10 Tough Lessons Every Pastor Should Remember in Ground-Shaking Trials

Some of the toughest lessons reap the greatest rewards.
Some of the toughest lessons reap the greatest rewards. (Pixabay/skeeze)

This is not the final list. I'm still learning.

Most of what follows about leading God's church is counter-intuitive. Which is to say, it's not what one might expect.

In no particular order:

1. Bigness is overrated.

"For the Lord is not limited to save by many or by few" (1 Sam. 14:6c).

Most pastors, it would appear, have wanted to lead big churches, grow their church to be huge or move to a large church. Their motives may be pure; judging motives is outside my skill set. But pastoring a big church can be the hardest thing you will ever try, and far less satisfying than you would ever think.

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Small churches can be healthy, too; behold the hummingbird or the honeybee.

Trying to get a huge church to change its way of thinking can be like turning around an ocean liner. Even so, the Lord's teachings about the mustard seed (see Matthew 13:31-32 and Luke 17:6) should forever disabuse us of the lust for bigness.

I will spare you the horror stories of pastors who have manipulated God's people and lied about numbers in order to create the illusion of bigness. Forgive us, Father!

2. Lack of formal education in the preacher is no excuse.

The pastor of the small church often has far less formal training and education than he would like. As a result, he often feels inferior to his colleagues with seminary degrees. I have two thoughts on that:

1. It's a mistake. He can be as smart as they are and more if he applies himself. Let the Lord's preachers not be overly impressed by certificates on the wall or titles before their name.

2. He can get more formal education if he's willing. Some of our seminaries have online programs that make seminary education practical and affordable.

My dad, a coal miner, had to leave school after the seventh grade. But he never quit learning. He took courses and read constantly. When God took him to heaven, Dad was almost 96. Our mom had to cancel four or five magazine subscriptions he was still taking and reading.

Some of the finest preachers of God's Word I've ever known have had little formal theological education.

3. There are no lone rangers or solo acts on the Lord's team.

He sent them out two by two (Mark 6:7, Luke 10:1).

The preacher who says pastors are not allowed to have friends and thus shuts himself off from colleagues in ministry has bought into a lie from hell that causes him to deceive himself and limit his ministry. While a pastor may choose not to have close friends among his own church members, there is every reason for him to make friends with other pastors and ministers who serve the Lord well. Failing to do so limits himself and hurts the kingdom work.

Furthermore, he must have co-workers alongside him. Paul needed Barnabas, Silas, Timothy and many others. Read the last chapter of 1 Corinthians and ask God to forgive you for trying to do this work alone.

4. Doing a job by yourself is easier than enlisting and training someone else, but it's violating your calling.

"Make disciples," said our Lord. That mandate calls for us to help people come into the kingdom, then nurture and grow them to the point they will know the Word, can share the Word and can make disciples of others.

Barnabas did not find it convenient to leave Antioch and travel to Tarsus "to look for Saul" (Acts 11:25b). But in doing so, he connected the man called as an evangelist to the Gentiles with the opportunity of a lifetime. We are forever grateful to the best disciple-maker in Scripture, Barnabas.

5. I cannot lead people to do what I'm not doing.

God did not send me to be a talker, but a doer. Not as a coach only, but as a player-coach. "Everyone who is trained will be like his teacher," said our Lord (Luke 6:40b).

So, as a pastor and church leader, my job is to show them how. Not just tell them (James 1:22 and I John 3:18).

6. Not only is it hard to get started tithing my income or sharing my faith (and a hundred other discipleship things), but God likes it that way.

Watch the butterfly emerge from its chrysalis. The struggle, we are told, is a necessary part of its development.

Only people of faith and determination will set out to learn to tithe and witness and understand the Bible, then stay with it until they are able to do it well. Everyone else drops by the wayside, intending to wait until it's easy. In doing so, they're asking for and expecting what never was and never shall be. "And without faith, it is impossible to please God" (Heb. 11:6a).

The members of your church need to be reminded that God does not need their money. He is not suffering from a cash flow problem. God is trying to grow disciples. That accounts for the hundreds of teachings on money in the Word. When are we ever going to understand this? When are preachers going to quit fearing criticism and teach stewardship until people do it?

7. God makes His leaders servants, not bosses or lords or big shots.

I keep running into husbands who want to lord it over their wives because "God made me the head of the home and told you to submit." Such men may call themselves believers, but they are pagan to the heart and have probably never been saved. They certainly don't know the first thing about God's word or Jesus' heart. If they did, they would know that they are sent as servants. "Christ also loved the church and gave Himself for it" (Eph. 5:25b).

Bullies on the playground or dictators in the pulpit are cancers on the body and must not be tolerated. The parable of all parables on this subject is Luke 17:7-10. We must keep saying to ourselves—even when we have done everything Jesus required—"I am only an unworthy servant, just doing my duty."

8. The more righteous we are, the less we will be aware of it. "Moses knew not that the skin of his face shone" (Ex. 34:29).

I said to the 75-year-old saint in our church, "Marguerite, you are the most Christ-like person I know." She didn't flinch. "Oh honey," she said to her young minister, "if you only knew." I did know, in a way, but have learned a hundred times since: Those closest to the Lord are the last to know it. The nearer to the light we get, the more imperfections and blemishes we will see.

Beware of ever thinking you have arrived. "Therefore let him who thinks he stands take heed, lest he fall" (1 Cor. 10:12).

9. The Lord's servants who serve well are going to run into the buzz saw of opposition from the nay-sayers, do-nothings, status-quo lovers and carnal. That's no fun, but it's not all bad.

Reading the mandate of the disciples in Matthew 10:16 and following, we cannot say we were not warned. But it has ever been this way. We are swimming upstream in a downstream world.

Jesus prepared us for this by saying that whoever receives us is receiving Him, whoever listens to us is listening to Him, and whoever rejects us is rejecting Him. (See Matt. 10:40 and Luke 10:16.). If being treated like Jesus is not enough for us, we're in the wrong calling.

10. Not only does the Lord allow His choice servants to suffer sometimes, He even plans for that to happen. See Matthew 10:16 and following.

Caesar ain't coming to your revival, preacher. So, the Lord is going to be needing someone to get arrested for preaching. Then, when the high and mighty ruler has to decide on this case, he will order the saint in chains to "tell us what you've been preaching." That's how it worked with Paul (see 2 Tim. 4:16-17), and that's how it has been with His choice servants ever since.

When Paul and Silas were falsely charged, then beaten and jailed, even though their backs were open wounds and they were hungry, tired and hurting, "At midnight [they] were praying and singing hymns to God, and the prisoners were listening to them" (Acts 16:25). People are always listening and watching when God's people suffer unjustly. God uses that fact to reach many for Himself.

No one wants to suffer. No one volunteers to hurt. But sometimes it's the only way.

What God's faithful must never do is groan and bellyache and say, "Why me, Lord?" Your suffering may turn out to be the highest compliment the Father ever gave you. Early believers rejoiced they were counted worthy to suffer. (See Acts 5:41).

After five years as director of missions for the 100 Southern Baptist churches of metro New Orleans, Joe McKeever retired on June 1, 2009. These days, he has an office at the First Baptist Church of Kenner, where he's working on three books and trying to accept every speaking/preaching invitation that comes his way. 

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