My first day on the job at Gordon-Conwell was graduation. I sat on the stage wearing a new doctoral robe (with a silly hat), and witnessing graduation for the first time as a faculty member. It was the first time I realized I was now partly responsible for nurturing the life of future pastors, missionaries, and Christian leaders.
In the years since this first graduation I have enjoyed the humbling experience of handing degrees to students who are not only colleagues in ministry but close friends. I also have learned the privilege of offering a few parting words to students who, if not already in full-time ministry, are leaving to follow their journey in service to the King.
I say a lot of things during graduation week, but here are a few themes I always find myself repeating.
1. Forget your grades. After seminary you have to realize you are no longer a student. In seminary you are sized up by the quality of your work. Grades are good or bad, and they come at regular, measurable seasons each semester. Pastoral ministry does not work this way. A pastor should not expect to be measured day-by-day, week-by-week on the perfection of his craft. Instead, take the long view: plan your steps according to the disciples you will have made after a lifetime of Gospel ministry.
2. We didn’t teach you everything. At no point in the process of enrolling, taking classes, or graduating from seminary have we promised to make you a finished product, ready for everything. So don’t let the speeches during graduation fool you into thinking you can hang up your spurs. The life of ministry is a life of learning, growth, and further deepening. All we have given you are the tools necessary to approach a life of ministry: a preaching class does not make you a preacher, and your Greek and Hebrew are only appreciated when used to study the Word during your ministry. Tools are worthless if they are never used, so use them to become a lifelong student of pastoral ministry.
3. Expect trials and fears. Christ told his disciples in the upper room, “In this world you will have trials.” (John 16:33) We must expect this. Faith to get through these trials is based, in part, on your willingness to expect them. Wise pastors plan for support and friendships they know will be crucial in these lean seasons.
4. Never forget you are fighting against an already vanquished enemy. Death is not conquered by your work, your study, your effort. It was defeated at the cross. Your job is merely to point everyone to the Gospel and the inheritance guaranteed by the indwelling of the Spirit. Sin may remain, but the victory is already won, so don’t play the hero.
5. Like Paul, your ministry will require co-laborers. We are all cursed to live in an age that loves the rugged individual over the collaboration of teams and communities. But I think it’s safe to assume you are not Paul, so if even he thanked, blessed, and encouraged those who labored with him for the Gospel, we should expect this even more in our own ministry. Those working with you for the Gospel are not your competition but your allies. If you ever forget this, you only have to imagine a week without your elders, deacons, staff, volunteers, and prayer warriors and you’ll realize how much your ministry is woven into the life of others. I have never heard of a pastor who spent too much time thanking and encouraging those who co-labor with him.
6. Like Timothy, you need a mentor to set you straight. This is perhaps the greatest lack in modern ministry when compared with previous generations or centuries. We all need people who can counsel us, but we especially need a mentor who can smack us awake when we are being knuckleheads. Do you have someone who can listen to your sermon, or hear your vision statement, or visit your church—and then tell you the hard truths that things aren’t going well? Or if they are going well that they could be better? This type of relationship takes enormous trust, but if you lack this you will be vulnerable to the egoism of the moment.
7. Your family is not an obstacle to ministry. Your family is one of the greatest gifts from God and they are to be cherished. If you sacrifice time with them for ministry always remind them (and yourself) that your time away from them is not neglect but for the sake of Gospel service. When you get home, turn the phone off, shut down the computer, and give yourself to them with abandon.
8. Neither are your friends. Pastors are too often lonely people. It can be easy to substitute ministry relationships for close, intimate friendships. But you need close friends of all walks of life to remain balanced and healthy.
9. Energy runs out; Grace does not. The sands of time don’t flow up, and the energy of youth will not last. But every salty old pastor I’ve ever met has endured, not because they had superhero strength for the journey, but because they have grown old with the doctrines of grace.