4 things I’ve learned in my 1st year as a lead pastor:
Just over a year ago my family and I moved across the country where I started a new job as a 1st year lead pastor. Year one has been full of excitement, stress, fun, and LOTS OF LEARNING. I think, if I gave myself time, I could write a whole book on all the nuances of how this role in leadership is so much different than I thought, and about what I’ve learned, but to be brief enough that you actually read it—I’ll focus on the top 4 things that I’ve learned about being a lead pastor this year. *
*Because there is so much more that I've learned that I can't include here, please reach out to me if you want to talk more about being a first year pastor, I’d love to chat…
1. People REALLY care what you think.
This has been the most surprising aspect of going from a pastor on staff to the lead pastor. In the past I was one of many voices, and when it came to difficult to understand passages, or application in the Bible I was always able to share my opinion with a lightness of implication. For instance: What is the Biblical standard for divorce and remarriage? Prior to being a lead pastor, I could share different views on this topic, how I would interpret the text, all with a conclusion of where the church that I was working for landed in the midst of the complexities. Ultimately the “final word” of the position on this topic (and others) didn’t land on my shoulders, and if the person I was talking to disagreed with my conclusion it wasn’t so weighty because it was either backed up by the church (in which case they could go talk to my lead pastor) or the church ended up having a slightly different opinion on a topic (meaning that their disagreement with my position was affirmed by the church’s different interpretation). This changed quite drastically in the lead pastor position. Even though I still try to approach tough subjects with love, grace, and a realization that I could be wrong, my opinion is taken with a huge amount of weight. In seminary I ended almost every paper on tough topics like this, “Although this is what I think is the best interpretation I know that much smarter people have done much more study and have debated this much longer than I have and still land in different areas, so I hold my opinion with the strength that I hold I could be wrong.” (This is not something that I said with the core doctrines of salvation through Christ- just in case any of you are worrying about the weakness of that statement). There are a lot of “gray areas” that I will share my conclusion and convictions, and at the same time, I’m totally okay if someone completely disagrees. Unfortunately, this dance is much tougher as a lead pastor because people care A LOT about what you think. I’ve had numerous people ask my opinion on subjects that I’d say “live in the gray area.” I’ll give them my opinion with an openness that there are other ways people have thought about this subject, but when they hear my conclusions it’s taken as the authoritative final answer. Now, sometimes these tensions are nothing more than an academic conversation, but sometimes these tensions have direct implications on people's lives. It is in these times that my opinion (which I hold loosely) becomes gravely important to the receiver (even though I hold it loosely). I’ve been asked many times this year, “What's been the most surprising thing about being a lead pastor?” My first response is always, “People care more about what I think than I care about what I think.”
In this tension there is a great caution and three actions I’ve taken:
This type of interaction can be used to stroke your ego, control others, and make you feel like you’re “the answer guy.” Don’t fall into these traps!!!! People caring about your opinion so strongly should drive you instead to these three actions:
a) Pray- pray a lot. Desperately pray. Pray every day. Pray for wisdom. Pray for humility. Pray for guidance. Have others pray for you. Pray that your ego doesn’t drive your decision. Pray for people to speak truth into your life. Pray that God directs every conversation you have and decision you make. Pray that God shows you your weakness. Pray. Pray. Pray.
b) Study the Word! Oh, how the questions have slowed down so much of what I’ve wanted to accomplish. It is not efficient, but as a lead pastor, it is your responsibility to continue to refine and clarify what you understand so you can shepherd well. The tough questions, coupled with the position you are in, are not something to be taken lightly. Do your homework. Make sure you’re being faithful to God’s Word. When someone challenges your thoughts be eager to hear their side, then study it. When someone’s life is going to be affected by your conclusion be prayerful. Study the Word in a way that shows you care enough about the person to give time to deep study. In your study stay humble, willing to learn, and remember people care a lot about what you think- don’t ever use that as a weapon. It is a responsibility that should drive you to a desperation for God.
c) Don’t just give people the answer, teach them how to get the answer. If your role as lead pastor is to do the study and give the answer, you’ll get a congregation who relies on you to do the study and give the answer. Instead, you should want to help people find out how to get the answer, how to study these things on their own, and how to help others through the same tensions. We’ve recently decided to resource our people with book suggestions on the studies we are doing in main service. We try to provide solid Biblical websites to further their study when appropriate. I also try to make myself available for one-on-one conversation to help people understand not just the conclusion, but the process, with the ability to go deeper into the topics through discussion.
2. Find good friends
Inside your ministry- You’ve heard it said, “Leadership is lonely.” In many ways I understand that, as you move into a senior position the weight of what you carry and responsibility to honor confidentiality can be a burden that drives you to isolation. But you must know the difference between isolation in terms of responsibility and isolation from friendship. DON’T mistake them as the same. Yes, there may not be others who can carry the responsibility you carry, the way you carry it, but that doesn’t mean that you do it alone. I would encourage you, as soon as you start, look for a friend. This doesn’t have to be someone of the same life stage, but it does have to be someone that will challenge you, encourage you, and be a good friend (As a opposed to “Oh you’re the new lead guy I’m gonna ‘brown nose’ you to be your friend.) Finding someone on staff, or on your elder board, who you can talk out your frustrations with, who will ground you in reality, and who will want to hang out with you outside of the office is invaluable. I have been so fortunate to have an awesome executive pastor who has been exactly that for me. I am truly grateful for how he has helped me transition into this role, and how he cares for me not just as a co-worker, but as a brother in Christ. My executive pastor and I have the benefit of being equals on our leadership structure, allowing each of us to avoid the isolation the senior leadership position can carry. We have the freedom to discuss tensions and excitement of all areas of ministry without breaking the trust of a board meeting, staff interactions, or pastoral counseling. I know not every new pastor has multiple staff members, an equal on staff, or a board in which this type of interaction can occur, so that is why the next friendship is also sooooooo crucial.
