When I came to the end of my seminary education, several people encouraged me to take on the role of senior pastor at one of several churches recruiting at the seminary. But two things held me back. First, I didn't want to approach ministry like one who climbs a corporate ladder. The conventional thinking was to leap for the highest rung possible on your first post after seminary and then start climbing from there. Second, I knew in my heart I wasn't ready. I needed to learn the mechanics of church ministry. So, after graduation, I remained in Dallas and joined Grace Bible Church's full-time staff as Dr. Dwight Pentecost's assistant pastor.
About a year or so after working with Dr. Pentecost full-time, I began to feel more confident about leading a church, so I entertained the possibility of going elsewhere. A church in Fort Worth asked me to consider being a pastor there. My wife, Cynthia, and I visited the church and met with the elders. I preached the morning and evening services and we felt right at home; the people were wonderful and the church culture was very familiar to us. We felt unusually comfortable.
After a short time, they called and said, "We'd like you to consider our church voting on a call. Would you like to take this next step?" I agreed. The following Sunday, the church voted. If the vote was not unanimous, it was mighty close. So, from their perspective, I belonged in Fort Worth, serving that church as senior pastor; nothing could have been more obvious to them.
I was excited. Cynthia was excited. I shared the outcome with Dr. Pentecost and he congratulated me. But our initial excitement gave way to a pensive, somber mood, which confused me. We should have been brimming with enthusiasm about our new future and eager to explore the wonderful opportunities for ministry that lay before us. The church was filled with excitement—why weren't we?
Finally, I confessed to Cynthia, "I can't do it." I had been presumptuous. I had pushed my plans through, but I had failed to make it a focus of my prayers.
Immediately after I communicated my change of plans to the elder of the church in Fort Worth and to Dr. Pentecost, I felt instant relief. While nothing specific made the move "wrong," and while I could point to nothing specific that made my staying at Grace Bible Church "right," I could not ignore my gut. That night, I slept like a newborn baby.
I tell you about this period of my history and that embarrassing episode to underscore a couple of thoughts.
1. Ignore selfish ambition.
First, ambition is not necessarily a bad thing, but it should never serve oneself. In fact, it should be kept low on the list of priorities when deciding where to stay and when to go. Don't let ambition cloud your judgment and rob you of the opportunity to gain valuable life experience where you are. You might feel limited in your current position, like your talents are going to waste or you could be accomplishing so much more if only given a broader opportunity elsewhere. Those negative feelings are proof positive that you're growing. Your frustration, however, is not good enough reason to go elsewhere. Not by itself, anyway.
When considering the church in Fort Worth, my immaturity took over. I found it reassuring that a sizable congregation with a fully developed ministry actually wanted me. I thought about all the good stuff that comes with being a senior pastor in a healthy, respected church, but I didn't wrestle with the many responsibilities that the position entailed. I think that was the source of my uneasiness.
2. Listen to your gut.
A second thought: pay close attention to your gut instincts. Intuition is a powerful, yet underutilized tool in decision making. I'm a facts-and-figures guy by nature. I list pros and cons. I weigh the evidence when charting the future. I'm not wired to rely on something so subjective and intangible as my feelings when making life decisions. Some people are and they do it well, but not me. Even so, I have learned to slow down when all the objective facts point in one direction yet my insides remain in turmoil. A churning gut is announcing, "Apply the brakes!"
3. Be sure of your decision.
Third, you must be convinced of your decision to stay or go, regardless of outside pressures. The telephone call to the chairman of elders was one of the most agonizing I have ever made. I had given every indication that I was coming despite many opportunities to back out. My decision affected so many people at two churches and plans had been set in motion in both ministries. Still, I could not quell my uneasiness. Regardless of the inconveniences to others and the agony of my own embarrassment, I remained where I was until I was sure the time had come for me to go.
Excerpted from Saying It Well: Touching Others with Your Words (FaithWords, 2012).
Copyright © 2013 by the author or Christianity Today/Leadership Journal.
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