Over my 36-year career in church ministry, I wish I had done certain things differently. For example:
*I wish I knew more about sermon preparation in my early twenties. Many of my initial sermons were well-delivered but said little.
*I wish I hadn’t permitted certain individuals to come onto the church board. While biblical qualifications are important, following your church’s mission and vision are also crucial.
*I wish I had taken more time to network with various Christian leaders. While I know some important individuals in the Christian community, I don’t know nearly enough.
*I wish I had never become involved with a denomination. Going to district meetings and playing political games distracted me from serving the churches that called me.
But these regrets are all miniscule compared to the one decision I wish I had never made: becoming the pastor of my first church in Sunnyvale, California.
By the time I was ready to graduate from seminary, I had already served as a youth/associate pastor in three different churches over a six-and-a-half year period.
But as I prepared for my final year of seminary, I was weary of youth work. Our son Ryan was born at the beginning of that final year, and I didn’t want to leave my wife or son for even a day … much less a week.
I graduated from Talbot Seminary in June 1980 with a Master of Divinity degree, majoring in Systematic Theology.
And a couple of months later, I had to go to Jr. High camp as a counselor for a week and stay in teepees … and I hated every minute.
When I dropped off campers at the church late one Saturday afternoon, my pastor was there, and he asked me how camp went. When I told him how I felt, he said, “Jim, we need to get you ordained and get you a church.”
Several months later – on November 11, 1980 – I passed my ordination council and was officially ordained the following Sunday … and I was all of 27 years old.
I could have stayed at my church indefinitely … the ministry was going very well … but all I wanted to do was preach … and those Jr. High kids weren’t exactly great listeners.
How could I find a suitable church?
A former Talbot classmate pastored his own church in Solvang, California, and I wanted to find out how he did it, so I invited him to breakfast.
My colleague told me that he had been offered two other churches before he settled in Solvang … and he wished he had taken the first church.
So that was his counsel to me: take the first church that you’re offered.
It proved to be disastrous advice.
The church I was serving was in a denomination, and someone told me that I needed to speak with the new district minister of our district … so I did.
I turned in my ministerial profile on April 1, 1981, and six weeks later, I received a call from the board chairman of a church in Sunnyvale, California.
The chairman asked me to speak the following Sunday, so my wife and I flew to San Jose … I met with the deacons … I preached the next day … we met nearly everyone at church … and we flew home.
During this time, I consulted with the district minister from Northern California, who encouraged me to take the church.
The chairman called me immediately and asked me to return and candidate the following Sunday. I went alone … was offered the call … and quickly accepted.
How I wish I could take back that decision!
Here is what I didn’t know at the time:
*The church was composed of refugees who didn’t get along in any other church. I have never met such a group of complainers and whiners in all my life.
*The average age of the congregation was sixty … and with that age came a rigid fundamentalist mindset that ultimately drove me bananas.
*Those older people expected me to visit them in their homes for at least an hour every few months … and that is not my strength!
*The church was located in the multipurpose room of an elementary school … and you couldn’t find it even with a map.
*The church was five years old when I came … and I was their fourth pastor. (The board had fired the previous pastor after just one year.)
*The board looked through 14 resumes before they contacted me. Everyone else had wisely turned them down.
*The board claimed that they wanted to reach young couples, but when young couples visited … and later stayed … they weren’t welcomed.
*While the people claimed they wanted the church to grow, their real desire was to be in a church small enough that they could control its every move.
We sang “Victory in Jesus” practically every week … a guy who played the musical saw came to the church uninvited and was always asked to play … we averaged 30 people when I first came, 45 two years later … and when we started to attract young couples, the older people complained about their dress … their kids … and their music.
When Billy Graham came to San Jose in 1981, I went for counselor training at Menlo Park Presbyterian Church … and was trained by Robert Boyd Munger, author of the little booklet, My Heart, Christ’s Home.
I thought, “Maybe by partnering with the Crusade, we’ll be given some leads on people who make decisions for Christ.”
When the follow-up cards were passed out after the Crusade, the largest church in San Jose was given 600 cards … and our church received one … and that person lived far, far away.
We weren’t a real church … we were just playing church.
I once thought that if you were a great Bible teacher, you could go to any congregation – regardless of demographics and size – and make it grow.
But what I learned instead is that sharp pastors quickly size up such churches and turn them down early in the search process.
About eighteen months into my tenure in Sunnyvale, the chairman of the deacons brought a doctrinal issue to my attention that he perceived as an internal threat.
I researched the issue … held a three-hour meeting with the church board … and we all agreed on a plan of action.
When I began implementing that plan, those involved with the false doctrine threatened to leave the church … the entire board backed down … and then asked me to apologize … which I refused to do.
Due to my conflict with the board, I contacted my district minister … who thought I was such a good preacher that he praised me in a district newsletter … explained the situation to him … and told him I was open to moving to another church.