Outside your ministry- Find a group of other lead pastors (that you really like) to meet with on a regular basis. I was introduced to an amazing pastor in the area about two months after I arrived. We ate lunch, shared stories and I thought, “This guy is awesome, I could really get along with him.” About a month later that awesome guy invited me and three other lead pastors to meet up, to see if we connected with one another, and to see if we would want to get together on a regular basis. Oh man, have those guys been a blessing to me. As lead pastors we know what each other are going through (Even though each of our churches look very different). As lead pastors we are able to share frustrations, encourage and advise one another. We don’t just talk about ministry, though, we talk about our lives, and we laugh together and pray together. I love those guys and they’ve been more helpful than they know. The value of that time is obviously because of the people that are there- so make sure that you find the right people. Find friends outside your ministry. I know this might be hard, but trust me, you need it- cold call or email local pastors until one will eat lunch with you. Then when you find one you connect with, ask him if you can meet regularly. If he says “no” don’t fret, keep searching until you find someone who clicks- and be a great friend.
3. Settle, check, rid, cast out, rebuke, set fire to, remove your pride.
The lead pastor position can be a place where the intoxicating lure of pride can easily consume your heart. Being a lead pastor can be unhealthily exciting and desperately crushing if pride is not dealt with. In my case the slow seep of pride-poison comes with “great sermon,” “we’re so glad you’re here,” and other compliments. Encouragement is great, and we all need it, but my pride begins to says, “I deserve it,” “I am a gift to this church.” “I am great.” Those compliments, when looked for with my pride, become something I start to be dependent on-instead of God. What makes matters worse is that when I’m critiqued, the false foundation of my pride has to find support somewhere, so it finds temporary stability in pride towards others. “They didn’t like how I preached... we’ll at least I’m better than ____” “They disagree with me… well thats cause they’re idiots.” It’s a sick cycle and being the lead guy lends itself to a vulnerability towards pride. Your pride can become your motivation for proving yourself or proving everyone else wrong.
Here are three things that have helped me combat this:
a) Pray and call attention to it- Like a recovering alcoholic who never leaves the realm of “recovering alcoholic” I must be aware of my pride and never assume I’m over it. If I think I’m over it: 1) that is a prideful assumption and 2) that mindset leaves me vulnerable to lowering my guard to the attack of the enemy. I have to regularly evaluate, through prayer and others (mainly my wife), my attitude and actions, and then I have to tell people where I see pride in my life. I have to call attention to my issues with those I love and trust so they know the evil that lurks in my mind and so they can hold me accountable and speak truth into my life.
b) Get good friends- See the above section, but make sure those friends are people you can share your junk. Make sure they are friends who will call you out on your sin, pray for you, and encourage you.
c) Get clear on your calling- One of the things that I did in my first year, as I noticed my evaluation of self was swaying in the winds of praises and criticism, was to get clear on what God has called me to do. If I’m evaluating myself on what everyone else thinks, or how the church is growing (or not growing) I’m going to be a mess of misery. When I first arrived, I’d get an email every Monday with the numbers from the day before. If numbers were high, I’d think “I’m doing great.” If numbers low, “What is wrong with me.” This is the same with compliments and negativity. Now, admittedly I’ve got pride issues that evilly drive me to this thinking, but I’m sure you have something that drives your ego or insecurity too. After about a month of getting the weekend numbers I told my executive pastor to remove me from this weekly update. Taking this step helped, but there was more I needed to do to steer my heart away from a numerical evaluation (I could still get a general sense of amount of people in the audience). God prompted me to spend time praying about, and writing out, a job description based on what He has called me to do. My job is to help train and lead the people at Real Life to embrace a Jesus > everything life and to have our leadership rooted and dependent on Christ. While this is broad description, it allows me, in times of ego or insecurity, to come back to the question: Am I doing my job to the best of my ability? If the answer is “yes” then I can ignore the lies, and if the answer is “no” I can evaluate where I am missing the mark in comparison to the job description, not the angry words of one person.
4. Thank your former lead pastor!
Lastly, as you get into this new role, if you’re anything like me, you’ll realize how you took your former boss/ lead pastor for granted. You’ll learn the weight they carried with them all the time, the tough stuff they had to deal with that you never knew, the challenges they faced, and, in my case, the amazing character they have to do this job week in and week out with love, conviction, and a dependence on God. So be sure to thank your lead pastor. Call him up, even if you didn’t particularly like him (just to be clear I loved my lead pastor) and encourage him with empathy and a thankful understanding of what you didn’t grasp before- this is tougher than you thought- thank him for his leadership, love, and desire to both follow God and help others do the same…
Steve Clifford- Thank you for your leadership, love, and desire to both follow God and help others do the same. What looked so easy from where I sat before, I now see and appreciate you and your heart more than ever, and I am deeply grateful for you!
Thanks for reading. Again, there is a lot more that I’ve learned, and I would love to talk more about it if your interested… I’ve been a lead pastor for a year and five months now and had suppressed the idea of writing this blog. Over the last few months God kept bringing to my mind a need to write out my thoughts, so I pray that it encourages you, helps you, and allows you to have an awesome 1st year, and many years, leading people to love Jesus.