Reflections on 25 Years of Ordained Ministry

One of the best reminders I received, again from another pastor (now with the Lord), is that the church will never be my church.

Preaching the Word of God is a great privilege, while being an immense responsibility. Even though I would like people to be in God’s Word every day, the reality is that most people are not. The primary way that too many people receive the Word of God into their lives is through your preaching. Preaching is what earns me credibility for all the other tasks, ministries, and skills that pastors are called upon to perform. Your preaching will set the tone for the rest of the church. If you preach moralism or legalism or some other ism, those will be reflected in the people and programs of the church. So preach the gospel of God’s grace as it’s found in Jesus Christ and over time, the words gospel, grace, and Jesus will be how your church is described by the people in it.

 

I was ordained to the ministry of the gospel on November 10, 1991 by the Presbytery of Southeast Alabama (PCA). On that day, I gave zero thought to being able to serve in pastoral ministry for the next 25 years. Truth be told, I wasn’t sure I was going to make it through the next 25 weeks.

My first congregation (First Presbyterian Church of Enterprise, Alabama) was amazingly patient with a new pastor who was trying to figure it all out. Sometimes I figured it out pretty well, many times I didn’t. That meant there were a lot of hard lessons I had to learn very quickly. And most of the people there were gracious enough to let me learn them. I’ll be forever in their debt.

My current congregation (Potomac Hills Presbyterian Church of Leesburg, Virginia) has put up with me for almost 20 years now. One might say they’ve been long-suffering in every sense of the word. For 20 years we have laughed together a lot. And we’ve cried together a fair bit too. Together we’ve watched God do some amazing things, change some pretty broken lives with the Gospel, mature people through a long-term emphasis on the Scripture, and teach each other how to love and be loved, how to accept and be accepted. And we’re still learning how to live the Christan life.

In reflecting about this day, there’s so many things that have crossed my mind, here’s a few of them. I’ve tried to organize them by ministry role so they’ll be a little easier to follow.

  1. Pastoring

Being a Pastor is both something you are and something you do. It’s hard to separate them and over time it becomes a significant part of your identity. Over the years I’ve gotten better at separating the personal from the professional, but by no means have I mastered it. I have no idea how anyone can do this job without an understanding, protective, and forgiving spouse. I couldn’t.

    1. Take time to listen>

Asking other people for their opinion is invaluable. You often hear things you haven’t thought of, and probably wouldn’t have. Much of a pastor’s influence comes not from the big moments, but from the many ordinary days of simply spending time with another. And especially in those one-on-one times, you can become a much better shepherd by asking a lot of questions. And then sit back and listen to each person’s story. One of the great privileges of being a pastor is that, over time, you get to hear each person’s story, and that makes it so much easier to minister to them.

    1. Take time to share

Pastors have to be willing to share their lives, and more specifically, the events of their lives. Like it or not, you’re setting an example. People are observing more than your ministry – they’re watching your marriage, your family, and your demeaner. They want to see how you handle the messy stuff, the hard things, and the crisis events. They need to know that you can handle it and that unexpected crisis don’t throw you off. One of the great gifts you can bring to a church is the ability to stay calm.

    1. Take time to prepare

And by “prepare,” I mean pray, read, study, and think. Some of the most important parts of being a pastor is when you look the least busy. All of these things take time, while inviting criticism for being idle or lazy. The fast-paced lifestyle of the Washington, DC Metro area, combined with the workaholic tendencies of the professional class (including most Senior Pastors, me in particular), actually work against our ability to be effective ministers of the gospel.

While I don’t agree with absolutely everything he writes, the longer I’ve pastored, the more I’ve come to appreciate the works of Eugene Peterson. Among the many things that I’ve learned from him is that pastoring is much more of an art than a science, pragmatism (getting stuff done) can get in the way of caring, conventional wisdom isn’t, how-to sermons don’t work, the one who thinks he’s the most mature is probably not, and it’s never about you – it’s always about Jesus.

    1. Take time to forgive

It’s easy to be frustrated when you pour your life into the ministry, into the work of the church, and people walk away dissatisfied. You have good reasons why they should stay, but they don’t. There’s a level of feeling betrayed and disillusioned when people leave that’s hard to put into words. Especially when it’s people you’ve given a lot of time to, you never really understand why they’re gone, and they’ve given you insignificant and shallow excuses for their departure. It’s much easier to forgive when there’s an actual person standing there, forgiveness in absentia is so much harder, which makes it all the more important.

