by Robert Earl Houston
I’ve been the pastor of four congregations. My first congregation was located in Portland, Oregon, where I served just under two years. My second was in congregation in Fresno, California, where I served four years. My third congregation was in San Diego, California, where I served nine years. I spent four years on staff as Assistant Pastor in Nashville, Tennessee. And my current congregation in Frankfort, Kentucky is where I have been serving close to four years. It’s been a total now of some 23 years of pastoral experience spanning five different congregations in a pastoral role. I want to give advice for those new pastors – those who have never pastored before and will be assuming or have recently assumed a pulpit. It’s advice that I pray you will find useful.
#1 – REALIZE YOU’RE NOT THE PASTOR YET
The biggest mistake that most entry pastors make is thinking that because the name is on the marquee that you are the pastor. Nothing is further from the truth. Being the Pastor or overseer or tender of the flock is not by overnight sensation it’s by over the years seasoning. The title is meaningless if no one trusts you enough or feels that you are emotionally bought in with the church. I’ve discovered that your first job is to love the flock, learn how to hold their hands, be there in their joys and triumphs, be especially there during seasons of bereavement and pain. I had a member once when I had been voted in as pastor of my current church, who picked up the phone when I needed to speak to her husband. She answered the phone, “Hello.” I said, “Hello there, this is your pastor.” She paused and asked “Have you signed your contract yet?” I said, “No ma’am.” She said, “then you’re not my pastor yet.” The point is that until you’ve signed that contract emotionally, spiritually, and with familiarity, you’re not the pastor yet.
# 2 – REALIZE THAT WORDS WILL HARM YOU
Remember the old nursery rhyme? “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never harm me.” Biggest lie ever told. Remember, as a new pastor your lexicon needs to be brief and you haven’t been around long enough to form an opinion of other things outside of the context of the word. I remember in my first week on staff as an assistant pastor that the senior pastor was asking for input about one of the young ministers’ sermon. Everyone went around the room and were quite complimentary and nurturing, and then it came to me and I became Jack the Religious Ripper. I tore into his sermon construct, his points, his conclusion. Mind you, everything I said was right on target. The problem was that I didn’t have the relationship established which would have given me permission to make those bold public statements. It took years and even to this day, when we run into each other, I feel like he’s going to say “you remember that time when you killed me? I survived.” The point is when you first get into position, go into a learning and listening mode.
# 3 – REALIZE THAT SOMEONE WAS THERE BEFORE YOU
One of the biggest mistakes that many a new pastor makes it to think that no one pastored before you arrived or to be arrogant enough to suggest that the church has never had a “real pastor” until you arrived. No one holds a pulpit forever. Of the four churches that I’ve served as Senior Pastor, at my first church I was the third pastor in their history and in subsequent churches there were 15 or more pastors before me in the latter three churches. Pastoring is seasonal. Some of those men were legendary and some of them were reduced to a paragraph or just a “from and to” reference in history. But that doesn’t imply that the work, the preaching, the visitation, the teaching was null and void. Sometimes you follow a deceased legend or a living legend. Sometimes you follow a creative Christian or a caught criminal. And if the Lord tarries, someone will follow you. Dr. K.L. Moore, Jr. served this church for 46 years. I have been studying him from time to time and recently I went online and read an interview that he did with the State Historical Commission to get an insight of his ministry. The point is, when you become critical of your predecessor, someone will become critical of you.
# 4 – REALIZE THAT CONVENTIONS DON’T MAKE PASTORS
I am a convention-supporter and I’ve held membership at one time or another in seven national bodies – Southern Baptist, American Baptist, National Baptist Convention USA, Inc., National Baptist Convention of America, International, Inc., National Missionary Baptist Convention of America, Full Gospel Baptist Church Fellowship and currently with Progressive National Baptist Convention, Inc. However, I have learned never to put the interest of a convention above your duties as a pastor. I am active in a convention in addition to my pastoral duties and not instead of. And I’m not willing to compromise my pastoral principles just to gain or retain an office in the Conventions. I’ve resigned from positions before when I felt like that I was not being respected as a Pastor. Also, I don’t want to fall in the shoes of those who would “kill” for a position in a convention, only to lose the support of their people that God has assigned you to. This year, I’m cycling out (by choice) as State Convention president because I want to spend more energy here at home. The Convention presidency cannot make me a better pastor. I understand that pastoring makes me a better pastor. When I was a young associate I watched a pastor in our community rise up in the ranks of denominational work while his congregation crumbled. The late Dr. E.V. Hill always said “If you say you’re a leader and nobody’s following you, you’re just taking a walk.”
# 5 – REALIZE THAT THEORY VS. REALITY MUST BE LEARNED
I know some friends from seminary that had great and bold ideas. One of my professors, the late Dr. Joseph C. Aldrich was my Pastoral Theology instructor at Multnomah School of the Bible (now Multnomah Biblical Seminary). He asked us to write a paper on what we expected our pastoral ministry was going to be like at our church. Man, we wrote great and grandiose (for the late 70s) plans. I remember writing that I’d like to have about 1,500 members and TV and Radio ministries and this and this and that. Fast forward a few years later, God sends me to a church that was financially struggling, in an overpriced storefront building, and had been through two pastors in less than 7 years. A pastor must gauge his congregation and determine what will work there and what may not work there. It’s great to have a dance ministry, but if you’re average age of your membership is 82 – I don’t think that’s a great idea. Having a ministry to prisons is a great idea, but if the nearest prison is 500 miles away – you may have to do something else. Beware of comparisons with other churches and ministries. You do you! Do what God has invested in your life and ministry with the people where they are.
Get out there! Do your best! Be prayerful! Give the Lord’s people your best sermons, your best teaching, and He will send the increase!