Being the pastor of a small church, I had prepared myself for the challenges that come with a lost influence on the younger generations. Coming into the position, I visited with the remaining leaders of the church who were desperately trying to fill the pastoral position. I had come from the West Coast and had an assistant pastor position for a handful of years and was ready to take on the lead role. However, this would be a difficult church to lead, and everyone told me so. There was nothing wrong with the people left there at this church. On the contrary, those left to keep the doors open were rather sweet. The challenge stemmed from the multi-faceted effects of their past in that church that left them with trauma and a lost perspective on how to glorify God.
What little I knew going into taking the lead was what inspired me as a seminary graduate. I wanted to see a small and neglected church grow and beam with life again. However, there was much to be done, not just repairs to the structure but the people. We couldn’t minister to our community the way God intended without our souls mended. Past leaders did some horrible things that caused church division as well as distrust and bitterness. Those who left wanted more and those who stayed were looking for redemption. Furthermore, any discipline, spiritual formation, or care for the congregation at any stage was desperately needed.
The background to this story is a long and complicated one that I could not go into now. Though, as I write this for you, the reader, I want you to be encouraged that it is not an isolated event. Ministry is a hard, painfully emotional as well as physical task for pastors and their wives.
So, I want to share some tools or methods that I have learned to maintain your peace with God as He has taught me through this experience:
First, become familiar with the congregation who are already there.
This might sound like some obvious advice but quite often it isn’t done. I have noticed that many pastors coming into the role are looking to change the scene. I admit, this was my plan also, and wanted to find the problem areas and repair them quickly. Of course, “change” which many are fearful of when repairing a church or simply taking on leadership couldn’t help but be scared. So, be sensitive to those who are there and who have been through church trauma. Many local churches have experienced a split due to conflict or dominant characters. Some have endured overpowering pastors who wanted it all micromanaged. Some congregations have lived with leaders who were passive and rarely present. As pastors, we need to be aware of these “church hurts” and minister to them as we lead them.
This will be your responsibility to take on a conversation while it may seem one-sided or with heavy emotion. That could be acceptable in the beginning because what you will be doing is deciphering how that person feels based on how he or she reacted. This of course doesn’t make a person’s reaction to be the correct one, but it does give indicators of where they are and how they feel.1 The truth will soon be evident when current scenarios that include the pastor who had taken time to listen sprout trust. Thus, feelings can be considered but God’s will through proper healing and spiritual formation can take place.
Know this, my beloved brothers: let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger… (James 1:19 ESV)
Second, maintain enthusiasm for the church you are in.
Find methods that encourage your enthusiasm about serving there. Look for positives in the people who are with you leading or with those in the congregation. God considers all who are saved to be His saints, His servants and so treat them as such. Yes, we may have those very same people criticize us, whine about coffee, bicker over the budget, music, and all that other stuff, but regardless, those are who we are discipling.
Here is a call for the endurance of the saints, those who keep the commandments of God and their faith in Jesus. (Revelation 14:12 ESV)
Let’s be clear here, I am not saying that there is something wrong with you if you don’t feel automatic joy for the people you are serving. There will be moments, maybe longer, that you might need to pull the peace from God with great effort to love someone. Do that, without ceasing, go to God, and ask for the peace and forgiveness needed to serve the hardest person. The congregation is looking to you to set the culture of the church. If you are stress-filled, anxiety-driven, passive, oblivious, immature, and insensitive, then it will be among them. However, if it is led with humility, love, faithfulness, joy, and the other fruits of the spirit, it will be among them.
Lastly, let God lead and follow Him through it.
This was probably the hardest and still is the hardest part of pastoring a church. One example is how badly I wanted to have more people in the seats on Sunday. I thought that if the church was not full, it was the result of my poor marketing, poor speaking, and poor leadership. However, I had discovered that it was all in due time that the church would begin to move again. At times, I had to realize that the church may never be a 200-member church, but more importantly, what was the impact on the community made by the church as it glorified God.
As mentioned before regarding change in the church, I had to wait for the appropriate moments to implement change. A big reason to wait was that God was working on the hearts of those who would be affected as well as my own. Often, my pride took a hit when I couldn’t have it my way while blaming someone else for not being ready for the change. The hypocrisy convinced me enough to learn a new level of patience. One more example is how some who may be the loudest and most vocal can cause both friction as well as momentum. Be patient as God works the strengths in those who are seeking progression in the church. What I mean is, remember how Paul the Apostle was stubbornly persecuting Christians as Saul mentioned in Acts 8, to then be the author of nearly all of the New Testament?2 His strengths were both lethal when prideful, but righteous when a child of God.
To conclude, most of what we do as pastors will be difficult and very little of it will really be understood. We stand alone with our wives and other pastors as servants as God intended. That doesn’t take the sting away from the loneliness we serve, and when we do receive recognition, we often see pride create a fall. Pastors run the risk of becoming too charismatic or too passive as they lead. I say, run the race together, leaning on each other and striving to help each other up as we look toward Him to save us. A small church isn’t a bad thing, actually, it might be the very place God wants us.