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10 Things I’ve Learned in 4.5 Decades of Ministry

10 Things I've Learned in 4.5 Decades of Ministry Transforming Mission

Have you been reflecting upon life recently? I have. We have come, not only to the end of another year but to the end of a decade.

Wow! Time flies when you are having… I suppose that is another blog. 

I have many more years behind me than I have in front of me. I’ve been reflecting upon the past 4 ½ decades of ministry. I hope you don’t mind giving this “old” man a few minutes to share with you some things I have learned.

This list is neither exhaustive nor in priority order. Here are 10 things I have learned over 45 years of ministry.

I have learned:

1. Relationships are key to ministry

Whether it is with friends and family, with colleagues at work, in connection with groups in the community, or in building systems, understanding and developing relationships are necessary for successful ministry. As an example:

It is through relationships that God shapes me into the person I am created to be. So, I surround myself with people I trust, who can do what I cannot do, who challenge me, and who are willing to help me become more of who I am supposed to be. As they are helping me, I am doing the same for them. Because I am being shaped through my relationships, I am neither in competition to get ahead nor intimidated when I fall behind. I can get excited when I learn something from someone who is willing to be vulnerable with me in what we are learning together. 

Related to personal and work relationships, are relationships within the church and community.

2. The Local Congregation is the Primary Instrument for Ministry

Within the institution of the church, the local congregation is the primary instrument for ministry – I have had the opportunity to participate in all levels of The United Methodist Church. Maybe we can talk about that sometime, but what I learned is, the greatest impact for ministry is in and through the local church. 

Nothing compares to seeing a woman who is HIV positive and struggling with drug and alcohol addiction, find her way into sobriety through the love and care of faithful Jesus followers. I’ll never forget the day she wanted to thank God and we asked her to help in the office, that she raised her hands in praise and said, “Today, I get to thank God by stuffing envelopes.” Nothing compares to having a public-school principal tell a small group of men and women who want to be faithful Jesus followers in the city, “My babies need Jesus. If you want to come down here and love us. I have a place for you.” Nothing compares to the man who lives in the dumpster behind the church building, coming to worship and singing the Lord’s Prayer. These contributions were transformational. 

There is good work taking place on all levels of the church as an institution, but nothing compares to the relationships built and the ministry provided in and through the local church. 

3. The church is a doorway to building community relationships

As a pastor, the local church was my doorway into the community – In every church I pastored, I was involved in the community in one way or another. My involvement was more than being a member of a service club. I am talking about being a partner with the mayor of the city in developing a 40-day prayer meeting to address violent crime. I am talking about working with local school systems, school principals, and teachers in providing adequate housing for children living at the poverty level and below. I am talking about bringing together the CEO of an international corporation and the leaders of the United Methodist Committee on Relief in developing demining equipment in Africa. I am talking about bringing that same CEO and the leaders of The United Methodist General Board of Church and Society together to address investments in instruments of war in Israel. 

Because I was appointed to a local church, I had the opportunity to be a pastor to United States Senators, United States Congress members, to a governor, to federal and local judges, to police officers, to school superintendents, principals, teachers, parents, children, and the list goes on. You get my point. I don’t know how anyone, clergy or lay, can be in ministry and not be engaged in their community. 

4. Congregational systems facilitate growth

Congregational systems help people grow as Jesus followers – Early in my ministry, I did not pay much attention to congregational systems. I soon learned I needed to intentionally invite people to become Jesus followers. So, I developed a disciple-making system to assist people. Focusing upon Matthew 28:16-20 and the mission of making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world, I was part of a group of congregational leaders who began to build a system of Hospitality, Offering Christ, Practicing Faith, and Engaging in the community. 

I learned that the best way to make disciples of Jesus Christ was to build congregational systems that reach out and receive all people, introduce them to Jesus and the Christian faith, provide opportunities to practice growing in faith, and leading people into the community to live their faith by loving and serving in the name of Jesus.

5. You live, work, and play in the mission field

You and I live, work, and play in the mission field – The best place for ministry is where you and I are at this very moment. I have learned to look for Jesus in the lives of the people around me. Whether it is at the grocery store, a restaurant, a gas station, at work, home, wherever I encounter people, I am in the mission field, where people need a kind, caring, supportive, and encouraging word. Because I am a Jesus follower, the Word is part of my life, so I have something to offer in the way of love, care, and kindness that reflects the love, care, and kindness of Jesus. 

