An Open Letter to First-Time Ministers
Note: I enjoyed working on this post with my good friend and college roommate Brady Ross. Brady works as the Youth Minister at the Crestview Church of Christ in Waco, TX. Go check out Brady's site at bradyross.com – I think you will enjoy his work!
Churches need ministers who are in for the long haul. Thom Rainer, president and CEO of LifeWay Resources, believes that a minister’s most productive years are often years six through ten of his or her work with a particular church. By this time, Rainer writes, “Both parties have worked through the tough times. They now trust each other and love each other more deeply.”
Unfortunately, ministry is hard, and this kind of longevity isn’t normal in most churches today. Ministers often go into a new job or role with high expectations that don’t last long past the end of the “honeymoon” period. Many struggle to get off on the right foot and leave their church after only a couple years, some walking away from ministry entirely. Deep wounds turn to scars that cause animosity towards the church as a whole, acting as a deterrent to faith itself. What can we do to fix this problem?
Before you can make it to year six, you must survive year one. Thanks to the grace of God and churches committed to our longevity, we (Brady and Payton) have both recently crossed the one-year benchmark. Today, we join together to reflect on the successes and failures of our first year, hoping that you may learn something (good or bad) from what we have experienced.
For readers who may not be familiar, can you share a little more about your context?
Brady: I am the Youth Minister at the Crestview Church of Christ in Waco, TX. I spent two years in part-time youth ministry before beginning my full-time ministry at Crestview. Crestview is a 600-member church that defines itself as “the church that loves kids” and “the church that helps people.” These two statements drive our mission as a church family. For more information about our church, visit crestview-church.org.
Payton: My current ministry title is “Connections Minister” at the Alameda Church of Christ in Norman, OK. Isn't that great? My job is all about connecting people. I organize guest services, develop outreach efforts, and organize our small group ministry. My mission is to provide avenues where our members can be actively involved in the lives of other members, but, more importantly, in the lives of those in our community. Our church vision is to "develop committed followers of Jesus Christ," and I have not known a church who is following that mission more than Alameda. To learn more about us, visit alamedacofc.org.
What can you share about your hiring process?
Brady: Crestview’s process was simple, informal, and very refreshing. My first interview was over breakfast with one of the current ministers. For my second interview, my wife and I met with the entire group of existing ministers. As we spoke with them, I could tell that they truly loved Crestview and were excited about its future. On my final visit, I met with the elders and answered questions they had emailed me a few days before we came to Waco. Seeing these questions ahead of time allowed me to come into the meeting more relaxed and prepared. Per my request, I was also able to spend time with parents and students on this visit. Throughout the entire process, I always knew where I stood - they communicated clearly and openly with us, and made Crestview seem like a wonderful place to live and work. I honestly can’t say there’s anything I wish they would have done differently.
Payton: My hiring process at Alameda was fairly unique, compared to others. I now know that the process usually involves 1) meeting with the staff, 2) meeting with the eldership, and 3) attendance to a regular Sunday morning service, in that order. I remember on the weekend of my interview there were tornado risks sweeping through the Norman area. So, what should have been a three day process was condensed to a single afternoon. Though the circumstances were not ideal, the process was seamless. My interview, which my wife joined me for, was held in a cozy room tucked away in our church building with both the ministry staff and the eldership. They asked us general questions, caring more about our own spiritual health than anything else, and kept the rest of the conversation focused on the body of Christians there (the journey of the church, the vision of the church, etc). I felt that the eldership at Alameda cared about me before they even really knew me. I felt that I was trusted and that by hiring me they were empowering me, not using my role to further some predestined agenda. My hiring process was an encouraging venture and one of the reasons I had no hesitations in accepting their offer.
Did your new church family welcome you in a “special” way?
Brady: Our moving truck - which we spent eight hours loading in Oklahoma City - was unloaded in no more than 45 minutes by the twenty church members waiting for us in the parking lot of our new home. The timing was perfect - we had spent the past several hours on the road and were exhausted! On our first Sunday, the elders gathered around us on stage and prayed over us. We were also given a gift basket containing several gift cards to Waco-area businesses as well as invitations to participate in various activities, such as golf and Baylor football games, with church members. Later that night, we had a special church-wide welcome party, featuring several food trucks in the parking lot as well as a grocery “pounding” (more on that here - and here). As quoted in my dad’s Christian Chronicle article, Mary says it better than I could - “Their welcome has made us want to bless others and welcome them just as we have been welcomed.”
