I'm a young pastor. Trust me. You don't have to tell me. I get told that every time I step into a hospital room or a funeral home. Although young pastors are not all that unusual anymore, it is unusual for a pastor in his twenties to be pastoring an established and predominantly older church. Some how, God willed it for me to become the Pastor at Forest Hills Baptist Church. I'm not sure if the church was crazy, but they called a young, inexperienced, guy like me to shepherd them. I've been at my church for almost four years now – 2 years as a Student pastor, 1 year as the interim Senior Pastor, and another year as the permanent Senior Pastor. Over the course of these past few years I've learned a lot about my self and I have made plenty of mistakes along the way. My church has been so gracious to me as I learn and grow as a man of God and as a shepherd.
I'm observing a generational passing of the baton in most churches right now. The aging boomers are starting to retire and the millennial pastors are getting their first opportunity to lead established churches. Although many established churches are hesitant or afraid to hire any pastor under 40, more churches are open to having a younger pastor. Being a younger pastor has its own unique sets of challenges (some of which I might outline in a future post), but for now I want to provide some council to any young pastors in establish churches. For what it is worth, these are some things I've been learning slowly and sometimes painfully.
1. Lead with the Bible
This is absolutely essential. As a young pastor there isn't a ton of life experience to pull from and you have little to no relational authority. Sure you might be the Senior Pastor, but when your younger than everyone in the room, that positional authority doesn't seem to go very far. Thankfully, the authority of the pastoral position is not tied to age but to Scripture. The authority of the pastor is not his experience but God's word. As you lead your people, make sure you hold out the word of life through preaching, in meetings, in hospital rooms, at funerals, and any other place you might find yourself among your people. The pastor (young or old) should always be pointing his people to follow Jesus, not him. When leading any sort of change or initiative, you should demonstrate thoroughly from the Bible why it is necessary to go that direction. Convince your people that as they follow you, you are following Jesus. This happens by centering your leadership on the teaching of God's word.
2. Demonstrate Humility
A lot of younger pastors get themselves in trouble because they are about as humble as Kayne West. They think they have church figured out. If only everyone would follow their plan, their ideas, and do what they say, everything would be fine. Not only is this arrogant, it's idiotic. The painful lesson I learn each day is that just when I think I have ministry figured out, I find out I don't. Listen to criticism. Be teachable. Demonstrate humility. No body wants to follow a know-it-all. If you lead your people under compulsion you will not only loose any credibility to do anything meaningful and lasting in that church, but chances are you'll get asked to go elsewhere.
3. Adapt to the Culture
Contextualization is one of those buzz words out there right now. From church planters to missionaries, everyone is thinking through how we can communicate the unchanging gospel in a constantly changing culture. When the culture we find ourselves doing ministry is traditional, nobody throws out the importance of contextualization. Many of the established churches are formal, traditional, and resistant to change. Many young pastors make the mistake of ignoring the current culture of their church and forcing cultural change on the church before they are ready. Adapt your methods to the people God has given you to shepherd. To adapt to the culture, you must know the culture of your church. This means you must pay attention and learn your people.
I'm not a big fan of the coat and tie. In fact, I can't stand wearing a tie. Every time I put one on it feels like I'm putting on a noose. Yet I wear one every Sunday morning at my church to preach. Why? I'm adapting to the culture of my people. I do not want the fact that I'm not wearing a tie to hinder the preaching of the word of God. I'm contextualizing to the people God has given me, reaching them where they are to teach them and instruct them. If this means that wearing a coat and tie allows them to hear the Gospel clearly, than it is no sacrifice. This is a simplistic illustration but the point is made. Meet your people where they are,and slowly implement cultural change. Then after many years of careful teaching maybe the tie can come off. (I'm hoping!)
4. Be Patient
Patience doesn't come naturally to anyone, especially young men. It is easy to come into an established church as their pastor thinking that the reform and revitalization they need will happen in six months. It won't. Leading change in established churches can be a painfully slow process over the course of many years and sometimes even decades. It is like turning around an ocean liner. It can take a while to get on course.
Young pastors, do not let your eagerness get the best of you. Do not lead too fast or too far in front of your people that you loose them. The wise shepherd knows his sheep. He can sense when they are tired or worn out from the journey. He can tell when he needs to slow down or when he can speed up.
5. Don't Be Afraid to Lead
On the flip side, you must lead. It is easy to go into an established church and get comfortable. The salary is nice, the routine is predictable, and no one is going to get mad at you if you just keep every thing the same. I see many pastors who are so afraid to lead that they just sit there and feed off the sheep. Pastor you are not called to feed off the sheep. Ezekiel 34 has some pretty strong words for shepherds who do that. Rather, we are called to lead them. Yes, we must be patient, but if you are not moving them to greater health and a deeper love for Jesus and their community than you are failing them as a pastor. Sure leadership can be painful and yes the sheep might bite back, but this is the call of ministry.
6. Love Your People
Your church is not a project to be fixed, but a people to be loved. Spend the first few years of your ministry just loving your people well. Get to know them. Go out to eat with them. Pray with them. Love them. It is so easy for young ambitious pastors to loose sight of this. Not only by loving your people will you serve them well, but you will also gain relational credibility and buy-in to lead in more significant endeavors later down the line.
Great Failures are Covered by a Great Savior
As you lead an established church as a millennial pastor it will be challenging. It can be painful, frustrating, and heart breaking. Along the way you will experience some major leadership failures, yet despite our failures we have a great savior. As we lean in on Jesus, and ask him to help us love our people, he will give us wisdom to shepherd wisely. Millennial pastors do not need to abandon established churches just because it may be difficult. As one myself, I'm excited about seeing other millennial pastors begin to take seriously the call to lead established churches, and I'm excited to see what our great Savior is going to do through young pastors.
Are you a young pastor in an established church? If so, share with us some things you have learned in your ministry context on social media or below in the comments!