20 Years Pastoring My Small Church: The Cautions

20 Years Pastoring a Small Church: The CautionsWhat now?

I have 20 years under my belt as the pastor of my Small Church. 30 in pastoral ministry all together. Since there aren’t a lot of us that get to this landmark, there’s not a lot of advice about what to do next.

One thing I know for sure. I don’t want more of the same.

God help me never to settle for that. No matter how good things have been.

A lot of the work of New Small Church is about bringing younger ministers along. Helping them not repeat my mistakes. But today, I’m acting as the young gun, speaking to those that are my age and older. I’m looking ahead and seeing problems that we need to be wary of as we reach new stages of maturity in ministry.

I see some caution flags as I step forward. Some of them are issues we never talk about. It’s about time we did.

If you’re just starting out in ministry, don’t stop reading. There’s something in here for all of us.

Today is the second in a 3-part series, looking at the keys, the cautions and the joys of having a long-term pastorate in a Small Church.

Don’t Settle

There’s an old saying that young people look to the future, not the past, because that’s what they have the most of. While older people look to the past, not the future, for the reverse reason.

So let me put out a friendly word of encouragement to pastors in a similar position to me, in your 50s, 60s and beyond, with a lot of experience under your belt.

I ask, plead, implore and beg you on behalf of the church, and for other Small Church pastors everywhere…

Don’t sit on your experience.

By all means, enjoy your golf game. Spend time with your grandchildren. Take time to relax. Most of us have never taken enough time to slow down and have fun. But don’t slow down so much that you coast on your experiences and successes, or settle for doing things the way you’ve always done them. And never give in to the temptation to feel entitled to a position, or respect, simply because of the time you’ve already put in.

The church needs what you have to offer at this stage of your ministry more than anything you could have given us when you were younger. Take your experience and share it with those who need your help. Small Church pastors especially, can really use what you have to offer.

But please temper that experience with the next step. It’s vital. For you and for those who need your help.


Be Ready to Learn – And Unlearn

The second part of this point – unlearning – is the hardest, but it may be the most important aspect of staying vital and innovative as we get older.

I’ve changed my preaching style 3 times in the last 20 years. I’ll probably change it 5 times in the next 20. And I adapt my leadership style on an almost annual basis.

If we’re not consciously making adjustments to our methods of doing ministry – at least as often as Microsoft comes out with a new version of Windows – we’re not leading any more.

It’s not that we have to be a technological wizard or an expert on the latest trends. Those can be distractions, actually. But we need to keep our eyes open and our ears to the ground.

Read new books, as well as old ones. Watch people. Participate in the conversations people are having on Facebook. Talk face-to-face. Become more aware of the world outside the walls of your church.

Right now I’m facing the steepest learning curve of my life. After writing my book, I needed to support it with this website, so I Googled “how to build a website”, then built it from scratch. And I’m not a tech guy. On top of that, my church will be parenting two new Small Church plants in the next 18 months. Never done that before either.

Instead of slowing down or settling in, I’m learning new ways of doing things and unlearning old ways on a daily basis. It’s the most frustrating, challenging, exhilarating and rewarding time of my ministry.

This isn’t bragging. It’s what adapting and growing looks like in the 21st century. For me, anyway. It will look different for you.

They say when you learn new things, it actually carves out fresh pathways in your brain. That’s why learning new ideas is so hard. Especially as we age. The new ideas want to land in the old pathways.

But, while it is very difficult, this process is one of the mind’s greatest defenses against aging diseases like Alzheimer’s. It’s said that learning to do new things in new ways actually adds years on to your life. If so, I feel like I’ve tacked on about a decade in just the past 6 months.

Learning new ways to do ministry is hard. Unlearning old ways is harder. Not doing either is death. Literally and figuratively.


Avoid Staleness – Borrow Fresh Eyes

This may be the greatest danger of long-term ministry in one church. Our eyes become blind to problems that are painfully obvious to everyone else.

Assume nothing. Ask people, especially newer, younger people in the church, what they see, what they like and what they would change.

Experience isn’t as valuable as it used to be. Life is changing too fast. What I knew 20 years ago simply isn’t true any more.

And it really ticks me off! Here I am, with over 30 years of experience under my belt, entering the time of my life where, in every previous generation, my experience would be like gold. But I live in the first time in history where, because of the pace of change, my experience can actually stifle my value rather than add to it, if I don’t learn how to adapt it to new realities.

So I have a choice. I can sit around and whine about “kids these days” and their lack of respect, obsession with electronics and shallow commitment level, or I can sit down, hear what they have to say and find out that they really do want to benefit from what I’ve learned. They just need to know I’m listening first.


Know When to Quit

I don’t want to come across as judgmental, mean-spirited, or a know-it-all. But some issues are too important to soft-pedal around. And this is one of those. So here goes.

Pastoring is not a default position for Youth Pastors who got too old, evangelists who couldn’t book meetings any more, or almost-retired ministers who need a paycheck for a few more years.

It is a profound and blessed calling that deserves the best we can give to it, from the best part of ourselves.

If you’re called, do it.

If you’re not, don’t.

If you’re done, quit. For your sake and your church’s. And for the young pastor who can’t find a position to serve in.

This is not about “out with the old”. Some of the most vital, innovative pastors I know are decades older than me. While some people I went to school with, started coasting years ago.

It’s one the prayers I’m starting to pray now. God, give me the wisdom to know when it’s my time to step aside and let someone else steer for a while. And when that happens, help me to be a navigator, tour guide or pit crew member. Anything but a back-seat driver.


What Next

Getting to 20 years in the same church is a result God’s blessings in a variety of forms. No one has that kind of longevity by precise planning. We took one step at a time. We did our best to live by biblical principles. We learned from our many mistakes. And we lived in gratefulness to God for allowing us to keep going.

Most of us hoped for longevity. We prayed for it. We envisioned it. But no one was more shocked than us when we achieved it. Or more grateful.

I don’t know about you, but as for me and my house…

It’s time for 20 more.


So what do you think? Do you have any other cautions for thriving in the later years of Small Church ministry?

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(Caution Tape photo from Eugene Zemlyanskiy • Flickr • Creative Commons license)

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1 thought on “20 Years Pastoring My Small Church: The Cautions”

  1. Keith Allen Pintar

    Your book and your ministry to small church pastors has been a godsend to me. Thank you so much and keep up the God work!

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