Payton: It depends how you might define 'special.' Did they shower me in gifts and glory, lifting me high on a pedestal, proving my worth, before I even had a chance to do anything substantial? Well, no. And I am glad they didn't. However, if you would define 'special' as a group showing up at our door on move-in day to help unload our furniture (including my outrageously oversized refrigerator), then yes, it was special. If by 'special' you mean being surrounded by the entire eldership in front of the congregation so that a prayer of blessing could be made over our life and ministry, then yes, it was special. I think so often we get caught up in the ‘rolling out of the red carpet’ that we forget it is the welcoming hugs, the taking out to meals, and the showing around town that we are really hoping to receive. My welcome at Alameda was very special to both me and my wife and I would not trade those moments for the world.
How has your experience in full-time ministry been similar or different from what you expected?
Brady: Ministry is weird. In my ministry “career” (it feels strange to use that word - I still feel like I’m new at this), I’ve gone from intern to part-time youth worker to full-time youth worker, and I’ve always falsely assumed that with a “better” title comes more glamorous responsibility or greater importance. And today, almost two years into full-time ministry, I now believe that my role has a lot more to do with the position (or lack thereof) that Jesus describes in Matthew 20: “Whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave.” In other words, it’s not about me. There have been times where I’ve put my heart and soul into an event, expecting the accolades and high-fives to pour out endlessly on behalf of a job well done, only to hear nothing except a complaint about a minuscule detail that wasn’t even something I had control over. And, in those moments, I’m forced to remind myself of what my role is - I’m not seeking honor for myself, I’m laying out the path to the One who deserves much greater honor. I work with others, but I work for God himself, and his approval forever takes precedent over theirs.
Payton: I knew my job involved working with broken people, but it can be easy to lose sight of the importance of your own spiritual health in the midst of helping others with theirs. Many times it is difficult, as a minister, to pour into people who are spiritually empty if you yourself are spiritually empty. For that reason, taking care of my own spiritual, mental, and physical health are crucial in my effectiveness as a minister. Another aspect I took for granted was how many hats a minister must wear in a week. Even as the newbie, you have to learn to meet people where they are and adapt to their needs. Somedays your job leads you to a hospital waiting room praying with broken families; other days you are sitting at your office desk all day writing sermons. One day you are wearing blue jeans and cleaning up tree limbs in the neighbor's yard, another you are wearing a suit and tie attending a member's funeral. Being able to adapt to the needs of your church is crucial regarding your effectiveness as their minister.
If you could re-do your first year, is there anything you would do different?
Brady: If I could do it all again, I would spend more time with people than working on programs. You think you’re going to win people over by putting out a new innovative, flashy program, but it’s relationships that really matter. I have realized that many churches will put up with below-average programming and poor organization if a minister genuinely loves and cares for people. While programs and organization are still important - and both areas I spend significant time on - I do a much better job of caring for people today than I did in my first few months. As Jesus says in Matthew 23:23, “You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former.”
Payton: If I were to do something different it would be not to rush to change everything. As the new guy on the team, many are looking to you to provide the fresh energy and to be a catalyst to the church's momentum. That is a lot of pressure. From wanting to prove your worth to your new team, to wanting to fulfill the expectations that you perceive others have of you, there is a new weight put on your shoulders. What I came to find out is many things are the way they are for a reason. I know that sounds simplistic and faintly cliché, but when you are in the mindset of self-proving it is easy to fall back on a desire to change things. If I could do something different it would be to spend more time observing and learning about why things are done a certain way. By doing this I believe I would have come to appreciate the way things are and would have been able to use this new perspective to 'improve on' versus simply change.
What encouragement would you give a new minister in their first year?
