Disaster in the Making: 20 Pieces of Bad Advice for Young Ministers

Man discipling younger man
What questionable pieces of advice have you been given in the past? (Lightstock)

People love to give advice to young adults just entering the ministry. I'm sure they think they're helping.

I was a senior in college when the Lord fingered me for the ministry. When my coal miner Dad got the news, even though his experience with church leadership was minimal, he had advice for his third son: "Start off pastoring small churches. That way you learn how to do it before moving on to the bigger places."

As if I had a choice.

Unity Baptist in Kimberly, Alabama, ran 35 on a good Sunday. I pastored it in the slivers of time available when not working at a cast iron pipe plant and trying to be husband and father. I stayed 14 months. I did them no harm and they did me a lot of good.

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When in seminary, the Paradis Baptist Church of the bayou community of Paradis, Louisiana, checked me out as a possible pastor, the fact that I had (ahem) pastoral experience tilted the scales. That church ran 40, but we lived in the apartment in the back of the educational building and more or less pastored full-time, if you don't count the four days a week spent 25 miles east on the seminary campus.

The third church ran 140 in attendance, and the fourth one over 500. I was off and running (smiley-face here).

Not all advice young ministers get is as basic and solid as what my dad offered. Some of what follows I heard personally, while friends volunteered some of it.

1. If you can do anything else other than preach, do it. I suppose what this implies is that "if you can be happy doing anything else," then do it. But even then, the advice is suspect.

On the surface, it implies that if one is a carpenter or has skills in some other line that would support his family, he should stay out of the ministry. What about all the wonderful bi-vocational ministers, we wonder?

2.  Study diligently until you are 40 years old, and after that, preach out of the overflow. Yes, that counsel was given me. My ordination council was composed of two ministers from our church, several neighboring preachers, and the editor of our state Baptist paper. It was the editor who offered this strange counsel. He was 60-ish, as I recall, and therefore we may assume he'd not studied for 20 years or more. What I would not give for the opportunity to ask a follow up question of him. Something eloquent, like, "Say what?"

When I shared this advice with an older minister who became a mentor, he scoffed, "What overflow?"

3. Do not get close to your people. Several friends say this counsel was given to them, so it's not as rare as No. 2 above. We assume this means you should not have church members as your closest friends and should not take members into your confidence. It's something of a half-truth, I expect, as there are churches where it holds and some where it does not.

Early in our ministry, my wife confided in a lady who was so helpful and had a great attitude. Soon we discovered she was telling others everything about us. A hard lesson well learned. We continued to hold the woman as a friend, but limited what we said to her.

In subsequent churches, the Lord gave us true friends who remain to this day some of our best and dearest friends. We thank God for mature, godly believers who came alongside us and loved us as the flawed disciples we were.

4. You don't need to get a theological education. There's no need, no time and no point. The counterpoint to that is that our Lord had only 33 years on earth, so before preaching for 3 years, He prepared for 30.

Almost every minister I know went to school while pastoring churches. So, it's not either/or. Frankly, I shudder to think what poor leadership my churches would have received had I not gone to seminary and continued to learn and grow.

5. Don't ever turn down an opportunity to preach. The preacher who received this advice says he almost killed himself running here and there until it occurred to him he could turn some invitations down. (I'm now realizing the same thing in my retirement mode. Just because someone invites you does not mean you must accept. Ask the Lord.).

6. Never let the congregation know when you are hurting. This is a variation of the leadership line that goes: Never let 'em see you sweat. And it's dead wrong. On the one hand, pastors should not overdo this, but on the other, God has surrounded the minister with faithful friends who would love to help share his burden. But he has to let them know. (I suggest a small group of leaders, told in confidence what the pastor has to deal with, as the starting place. In most cases, that will be sufficient.)

7. Keep moving. Two years is long enough for any pastorate. My wonderful dad told me one year is long enough for most pastorates. But while his instincts were usually sound, this time he missed it. His experience was limited to the country preachers who did little other than show up on Sundays. Time has shown repeatedly that the great churches have pastors who stay for decades.

8. Don't be a Baptist. There's no money in it. Yep, one friend said that pearl of wisdom was given him.

9. It's better to get forgiveness than permission. This manipulative tool is used by abusers and is unworthy of a disciple of the Lord Jesus Christ.

10. Go along to get along. Variations of this philosophy include: Don't rock the boat; It's not worth dying for. You get the impression that some pastors stay at a troubled church for decades by employing this approach. But like No. 9 above, it's unworthy. The minister should be devoted to helping a church become healthy and strong, and as with any other diseased body, sometimes that requires surgery or even amputation.