And sometimes you just can’t get through to someone and you have to let it go. Sometimes people don’t want to reconcile. I’ve told a lot of people that Romans 12:18, “If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all” means that you have to make peace on your side of the equation. You’re not responsible for their side of the equation. Sometimes you’re not going to get what you want from them. You just have to forgive them, pray for them, and then trust God that He’ll work in them. It’s a way to put situations you can’t fix in God’s hands. Who knows what He will do with it?

  1. Preaching

I love to preach. I love to teach preaching (which I occasionally do at Reformed Theological Seminary in Washington, DC). I love to talk about preaching. This is my bread-and-butter skill. This is where, for better or worse, I find (and seek) affirmation in my church. Don’t ever forget that you’re preaching to yourself first. Also, don’t forget that Satan will challenge you in whatever area you’re preaching about. Preach on adversity – expect a hard week. That’s how it goes.

    1. Preaching sets the tone for everything

Preaching the Word of God is a great privilege, while being an immense responsibility. Even though I would like people to be in God’s Word every day, the reality is that most people are not. The primary way that too many people receive the Word of God into their lives is through your preaching. Preaching is what earns me credibility for all the other tasks, ministries, and skills that pastors are called upon to perform. Your preaching will set the tone for the rest of the church. If you preach moralism or legalism or some other ism, those will be reflected in the people and programs of the church. So preach the gospel of God’s grace as it’s found in Jesus Christ and over time, the words gospel, grace, and Jesus will be how your church is described by the people in it.

    1. Preaching and Pastoring are connected

Preaching and pastoring are inextricably linked, we should cringe when they’re separated, for the church suffers greatly when that happens. People want to have a personal relationship with their pastor, and it’s hard to do that when you only see him on a screen, and he has no idea who you are. We are far more effective preachers when we preach to real people (whom we know), with real problems (which we’re aware of), who still press on in faith (with our support and encouragement). David Martyn Lloyd-Jones said it well, “To love to preach is one thing, but to love the people to whom you preach is quite another.”

    1. Preaching has a cumulative effect

I’ve often said that I don’t expect one sermon to change your life, but I do expect years of sermons to change your life. A steady diet of hearing the Word of God preached, over a long period of time, should change how we think, how we talk, how we serve, how we relate to each other, in short, how we live. As of today, I have preached over 1000 sermons, 746 in this church. The vast majority of church members will never hear that many sermons from one preacher. It is a gift not to be wasted, by either the preacher or the listener.

Recently I thought, “If I were to preach 10 more years, what would my final sermon series be?” (I’m leaning towards a “Best of” from all my previous sermon series). Maybe that’s being a little morbid, but I believe we must think strategically in planning our preaching. One day we will preach our last sermon. With each one, we should consider, “How does this message lead me toward “declaring to you the whole counsel of God” (Acts 20:27)?

    1. Preaching is used by God, often unexpectedly

I’ve preached sermons that I thought were just great, and afterwards, the only comment I got was about what we should get for lunch. Other times I’ve preached sermons that I wanted to immediately apologize for, and someone comes up after worship, and says something to the effect of “That’s exactly what I needed to hear!” It’s hard not to respond by saying “Really?” God often doesn’t work the way we want Him to. And it’s always been that way.

The great pastor Charles Haddon Spurgeon once said he didn’t know what heaven will be like, but the closest he came to it on earth was in those moments when he was preaching and experienced a special connection with God. Sometimes you’re preaching and right in the middle of the sermon you realize that you have everyone. Everyone is tuned in. There’s a sense that the Spirit of God is moving in people’s hearts. Somehow God is using your feeble words. It’s an awesome, humbling feeling. It’s not a common experience, but when it does happen, it’s the highlight of my ministry.

  1. Counseling

Someone once told me that good counseling is like preaching the Word of God to one person at a time. That helped. Because counseling is draining. Some find it energizing. They amaze me. I tend to empathize so much that it hurts. I’ve often wondered if this is what Paul meant when he wrote, 2 Corinthians 11:28, “there is the daily pressure on me of my anxiety for all the churches.”

