through a myriad of avenues. But once I committed my life to Christ, no experience thereafter should deter me from that resignation. I’ve resigned myself to Christ; to a committed pursuit of him in all that I do. And nothing has shaken that resignation as much as my experience as pastor for that one year.
Whatever the reality was, I was convinced that God had called me to pastor that church. So I stepped up in faith to do what God had called me to. I knew I was called to be a pastor, so why not now? But when I got into ministry, nothing was easy. Nothing came naturally. Nothing went smoothly. Everything I did felt like a struggle. Everything we attempted to do for outreach, community service, events, etc., all felt forced. Some people chose to leave the church and it hurt me deeper than I ever would admit to myself. Some people would mention how the previous pastor would have done things differently than what I was doing and it would discourage me to my core. I felt like God owed it to me to make this ministry flourish beyond imagining. I felt like God should be making this church thrive, be bringing in the lost, and spreading his gospel through our community. But in the year I pastored that church, not one person came to Christ; not one person got baptized.
All the results that I desperately wanted to see never came to fruition. So I began to think that God abandoned me in ministry. I thought that maybe God wasn’t pleased with me and wasn’t with me anymore. I began to think that I wasn’t even supposed to be in ministry and maybe I’m not supposed to be a pastor. At the closing of the church, one man in particular even made a point to tell me that he hoped this experience wouldn’t deter me from pursuing ministry in the future. I assured him that I wasn’t deterred and that I would continue in ministry. But the truth was I had nearly decided already that I was done with ministry, in the full-time professional sense. I might volunteer here and there, but as far as being on staff on a church; never again.
The point is, my disappointments, disillusions, and discouragements were all the result of my perception of my experiences. My perspective of reality caused me to think that because I wasn’t seeing the results I wanted, God must not be pleased with my service. My resignation was thrown away and my devotion became entirely based on experience. So what I’ve learned most of all is that a resignation in Christ must be irrespective of personal experience. I cannot base the effectiveness of my ministry on my perception of reality. Because the base reality is that God is always with me and that he loves me. He desires for his name to be glorified. He desires for all men to come to a knowledge of Jesus Christ. He desires for his people to worship in unity in Spirit and in truth. The reality is that I am indwelt by the Holy Spirit and that he will never leave me. This is the reality to which I am resigned.
I’ve resigned myself to this truth and this resignation is without respect to circumstances or experiences. The church suffered hardships and I suffered wounds. But neither are indicators of God’s lack of intimate involvement in my life or the wellbeing of the church. And this is a crucial truth that I forgot by time I walked out of that building for the last time. It does not mean that I will avoid pain and suffering at the hands of God’s call on my life to ministry. But it does mean that I cannot allow my understanding of God’s faithfulness and loving kindness to be skewed by the experiences of hardship.
Conclusion: God is Good
God is good. That’s one fundamental truth of the nature of God. What he does and how he operates is fundamentally informed by this truth that he himself is good. We could even say that he is goodness. It’s not just that we can describe God with this abstract property of being good. It’s that God himself is the essence of goodness and the reason why we have any concept of what is good. We only can call things good in as much as they reflect some aspect of God himself. With all the pain and trials and hardships and discouragement that I came away with after the closing of the church, I can only affirm that God is good. I wouldn’t change my experience. I wouldn’t go back to decide not to step up to the plate. I wouldn’t wish it away for anything.
Again, if I were to write out all the lessons I’ve learned from those 12 months of ministry, I’d fill an encyclopedia. I’ve learned what’s worth measuring in ministry. I’ve learned what’s worth rejoicing over. We started every Sunday morning with a talking point. One person would share a little something and then others would chime in with their two cents. One man who had been coming to our church long before my wife and I was the kind of guy who never chimed in, always had something negative to say, and wasn’t the hopeful type. If asked how he was doing, he’d answer, without fail, “Just one day closer to the grave.” But one morning, he spoke up. And he simply said, “Our job is to love anyone who walks through those doors and to show them they are welcome here.”
I’m fighting back tears as I write this because it was one of the most beautiful moments that I cherish from my time as pastor. Everyone was silent for a few moments. And then the only response anyone could muster was whole hearted agreement. We may not have baptized one person, but one man who seemed to lack hope in his daily life spoke with such profundity and such love that it was unmistakably a moment of God’s uninhibited grace. God is good. I might not always be able to identify it in the moment, but the truth is unwavering that God is good.
I would never wish away what I experienced, but I’d never wish it upon anyone else either. And I certainly never want to relive it. But the fact remains that God used it for good. I learned, I grew, and I was broken. And from the shrapnel of broken pottery, God has been softening and reforming me into what he intends to use me for. So, what I learned when my church failed is a thousand different things. I’m thankful for every moment and every lesson and can only hope that I take those lessons into my next ministry opportunity with the resignation that God is good and he is faithful.
To those who were a part of Lifesong Church, I love you and am indebted to your love and faithfulness to our little community of believers. You have taught me things I will never forget and I am grateful to have walked with you for those 12 months. Thank you.
By: Steven Nelms