15 Lessons I’ve Learned from 40 Years in Ministry

One of the members of the Church Answers’ community started a discussion that I absolutely loved. After some lengthy prefatory comments, he asked the community: When things are tough, when you feel like you have no more to give, what are some of the things that keep you moving forward?

His post created a great discussion. I jumped in with the realization that, beginning in 2022, I will have been in vocational ministry for 40 years. Those 40 years are divided almost into equal thirds: pastor, seminary dean, and CEO of a Christian resource company. Two quick thoughts hit me. First, I am old. Second, I’ve learned a few lessons.

For sure, I’ve made many mistakes. I hope I’ve learned from these mistakes more than I have repeated them. In the discussion at Church Answers, I named eight of the lessons. For this article, I added a few more.

  1. The spiritual disciplines are not only acts of obedience for me, but they are also necessary for my spiritual and emotional survival. When I am not praying, reading the Word, or sharing the gospel, I am more likely to be discouraged and even despondent.
  2. An optimistic (hope and faith-based, of course) attitude seems to be a differentiating factor for many in ministry who persevere.
  3. True friends are priceless anywhere and particularly in ministry.
  4. It’s even better that my sons and my wife are my best friends.
  5. Comparison to others in ministry is an emotional killer. Don’t do it.
  6. Laughter is a key trait to longevity.
  7. Apologize and ask for forgiveness quickly.
  8. Don’t be snarky and critical, especially on social media.
  9. Most crises are not true crises. Give it a week or so, and your perspective will change.
  10. Don’t make major decisions when you are tired.
  11. Don’t denigrate others. It is a sign of your own insecurities.
  12. Silence is often the best response.
  13. Love the church where God has you. The members are not perfect, but neither are you.
  14. Work hard and work smart. Others are watching you. Set the example.
  15. Don’t forget God’s call on your life and your ministry. It will be the single factor that keeps you going at times.

I would love to hear your perspective. When things are tough, when you feel like you have no more to give, what are some of the things that keep you moving forward?

Let me hear from you.

Posted on November 29, 2021

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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  • Thom: Much of the “wisdom” old folks sometimes exhibit is due to a greater ability to relate Scripture to what they personally do. Knowing the promises of God becomes more important than our feelings about something we do. It’s really vital, to me, that I can do that.

  • Bill Pitcher says on

    Sort of a #6a: Be able to laugh at yourself; it’s preferable to laughing at others.

  • Niyi Dunmade says on

    Gleaning from your wealth of experience is a massive encouragement in today’ world. Thank you Thom for sharing this valuable lessons

    Niyi Dunmade

  • Jack Grimes says on

    Love this post! For me two big ones are having a hobby and getting physical exercise. Hobbies get me out of the church bubble and around the people I need to reach. Exercise helps reset my mental and emotional exhaustion.

  • George W. C. Lyons says on

    It’s incredible how 15 small points can sum up everything necessary to survive congregational ministry! Thank you, Thom Rainer.

  • One thing that keeps me moving forward is the file I started decades ago, filled with notes and Thank You cards I received in response to times I ministered to someone. On a day of depressed or defeated feelings, I read the cards. What a lift! A re-orientation! God DOES do good work through me, and He will continue to. 🙂

  • Robert Dixon says on

    One of the first lessons I learned after graduating from seminary and beginning my first job in ministry: when visiting in hospitals, keep your eyes straight ahead when walking through the halls.

  • Wisdom about the ministry I am still learning every day after 50+ years:

    1. “God is God and I am not!”
    2. “Serve the way I can, not the way I can’t!”
    3. “Jesus and the Church do not owe me anything!” (NO entitlement to success, job, money, power, place, or prestige)
    4. “I am following Jesus Christ—the suffering, servant, crucified Messiah—I am not on a trip to Disney World!”
    5. “Hard to appreciate Jesus’ sense of humor about some of those with whom I am called to serve.”
    6. “The Holy Spirit is in charge of results!”
    7. “People I serve with can never be thanked enough.”
    8. “Ministry is in the ‘long view’ a way of humility.”

    “If you should ask me what are the ways of God, I would tell you the first is humility, the second is humility, and the third is humility. Not that there are no other precepts to give, but if humility does not precede all that we do, our efforts are meaningless.” (Augustine of Hippo)

  • Another item – be comfortable in your own skin. When one tries to hide their insecurities the perceived shortfall often manifests itself in another way. And it probably won’t be a good manifestation.

    • Thom Rainer says on

      Well said. In the case of the person who constantly denigrated me, others now realize that his negativity was a consequence of his insecurity rather than my shortfalls.

  • William A. Secrest says on

    All of your points are spot on. I have a question with number 12. I have been silent when I have been verbally attacked. My question is “when is it not best to be silent? When do we step up and say, “we need to discuss this issue that is boiling over.”
    Thanks, Dr. Rainer.

    • Thom Rainer says on

      William –

      There are two questions I attempt to answer before I respond. The first is, “Will my response glorify God?” The second is, “What are the practical outcomes of my response?” In regards to the latter question, I have responded and often been disappointed with the outcome. One person denigrated me for months until I finally responded. My responses did nothing to diminish his constant denigration, so I became silent at the advice of a good friend who said I could not affect his insecurities with my responses. He was right.

    • Adding from experience. Thom’s response is spot on. My practice, especially now in ministry, is to focus on responding as opposed to reacting. The former is a measured action and the latter is emotional. Most issues, especially in leadership positions, need a response as opposed to a reaction. One question I ask myself is “will my reply ease or magnify the situation?” But, the “silence” need not be total silence. One thing to invite silence is to, for want of a better term, stall for your response. While, in your hypothetical, you may need to have a discussion about something that is boiling over – but not now. By delaying the exchange until both parties have had a change to return to a simmer is often warranted.

  • Though I am not a pastor, I have served in a number of leadership roles, including interim staff positions. All of the points you mentioned are excellent, Thom. One lesson I learned was that a little encouragement will go a long way to helping you sustain the effort. A corollary to this is that those who seek to encourage are often encouraged, themselves.

  • ERNIE CECIL says on

    16. Let someone else get the credit whenever you can

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