    1. Everyone suffers

Growing up, I had no idea how much, or how deeply, most people suffer. I was blessed to grow up in a family where everyone loved each other, I have learned that many people have never enjoyed that blessing, and their life has been marked by a great deal of pain. Many due to no fault of their own. Many others as a consequence of their own sin. Everyone has physical, spiritual, and emotional baggage, and some of it’s pretty heavy. You will never pastor in the Garden of Eden. We live in a fallen world, and every person who comes to you suffers under the effects of the Fall. A pastor can’t hide from the pain and suffering of the people in the church. In 2 Corinthians 4, the Apostle Paul talks about his ministry in terms of being afflicted, perplexed, persecuted, and struck down. He never talks about your best life now. Neither should you.

    1. I can’t fix anybody and I don’t have all the answers.

Don’t give off the impression, which is false anyway, that you think of yourself as smarter or wiser than everyone else. Let people know that you’re not going to be the answer man, you have no magic pills to solve their problem, and there are no three-easy-steps formula answers. Being direct with them (speaking the truth in love) works better than holding back in the name of being nice. However, let them know that you’re willing to walk with them through their struggle. It’s when they most need you. And that together, you will figure out how to apply the gospel to their life. They may not always say it, but they really do need you to bring Gospel of God’s Grace to bear on their individual lives.

    1. Situations that seem hopeless over weeks often become hopeful over years.

Any pastor who understands the gospel realizes there’s never a good reason to give up on anyone … despite the common temptation to do just that. Over the years, I’ve seen God change people’s lives over decades in ways that no one could foresee. I find myself telling the parents of prodigals that God hasn’t finished writing your child’s story yet. So pray hard, trust God, and love your kid.

I love the John Piper quote that “God is always doing 10,000 things in your life, and you may be aware of three of them.” God is far more active than we realize, He’s doing far more than we could possibly know, and the passage of time teaches us to trust Him in that. Isaiah 55:11 >reminds us, “so shall My word be that goes out from My mouth; it shall not return to Me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it.” It just might not be today.

    1. Funerals are really important

One of the things that we do as pastors, that very few other people get to do, are weddings and funerals. At various times, I’ve made the comment that I would rather do a funeral than a wedding. Not that I don’t love weddings (I do, really), but sometimes you can feel like the legal prop (“You need someone who’s licensed to say all the right things.”) But at a funeral, you have an opportunity to minister in-depth to a family, everyone is reminded of their own mortality so they’re actually listening to every word you say, and the Gospel often seems to be very powerful in those moments. Invest the time in the planning and preparation so that the funeral doesn’t just remember the deceased, though it should certainly do that, but points everyone to Jesus with the comfort and challenge of the Gospel.

  1. Leadership Development

Leadership is all about people, and helping them grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ (2 Peter 3:18). But it also means pushing some to take something on (perhaps a new or different role) and holding others back (because they’re already doing what they’re called to do, or maybe they’re just trying to do too much). But we have to be careful and thoughtful with this, because it’s not about church programs, but church people. And when we mess this up, we can mess them up. And I can say from experience that feels terrible.

    1. Give everyone a voice.

Let each person involved have the opportunity to speak to the issue. Everyone has a different personality and everyone processes information differently. Sometimes I stall for time at a leader’s meeting just waiting for the engineer types to finally weigh in. And those delays have been worth their weight in gold. Slow thinkers have often kept us from making bad decisions quickly.

That also means it’s critical to be both realistic and humble about your own strengths and weaknesses. As pastors, we must know and accept ourselves. It doesn’t matter if we’re an introvert or extrovert (or some combination of the two, as I am). Surround yourself with people who are different than you, who see things differently than you do, who think and speak and talk differently than you do. That will help everyone.

    1. Give away ministry (not just delegate).

When you’ve given someone a ministry task, let them own it, plan it, present it, execute it, and let them learn from both the positive and negative consequences. Make sure they get the credit when it goes well, and try to absorb the blame when it doesn’t. Sometimes short-term ministry can have long-term benefits, meaning that the people leading that event for the first time are learning things that they will use in the church for years to come. Always try to think how this ministry will affect us over the long-term.