Brady: Ministry is tough, but it’s so worth it! People are going to complain. The to-do list is going to be more than you can manage. You’re going to encounter brokenness (in others’ lives and in your own). And that’s okay - God made us to be broken. It’s often where he displays his greatest strengths (see 2 Corinthians 12:9-10 - one of my favorite passages in all of Scripture.) Trust God on the good days and on the bad days. Believe it or not, God cares about your ministry more than you do. That’s something I have to remind myself of on days when I get worked up or frustrated about my ministry, and it really puts my role into perspective. It leads me out of worry, anger, and depression and into prayer, which is far more effective in bringing about righteous change in myself and in others.
Payton: You are changing the world. When we get stuck in a routine, we often lose sight of our vision, but the gospel is a counter-cultural message and one by which our entire career (and life) is built. You are going to have critiques and you are going to be unpopular by many worldly standards, but you are entering into the most rewarding calling I believe one can receive. My encouragement to you would be to develop a habit early on of reading God's living word every day, spend ample time in prayer, and lift others up any chance you get. I believe these three things will get you further in life than anything else.
What advice would you give a new minister in their first year?
Brady: Even if you think it’s going to be the “silver bullet” that causes your ministry to soar to new heights...hold off on making significant changes. I always heard this said by my professors and older youth ministers with more experience. Then, I got to Crestview and immediately assumed that I was the exception to the rule. I didn’t make any massive changes (Crestview already had a tremendous ministry in place when I arrived so I didn’t need to), but I did pull the trigger on a few things a little earlier than I should have. Truth is, even when change is good and necessary, it’s going to be met with great resistance. Change is hard! And when you’re a new minister, you’re better off developing trust and building relationships than trying to tweak the system or push your agenda. There’s usually a reason why things are a certain way in churches. Take some time to figure out what those reasons are before potentially throwing out the baby with the bathwater.
Payton: Soak it up! That first year of ministry is thrilling, hectic, and humbling. Especially if you are coming out of seminary (or some other means of religious education), it is an unbelievable experience to put some of the things you have been training for into practice. Don't move too quickly, though. You're most likely going to make a couple mistakes. You might have a discomforting conversation or two with your lead minister or eldership. You might even have a day or two of questioning your decision to go into this line of work, but that is all a part of the learning curve. You are answering a call into a vigorous line of work, and that first year is all about acclimating to the culture of your new church.
What advice would you give a church that has recently hired a new minister?
Brady: Remember that moving to a new place is difficult. I can still picture the moment we dropped off the empty UHaul and reality finally set in that we had moved to a new city and state, away from our family, friends, and comfort zone. I thought to myself, what in the world have I done? We can’t go back now! However, after just a few weeks at Crestview, we quickly had no problem calling Waco “home”, thanks to the love and support we felt from our new church family. So, if you’re bringing on a new minister, make every effort to help them feel welcome and comfortable in their new environment. Don’t just give them a paycheck - give them a family. God designed us to live in community, and ministers shouldn’t have to sacrifice living in God’s family because they’re working in God’s fields. Help them build relationships. Invite them into your home. Show them around their new hometown. Support them, even when they make mistakes (as we all do). Tell them that you believe in them and in their ministry. Offer to help them when they ask. Pray with them. Pray for them. Look for opportunities to compliment them publically and privately. Doing these things won’t just make your new minister happier or more comfortable, but will improve the quality of their work and prepare them for a long, fruitful career in ministry.
Payton: I agree with everything Brady said there. I would simply add: set up easy "wins" for your minister. Being the new guy/gal in your church means it might take awhile for their personality and impact to show in their work. However, if you set up easy wins for them early on, this not only boosts their confidence, but it also shows off their abilities to the rest of the church and gives you an idea of how they do things. I know this had a huge impact on the way I would continue in my ministry. I knew I had the confidence of the eldership, the support of the ministry staff, and the love of the congregation early on.
The first year is a roller-coaster ride. It is filled with peaks and valleys, highs and lows, it is both exhilarating and challenging. You will have some of your greatest victories and experience some of your greatest defeats in your first year. Through it all, never forget that starting on the right foot is important, both for your long-term health as a minister and for your relationship with your congregation. So, take your time, love people, serve your communities, and enjoy the wonderful ride that is ministry!