11. Avoid that other group in your denomination; they're liberals. Labels are libels, as they say. And no hostility is as strong as the competition between brethren. The minister who heard this counsel tells me it was as wrong as it can possibly get. Some of those churches and those ministers were sound and Christ-honoring.

12. Do not answer the phone on your off-day. People don't always know your off-day, and trouble does not honor it. The minister with a servant's heart will find ways to get away from the phone but still be available when needed.

13. Do not use the same sermon material twice. Throw it away after using it once. The minister given this piece of wisdom testifies, "I recognized it then for what it was, and never obeyed it once."

14. Do not take off-days. The devil doesn't. Follow this advice if the devil is your role model. Otherwise, take your off days and enjoy your vacation. Jesus told the disciples, "Come away by yourselves to a remote place and rest a while" (Mark 6:31).

15. When you get in a difficult situation in your church, leave. Cut your losses. Church splits look bad on your resume. The minister's wife who shared this says they stayed another seven years at that church and God did some wonderful things there.

16. You don't need that Greek stuff. Not everyone needs to study Greek and Hebrew. But those taught the languages by faithful brothers or sisters in Christ will find many a delight as a result of their efforts.

May I share one of my favorites? In Romans 8:26, Paul says the Holy Spirit "helps us in our weakness." The word helps in the Greek is synantilambanomai, a compound word made from several word parts scrunched together. Syn means "together, with;" anti means "opposite to, in front of;" and lambanomai is a form of the verb "to lift." 

Therefore, we conclude that the Holy Spirit "gets on the other side of our burden, and together with us, gets under it and lifts." That's pretty special stuff. (I think of making up a bed or pulling a crosscut saw: It's so much better with a friend on the other side),

17. Change denominations. That other one pays better and the retirement is terrific. It's all about money? All about furthering your career? If so, please find honest work, friend. But if God calls you into this work, ask Him to direct you and go there. He's not been proven wrong yet.

18. Stay with your race. White people cannot reach African-Americans. And vice versa. A variation of this is that your church can reach only people just like its members. Both philosophies have just enough truth in them to make them dangerous. They may be half-right, but they are totally wrong. If we could reach only people like us, no missionary would ever have a chance, and the gospel would have remained Jewish.

19. Spend an hour in the study for each minute you spend in the pulpit. I could name—but will not—the venerable pastor of a half-century ago who counseled preachers far and wide with this bit of flawed wisdom. For those of us preaching two-and-a-half sermons a week (Wednesday night being the 50-percenter), we would have time for nothing else.

20. Wherever there is a need, you find a mission field. And the nearest Christian is the missionary. A saintly missionary veteran gave this pearl of wisdom to our seminary in chapel one day when I was the fresh-faced 25-year-old eagerly soaking up everything I heard. Only in time did I realize that adopting this philosophy would mean frantically rushing helter skelter to meet every need, no matter whether the Lord was leading or if I was equipped.

One day, I saw how Jesus walked away from a crowd of needy people who had brought their sick to Him in order to preach heaven's message to the neighboring cities, for "that is why I have come" (Mark 1:38).

If wisdom is where we find it—another pearl which years of experience has proven accurate—and sometimes great insight originates from the unlikeliest of sources, then it's equally true that saintly servants of the Lord are capable of ladling out disastrous counsel to fellow travelers.

No one's counsel should be followed just because they have been in the Lord's work for a half-century. Or, in my case, 53 years.

We who have been doing this for a while love being invited to address young ministers—in seminary or in ordination councils or simply over a cup of coffee—on what to do, what to avoid, where to go and who to do it with. We are so full of wisdom and so quick to share it, one would think the experience of our years would have shown the futility of much of what we say. 

Nevertheless, the phone rings and some young minister asks for 10 minutes of our time (as one did last evening; we will be "meeting" on the phone this afternoon) and we look forward to dispensing the lessons of the decades for which we have the scars.

The best advice for a young minister I know how to give is this: If the Spirit within you says something on this list is dead wrong, ignore what we have said and obey Him.

You never go wrong obeying the Holy Spirit.

Dr. Joe McKeever writes from the vantage point of more than 60 years as a disciple of Jesus, more than 50 years preaching His gospel and more than 40 years of cartooning for every imaginable Christian publication.

For the original article, visit joemckeever.com.

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