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The Top 21 Things I’ve Learned in 21 Years of Ministry

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In my ministry journey, I’ve fulfilled many roles and grown and changed a lot. Here are the lessons I’ve learned along the way.

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Recently, my wife Anne and I celebrated our 21st year of ministry. In 1997, we stepped out of Bible college and entered into a journey that has been magnificent and painful, rewarding and incredibly challenging.

Just a few days after Bible college graduation and weeks away from getting engaged (a year from marriage), this 19 year-old (Anne) and 21 year-old (me) were both terrified about what awaited us in ministry and genuinely excited that God would choose us. Full disclosure, Anne and I will tell you that we didn’t see anything appealing about “Dave and Anne.” We loved Jesus and people. We knew other ministry couples were better “gifted” than we were. We recognized that our ministry experience paled in comparison to other Bible college grads. Frankly, we didn’t know what we had to offer other than what little we possessed.

After a number of rejections in pastor interviews, we accepted an opportunity in our home church just north of Detroit to be “fill-in” youth pastors. We stayed for five years and carried from there a litany of experiences to Midland and Kalamazoo, Michigan. There have been highs and lows, but this has been an amazing experience.

So often, I hear pastors talk about their frustrations and pain. I get it. I’ve got those too. But I wanted my annual “anniversary list” to be, hopefully, a word of inspiration for any “minister-to-be” or to a pastor who’s going though a tough season. We love what we do. We love the church community and city that we’re called to. So, today I wanted to give you 21 thoughts on 21 years of ministry (in no particular order).

1. Be a submitted you.

In the New Testament, when people encountered Christ, they found a new identity but didn’t lose their personalities. Purpose in your heart to daily submit to the presence of the Holy Spirit and watch his heart and character come through while refining the person you are.

2. Don’t lose your smile.

Scripture says, in the presence of the Lord is “the fullness of joy.” If that’s the case, our pastors should be the most joyful people on the planet.

3. Learning doesn’t stop.

I like to question my theology. In fact, I question it often. But I don’t put myself through this because I don’t want to believe anymore. This process is to solidify my faith and root it deeper. An unquestioned faith isn’t any faith of substance.

4. Grace and mercy is the best response.

In my tenure of ministry, I can’t say that I live with the regret of grace and mercy as much as I regret judgment and shrewdness. Grace and mercy gives me a chance to gain perspective with the opportunity for redemption. Judgment and shrewdness inflicts pain driven by a fearful misunderstanding of God.

5. Admit your mistakes.

Say it with me, “I am not perfect. I don’t have to pretend I’m perfect. I shouldn’t project that I am perfect.” Rinse and repeat.

6. Scripture has never been so important.

I love the Bible. The more I grow, the better I am at reading the Scriptures. And the better I am at reading them, the more I’m thankful to God for his patience with me for the way I had read his Word 21 years ago versus now.

7. Be patient.

I’m a dreamer by nature. Dreams come in a moment but are developed over a lifetime. Patience is more than waiting. It’s working, growing, developing and implementing.

8. Outlets are inlets.

I was a gamer for years. Now I rock climb. I like to run and work out. My wife and I date (weekly). My son and I go to the movies. My daughter and I have been doing daddy-daughter dates for 18 years. When you have an outlet, it becomes in inlet of refreshing.

9. Find apostolic figures.

Every minister needs 2–3 apostolic figures to be sending agents of encouragement and accountability.

10. Marriage doesn’t get sacrificed on the altar of ministry.

We love ministry. We do it together (albeit differently). But Anne is more important than the congregation.

11. Don’t expect what you are unwilling to do.

If you are going to preach tithing, then tithe. If you are going to challenge others to serve, serve others.

12. Being wanted is seductive.

The first time someone called me (without me putting out a résumé), it was, suffice it to say, seductive. It doesn’t matter what the situation is, there’s something very alluring about being contacted, and it can easily sway a heart without the process of prayer and hearing from the Lord.

13. An open door doesn’t necessarily mean a “calling.”

My mentor would say, “Open doors are not always opened by God. But if he opens a door in front of you, he’ll also close the door behind you. Just don’t make a move based upon an opened door.”

14. You never can be quiet enough.

Early in ministry, I was driven to be busy with ministry stuff. But the longer I’ve been in it, the deeper I passionately desire to be better at being quiet and hearing from the Holy Spirit before acting, preaching, responding, writing, etc. Be still and know he is God.

15. Have Spirit-driven organization.

Chaos doesn’t mean “more spiritual.” From a Sunday morning service to your weekly schedule, praying through a Holy Spirit-driven structure is not about a hard agenda but a stewardship-guided pursuit of what the Lord desires.

16. Kids don’t have to be casualties.

Raise your kids to see that ministry is a joy to do, and doesn’t have to rob them of their parents. My kids love being “PKs.” Why? They know they’re more important than anyone else in the church other than Anne.

17. Be willing to evolve without compromise.

Each ministry position (three of them) has brought a bit of an evolution. I departed from each position different from how I entered them. I grew and evolved to be what my church and community needed without compromising who I am in Christ. Which leads me to …

18. Changing methods doesn’t necessarily mean changing principles.

Far too often, people think they’re the same. Methods are fluid; principles are solid. Proclaiming the Word of God is a principle I have, the method doesn’t always have to be the same.

19. Be willing to try.

So often, the idea of risk has kept pastors from stepping forward because there’s a potential of failure. Be a steward of your decisions. Pray, plan, strategize and give it a try. Guess what? It may succeed. It may not. Cut yourself some slack and show your congregation how to succeed AND fail.

20. Trust the Lord more than people.

Sometimes, we draw our identity from the people we serve. When that happens, our joy, peace and strength rises and falls based upon the response of people. It’s in him we live and move and have our being.

21. Build a legacy versus a monument.

You will come and go. Build the name and reputation of the kingdom of God that leaves people in awe of Jesus. It’s not important that you are remembered as much as it’s important that Jesus is proclaimed.

There’s probably more to say, but I said I’d stick to 21. To the people we have served, and the staff we have served with, we thank you for the past 21 years and we look forward to what is in store. As I often say, I believe the best is yet to come.

Read more from Dave Barringer »

Dave Barringer (@PDBarringer) is the lead pastor at Kalamazoo First Assembly of God in Portage, Michigan, and the author of Mosaic Marriage. He blogs about pastoring and marriage at PDave.me.

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