Paul Prather

You aren’t the local messiah, and other truths seminaries should teach

Getty Images/iStockphoto

This spring I plan to do something I haven’t done in years: take a seminary class.

It’s only one course and I’m only auditing it. No big deal.

Still, I think it will do me good. I hope to refresh my soul with new insights.

I’ve often rued that I didn’t pursue a seminary degree when I was young and full of sap. It might have helped prepare me for what I was to encounter in the ministry. Instead, I only took seminary classes here or there, later, for professional development.

Nevertheless, I’ve managed to stay afloat as a pastor for 38 years (and counting).

While there’s a lot about leading a congregation I still could learn, I also have picked up a few insights of my own along the way.

If I were planning to teach a course for budding young pastors, here are 10 truths I might share — things I’ve learned through nearly four decades of trial and error:

Develop your own spirituality first, and protect it. The blind can’t lead the blind. A desperately ill doctor can’t treat patients. If you’re going to help others develop a relationship with God, you must develop a meaningful relationship with him yourself, and you must keep it healthy.

Listen. As a minister, the best ideas you’ll encounter will come from your parishioners, not from you. The people in your congregation may not know every highfalutin theological principle you do, but they know lots of things you don’t.

They’ll also tell you what they really need and want to learn from you — as opposed to what you may intend to teach them.

Delegate. You aren’t the local messiah. Pass along as many congregational jobs as possible to the lay members. This will benefit both them and you. They’ll grow by doing. And you won’t burn yourself out. You’ll have time to pursue your own spirituality. If you find yourself doing it all, you’re doing something wrong.

Get over yourself. You aren’t the local messiah. You’re not going to redeem the world. Humanity has been wrestling down in the mud with the same problems since Adam and Eve got kicked out of the garden. Jesus himself couldn’t fix everybody. Neither will you. But if you stay faithful, you might help ease the journeys of a handful of folks. That’s enough.

You won’t be good at every aspect of ministry. Be honest about your failings with God, your parishioners and yourself. Try to get better at the things you can improve. Some things you can’t improve. Maybe you’ll be a dynamite preacher but a lousy visitor of shut-ins. Maybe you’ll be terrific at raising money but terrible at administration. Face this for what it is. Use your strengths, improve where you’re able — and delegate the rest (see that point above).

Be nice. If you stay at a church for a while, it will, more than you’d imagine, begin to take on your personality. I don’t know why this happens, it just does. If you’re a jerk who feels superior to anybody who isn’t exactly like you, you’ll develop a congregation known for its petty, self-righteous jerks.

Instead, show grace to everybody. See if you can inspire a body of joyous, compassionate folks known for feeding the hungry and visiting prisoners.

Recognize that the church is organic. Even if you stay put, as I have, for nearly 40 years, the congregation you’re leading today won’t be much like the one you led 10 years ago, and it won’t be the one you’ll lead 10 years from today. People come. People go. Some grow. Some regress. The culture changes. You change. You must learn to adapt. Always.

Trust the Lord and trust your parishioners. God’s always working in the church for its good and for his glory —even when that doesn’t appear to be the case. (His idea of “good” often differs from ours.) Most of your parishioners only mean you good as well. Yes, you’ll encounter your share of backbiters. But most members want to do what’s right, and they’re trying.

Similarly, love the Lord and love the people he’s given you. At its core, the gospel is all about love. I don’t see how anybody can read the New Testament and arrive at any other conclusion. Try to love everybody God puts in your path, even if you don’t like them. And love yourself, because the Lord made you, too.

Remember that God doesn’t measure success by the same yardstick society uses. I imagine God considered Jesus a success when he had 5,000 followers — and also after they deserted him and only 12 remained. God isn’t impressed by numbers. God isn’t impressed by budgets. He isn’t impressed by campus renovations. God is impressed by love, obedience and faithfulness. Do what he calls you to do, be it great or small. Do it the best you can. Keep doing it. Do it in love.