By Steve Reeves
In my opinion, a young preacher’s first ministry experience lays the groundwork for either a long, healthy ministry career or a short-lived series of job hops that leaves churches and families in a serious state of dysfunction.
While I’m sure there are immature “church-hopping” ministers, I guess there are at least as many “minister-chasing” churches. Most young ministers have school-age children, and I doubt many of them want to uproot their families every three to four years. (With so many preaching resources available today, surely they don’t feel that much pressure to avoid writing new sermons!) They would prefer to stay for the long haul.
Research suggests that when ministers do leave the paid ministry, it is because they need to care for children or family, are having conflict with the congregation or church leaders, or are burned out, discouraged, or in marital difficulty.
I reflected on my first preaching ministry recently and remembered what my friend Alan Ahlgrim told me in 1980. He said, “I somewhat envy your start in ministry.” I didn’t immediately grasp what he had said to me and how true his words really were.
We met regularly for “preacher talk,” and I greatly benefitted from those breakfast meetings with Alan, John Russell, and Marshall Hayden. They offered great insight as they shared ideas, struggles, experiences, and joys.
Thirty years later, I think I get what Alan was saying: Not every church minister is initiated into the ministry in a very healthy way.
Frankly, my first year was a wonderful beginning because the congregation I served (Mount Washington Church of Christ in Cincinnati, Ohio; now called Parkside Christian Church) really knew how to properly initiate the new kid on the block.
The church did a number of things that all congregations can and should do when a person begins his first ministry.
In fact, I would say much of my love for the ministry, to this day, is because of the way that congregation walked with me in those early years.
This article is an appeal to church leaders and members everywhere to recognize the high privilege and responsibility of loving a minister into the Lord’s work so that it will become a lifelong passion.
I will offer some dos and don’ts which I experienced in my ministerial initiation.
Don’t be disappointed. Do welcome!—I understand you may not be thrilled to learn that a “newbie” is coming to lead you where he has never been himself. I don’t want a surgeon to try his first surgery on me. I don’t want a pilot flying my plane if he’s just getting the hang of it. If I’m the pitcher, I don’t want the umpire behind home plate to inform me it’s his first game. When a hairstylist says, “I’ve been practicing for a while, so here we go!” I’m outta there!
So, even if you’re a little nervous as this inexperienced preacher gives it a shot, go out of your way to make sure he knows you are dedicating yourself to come alongside him in this new venture.
Don’t discourage. Do encourage!—Trust me, a new minister will hear enough bad news. What he needs from you is to expect encouraging news. Teach him to expect it from you.
Don’t exclude. Do include!—Ball games, dinners, class parties, and other events provide great opportunities for the new family to meet members of the congregation and the community.
Never pressure the new minister and his family to attend, but gently and regularly let them know they are truly invited with no strings attached.
Don’t say, “Been there, tried that.” Do say, “Tried that, but maybe this is the right time!”—You may offer a word of caution based on a previous experience, but be supportive of a well-thought-out vision that has been bathed in prayer.
Don’t be inflexible. Do be open!—Young leaders often have fresh ideas that run counter to the common refrain: “We’ve never done it that way before.” Pray that God will give you an open mind and a yielded heart as you give God the opportunity to bless a vision whose time has come.
Don’t be harsh. Do give grace!—Young leaders make mistakes (and, by the way, so do older leaders). Have high expectations, but create a culture where grace regularly happens.
Don’t be pushy. Do be interested!—Reach out to the preacher and his wife to learn how they’re doing. If the minister and his wife have small children, offer to babysit and even pay for their “date night.” A young preacher’s family can become the loneliest one in the church, and it is your job to let them know they belong.
While respecting their privacy, be observant to sense when work has become more important than family time. This is extremely important because new preachers tend to overwork themselves rather than take the time needed to recruit, train, and empower volunteers. When that happens, it damages the preacher, the congregation, and the preacher’s marriage.
I know how true that can be. Six months into my first ministry, I prepared to go out after dinner for another night of evangelistic calling. As I was leaving the house, I noticed my wife out of the corner of my eye fighting tears. We sat down and reviewed my schedule and realized I had not taken a full 24-hour day off in six months. She hadn’t mentioned it to me because she didn’t want to take me away from people and God who needed me to do “his work.”
How young and foolish I had been. I am so grateful she shed that tear before our relationship was deeply wounded. I am also thankful for a group of elders and church members who stepped up to serve so that I could guard “my Sabbath” to refresh my relationship with God, my wife, and our children . . . not only for this season of my life, but the rest of my ministry.
Don’t be a hindrance. Do be a helper!—When volunteers are needed, step up to serve, and even offer to help recruit other volunteers, because you probably have a better idea of who can help.
One of the best ways you can come alongside the new preacher’s family is to avoid placing unrealistic expectations on the preacher’s wife. From the start, our first congregation gave my wife the freedom and encouragement to be herself. The congregation recognized that her role as a wife and mother was just as significant as the time spent ministering with the congregation.
She recently told me how insecure she felt during our first ministry. I had been trained for this task, but she had received no formal training for her new role as preacher’s wife and mother. The church leaders seemed to understand that her support of me and creating a nurturing environment for our family would greatly impact the fruit of our ministry.
She also had the elders’ wives and older women as her mentors, and she remembers how they cared for her with love and respect.
Don’t say, “Goodbye.” Do say, “See you again soon!”—If your young preacher’s family leaves, let them know how loved they are, how God has used them, and assure them they will always be welcomed back to visit.
Even though we’ve been gone from our first congregation for 25 years, we still have a fondness for that church family and we always will.
As I reflect on our first years of ministry, the apostle Paul’s words describe how we feel about the people of that church, “I thank my God every time I remember you. In all my prayers for all of you, I always pray with joy because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now, being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus” (Philippians 1:3-6).
Local church leader, never estimate the short- and long-term effect you can have on that young preacher’s life, family, and ministry.
So enjoy the “initiation” as you “love ’em” into the joy of serving Jesus Christ!
Steve Reeves has been lead pastor with Connection Pointe Christian Church, Brownsburg, Indiana, for more than 25 years.