All pastors have defining moments, critical times that alter the course of their ministries. Often we only understand these moments in retrospect. After the fact we see how they changed our lives, formed our ministries, and shaped our thinking.
Many such moments come to mind for me, but one stands out. It came early in my ministry. It taught me the importance of recognizing what I now call "the caution light."
I lead Fellowship Missionary Baptist Church, a historic church in the inner city of Chicago. It's a church body with a rich legacy. In the 1960s Martin Luther King, Jr. preached at our church, and throughout the years FMBC has been a catalyst for the transformation of individuals and society. Being an inner city congregation, we deal with some tough situations. We know firsthand the difficulties of aligning dreams for the future with harsh realities of the present.
When I took the pastorate in 2000 at the age of 24, I was eager to make big changes. I succeeded our church's founding pastor, who led our church for 50 years, a man the whole community celebrates as a spiritual father. Stepping into his position, I found myself surrounded by wonderful seasoned people. Many of them were three times my age, and most of our traditions were older than all of us.
I believed I had a fresh vision to revitalize an aging church, inspire a new generation, and impact the city. But it wasn't going to be easy. I faced a host of strong personalities, dated methods, and entrenched agendas. On the other hand, a new generation brimming with energy and expectation was hopeful that I would bring change.
It was a combustible mix, a recipe for ecclesiastical disaster. Forging ahead too quickly had the potential to split the church. Even more importantly, I sensed that I didn't have a green light from God for many of the things I wanted to do. Not that I wasn't ready. I wanted to stomp on the gas and speed forward for God's kingdom, like a Holy Spirit-fueled Ferrari! But I sensed God was putting a caution light in my path. I had to evaluate the consequences of taking immediate action. Jesus said, "Suppose one of you wants to build a tower. Will he not first sit down and estimate the cost?" (Luke 14:28). I was beginning to appreciate just how applicable that principle is to ministry.
Yet I also knew God wasn't giving me a red light. He didn't want me to stand still, or permanently shelve my plans. He wanted me to proceed, but incrementally and with caution.
For me "estimating the cost" wasn't just about assessing finances. I had to think about human capital. I had to weigh my moral authority. As I began to evaluate the possibilities of what we could accomplish, I learned that there were areas in which I could make great strides, just not at record speed. I began to pursue "now is the time" projects while identifying "not right now" initiatives. For example, there were traditional segments of our worship service that I held off changing, and antiquated programs I left in place temporarily because they were meaningful to a few church members. I also postponed plans to launch a second campus. I needed to ensure we were secure emotionally and that the congregation was confident in my leadership before launching a second site. When I did begin to initiate change, I had to hold more meetings, have more conversations, and provide more explanations for what I was doing. Among the guidelines I found helpful:
- If the vision sat with you, let it sit with them.
- Don't expect a harvest in places where you have not sown seed.