11 Things I Learned the Hard Way as a Pastor

By Chuck Lawless

On April 1, 1981, I began full-time ministry. Since then, I’ve thought a lot about my early days as a pastor – both the good and the bad. Here are 11 things I learned the hard way as a pastor:

  1. I really didn’t know how to exegete and preach the Word. I thought I did because I followed the models of other preachers and used sermon outline books. I look back now, though, and I pray God has supernaturally destroyed any sermon cassette tapes that bear my name. Seriously.  
  2.  I needed counseling training. I have no question that folks can counsel with only the Word, but I needed help in understanding problems and applying the Word appropriately. I was a single pastor for a number of years, but it didn’t take me long after marriage to learn I didn’t know anything about marriage counseling, either. 
  3. I did not know my community. What I realized too late was that I knew the community most connected to my church members. I didn’t know the community completely disconnected from the church world.
  4.  It’s easy to avoid accountability in the pastorate. Especially as a single-staff leader, it’s easy to do ministry (or something) without many folks knowing your schedule, your activities, your outreach, etc. Laziness lurks when accountability is non-existent.
  5. Evangelistic fire needs fuel to continue burning. I was an on-fire evangelist my first years as a pastor (in fact, I’m sure I was a bit obnoxious at times). Ministry, though, had a way of diverting my attention so my fire for telling everybody about Jesus diminished for a while.
  6. Evangelistic growth without discipleship leads to whining. That’s inevitable, actually. If the church has a large number of baby Christians who are not led to growth, they remain babies – even after we place them in leadership positions.
  7. Marriage ministry must be more than reactive. I spent too long working to clean up marital problems among members before I realized we needed to teach youth and young adults about biblical standards of marriage.
  8.  If you think you must (or can) fix everything, you’re probably idolatrous. Only God can fix everything. When I thought I could – and had to if I were a good pastor – I had placed myself in the position of God.
  9. I could (and still can) do ministry in my own power. It stings to write those words even now. Training and experience might make us sound good and lead decently, but they do not automatically result in a display of God’s power.
  10. Rest and exercise matter. More than once in 39+ years of ministry, I’ve burned out at least briefly. I haven’t always taken care of myself as I should. Frankly, I’m still learning this lesson. Pray for me that I will learn it well. 

 Apart from God’s grace, I’m fairly stupid. Actually, I could write several more posts like this one to prove my point. I promise.  

What lessons have you learned the hard way?  

Posted on April 15, 2020

With nearly 40 years of ministry experience, Thom Rainer has spent a lifetime committed to the growth and health of local churches across North America.
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  • Thank you for your humble (and humbling) transparency. It really means a lot that ministry leaders like yourself can admit to issues in the past and in the present

  • Barbara Tyner says on

    Pastor Chuck, Thank you for sharing your ten+ learned insights of pastoring, making mistakes, and learning from them. I appreciate the Lord so much for putting folk like you in ministry who have the gift of sharing the words He has given you in writing so that folk in ministry like me don’t have to try to start from scratch. You are a blessing sir and I am grateful to have come across your site. Thanks again and God bless.

  • Ron Johnson says on

    One major thing I’ve learned over the years is that when folks tell you how wonderful you are and how much they love you and appreciate you, be wary. As disheartening as it is they can be the same ones who will turn on you when you have to correct them.

  • Some congregations don’t want to forgive each other. Bitterness is like a comfortable suit of clothes people wear every day. In spite of saying we’ve put it behind us”, many still haven’t. After a year there, we left and are much happier and more effective.

  • Number 8 really got me. I felt the sting on that one. It led me to the thought about my reluctance to also delegate. I know I can do it near perfect, so why let someone do it satisfactorily? Not only is that a pride issue, but it definitely has put me in some burnout situations.

    Great post! Very encouraging. Thank you for being transparent. Praying for you in the areas you mentioned.

  • Minister of Music - Alan Burch Sr. says on

    From your writing I would say your right where God wants you to be my brother !. Don’t be so hard for the past because you show you’ve learn by it. That’s only what any of us can do. Believe me, your words exemplify you devotion and admonition in trusting God. By even being willing to share something as personal as all you’ve said. That’s what brings about an appreciation and gratefulness for truth in Ministry. I think it personally shows God working in us. I always like to share with any evangelist (God ‘s call me to be), or pastor, or preacher, or even teacher, of the Word of God ! That they are in the greatest profession in the world. Just stop an think about it. Called by God !. What a tremendous opportunity to be a witness, for someone that can change the course of anyones’ life. as He “Jesus Christ” has all of us. We trust him to use us even in our weaknesses.
    I’ve read a lot of your readings. I think we have some of the greatest writers of history writing today! Many like you are writing some great stuff we all need to hear. Blessed in ministry we are brother for whatever manner God wants to use us in ! God bless

  • Morris Denman says on

    All that you shared is more true than not for most of it.
    I saw 10 things on the list. What is number 11?

  • Roy Wahlgren says on

    Sunday comes around real often!

  • Dan R Klatt says on

    Good stuff Chuck, lessons abound. Do they not?

  • I learned there’s just no way to avoid taking your lumps and hurting from them as a Pastor. I learned (much later in my career) to appreciate that one of the first things Jesus did in his ministry was drive the demon out of the synagogue in Capernaum. It’s often not a bad thing at all when some folks get mad and leave, though it no doubt hurts us when it happens.

  • Kiely Young says on

    Very well stated.
    After 52 years I can identify and add a few to the list.
    1) Some people do not want to be helped, just want to complain.
    2) You are foolish to think everyone wants to “grow”.

  • Evelyn Penn says on

    It takes time to have confidence to give a message from the pulpit.
    But practice does help. The more you “preach” the more confident you will be to deliver God’s Word.

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