20 years. That’s a long time when you think about it.
For 20 years I’ve been a pastor, as either a student pastor or as a senior pastor.
When I think back to my very first year of pastoring as student pastor, I honestly do not know that I can just list 10 things that I learned, because I learned everything. That’s because I knew nothing about being a student pastor except that I loved teenagers (because I was one!) and that I loved Jesus.
I could tell you about how I learned the joys of playing “Chubby Bunny” or how I learned how to file a missing persons report when I made it back to the church missing three teenage boys.
Oh, don’t worry—it was okay. They got arrested. So, all good. I didn’t lose them.
Being a senior pastor is one of the hardest things I have ever done in my life. It ranks third behind being a husband and a father.
If you have pastored for any length of time, you know that to be true as well. In fact, I would say if it’s easy, you’re doing it wrong.
I became a senior pastor and a church planter all at the same time. So the learning curve was pretty steep for me. There was a LOT I did not know.
I have learned a lot over the years and I’m still learning. But these 5 things were foundational to me in my first year.
1 – A crowd is not a church.
Anyone can gather a crowd. A crowd is just a bunch of people getting together in one place. They might all come for various reasons. But a church is not a crowd. For a long time, I thought the crowd we had gathered was our church. It was not because I was not really pastoring them yet.
2 – People will leave you. Don’t take it personally.
I’ll never forget getting really close to a large family in our church. I loved this family. They were so fun and they cared about me, my family, and our young church.
But because we really had not figured out yet how to engage their growing teenagers, they felt they needed to move on to another church. I’ll never forget reading the email through tears. It hurt. People leave you, they leave the church, and unfortunately, sometimes they leave Jesus. It never stops hurting. But I learned in that first year that I had to stop taking it personally. People leave for various reasons. It’s not always your fault.
3 – Everything rises and falls on discipleship.
John Maxwell famously said that everything rises and falls on leadership. He’s not wrong. But in the church, that’s only half the story. The church rises and falls on discipleship.
Discipleship IS leadership. Jesus never did leadership talks or held a Leadership 101 course. Jesus lived out discipleship and in turn, made leaders. As a believer, I knew this. As a young church planter and new senior pastor, I had “mis-remembered” this.
In my desire to grow the church and get a bigger crowd, I had neglected the importance of discipleship. I just thought that since we were doing church, we were doing discipleship. I learned that to do discipleship well, I had to be more intentional about it.
4 – I had to find MY voice.
In my first year (and probably even a few after that), I didn’t have a voice. Not a literal voice, but I just didn’t sound like me. My sermons sounded like Mark Driscoll one week, Andy Stanley the next, and Matt Chandler the next.
My church didn’t need me to be Andy. They needed me to be Bobby. I needed to find MY voice. I needed to preach and lead the way God shaped me. It took me some time to figure that out.
5 – Grow tough skin.
Before we planted our church and before I became a senior pastor, I kept hearing others tell me, “grow some tough skin. You’re going to need it.” I thought I had it covered. I found out pretty quickly that I did not. I needed to have thick skin not only for myself, but also for my wife.
When you become the lead pastor, when the church gets talked about, you feel like they’re all talking about you (see #2). Sometimes, they just skip talking about the church and just talk about you. Or other times, people will unnecessarily criticize you, your leadership, speaking skills, or their perceived lack thereof. It takes some pretty tough skin to weather that. I certainly learned to grow it and grow it quickly.
Remember to not take take things personally when they’re not, and when they are, keep your eyes on the vision God has given you, even if it’s through tears.
I love pastors and I love being a pastor. It’s one of the greatest privileges and honors of my life. I honestly can’t think of anything I would rather do. I have learned much in these last years, but I also know that I have much more to learn. I’m not there yet.
If I ever think that I have it all figured out, I might as well be done.
It’s good to consider what we have learned in the past and what we still have to learn for our future.
If you’re a young pastor starting out in your first few years of being a senior pastor, hopefully these few things will not be the things you have to learn the hard way. I’m glad to have learned them for you.