Before I embark on as pompous a task as the title suggests – I must provide the disclaimer that the lessons I’ve learned may or may not be as valuable to others as they are to me. I’ve found things I’ve read from other pastors to sometimes be incredibly helpful, and sometimes incredibly unhelpful – and neither my experience, personality, or wonky first year of pandemic ministry will match others’ experiences. The only gospel is the one we preach from the Scriptures. That being said, having ‘officially’ completed my first year in ministry (that is, I have existed in a place for a calendar year with vague stabs at trying to figure out what a pastor does), I thought it would be helpful for me to process – and maybe for others to read, whether fellow pastors, student friends, or congregation members – what some of my biggest takeaways have been in my first year.
This is not a knock on my professors. I had an incredible seminary education. In fact, I felt quite well prepared for preaching, session meetings, and the like. With professors who prepared us by sharing stories of hard funerals, strange meetings, and difficult transitions, I came in ready for the unexpected.
Until someone ate our tulips.
I was in the church setting up a virtual Bible study – already something I never imagined would happen – when the police knocked on the church door and explained the situation. Apparently, someone on a considerably illegal amount of drugs had…dug up and consumed our tulips. Did we want to press charges?
There is now officially recorded in the session minutes of First Presbyterian Church of Corinth a phrase, “session decided not to press charges against the woman who ate our tulips.”
“Expect the unexpected” doesn’t quite cover it. The unexpected will happen. But the totally unpredictable also happens. The tulips are the most extreme example, but in my first year of ministry, I thought the “unexpected” things would include conducting funerals, hard counseling conversations, maybe off-the-wall committee meetings. I did not expect someone to eat our tulips. You just don’t think about it. But then there you are talking to the police and they ask if they should contact someone about it, and you realize oh yeah, I’m the guy.
There also was a global pandemic, so yeah. I had no “Virtual Easter” classes.
Even with my excellent preparation, I’ve realized there is no way to “expect” or be prepared for everything that will come my way in ministry; every place, culture, and situation will be different. I’ve learned to hold life openly; to realize I will always have unexpected things happen; and to never set a goal of “feeling competent.”
Because someone will eat your tulips.
2. God is at work, just not how I think he is.
I believed God could do great things in the town of Corinth, New York. What that might be? I don’t know – maybe increased attendance? The development of a youth ministry? Engagement in the community?
How about – empty church on Easter Sunday? Right, not how I drew it up either.
Now, our in-person church attendance is as low as it’s maybe ever been. However – it is reaching more people (especially non-Christians) in total, by virtue of its online ministry, than it maybe ever has. Rare is the week or month I don’t have someone tell me about another family member or friend who has been connected to our church through online ministry – more than we’ve ever had.
Now, we’ve baptized one adult since I began my ministry here. That is incredibly exciting news. I just wasn’t necessarily expecting the baptism to be of a middle-aged Siberian man, who wound up at our church through the invitation of another Russian man, and now my church inexplicably has a budding Russian ministry in the middle of small town New York.
Now, after preparing and working very hard to share quality 25-30 minute sermons and produce them in excellent quality with live-stream-equipped 1080p cameras, I consistently receive just as much if not more affirmation, response, and encouragement to a 5 minute devotional I shoot every week on a tablet.
Which was given to us by a non-Christian who doesn’t attend our church but wanted to help us out.
God is at work – he is always at work. It’s just never going to be the way I expect.
3. Take a break.
I was as “prepared” for ministry as they come. Master of Divinity, years of internship experience, grew up as a pastor’s kid. Also, I began experiencing symptoms of burnout within a year. I was not near prepared, or able, to take on the toll of ministry as I thought.
Everyone’s experience will be different. Some feel intense pressure and can’t keep up with the hours or the expectations of a church. Others maybe just get so carried away with their joy of being involved in such exciting work they forget to rest.
For me, that was not the case. I have a very loving and relaxed congregation that seemed pretty content with the work I was doing, even if it didn’t require long hours of work. Instead, I felt tremendous internal pressure to match up to my own expectations, and to deliver on the potential so many people believed in enough to send me to seminary and to hire me. That pressure made it very easy for work to daunt me, overwhelm me, and drain me.
In the midst of that what-am-I-doing, internal pressure and insecure space, I discovered two practices that gave me life and kept me sane.
The first was taking the Sabbath seriously. I found that, for me to function in ministry and not get overwhelmed, I needed a day where I did not function as a pastor. Fridays breathed life back into me in a way nothing else did. It was a day to ditch the alarm clock and sleep way in; to ditch the healthy eating habits and eat way too much bacon; to ditch responsibility and hike way too many mountains; to ditch brainpower and watch way too much of DC’s The Flash. The Sabbath may look different for everyone (different days, or a 24-hour block, or whatever the case may be), and in my case I thrived off one full day of rest. I have firmly come to believe that God designed our bodies for a rhythm of work and rest, and that he commands it seriously in Scripture because it should be taken seriously. That is the one singular practice to which I credit my survival and any time I felt like I was thriving in the first year.
