I’m 28 years old, and I’ve been in vocational ministry for less than 5 years. I’ve learned quite a few lessons along the way, and I know I’m bound to learn many more as I continue to grow. But I wanted to share a handful of lessons that I’ve learned these last couple years, some of which I learned in just the last couple weeks (and that I wish I’d learned much sooner).
Prioritize character building. I have to admit, I’ve lived a pretty dichotomous lifestyle over the years, fueled in no small part by my 17 years spent in fundamentalism. I used to think that I could live one way in one area of my life and a different way in another area. But having been set free from fundamentalism 6 years ago, it’s time I stopped living like I were still there. (It’s also time I stopped blaming fundamentalism for all my problems.)
Whether you’re in ministry or some other kind of leadership, character-building is vitally important. When you’re in leadership, all sides of your life get scrutinized more and more as your capacity, skills, and time in leadership grow. Shore up every aspect of your life. As my executive pastor told me last week, “Everything you say and do is shaping people’s perception of you,” so ask yourself, “What kind of person do you want people to view you as?”
Pragmatically speaking, it’s kind of like being your own PR representative. Take stock of what you’re allowing people to see about you. Now, I’m not advocating hiding sin (in fact, any sin should be brought to light in the safety of godly community that you trust will help you grow in responding to God’s love and reflecting his image more clearly), but I am saying that you need to pay attention to what should be public and what should be private. Here’s an example from my own life: I enjoy a wide variety of things. My friends know this about me; I like everything ranging from NJ Devils hockey to taking brewery tours to James Bond movies to collecting comic books (DC over Marvel any day!). But while it’s good to enjoy those things and even have friends I can share those aspects of my life with, is that the person I want my ministry teams to view me as? The parents who send their kids to my programs? The congregation at large?
As a ministry leader, I should want to be defined not by my favorite sports teams, movies, video games, novels, or other hobbies; but by the work that God has called me to do. That means putting my priorities in order and publicizing those things that will positively mold people’s perception of me.
In Ephesians 4:1, Paul writes, “I…urge you to walk worthy of the calling you have received.” Again, in 1 Thessalonians 2:12, he writes, “We encouraged, comforted, and implored each one of you to walk worthy of God, who calls you into his own kingdom and glory.” And once more, in Philippians 1:27, he writes, “Live your life in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ.”
What am I presenting to people as “me”?
Be hungry for development. My executive pastor gave a leadership workshop at a conference last week where he talked about different aspects of solid developing leaders (particularly in a ministry setting), and one of those aspects is that he/she is a “hungry self developer.” In ministry, the landscape is constantly shifting, leaders’ roles are always evolving, and the pace of these changes is extremely rapid. As ministry leaders, we need to grow, evolve, and change along with the ministries that we lead. Since it’s about caring for people’s spiritual needs, it’s never the same thing twice, so we need to always widen our skills and the foundational knowledge base that we’re drawing from.
Read books. Lots of books. From authors with different perspectives. As a leader in children’s ministry, the books I read are by people like Reggie Joiner, Dr. Michelle Anthony, Voddie Baucham, Jim Wideman, Sue Miller, and Timothy Paul Jones. None of them resides on the same side of arguments, but developing a broad perspective and understanding different viewpoints is crucial to being an effective leader in your area of ministry.
Get a coach. Maybe even two. Jim Wideman has a coaching program. My coach is with a group called Dynamic Children’s Ministry. I also maintain an open mentoring relationship with the family ministries director from my previous church (who’s led children’s and family ministries for over 15 years). Coaching relationships are vital because each person has a ceiling to their own growth and development as a leader, but if you truly desire to excel in your area of work or ministry, you’ll want to do everything in your power to learn from those who are more experienced than you are.
Take responsibility for your mistakes. You’re going to make mistakes. Lots of them. And the more intrepid and passionate you are, the more mistakes you’ll make. But the worst things you can do are shifting blame, making excuses, and laughing it off. Own up to your mistakes. No, it’s not easy, and I can tell you from experience that my natural response is to make excuses for my mistakes. But the sooner you take responsibility for your mistakes, the sooner you can learn from them, grow from them, and use them to strengthen your ministry. When you take responsibility, you’re exhibiting humility in your lifestyle. When you don’t, you’re exhibiting immaturity and losing credibility, and you’ll be unable to learn from them.
It’s not easy for me to admit, but over the course of these first few years in full-time ministry, I’ve made one mistake after another, each one having potentially greater impact than the previous. But I’ve made them, they’re mine, and I hope I have learned from them so that I can take the ministry God has entrusted to me to new heights.
Talk almost never. As a young leader, I don’t have a whole lot to contribute to our staff meetings other than updates on how my ministry is going and potential solutions to problems within my ministry. What I do have a lot of is stuff to learn. That’s why I’ve decided that my default posture in meetings is listening. I’ll offer input and thoughts from time to time, but almost everyone else in the room has many more years of experience than I do.
I read a lot. I have a lot that goes on in my mind, and I know that I’m probably fairly intelligent. As a young leader I often feel like I have something to prove, so it’s very tempting to open my mouth and spray all the pertinent information I’ve gathered at everyone sitting around the table. No, it’s not easy to hold my tongue, but as a developing leader, it’s far more important that I learn from my fellow staff members than it is for me to offer my thoughts.
“Know thyself.” The Greek aphorism gnōthi seauton reminds us to reflect on who we are. I was meeting with my lead pastor a couple weeks ago, and he reminded me that this stage of my life is a time of growth and searching as I discover the type of leader God has wired me to become. I need to learn my strengths and weaknesses. I need to pay attention to what fires me up. I need to know my personality and leadership style.
My lead pastor often talks about “getting into your lane.” What he means is that over time, you should be growing into a role that fits all aspects of your personality, leadership style, strengths, and passions. That’s where you’ll shine as a leader. But if you don’t take time early on to discover those things about you, you’ll never “get into your lane.”
I could probably go on ad nauseam with dozens more lessons that I’ve learned, and I may devote a few more blog posts to them. But these are some of the most important things I’ve been learning lately, and I hope you’ll take them to heart as you develop your own leadership skills. Leadership is a never-ending learning and growing process that is often very painful. So be patient with yourself (which is another good lesson in itself) and allow God to work in your life as you grow into the leader he is designing you to be.