I used to be a pastor. For nearly two decades, I enjoyed the thrills, spills, chills and can't-quite-pay-the-bills of local church ministry. Now, five years after packing up my office for the final time (including two boxes of Leadership back issues), I still think about those years in the pastorate every single day. No exceptions. It's as though the word pastor is branded on my heart. And as I reflect on those 1,000 weeks in the world's most glorious, dangerous profession, I often think about what I would do differently if I had another shot at it. If I was given a ministry mulligan, here is what I'd do with it.
More collaboration, less competition
The pastoral scoreboard was always clear to me: pastors of large, growing churches were the winners. They got nicer parsonages and bigger paychecks. Instead of attending conferences, they got to speak at them. Pastors of small, struggling churches—well, God bless 'em, at least they're trying.
I hope we can keep this just between you and me, but I am coming to grips with the extent to which my desire to be a "winner" in this pastoral competition motivated my ministry.
In the first church I served, everyone was talking about "breaking the 200 barrier." I thought, If we could break the 200 barrier, I'd be a winner. I could die in peace. Who could ever want more than that? Well, it turns out, I could, because by the time we broke the 200 barrier, some of my friends had churches of 300 and 400.
So my goal became to see our church become the largest church in our district. Then in the top ten in our denomination. I tracked how we were stacking up against other churches and gleefully marked our progress up the ecclesial food chain.
I did imaginary trash talking with the pastors whose churches we had left in our wake: "You call yourself a pastor? Don't bring that weak stuff in here." I wanted to be a winner.
Now I realize this is sin. I don't think it's wrong to set goals, reach people, or desire growth. But for me, even though I was giving lip service to reaching the lost and extending the kingdom of God, in the deepest places of my heart, my ministry was an awful lot about me. About winning. About ego. It was about competition.
Recently I had a brief conversation with a pastor who served a wonderful church in the same community I did. He said: "It's funny, Jack. I felt like I knew all the other pastors in town. We were all friends. But I never really knew you." It was an innocent matter-of-fact comment, but his words pricked my soul. I hadn't been a friend because I viewed him as more of a competitor than a colleague, and today I grieve at the warm friendship and shared ministry that might have been.