The second practice? Was…
4. Don’t go it alone.
When I interviewed before my denomination, I was asked, “Who will be your mentor when you get to Corinth?” I didn’t really have an answer.
Thank God, they did.
ECO started a coaching program, and once a month I had a coach who I could call and ask questions and explore things with (such as, what do you do when someone eats your tulips?). They also have a pastoral covenant group program, which I didn’t totally get at first, so a friend and I started a “rogue pastoral covenant group” where we called one another once a week to check in and pray. Another local pastor reached out and started meeting with me and another pastor at a coffee shop. In the middle of the pandemic, my presbytery started a weekly Zoom check-in. Every time something totally bonkers happens, I just email my father, another Presbyterian pastor, and beg for help. These things were life-giving, maybe sanity-saving, at points.
Not only was it incredibly valuable to have support in prayer, understanding, empathy, and practical advice, but I learned so much from workshopping thoughts with other pastors. That devotional that consistently is a hit every week? Came from a conversation on one of those Zoom meetings. That willingness to expect the unexpected? Came from learning with other pastors. The next lesson I’ll share? Largely influenced by conversations with coaches, mentors, and others.
Which lesson? Lastly and maybe most crucial for me –
5. Know myself.
My low point of my first year came somewhere around a thunderstormy pandemic birthday after a virtual Easter. Everything was closed and sad and dark and cold and lonely and it was just the worst thing ever. My fiancee and I couldn’t see each other, I couldn’t go to my happy coffee shop, it was illegal for me to have friends, I preached to an empty church. For as rabid an extrovert at me, this was a dark time.
I went to get groceries, since that was the most exciting opportunity accessible, and on the way home was listening to a podcast from my denomination (notice the amount of times my denomination is appearing in a positive light. Lesson 6 – get connected to a quality denomination). The speaker was talking to a local pastor I know whose first call as a pastor resulted in a closed church, before her current work at a growing one. The speaker said, “Your first call is more about what God wants to do in you than what God wants to do through you.”
I spent a lot of my first year trying to match up to mostly self-created expectations, reading all sorts of books about what pastors were supposed to do and trying to apply it directly to myself and my ministry. One pastor might say I should spend most of my time preparing a sermon; the other would say I should spend most of my time pastorally caring for people; so, lunatic that I was, I would try really hard to spend most of my time doing both, feel like I was falling short on both, and then be sad. Being a pastor is an incredibly amorphous job with no real job description or really any sense of clarity, and it is also full of incredibly exciting things – if you embrace them and let them be exciting instead of letting them hang over your head.
Over the year I learned my rhythms. I learned I worked really well in the morning and early in the week, so I learned to frontload my sermon prep on Monday and Tuesday, even though that sometimes meant delaying responses to people’s phone calls for three days. I learned I thrive best with Friday off instead of Monday since most of the week’s work is done and I could relax, even though that meant not being available when some people expected me to be. I learned that, even though it’s really important to pastorally care for your congregation, I had a limited capacity for phone calls, and if I wanted to preach a quality sermon I needed to set a limit on how much mental energy I expended – even if it meant disappointing people.
I also learned to play to my strengths and stop being embarrassed by my weaknesses. I learned I’m really good at being Steve, not at being someone else. Some pastors thrive as caregivers – they are constantly calling people and constantly present in homes and hospitals. Others thrive as leaders – they are really good at leading meetings and being involved in the community. After a while, I learned to stop measuring my greatest weaknesses against others’ greatest strengths. I won’t be the leader that person is, the innovator that person is, or the pastoral shepherd that person is – but I can preach this sermon well. I can relate really well to these youth. I learned to know myself – and know my culture – and take the myriads of advice and approaches and apply them with a grain of salt.
The bottom line was this – when I didn’t know myself, functioned alone, pushed myself too hard, looked for results, and had expectations, ministry was extremely hard and led me towards burnout. I didn’t have eyes to see God at work, felt like I was not good enough, and was stressed, pressured and overwhelmed. When I knew myself, went at it with others, took breaks, trusted God’s work, and didn’t expect things, I really, really enjoyed being a pastor. I watched the Spirit move in incredible ways, sat with awe at the honor of being immersed in people’s lives, and watched Jesus bring people closer to him.
And really at the end of the day, that’s what this journey has been this year – a journey deeper into joy, deeper into the heart of Jesus, and realizing that the greatest gift I can give a congregation is my own transforming walk with Jesus, hoping it will lead them towards him as well – as I hope this post does for others.
As well as a caution for all –
Keep an eye on your tulips.
In His Love,
199 Palmer Ave.
Corinth, NY 12822
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