Tomorrow I step into my fourteenth year pastoring a local church – Newlife. Back in 2006 I was a recently ordained minister. I had never married, buried or baptised a soul. That was all ahead of me. I had preached a bit, but never more than two weeks in a row in any place. I was full of ideas, passion, excitement – and not a little anxiety. I was a pastoral ‘L’ plater. I was also sure God had called me to this particular place and people. That sense of call has only strengthened. Simply put, I love being a pastor. It is all privilege, albeit a desperately hard one at times.
As I look forward to a new year with anticipation that only January can bring, I’ve also been reflecting on the foundation the past thirteen years has provided. Here are some things I’ve learned about being a pastor. It’s not an exhaustive list by any means. It’s some rambling recollections. But they are recollections learned and experienced again and again in the ebb and flow of pastoral ministry. I offer them as an encouragement to you, and as a discipline of remembering for me.
Front Row Seat
No one told me before I started about the bucket loads of joy I would experience in pastoral ministry. In particular, I didn’t realise what a privilege it would be as I enjoyed again and again a front row seat in observing the transforming presence of God is people’s lives. In some ways pastors are like spiritual midwives; active observers of, and sometimes assisting in the joy and pain of (spiritual) new birth. Such moments, and thank God there have been many these past years, fuel me through the other days of pastoral monotony, or worse, pastoral conflict.
Similarly, no one told me before I started about the bucket loads of pain and disappointment I would experience in pastoral ministry. If they did, I didn’t listen. People let you down, sometime even betray your trust. People come and people go. And then, despite your best intentions, you cause pain and disappointment for others. Too. Many. Times. Like a roller coaster, in pastoral ministry the exhilarating heights of joy can quickly be followed by heart-wrenching plunges into despair. Let me be frank; even surrounded by so many people, it can be awfully lonely. I am so thankful for the graciousness of my sisters and brothers who have allowed me to fail (again and again), but to fail forward, carried in the end in the arms of Divine Grace.
I serve, and have served alongside some incredible servant-hearted, Jesus-loving, Holy Spirit-filled leaders – staff and volunteers. I LOVE team ministry. I love leading, and being led by others. The church functioning as a body is Divine Genius. Not only do we get to participate in the mission of God, we get to do it together.
Faith is a series of adventures God calls us into. And, boy what adventures we’ve enjoyed these past thirteen years – planting three churches, God-breathed growth, a $5 million building project – to name just some. Every faith adventure has stretched me, pushing me into a deeper reliance on, and trust in the sovereign grace of God. Truly, unless the Lord builds the house, we labour in vain. God has been so very faithful.
Treasure of God’s Word
Thirteen years ago I wondered whether I would have anything to preach or teach after the first couple of months. This was my first time leading a congregation; my first time as the primary preachers/teacher. Today our people wonder when I will ever shut up! I should have known, but God’s Word has proven to be an inexhaustible reservoir of life, truth, correction and inspiration. I am never more alive than when, after a week of preparation, I stand in front of our people about to teach, God’s living Word having already done its spiritual surgery on me. And then you experience those moments when the Spirit-breathed Word does its work on others. It is awesome.
The second week into my Newlife journey I conducted my first funeral. I rang a friend in Adelaide to pinch his liturgy. I’ve conducted more than a hundred since. Beyond this, I have sat at the bed sides of the dying, cried with the grieving, thundered questions to God with the hurting, whispered scripture to the hope-less, officiated the weddings of the love-struck – and prayed with them all. There have been so many places and times where I’ve been present when the distance between our world and the next seems gossamer thin. These liminal spaces have forever changed me and how I think about, experience and worship God.
For two decades some amazing leaders poured their wisdom into me – a raw, often arrogant and sometimes dumb leader with training wheels. I am forever indebted to them. These women and men gave me opportunities to lead before I was ready. They made it safe to fail, and to learn from my failures. Now I’m the old guy. Now, I’m the one with the opportunity to share, rather than cling to authority and power. Sharing leadership with others is so much fun. Seeing others grow in their leadership gifts brings me so much joy.
City Wide Ministry
I’m a country kid from South Australia. I can’t shake off my love/hate relationship with the mighty Adelaide Crows. But I love this city – the Gold Coast. It’s my home. And God is doing a good thing – a new thing – through his churches here – in this city of beautiful beaches, big dreams and rampant consumerism – a city of ‘immigrants’ like me, where everyone is from somewhere else, God has established an amazing diversity of Jesus-loving, God-honouring church communities. I have experienced so much joy serving alongside my cross-denominational sisters and brothers. This past year in particular they have held up our arms through a difficult and challenging season. I will be forever thankful. Christian unity, not simply in theory, but in on-the-ground, in-the-trenches-together practice, is a beautiful thing.
Wonder of Partnership
I was called through the church to be the Lead Minister of Newlife. I have the paperwork to prove it! But I’m under no illusion – (mostly) thriving through thirteen years here has been in no small part due to the fact Sue and I were both called. In fact, Sue sensed God’s call while I was still in denial. Leaving our friends, our family and our history in South Australia was hard. Frankly, it still is. But God gave us each other; we serve together. Sue prays for me, encourages me, challenges and corrects me. She is always for me. We are so different in our temperaments, personalities and gift mixes. But God knew what he was doing. It works; we work. Thank God!
So many, many times I and others have stepped back with awe and said, ‘Only God’. Those Sundays when people spontaneously came forward to confess their faith through baptism. The day we announced our people’s sacrificial generosity in pledging to give more than $3million to extend our facilities for ‘those who are to come.’ Every one of the hundreds of baptism we’ve celebrated the past thirteen years. All this and so much more – only God. Only God can transform a human heart. Only God can bring dead people back to life again. Only God can breathe hope into the hopeless, announce freedom to the addicted and grant wisdom to the confused. And we’ve seen and experienced it all. Again and again I have seen such amazing, incredible things occur – it can only be God. And to God alone be the glory.
Honestly, I cannot think of a ‘job’ I’d rather have, or a place I’d rather be or a people I’d rather like to be with. God has been so, so good to me – to us.