Seven Pastoral Pitfalls to Avoid: Reflections from Three Years of Pastoral Ministry

When Jordan Steffaniak asked me to consider writing a reflection on my first three years as a pastor, I was, quite frankly, a bit confounded about what I would actually write. I am not experienced, nor would I consider myself among the wisest of pastors. However, I suppose much of our wisdom comes from experience, most of which is accumulated when we look back on how and what we could have done better. So the purpose of this essay is to do just that—to help newer pastors avoid some of the pitfalls and headaches I wish I would have avoided. In the end, I have framed my reflections into seven suggestions for the new and aspiring pastors.

1. Reestablish your doctrinal and ecclesiological convictions

Regarding doctrine, especially in contexts of revitalization, you will need to lean on the person of Christ. You will need to trust in the sovereignty of God. You may even be tempted to implement pragmatic methods of evangelism or outreach. Stay the course. Bolster your belief in the Scriptures, in who God is, and in who Christ is for you. The pastorate can be a lonely place, but reminding yourself of what you have by way of your union with Christ, his constant presence and blessing will sustain you as you lead the church in these difficult early years.

At this juncture, I should add that you may find yourself in a church that is unfamiliar with the “doctrines of grace.” Let me assure you: you can absolutely preach faithfully from a reformed, calvinistic, Christocentric, redemptive-historical perspective without using all the triggering vocabulary. Use biblical words and language. Whenever possible, avoid tagging truth or doctrine to names of dead men (with all due respect). The Word of God is alive, and as you faithfully plow through it over the years, you will see how it, not our favorite theologians, produces deep-rooted, doctrinally sound churches.

Similar to doctrinal reform, ecclesiological changes will likely be needed, especially (and sadly) in Baptist contexts. You will likely enter into a polity that needs a significant “overhaul” to begin conforming to a New Testament model of church government. You may inherit zero elders and twelve deacons. You might have to weed through a board of trustees or navigate the obstacle course of well-established church committees. Here again, a re-establishment of what you believe about church polity is essential in mapping out the most effective and helpful plan for change. To get through the entanglements of the church’s constitution and by-laws, you must have a clear vision of how the church should be governed and function. In other words, to sail to New York from Queenstown, you actually need to know where New York is located. To reach your destination, you need the proper coordinates and to discern where those icebergs could be!

2. Reassess your timeline for change

All of this said, the next bit of advice I’d give, no matter where you are pastoring, is to reassess your timeline for change. Yes, change is slow, and I don’t know how many times I was told before pastoring that it would take x amount of time to reform or revitalize a church. So, plan out your first few years. Evaluate how much teaching and re-teaching will be needed, then estimate how many years it might take. Once you’ve done that, double it. If you assessed one year for a particular change, plan on two. If you are guessing five years for an overhaul, it’s better to prepare mentally for ten. Plan conservatively and patiently and allow your congregation—and the Lord—to pleasantly surprise you.

It was Mark Dever who once said, “We often overestimate what we can do in three years, while underestimating what God can do in thirty.” How true. Stay. Be patient. Be loving. Be gracious. And, as Matthew Bingham recently said, be “hard on ideas, but soft on people.” Recognize that your congregation’s capacity for change is well below yours.

There’s an old phrase originally coined by the U.S. Navy SEALs who often say, “Slow is smooth and smooth is fast.” The phrase reminds us that when we want to react quickly or try to move with too much pace, mistakes can be made, mistakes that only slow the whole operation down as the mission must be halted to fix the problem caused by our hastiness. So remember, “slow is smooth and smooth is fast,” and you will likely be surprised at just how soon your goals will be reached. This is not to say that certain doctrinal and ecclesiological errors don’t require immediate attention, but part of shepherding is navigating which “dangers” are more imminent to our flock than others. Pray often and ask for advice from more seasoned pastors!

3. Reaffirm your commitment and calling

Pastoring is difficult, and if you are not spiritually prepared for the task, you will most likely burn out. I could be wrong, but I would guess that a lot of “burnout” occurs when we have idealistic expectations that simply aren’t realistic. However, if we understand that pastoral ministry is a giving up of our own lives for our people, or when we look to the humble example of Christ’s sacrifice for his own sheep, it makes the troubling days a little more bearable.

