Ten Lessons Learned by a Pastor

Below is an article that I've been asked to write. It will appear in a publication for leaders and pastors. In it, I share my story and the beginnings of this beautiful movement called Northgate Church. God is good! In June of 2007, at the age of 31, I became the primary preacher of one of the 20 largest churches in my mainline denomination. At age 32, I took on the role of senior pastor and became the youngest person in my “tribe” to hold such a position. I was on top of the world!

For the next two years, the church’s attendance increased by a trajectory of some 70%. People were coming to Christ, we served the poor weekly in our community and overseas, and our mainline congregation was quickly becoming a Great Commission, Great Commandment church. It was an exciting time for many.

However, rapid growth, and the change that came with it, made a handful of church pioneers increasingly uncomfortable, especially as they saw their perceived power slipping away. The church shifted from two traditional services to one, I quit wearing my robe on Sundays, I outlawed alcohol at our annual outreach festival (a sacred cow), and I took a stand against our denomination when they ignored 2000 years of church teaching and embraced sexual sin. Throw into the mix a popular staff member with a moral failing and a church with a ten-year history of financial problems, and I had a big mess on my young hands. Two months before my eventual resignation, a small group of pioneers circulated a petition with over 100 signatures, calling for a congregational meeting. Former church leaders and members, as well as their children, representatives from our denomination, and anyone from the past who had an ax to grind with me made my life miserable for a number of weeks.

Finally, when a vote to leave our denomination barely failed (over 100 people came out of the woodwork and donated as little as a penny in order to vote), I resigned in protest along with a dozen other key staff members to begin a new church, called Northgate. To our surprise, we were accompanied by two-thirds of our church body. It was an excruciating, yet exciting time. In the midst of unimaginable pain, to paraphrase Isaiah, God bestowed on us a “crown of beauty instead of ashes, the oil of joy instead of mourning, and a garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair”.

I learned a number of things during my time of conflict. Here are just ten:

1. Idolatry. The first commandment is you shall have no other gods before me. During my anxious time, I learned to hold onto things not as tightly. Even good things like “serving God” can become an idol over time. At my former church, I was witnessing the power of God firsthand, but, truth be told, my position, power, and prestige were at times more important than serving God in my heart. While I always maintained a posture of humility, in retrospect, I was obsessed with keeping my “job”.  As I said before, I was only 32 when I became senior pastor of one of the largest and fastest growing churches in the area. I had two offices, my own full-time assistant, a 70,000 square foot facility, and a substantial salary for a pastor my age (yet alone any pastor). Also, I had the respect of my community and peers. Yet it all came crashing down in a period of only 60 days.

While I never made decisions based on fear of losing power, deep down I worried about it all the time. The week following my resignation, I humbled myself before God in the presence of our pastors, cried like a baby, and repented of the idolatry of my position.

2.  Integrity matters. You can win the battle, but still lose the war. My staff and I eventually lost the battle at my former church, but we won the war. During those darkest days of that experience, despite the accusations, I never lied, never misled, and never said anything untruthful, which was a remarkable accomplishment. Some of my problems would have gone away in a second with a white lie here or there. Whenever I was tempted to lie, my team held me accountable and made sure I could live with myself in the morning. I’ve found that many pastors get into trouble not because of the terrible things people do to them, but because of the things they do to people in response to those things people do to them. Integrity matters.

3.  Team is everything. Over the course of those two or three years at my previous church, I worked hard at developing a high level of trust with the staff and board. While others outwardly attacked, we inwardly stood together. When apart, we didn’t speak behind each other’s backs (and my staff had plenty of opportunity to do otherwise). When together, we spoke openly and respectfully. Very few churches have teams who would stand and fall together like we did. Every key player on our staff resigned with me and helped me start a new church. Half of them came to work with me. The other half took “regular” jobs, yet they volunteer at our new church to this day (two years later). Pastors, in order to be successful, must develop close circles of honest and dependable advisors—people they'd trust with their lives.

4.  Turn the other cheek. Leaders lose when they spend time defending themselves to their critics. In crisis, people think emotionally, not rationally. So, I didn’t waste much time trying to change people’s minds. But when I did, I found it to be just that—a waste of time—because they weren’t open anyway. People believe what they want to believe and support their beliefs accordingly. When people are convinced of something, even if it isn’t true, they won’t listen to the facts when presented to them. I learned to turn the other cheek.

5.  Listen and Lead. The proverb reads, “A wise man listens to advice. . .” I’ve added to that, “but he still has to make his own decisions”.  Many of my colleagues in other churches didn’t understand my decisions and the course I took. Why risk it all with a vote? Why give up your ministry for this? Some ridiculed me publicly. Others accused me of poor leadership privately. Yet, others (large church and mega church pastors in particular) rallied around me and supported me, having gone through similar trials themselves. Sometimes God calls you to do things that don't make sense to the people around you and you have to find your affirmation from Him alone. That was certainly the case for me many days.

6.  Trust. Do nothing out of fear, only faith. God is more interested in faithfulness than ease. The narrow road is often the right road. Too many pastors are emasculated in their leadership. They lead only by consensus, even when the consensus is offensive to God. It isn’t easy to go against the crowd, but it is the place where you’ll find God most often. Do the right thing every time and trust God for the outcome.

7.  Choose a quick death. When it comes to professional death, choose a quick one. I could have delayed many of the issues in my church for a number of years, but I still would have experienced the same outcome—only without a new church. Quick courage brings new opportunities instead of years and years of frustration. If a church body doesn’t want you to be their pastor and they won’t leave, don’t stay. Bless people as you leave, and leave on the best possible terms.

8.  Practice blessing until you master blessing. I had a number of people to forgive, but through months of counseling, I learned to bless my enemies even when my heart wasn't in it. It’s behavioral psychology 101. If you do something long enough, you start to believe it. My counselor happily kicked me out of his office last year. . . I had learned to forgive.

9.  Identity. Cheat the church, not your family—and leave the results to God. I picked this principle up from Andy Stanley. Cheating the church helped me survive losing my church. Certainly I was bitter. But if I had neglected God and my family for the church before that time, it would have been more difficult for me to move on. I cheated the church during that season and I’m grateful for it. (My wife and parents were "rocks" for me during those tough times.) To this day, I work no more than 45 hours a week. Still, our new church has grown by 70% in 22 months and led over 230 people to Christ during that time. God honors your priorities.

10.  No pain, no gain. God's plans aren't usually easy. They’re always better. We pray out of ignorance, yet God answers out of a plan. And he has given me the most amazing opportunity to lead a new, dynamic church. As I write this, 650-700 people come through our doors on a given Sunday. We’re getting ready to break ground on a building. And we’re making a significant impact in our community. We’re doing things that would never have happened at my former church. And, I wouldn’t change a thing.

God is good. I imagine that some of the pastors reading this need to hear that. There are many other lessons I could share with you from that difficult time, but my best advice to pastors is this: Serve God only. Jesus said, Anyone who does not give up everything he has cannot be my disciple (Luke 14:33). No matter what the cost, serve Jesus, and you won’t have too many regrets along the way. I promise.

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