Since it was relatively easy for me to move to Sunnyvale the first time, I figured it wouldn’t take all that long to move somewhere else.
And that’s when I learned these realities:
*If you’re 29 years old, nobody is going to take you seriously as a candidate … even if you’ve had nearly ten years of church ministry experience already.
My district minister arranged for a “pulpit swap” one Sunday to showcase me to his own congregation in San Jose. Their interim spoke at my church in Sunnyvale. The chairman of the pulpit committee loved me … as did many others … but one search team member was away, and he felt I was too young, so that was that.
*If you’re in a small church, you can only make a lateral move statistically. That is, if you’re in a church that averages 45 people per Sunday, only churches that average around 45 or fewer are going to take you seriously.
*If you didn’t attend the denominational seminary – and I didn’t – that’s going to hurt you with an awful lot of search teams … and it killed my chances for most denominational churches.
*Years later, I was told that I was suspect because I had graduated from Talbot.
*How you perform in your first church can determine the rest of your pastoral career.
After two years, the city of Sunnyvale announced plans to bulldoze down the school to make way for condos, so we had to find another place to worship.
A sister church five miles away in Santa Clara invited our congregation to merge with them. Our church would gain a building, and their church would gain a pastor … me.
I didn’t know anything about church mergers at the time, so I did some research … and learned that merger math is usually 1+1 = 1.
In other words, if you put a church of 80 with a church of 50, you’ll eventually end up with a church of 80 … or 50.
I didn’t want to pastor that merged church, so I tried to find somewhere else to go … but I couldn’t find anyplace suitable … and only agreed to their offer to make me pastor at the last minute.
The next seven years were my worst years in ministry. Almost everyone from my first church left in anger. They wanted to be in charge of decision making, but now had to share control with leaders from the other church … and I was caught in the middle.
I found myself constantly discouraged, frustrated, and depressed … so depressed that I had to seek professional counseling.
After four months of counseling – seeing him twice a week – my counselor … who had two doctoral degrees … told me, “Your problem is your church. Get out of it.”
I tried, but I couldn’t. I spoke with search teams from New York, Michigan, and Washington, but I couldn’t find a suitable place to go.
Nearly ten years later, that first church was still holding me back.
My family suffered tremendously during those years.
My wife worked in a Christian bookstore … then in day care … and made peanuts.
I recall receiving a raise after my first year but not receiving a raise for the next six years.
I drove a 1963 Chevy Nova that I bought for $200 from my grandmother. It lacked air conditioning, heat, and a functioning radio … and the springs that came through the driver’s seat kept catching on my pants.
One Christmas, I had to borrow money from my credit union just to buy presents.
Our medical insurance was with the denomination, and it was awful … going up 47% in one year.
We couldn’t afford to buy a house in Silicon Valley because they were far too expensive. Shacks sold for $400,000.
I wish I could do it all over again.
What would I have done differently?
Many years ago, when I was reading books for my Doctor of Ministry degree, I stumbled upon counsel from church guru Lyle Schaller.
Schaller said that a young person in ministry should try and become the associate pastor in a larger church. He said that if you can do that, and stay two years, you can then apply for and be considered as the senior pastor of a church of comparable size.
Let’s say you become an associate for a church of 1200 people, and you stay two years. You can then apply to be the pastor of churches of 1200 people or less because you’re already familiar with the mindset of a larger church.
Before I went to Sunnyvale and became labeled as a small church pastor who couldn’t make his churches grow, I wish that I had become an associate in a larger congregation instead … or at least aimed higher than I did.
It’s my greatest ministry regret.
Yes, I know that God is sovereign, and that all things work together for good, and that God allowed me to go through all of those experiences for some reason.
I’m sure that someday, He will tell me why.
I believe Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 12:18: “But in fact God has arranged the parts of the body, every one of them, just as he wanted them to be.”
Many great pastors started out in small situations, where you can experiment and fail without doing too much damage.
But if you’re in a tough situation for too long … and you can’t make it go … you can easily be labeled by people who don’t know you and have never visited your church.
As I look back upon my life, my biggest regret is that I chose to become the pastor of a tiny, dysfunctional, crabby group of people for my first ministry assignment.
Even Peter and John couldn’t have made that church go.
What’s your biggest ministry regret?
My wife and I had a great discussion about this blog post after she read it a few hours ago.
She asked me, “So did we waste out lives going to Sunnyvale?”
No, we didn’t … but I wish I had known at a younger age how the evangelical “church system” works.
I could have made wiser decisions … cared for my family better … and accomplished much, much more for Christ’s kingdom.
Yes, God can use our mistakes to further His purposes, but I still wish I could have that one do-over in my career.
Frank Sinatra sang, “Regrets, I’ve had a few, but then again, too few to mention.”
I’ve had a few regrets, this being the main one.
I hope it’s all right that I mentioned it.