If I could turn back time (an old 80s song just popped into my head), I would have a lot to tell the younger me. Although there are some clear advantages to being a young man, those strengths cannot compare to the wisdom that one acquires throughout life. One of the downsides to being young is that you think you know it all. The advantage to being older is not necessarily that you know more, but that you begin to realize how much you don’t know. Thus, the first thing that I would say to a new pastor, regardless of his age, is always have a teachable spirit. That is, be a lifelong learner.
Being a Lifelong Learner Starts With Listening to Your Critics!
Being a lifelong learner goes far beyond acquiring a wealth of book knowledge. Some of the most significant lessons that I’ve learned as a pastor have come through both constructive and destructive criticisms. I’ve noticed a tendency among younger pastors to be overly sensitive to correction or criticism. As a young (and new) pastor, I erroneously believed that the church had nothing to teach me. Instead, I was there to teach them. Sadly, I missed out on countless opportunities to grow through the criticism and critiques being leveraged against me.
Like many new pastors, I was once blind to the fact that God was providentially using the critiques, unsolicited feedback, and outright nasty comments to shape me as a pastor. On the other hand, I loved the praises that people would heap on me. Who doesn’t? It doesn’t take long before the praises of men become like a drug. However, does such adoration really help you? Of course, it makes you feel good, but how will that help sharpen you as a pastor? On the other hand, I had a great deal to learn about how God uses difficult people to sanctify a pastor. Is it possible that God is using your critics to knock off some of your rough edges?
Scenarios to Test Your Teachability.
Consider the following scenarios and describe which one makes you feel good and which one can help you grow and become more intentional as a pastor.
Scenario 1: You’ve just preached a 40-minute, verse-by-verse, exposition of the first 18 verses of John’s Gospel. This is the first sermon in a 12 year series on the book of John (just kidding, but seriously this how obnoxious some pastors can be). This past week you spent hours analyzing the text, reading theological works, reviewing commentaries, searching for illustrations, and developing an absolutely amazing sermon, or so you think! The worship gathering has ended and you are standing at the back door shaking hands as people leave. A friendly older gentlemen in the church walks up and says, “Great sermon preacher, we really needed that this morning.”
Scenario 2: Same facts as above; however, it is the next morning (Mondays are the worst for pastors). You get to the office and begin preparing for part two of this massive sermon series in John. Before getting started, you check your emails and notice a message from one of your biggest critics in the church. His email offers a plethora of unsolicited criticisms about the content and length of your sermon. He says, “Your sermon was too long.” He continues, “People can’t understand you, with all of those big words and that theological stuff.” And the icing on the cake, “You don’t seem to understand us here.”
I’ve lost count of the number of times other pastors have complained to me about situations just like the second scenario. However, the critical email provided you with a great deal of material that you can use to become a better pastor. In fact, I’ve received emails nearly exactly like the one in scenario two. As I’ve grown as a pastor, I’ve decided that these criticisms were actually opportunities to learn.
What can I learn from the criticism in scenario two?
I. I need to spend more time getting to know the people in my church and the surrounding community because clearly I’m disconnected from how some of them listen and learn.
II. I need to think like a missionary who is serving as a pastor. Much of what a pastor does from the pulpit is translate theological truth, which was written between 2,000 to 6,000 years ago, to a modern audience. Although your sermon may make sense to you, it may be completely foreign to the congregation.
III. I need to gain more knowledge on how people learn. For example, what is the average attention span of the various age groups in the church? What methods am I using to teach? Are those methods the most effective way to communicate to my audience (church)? A pastor needs to learn a lot about how people learn!
IV. I would recruit at least two friends to watch a video of me preaching and then offer me feedback. The Bible says, “Faithful are the wounds of a friend; but the kisses of an enemy are deceitful” (Proverbs 27:6). One of the friends should be a seasoned pastor who demonstrates a high-level of competency as a communicator and a high-degree of empathy and care for the church he leads. The second should be a friend with no theological training, someone who is representative of the people you are teaching each week. Make sure that both friends know that you expect them to be very critical of your content, style, etc. They will be no help to you if they just offer positive feedback. It would be helpful to provide these friends with a questionnaire to fill out while watching your sermon video.
It is humbling to realize that you aren’t really as good as you’d like to think at pastoring (and preaching). However, having a teachable spirit is essential to becoming the pastor that God has called you to be. In future posts, I will provide more advice for younger pastors and address the importance of ongoing theological and pastoral training. Until then, it is suffice to say, “You don’t know everything, so listen and learn.”
“A fool takes no pleasure in understanding, but only in expressing his opinion” (Proverbs 18:2).
For a general introduction to this series of articles on pastoral ministry, see my post “Poimenology: The Study of Pastoral Ministry”
Fore more information on the author, see the “About Dr. Francis” page.