    1. Let people be creative and take risks

A million different ideas come up in the life of a church. People will say, “we should do __________!” Some ideas are great and don’t require a lot of thought. Some ideas are dreadful, which also doesn’t require a lot of thought. But most ideas fall into that “I just don’t know” category. Sometimes wisdom means giving people a chance to fail and picking them back up when they do. One of my cliché comments has become “Let’s try it. And if it doesn’t work, we’ll try something else.”

    1. Spend your social capital.

Once you’ve stayed in one church long enough, you gain two important things. First is that you become the “institutional memory” of the church. Some of that comes from longevity, and some of that comes from constantly addressing the questions of “How have we done?” and “How are we doing?” Second, as you gain social capital, especially from the consistent exercise of the first three roles, here is where you should spend it – in recruiting, training, and supporting the next generation of church leadership. Sometimes you have to encourage people to take on a new role, one they think is outside their comfort zone, and they probably won’t do it if you haven’t earned their trust.

  1. Repentance & Remembering

It’s so hard to see your own sin, even when you become a pro at spotting it in others. Someone once told me that one of our first jobs in the church is to be the “Chief Repenters.” People will learn more about repentance from hearing you repent, than they will from hearing your teaching on repentance.

You’re human.  You’re going to miss someone who needed you, say something you’d like to take back, and offend someone without even trying.  It happens. Go to that person, say “I’m sorry, please forgive me,” mean it, and move on. You’ll both be better off.

    1. Sometimes you err

Sometimes, when you realize you’ve made a mistake, once you decide it’s not a matter of sin, but simply a poor decision, it’s easy to blow past it without learning from it. Ministry mistakes are among your greatest opportunities to grow as a leader. It hurts when you blow it in leadership. To know you have failed to live up to expectations and that you’ve wasted the church’s scarce resources is really deflating. Your failures aren’t just about you. They’re really about how you’re going to grow, and how you’re going to help others grow, by learning from your mistakes. To paraphrase John Piper, “Don’t waste your mistakes.”

    1. Someone you trust

Sometimes you can’t see either the sin or the errors and you need someone else who has the ability and your permission to speak into your life. Sometimes you need to hear, “Brother, I think you were wrong about that.” But it must be someone who is able to listen to you rant, vent, cry, and be patient with you as you wonder what went wrong. This can be a mentor, a counselor, another pastor, and you probably need all three. Occasionally, it can be an elder or pastor you serve with, but only if you’ve built a long-term relationship and have already been through a lot together.

    1. Don’t go it alone

It’s hard to lead a church without godly leaders (elders and deacons) coming alongside you. I’ve learned that shepherding a local church is a team effort. The fellowship you will have with your elders and deacons can be a great means of grace in both your life and the life of your family. You will often feel like quitting (if you’re like me, that will be every Monday). You will often wonder where the strength will come from to keep going. Much of that can come from the godly people you surround yourself with. Lean on them. Let them minister to you.

    1. Remember your scars

Our scars remind us of the pain we’ve already experienced. A friend once wrote me that “Scars have the strange power to remind us that our past is real.” – Cormac McCarthy, “All the Pretty Horses” They’re a permanent, yet healed, place on our body. They’re not open, gaping wounds. They show us that there’s redemption in pain. They’re visible reminders that after the suffering came healing.

I’ve learned to appreciate why the Bible doesn’t sugarcoat the lives of the people that God used. He could’ve easily covered over their weaknesses, sins, and failures to make them look better. Instead, God highlights their sin to show God’s power at work. I’ve come to appreciate what the Apostle Paul says in 2 Corinthians 12:9, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness. Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me.”

Very little here is new or original with me. I’ve been collecting these types of ministry reflections for years. I’ve learned from scores of other pastors, both directly and through their writings. I would be surprised if many of their thoughts haven’t worked their way into my thoughts. I hope I’ve done them justice, even if I can’t remember who they all were.

When I reflect on 25 years of ordained ministry, one of the best reminders I received, again from another pastor (now with the Lord), is that the church will never be my church. It has always been, and will always be, Christ’s Church. God gets all the glory for anything good that came out of my mouth, my heart, or my mind. He is the One who promises to preserve the people who will glorify His name. And that was true about the church long before I got here and it will be true long after I’m gone. Therefore, “Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for He who promised is faithful.” (Hebrews 10:23)

Dr. David V. Silvernail Jr. is Senior Pastor of Potomac Hills Presbyterian Church.