6 Lessons I Learned as a Rookie Pastor

  “What do you think of me as a human being?”

A few weeks into full-time pastoral ministry, this question was posed to me from a man in the middle of a counseling session. His eyes were full of tears and his face was facing the floor; he was looking to me for any type of help. I wasn’t prepared for the rawness of his question, but there he sat, waiting for me to answer his cry.

My first year of pastoral ministry was like being dropped into a battlefield that I’d only read about. Yet, there I was, in the midst of the destruction of sin and the brutality of a world following the enemy, trying to discern what it actually looked like to be in the trenches, pastoring the people of God. It was terrifying. After a year in the battle, here are six lessons that I learned as a rookie pastor.

1. Soak Yourself in Scripture

In seminary, I'd heard stories of how ministry can become all about the job and not about loving Jesus. Not me, I thought. I was prepared, I was ready, I was confident. But when I became a real pastor with real responsibilities, all of a sudden my personal devotion had screeched to a halt. I became too busy to meditate on Scripture, and I became more anxious, irritable, and impatient with everyone around me. I had become a pastor consumed with the work of ministry and not with Jesus Christ, and I was suffering for it.

Finally, the Lord opened my heart and exposed my lack of devotion to him. Psalm 1:1-3 proclaims:

“Blessed is the man whose delight is in the law of the Lord, and who meditates on his law day and night. That person is like a tree planted by streams of water, which yields its fruit in season and whose leaf does not wither—whatever he does prospers.”

The busyness of ministry will make you say, “I will get my personal time in tomorrow.” But that will never happen. You must make it happen today. You cannot do the work of pastoral ministry without the nearness of Jesus and the more time you spend in God’s Word, the nearer he is.

If you are reading Scripture but not asking the Spirit of God to press it deep into your heart, you will not be truly delighting in the law of the Lord. The Spirit is the switch that once turned on, can illuminate the majesty and beauty of God’s Word to your heart and mind (1 Cor. 2:9-16). The Spirit brings vitality and freshness to the meditating on God’s Word. Jesus says that “the Spirit gives life” (John 6:33). The life-giving Word of God is what we need in the wars of ministry.

2. Jesus Is a Better Justifier

I feel justified by how many complimentary emails that I receive after a sermon. I feel justified by how many students show up to youth group on Wednesday nights. I feel justified by how many people want to meet with me for counseling. I feel justified by how much input I get to give into senior leadership decisions. I feel justified by... the list can go on. This is the performance-driven treadmill, and it dominated my thinking for a good chunk of my first year.

The first year of ministry showed me how innately destructive the desire to please people can be. I am learning that Jesus is better justifier than anything else in this world; in fact, he is the only justifier. Justification through grace alone is a glorious truth. It penetrates the heart that is driven by justification by works, and this is where the gospel begins to convict and comfort in beautiful ways.

The truth is, the treadmill of performance demands that you keep outdoing your previous effort. The next sermon has to be more profound, the next youth gathering has to be more exciting, and so on. This is absolutely exhausting. I am learning that it is God’s promise, not my performance, which sustains our relationship, and it is the cross of Jesus which justifies me, not the number of “likes” my sermons get on Facebook.

3. Point People to the True Savior

I think many pastors want to be everybody’s hero. I am wired that way. The motivation can be a good one. We long to see people freed from their struggles. However, it’s easy to glorify ourselves rather than Jesus. It’s exciting to hear people compliment our ministerial strengths. In those moments, the pastor-savior complex appears, complete with a sweet cape that we can put on, ready for the next situation to fly in to rescue.

Pastors can also go to the opposite extreme and ignore the gifts that God has given them in order to truly help people. Even a well-intentioned compliment can be turned into a theological disposition. We say, “It was actually the Trinitarian Godhead working in this situation; I had nothing to do with it.” To be sure, it is God who is transforming all people into the image of his Son, but he has called us as pastors to be on the stage of his great theater, with an important role to play in the lives of the people we serve. We are called to point them to the true Savior, while at the same time meeting them in the middle of their mess and doing all that we can to love and serve them in the ways of Jesus.

Entering the mess of people’s lives is where we experience the limit of our ability and the limitlessness of Christ’s ability. It is certainly easier to put bandages on people’s struggles, trying to sew up all that sin has done in their life in a one hour meeting, and then believing you have solved it all with a few words of wisdom. There can be a fine line between shepherding people’s lives under the authority of the true Shepherd, and trying to be the true Shepherd yourself. We must not become fatalistic about what we can do, believing that there is really nothing we can truly do to help people, but we must also guard against a sense of triumphalism and heralding ourselves as the true deliverers of people from their storms. Over and over again, I have seen that one meeting with someone was only a very small part of what the Lord was doing to heal them. My role was to bring the gospel to bear on their situation, to pray with them, and to encourage them to seek help in a variety of other places in addition to me. If we truly believe that sanctification is a God-driven but community-necessary process, then we must not let our counseling with people terminate on time with one pastor. So, I encourage people that meet with me to speak with another pastor if possible, or to join a community group where they can get in the fight with others. It’s also helpful for them to meet with a biblical counselor who can engage them more deeply.

