I wrote this blog post two years ago, but never published it. Recently, a friend encouraged me to publish it regardless of my hesitations. I’ve rewritten it six times, so here goes.
Twenty-nine months ago, I became the ninth pastor (in the past 30 years) of Emmanuel Baptist Church. God thrust our lives together by sheer force of His undeniable will. Our family was welcomed warmly by wonderful people who became family to us in a short time. How they held onto their faith and loved their church through so many hard transitions still amazes me.
We immediately started addressing huge challenges together. The word “overwhelming” doesn’t begin to touch it. The one thing that helped us keep our sanity in all of it was that God had obviously brought this about. God was doing something beyond our understanding. So we—our family and the EBC family—held onto Jesus and each other for dear life, and pressed forward in faith.
I’m a planner, but there’s no way to plan “survival-mode.” In the face of overwhelming circumstances and bad statistical odds, I asked God repeatedly, “What do you want me to do?” My recurring prayer was, “God, these are your problems.” Every morning I woke up staring at a mountain of needs not really knowing where to start climbing. I won’t bore you with the list, but it felt a bit like being tasked with drinking an ocean.
It was all good. It all needed to be done. The question looming in my heart and mind was, “What first? Where do I stick in the straw and stark drinking?”
In several ways, God made it clear to me that it’s His work and His pace, not mine. I wanted to dive in and work myself sick. One day, as if He was sitting next to me, He said to my heart, “Are you going to do this, or am I?”
I apologized, stepped back, and said, “I want you to do this.”
“Good,” He said, “This is My church, and these are My people, and I know what they need… I also know how to take this ministry forward in My plan.”
The result of that conversation with God, for me, was yielded patience. It was the intentional decision to accept what I cannot do, and to focus on His leading moment by moment. It was a decision that leaves much “undone.” It was a decision to say “yes” to a few things and “not yet” to most things. It was a decision to keep it simple—to focus!
If you’re a new pastor, or if you’re struggling with ministry priorities—maybe this will be meaningful to you.
With prayer and counsel from a dozen or so pastors of healthy churches—God directed my focus to three primary priorities. Feed, fellowship, and follow-up. Three simple words, but they have become big navigational landmarks in my weekly planning.
Let’s break them down:
Priority #1—Feed the Flock—if nothing else gets done, this church family is going to hear the Word of God and feed on His truth. My most earnest desire is that EBC would be a green pasture where God’s sheep can feed well and be comforted and encouraged. They will hear the clear Word of God—biblically, contextually, attractively, passionately. Thankfully my fumbling, stuttering oratory ability cannot hinder to powerful impact of God’s truth from His Word. This is the first non-negotiable of weekly ministry.
For me, this means about 2.5 full days of focused study, prayer, and sermon preparation. I take in far more than I can give out, in hopes that what is given out will be rich with biblical nourishment.
Priority #2—Fellowship—local church ministry is only healthy through real relationships. I wish I could fast-track the establishment of strong, close relationships. Being the new guy in a church family was new territory for me. In terms of trust, it’s a bit like being sent back to the “start space” in that horrible game “Sorry.”
Starting over with relationships, however, is also enjoyable and delightful on many levels. We have been greatly blessed in getting to know and love our church family—hearing their stories, rejoicing in their lives, and sharing in their present growth. My only regret is that I don’t have more time in a week to get to know more of them better and faster.
In contrast to this, I marvel at how many pastors have bought into the unbiblical “mystique” philosophy. This wrong thinking teaches pastors “not to get too close” to people. 1 Thessalonians 1 and 2 destroys this philosophy as the Apostle Paul describes how close he was to those He led to Christ.
Priority #3—Follow-Up—From our first weeks at EBC, God began to bring a steady flow of unbelieving guests into our services. Each week it’s been a great joy to greet them, meet with them, and answer their questions about the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Many of these people have come to Christ in the last thirty months. It’s been wonderful to see God begin to restore our church with new Christian life. It’s been a lot of fun to engage the true gospel in conversation with doubters, atheists, and people from every kind of background. The gospel crosses all the lines and answers all the important questions!
The follow-up began with our family simply trying to love and share the gospel with guests. From there, it has expanded, and now its wonderful to see our pastoral team and church family engaging faithfully in reaching and discipling new hearts every week.
When it comes to daily or weekly ministry priorities, God keeps leading me back to these three—Feed, Fellowship, and Follow-Up. Preach the Word, grow close to people in discipleship, and reach the lost. So far, He has blessed this focus.
Whenever I find myself in a fog of demands—that overwhelmed feeling of “not being able to get it all done”, God seems to redirect my heart to those three simple priorities every time. When I start to focus on all the things I “can’t do,” He keeps saying, “Are you going to do this? Or am I?”
Perhaps you’re like me—looking at what could be and should be, and bummed that you don’t have the resources or that you can’t get “there” faster. Chances are, when you’re thinking like that, you’ve taken your eye off of the most wonderful part of ministry—the hearts of the people that Jesus loves immeasurably!
Where you are now is probably pretty special!
The most significant parts of ministry fruitfulness are not things we can measure visibly. They are things that God is doing in ways we cannot see in the hearts of His people. Progress and productivity, in corporate terms, are often deceptive—they tend to put our eyes on tasks and projects rather than the gospel and people.
Spiritual progress—the spiritual health of God’s people—is the eternal reward of ministry, and it only happens when people are fed well with God’s Word, sharing in close community with their leaders and church family; and when new souls are being born into the kingdom and grounded in Christ!
Don’t get caught up in what you “can’t do.” Continue to feed, fellowship, follow-up!