Last year, I read Jared Wilson’s Gospel Driven Ministry. One quote that has stuck with me is, “It’s possible, pastor, that you are only planting the trees whose shade future pastors and churches will enjoy.” In other words, your entire pastorate may simply be plowing rocky soil, planting acorns, and watering for the next generation to enjoy the oaks. You need to be okay with that. You need to have the next forty years in mind, not just the next four. This has to do with our timelines for change, but at its root is a proper understanding and commitment to what, and to whom, we are called.

4. Reevaluate your priorities for change

Earlier I mentioned that certain dangers to the flock are more imminent than others. This is essentially the fourth piece of advice I would give to new pastors, which is to reevaluate your priorities for change. You may have certain presuppositions and experiences that lead you to conclude certain issues are more important than others. Think through each “iceberg” carefully and ask if the Scriptures are leading your thinking on their size. Again, certain obstacles are a clear and present danger to the flock that need to be torpedoed and not simply dodged. That said, it may just be that the restructuring of the budget or the Wednesday night programming issues is much less important for now than, say, stopping the spread of gossip or false teaching in the church.

5. Reduce your time on social media

Next, I want to advise on a more practical issue. Reduce your time on social media. As Admiral Ackbar so famously explained, “It’s a trap!” And it truly is. We can easily fall into the snare of dopamine hits, believing our worth or likeability to complete strangers is somehow linked to our duties as a pastor to our local church. That said, I do believe social media can be used for good and wielded for encouraging each other, but we can do this without becoming entrenched with it for hours a day. I think we all could come up with a few “characters” who seem to spend most of their week on Twitter or Facebook and seem to always have a comment on whatever battle or controversy everyone is talking about on that particular day. But let me ask this: if you spend even two hours a day scrolling (or trolling) through Twitter, how many hours a week could be repurposed for deeper sermon preparation or visiting and spending time with your church members, the stuff we as pastors are actually called to do?

Truly, I do not want to be snarky, but I have seen all too many pastors make fools of themselves online, and it seems to always be those who appear to have no other duties throughout the week. Log off. Read. Pray. Go to lunch or grab coffee with Elmer, Sue, or Betty Lou. The “returns” on investing in your people will exponentially outweigh the investments in avatars.

6. Reassure your family

We do this by making sure that our actions, and not just our words, communicate who our number one priority is. Men, if we cannot lead and take care of our families, we are biblically unqualified to hold the office of pastor (1 Timothy 3:4-5). Your wife and children have to know that you love them more than the church or Twitter for that matter! One piece of advice I’d give is to, right from the start, block out a full day, sunrise to sunset, to devote to your family. For us, Friday is family day. Structure your week around it. Protect it. Any progress or growth in the church over the next twenty years will be diminished if your children resent the church in any way. In that vein of thought, make sure you have some version of family worship in your home. This looks different in every household and every season, but it is essential. Even if you have to start small, your children need to see a link between what happens on Sunday mornings and what happens Thursday evenings.

7. Rest

This is something else that you need to structure throughout your week. You may find rest through recreation, reading fiction, or woodworking. For me, I like to hit a little white ball with a stick and chase it around. Figure out whatever it is that helps you recharge and recalibrate your mind and your heart. It will help you think and lead clearly. In fact, I have begun implementing a 24-hour rule when I feel conflict. Whether it’s one of “those” emails or passive-aggressive comments, I try to “rest” on it for twenty-four hours before responding. I find that I am more gracious and calculated in my response and handling of the situation (James 1:19).

Of course, this is more than just recreation or problem-solving. Make sure you are getting enough sleep. Use all of your allotted vacation. Remember the weekly rhythms of the Sabbath that God designed in and for creation (that includes you, dummy). And never underestimate the power of eight hours of sleep. It may just be the holiest thing you do this week.

To summarize, I again want to iterate my incapacities here. Wise pastors will agree that the best way to learn to pastor is to pastor, and I can certainly attest to that. I do hope, however, that some of these words can be helpful for those who are just now entering into this great, difficult, yet glorious work. Love your family. Preach the Word. Shepherd your people. Abide in Christ.

Conner McMakin is Senior Pastor of First Baptist Church in Spring Lake, Michigan. This post first appeared on the website of London Lyceum, a weekly podcast conversation and online center for analytic, Baptist, and confessional theology.