15 things I have learnt in Christian ministry

Andy Mason writes: Of course, as you get older in ministry you look back at where you’ve come from (I’m now 50). You can’t help but reflect on the things you have learnt along the way. And, boy, there are many things I wish I could’ve said to myself. I’m not sure I would’ve listened well, or even understood, but it might have helped me avoid some pitfalls. Here are some of the things I wish I could have said—and undoubtedly need to keep saying to myself now.

1. It’s easier to plant a church in your head than to do it in reality. 

I had plans for how a church would work and what it ‘should look like’ and ‘how long things would take’. But, of course, people and circumstances don’t neatly fit into our plans and ideas. Planting a church has required a lot more perseverance and spiritual pit stops than I ever anticipated. The Lord is kind in not showing us everything beforehand!

2. Don’t be too opinionated. Loads of your brilliant ideas will never work, and you’ll realise you’re wrong (or at best, unbalanced) on a bunch of things.

This won’t be everyone’s issue, but I have always had a tendency to have too much confidence in my own opinion, and to stand my ground unnecessarily. I think opportunities have been lost at times, and some conflicts could’ve been avoided by being more flexible (and humble).

3. Patience and tenacity will be more important than giftedness.

Of course, it’s great for leaders to be gifted and useful, but everything we do is qualified by patience and tenacity. Perseverance in the walk qualifies all the verbs of ministry. The victory comes to the determined and tenacious. We don’t want to just run the race, but finish the race.

4. You will need to pray loads more than you think.

Of course I always knew that I needed to pray—you can’t get into pastoral ministry without having heard about the importance of prayer! But it took me a few years to get going with prayer in any disciplined way. I would say that prayer has been the single most important thing in keeping me going as a pastor. Prayer has been where the promises of God have become very real to me.

5. Its possible to gather a crowd quickly, but people will grow slowly.

Numbers are not the same as fruitfulness. As the old adage goes, a church can be a mile wide but an inch deep. I have learnt that real change is slow. Surface issues might get dealt with quickly but the deeper heart issues, which the surface hid, are much slower to be dealt with. Ministry is thus more like planting trees than building a wall. It moves forward imperceptibly and growth into maturity isn’t marked by an obvious crossing of a line.

6. People will leave your church as well as join it.

I didn’t really think about that! I was a church planter and I knew it might take time for people to come, but it hadn’t occurred to me that people would come in through the front door and then go out the back one. People drifting off, or sometimes leaving unhappily, can be one of the biggest discouragements any pastor experiences. You can feel like you’re trying to fill a bucket full of holes—a rather de-energising experience!

7. Jesus eats and drinks with sinners—including the sinners you dont like.

We may wax lyrical about reaching lost people and Jesus’s grace to sinners, but when these people end up in our church the gospel can somehow be lost. We don’t mind Jesus saving sinners whose company we enjoy, but it’s not the same when these scoundrels get on my nerves, are rude to me, or just won’t listen to what I say! Ministry is a wonderful way to really learn the grace of Jesus: I might mind hanging out with these people, but he really doesn’t. 

8. Let your ministry make sacrifices for your marriage, and your marriage will be able to absorb sacrifices for the sake of ministry.

I have been very helped by the picture of a ‘marriage bank account’. Deposits have to be made into the account if there are to be withdrawals. Ministry can’t keep making you live in a ‘marriage overdraft.’ Early on, I had really been captured by a kind of idolatry of ministry, and so tended to think that the sacrifice was really all to be done on my wife’s side. But I have learnt that the prioritisation of my marriage over church is not a drain on ministry, but a glory to be prized. Longer term it has meant that my wife doesn’t feel used if family takes a back seat at certain moments.

For those who are single, the same surely applies to those deep personal friendships which resource you.

9. Relational conflict really is the pits. So far as it depends on you, live in peace with all people.

I’m not naturally a people-pleaser, but have learnt over time the importance of living at peace with all—and the awfulness of being in serious conflict. It doesn’t matter what good things may be going on, if you’re living in conflict you go out in weakness. On the other hand, if your relationships are strong, no matter what else is going on, you go out in strength. Relational harmony is something to be prized, protected and prayed for.

10. Youre a lot more foolish than you think (your wife and work colleagues will confirm that) so listen to peoples feedback on everything—even if its a bit harsh and unfair.

‘Whoever loves discipline loves knowledge, but whoever hates correction is stupid’ (Prov 12:1). I’m naturally a bit defensive and ‘pure in my own ways’ (Prov 16:2) but I have to say that getting feedback (asked for—and not) has led to some of the biggest growth spurts in my spiritual life. It’s easy to run away from any kind of honest evaluation, and to nurture a sore ego. But that stops any kind of growth and serves as an awful incubator for sin. I think that I could have made much more progress over the years if I had been more open to this.

11. Get ready to learn loads about how wonderful God’s grace is. You will end up far more thankful than you anticipated.

The great privilege of pastoral ministry is that I have spent a lot of time in the Scripture. My job has been to teach the Bible and so I have been, accordingly, continually exposed to the wonderful grace of God in the Bible’s storyline. Simply preaching the Scripture has massaged much grace into my heart that I would never have seen otherwise.

