I took my first vocational ministry position the summer I graduated high school (1994), becoming the youth minister for Zion Chinese Baptist Church. (You read that right.) In the 20 years since, I’ve heard a lot of good words on ministry and ministry life, and while a lot has been good, a few choice bits of wisdom have stuck with me since I heard them and have proven truer and truer over the years. Here are just five.
1. “The core you start with isn’t the core you finish with.” —Bill Hybels
Hybels did not say this to me personally, but he said it in a workshop at the 1996 Willow Creek Church Leadership Conference. I don’t know why it stuck with me then—I was a youth pastor at a Willow model church, but I wasn’t thinking in terms of church planting or anything then. I’ve sifted out a lot I’ve heard from the church growth guys, but this one I’ve kept and it’s pretty true, in a variety of ways. I’ve had guys I was close with, been on leadership teams and in the trenches with, decide the whole “living a Christian life thing” wasn’t for them. Your biggest fans can turn into your biggest critics, and often do. Mainly because they are your biggest fans because there’s some kind of idolatry they’re getting out of you, seeing you as a functional savior in some way. And then you disappoint them and BOOM: It’s all over. But even if nobody turns on you or falls out with you, the longer you go in ministry, you see the seasons of life, and the growth of a church or ministry takes the rose-colored glasses off of “doing ministry” with the same people forever. Some people get to do that. Most don’t. The core you start with is not the core you finish with.
2. “You must renounce comfort as the chief value of your life.” —Mike Ayers
Mike was my first pastoral mentor, the guy whose ministry actually kept my wife and I sane and in ministry after I’d had a bad experience at a previous church that almost made me give up church altogether. He was the first guy to really take me under his wing and trust me and empower me and take me seriously, even as a young punk. I served as a youth minister at his church and learned a lot, especially about loving the lost and building relationships. Mike and his family have been through a lot themselves, so when I heard him say this line in a sermon, I knew it came from a place of authenticity. It stuck with me. And it’s exceptionally important for all Christians, including pastors, who can get too comfortable with praise and growth and too despondent with criticism and conflict.