I do want to shepherd people for the glory of God and not my own glory, and it is only in learning my role in the greater theater of God’s redeeming work that I can point people to what they desperately need – the true Savior and Shepherd of their souls.

4. Honor Other Pastors

There is something hardwired into youth which makes us want to change institutions wholesale, ignoring the opinions of those who have spent more time in the field than we have been alive. I am fortunate to serve on a church staff with several pastors who have been in ministry for decades, and I have found myself seeking out their advice and opinions on a variety of ministry and personal fronts. Sure, the context for ministry and the methods for ministry are different. The context may have been different when older pastors were cutting their teeth, but the pastoral wisdom available to you is waiting to be tapped. And it may shock you.

There are few things as important in ministry is a healthy staff culture, and if you are the guy who is continually questioning other staff members’ motives, gossiping about the “direction of the church,” believing in your heart that your sermon would have been better than his, you are helping to create an unhealthy culture that will bleed over into the church itself. Don’t be that guy. That guy can kill your church.

Do I always agree with other pastors on staff? No. But do I respect the motives and opinions of other staff members and honor those men who have a love for Christ and his Church by gladly submitting to their leadership, learning from their experience, and recognizing their collective wisdom and character that is often trying to help me? Yes.

5. Your Wife Is Your First Bride

I work for Christ’s bride and it is easy for her to receive the majority of my affections. But as a married man and a pastor, I am called to love my bride more than the bride of Christ (1 Tim. 3:5). I went through seasons in my first year where I was loving and serving my wife well, and I went through seasons where I wasn’t doing it well. This will always be a battle. Yet, I don’t want to write the book one day with a chapter lamenting about how the first ten years of our marriage were awful because of my obsession with the church. I want to honor my wife by letting her know that she is more important to me than anything else apart from Christ himself.

The health of your marriage will also dictate the health of your pastoral ministry. If you are loving and serving your wife, you will be in a much better position spiritually and emotionally to love and serve your church. Keeping several nights of my week completely free, saying no to people, and sharing about the highs and lows of ministry with my wife are a few things I am learning as I focus on putting my wife first.

As many people will attest, it is through marriage that the Lord shows how deep our need is for the gospel and for the Spirit. It is through sacrificially loving my wife that I honor the Lord with my covenant vows. And it is through loving my wife that I learn how deep the Savior’s love for his bride, the Church (Eph. 5:25).

6. Love Your People

Do you really love the church you serve? Do you love the people to whom God has sent you? I find myself loving the work of pastoral ministry more than I love the people to whom the Lord has sent me. It can be easy to dream up vision for where you want your church to be and forget the actual people who make up your local church. I find myself talking about “the church” as if it is an institution devoid of people; I speak as though it’s nothing more than a means by which I accomplish things “for the Lord.”

But the church is the people of God, called out and commissioned for his great work in the world (Matt. 28:18-20). It is to this end that we labor as pastors. We should desire to see people grow into the fullness of Jesus. It is easy to use people for “the good” of the church, but not truly love them for who they are as human beings. If you are using people rather than loving them, you’ve missed the heart of Jesus.

Look to Christ

If you allow it, pastoral ministry will demand everything from you. Yet, it's in the finished work of Jesus Christ where pastoral ministry finds its flourishing. The gospel of Jesus is the anchor we plunge down deep into our souls, and the treasure that we lay hold of with all our might.

Our flesh seeks to use pastoral ministry as that identity which justifies us. To the degree that our churches are growing, or people are being baptized, or money is being offered, or sermons are being liked – this is the degree to which our identity is secure. But if people start leaving or the money starts drying up, then our identity can begin to crumble. If our self-worth as pastors is built on what we do for God, then we will become tremendously easy prey for Satan. He will continually lie to us about what makes us acceptable in God’s sight.

Preaching the gospel of Jesus to ourselves helps us fight Satan’s lies. Our self-worth is not built on what we do for God, but is built on what he has done for us. Titus 3:5 says that “he saved us, not because of the righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy.” This verse has been manna to me over my first year of pastoral ministry, and it is this truth that you must bury down deep within your soul. It is through the mercy and grace of Jesus Christ that brings us into God’s presence. It is the very character of God – his loving kindness, his faithfulness, his mercy, his strength, his patience – that we must meditate upon. It is his character which gives purpose and peace to your circumstances. Rest in that glorious truth.

May the cross of Jesus Christ, the promise of God’s saving love through his Son, sustain your relationship with the Father rather than your own performance. May the Spirit of God propel you into a fresh season of gospel-centered worship that stirs your heart and captivates your mind. And, to paraphrase Eugene Peterson, may your life be marked by a long gaze in the same direction.

“One thing I ask from the LORD, this only do I seek: that I may dwell in the house of the LORD all the days of my life, to gaze on the beauty of the LORD and to seek him in his temple.” Psalm 27:4


R.D. McClenagan is a pastor at Door Creek Church in Madison, WI where he lives with his wife, Emily. Follow him on Twitter: @rdmcclenagan.