Personally, grace has become more real to me because, many years down the line, I have had more opportunities to sin and fail. As a result, I feel more dependent, more forgiven and more loved. I am still a Christian, I am still a pastor and I am very thankful. 

12. You will constantly leak joy and faith, so make spiritual refreshment the highest priority in your life.

I have learnt that my spiritual life has inevitable ups and downs. There is an ‘in season’ and an ‘out of season’. The vital thing though is what I do with those low times. It is the intervention in those moments that really directs us long term. I have slowly learnt the need to intervene early, and run to the sources of spiritual refreshment that work well for me. 

13. You will see loads of leadership scandals along the way. Be wary of becoming one yourself: repent of your sins every day; live in the light; get your joy from Jesus’ and learn to say a proper sorry.

it is a shocking thing to see people you have learnt from, or respected, fall into scandal. Many of these scandals really result from the pride of ministry resulting in the failure to do the basics of the Christian life. Yet, rather than feeling superior, all this has taught me to tremble and to remember that I will be judged twice as harshly (James 3:1). I really do feel now the importance of shunning the ‘appearance of godliness’ that ministry gives, and of doing what I’ve been telling everyone else to do in my sermons.

14. You can’t fast-track your own maturity. Fruitful trees take time to grow.

I have tended to want to microwave my sanctification and hate waiting for things. The God for whom a thousand years is like a day will not work according to my timing though. Moreover, God’s work is always a thoroughgoing work, and not a bit of spiritual make up. Over time, I have seen real changes in my character, for which I rejoice, but also deeper layers of sin and mess, which means that any maturity I have is always provisional.

15. It’s good and wise to plan, but really, at the end of the day, your ministry strategy is the providence of God.

This truth has, in fact, been a great encouragement over the years. Proverbs 16:9 ‘In their hearts humans plan their course, but the Lord establishes their steps.’ So much of what we seem to achieve in ministry is really out of our hands. For example, if Tim Keller had been trying to plant a church in Riyadh, he wouldn’t have been famous (he knew that, of course). When things go well people write books and explain that ‘it was because of this…’ But, I have learnt that things are always more complicated. Every church growth book should have the subtitle, ‘This is how the Holy Spirit did it where I am’.

Rev Andy Mason and his wife Kathrine have been married for 25 years and live on the World’s End Estate in Chelsea, London. Andy is the vicar of St John’s Church, and also works part-time in the Co-mission Network overseeing training and support of pastors.

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7 thoughts on “15 things I have learnt in Christian ministry”

  1. Wonderful Andy, thankyou.
    Occasionally I imagine what I would say to students at my old College had I been invited. [or to my younger self idea]
    Rom 12:1 comes to mind “ I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that ye present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable unto God, which is your reasonable service. “Go to your own white funeral” In presenting your body don’t forget to include your ego!
    Ego’s must be left at the door, especially the Church door, there is no place for it. It is probably the worst thing you can bring in.
    Myself I have never been engaged in any formal ministry but I do recommend Biographies of the people whom God has worked mightily in.
    Theology and theories are all very well in their
    places but there is no substitute for living experience of the ways of God with men.
    I heartily recommend Gregory the Illuminator, who was called on by Constantine to advise him on the establishment of Christianity in the Empire.
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gregory_the_Illuminator to start with.
    I include 3 of his quotes
    There are in truth three states of the converted: the beginning, the middle, and the perfection. In the beginning they experience the charms of sweetness; in the middle the contests of temptation; and in the end the fullness of perfection.

    The pastor should always be pure in thought … no impurity ought to pollute him who has undertaken the office of wiping away the stains in the hearts of others … for the hand that would cleanse from dirt must be clean, lest, being itself sordid with clinging mire, it soils whatever it touches all the more.

    We ascend to the heights of contemplation by the steps of action.

  2. Thanks for these great insights from experience, which I think apply in any type of ministry, parishes as well as church plants. And thanks for the theme of thankfulness which runs through it. I was especially struck by your point, ‘I had plans for how a church would work and what it ‘should look like’ and ‘how long things would take’. But, of course, people and circumstances don’t neatly fit into our plans and ideas.’ I’m reminded of St Paul’s comments in 1 Corinthians 3 where he mixes agricultural and building metaphors when he describes what he is doing. Often I find the emphasis in lots of advice on leadership is on a buildings type approach: our vision, our plans, knowing in advance what things will look like, the time frame we want to work to, etc. But the agricultural metaphor reminds me that we have to work with the grain of local communities and what will work there – so we wait to see what grows well here, rather than wishing it was another place where different things will grow. Take account of what the French call, the terroir. Shouldn’t surprise us really since all theology is contextual and worked out in dialogue rather than being simply imported fully formed and then simply applied, regardless of the social, cultural & economic context. So, work with the local culture in dialectical relationship with the Christian tradition. Thanks again and I’d be fascinated to hear how your own theological insights have developed/changed through your experience.

  3. Thank you. Wise indeed from someone so young!
    The realisation of being a sinner in need of a saviour increases with age! Is that the way of maturity and sanctification? Yet we are so offended by the Grace of God, and our inability.
    Thank you again.


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