I have learned everything I have said above is the same for you. Wherever you encounter people, you are in the mission field. Because you are Jesus followers, God is with you and you have God’s love to offer the people around you. Right where you are! Right now!

6. It’s ok to be vulnerable

It is okay to steal second base – In other words, it is okay to be vulnerable, to face your fears, and to step out into the “we haven’t done it that way before” world. You and I are at our best when we are vulnerable. Being vulnerable is not being so transparent that you regurgitate all your thoughts and feelings. Being vulnerable is knowing your growing edges, what stirs up your anxiety, what is difficult for you, and then stepping into the difficulty to learn and to grow. 

When you are not vulnerable, you close yourself off from the people. You try to do everything yourself and you suffer silently in loneliness. God created you and me to be in relationship with one another. It is when we risk being vulnerable in relationship with the people around us that we become more who we were created us to be. 

7. I am responsible for my own health

Yes, I am responsible for my own health. Over the years, I learned that people care about my health, but it is my responsibility to be healthy. I have learned that when I am out of balance in one area, physically, spiritually, emotionally, or mentally, I am out of balance in all areas. So, if I am to be totally healthy, I must take the initiative to care for myself. 

You might note that this learning has the shortest explanation. I still have a long way to go to be the healthy person I can be for God’s glory and for my good.

8. Laughter makes life better

Life is better when you are laughing – I am not sure why, but I have always enjoyed laughing. Maybe I learned it from my mother.

Maybe I was trying to cover up the pain and anxiety of my childhood. But maybe it is because Jesus made people laugh. He used the Hebrew method of hyperbole for his humor. Remember his words, “Why do you look at the speck in your neighbor’s eye when you have a log in your own eye?” I can imagine the people smiling and chuckling, as they listened. Jesus continued, “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than a rich man to get into heaven.” By this time people are laughing so hard, they are holding their stomachs. 

Laughter is good for you.

It’s okay to laugh…especially if you are humor-impaired. (Queue the laughter.)

It is good for you. Laugh at yourself. Laugh at the absurdity of life. Just laugh to laugh. Truthfully, I find God more in smiles and laughter than I do in frowns and scowls. 

9. Practicing gratitude is a gift

Gratitude is the greatest virtue any one of us can practice – If I could give one gift to my children, my grandchildren, my friends, and my colleagues, I would give each of them the gift of gratitude. 

Paul wrote to the Philippians, “I thank my God every time I remember you. In all my prayers for all of you, I always pray with joy.” (Philippians 1:3-4). Bonhoeffer wrote, “In normal life, we hardly realize how much more we receive than we give, and life cannot be rich without such gratitude. It is so easy to overestimate the importance of our own achievements compared with what we owe to the help of others.”

I am most grateful for my relationships…that includes you.

10. Choose your close friends

It is necessary to have close friends.

When I learned that I did not have to be friends with everyone, I decided to choose the people I wanted to speak into my life. Now, that doesn’t mean I don’t listen to everyone, but it does mean that I listen more closely to the people I have chosen to keep me focused.

I am grateful for my friends who know my heart, who stay with me when I am not on top of my game, and who love me just as I am. They ask me the tough questions and do not get bent out of shape when I don’t answer correctly. 

I must confess that one of the best days of my life was when I discovered that I had broken my co-dependency with the church as an institution. I moved from trying to please everyone and from needing everyone to like me to a focus on the mission of the church. It was at that moment I was set free to develop deeper and more meaningful relationships. I have only a few, but that is all I need. Each one is a special gift from God. I am grateful. 

There’s always more to learn

If you are still reading, you might need therapy. Just kidding. Thanks for giving me your time. With that said, maybe someday in the future, I will continue my list which includes:

  • I have control over my calendar.
  • Being “focused to a fault” is a compliment.
  • It is okay to make mistakes.
  • When you fail, it is not the end. You can learn to rise.
  • And, old ways don’t open new doors.

Please know how grateful I am for you. I want to continue to learn from you so I can become all God created me to be. To that end, know of my prayers for your ministry.

Have a blessed New Year! 

1 reply
  1. Joe Clark
    Joe Clark says:

    Dear DS, Happy New Year! I read your message which inspired me to enhance my sermon to Shalom UMC in a couple of weeks on how we can “evangelize” our faith with others, even strangers. Thanks Joe


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