I am surprised that I survived my first year of ministry and honestly I don’t know if I deserved to be kept around. Working in a church or any kind of ministry is tricky because there are plenty of pitfalls for which a theological education doesn’t prepare you. Here are my top 10 goofs in my first year of ministry.
#1 Not Asking Why?
There is no better time to ask questions than in that first year. You can play dumb and question things you don’t think are working, thus forcing other people to state the absurdity out loud. Through asking these "why" questions you can reach some sense of clarity. That first year is the honeymoon period when you can learn and are more free to probe the true nature of the community.
I reached a point where I thought I understood after a few months, and it wasn’t until a friend asked some simple “why” questions that I realized I didn’t understand why I was doing what I was doing.
#2 Expecting Calm
I don’t care what you have seen or heard—ministry is not easy. Conflict happens, people die, and sometimes people think you are always available even when you are just trying to cut the grass or watch football. For five years I have tried to find a weekly routine, and maybe I am undisciplined, but I still haven’t found it.
The shock I experienced when volunteers quit and staff members moved on was almost worse than the actual event.
#3 Lack of Boundaries
Going into ministry, I had this idealized view of life that involved being a part of people’s lives and more or less solving their problems. In pursuing that misguided notion family and personal time get pushed to the margin. This only works for a while before you start gaining weight and dreading going into the office. I got married and started in ministry at about the same time. Three days after we got back from our honeymoon, three teenagers showed up at our front door unannounced. In hindsight I shouldn’t have invited them in.
#4 Treating Ministry Like a Job
It is a job, but the moment it primarily becomes work and not service staff meetings get boring and you wonder why your co-workers don’t work as hard as you do. Never forget that you get to do this. You are getting paid to do things that you should be doing anyway.
There will a time and a place to think of it as a job. Like during VBS week when you have to dress up and let five-year olds throw pasta at your face.
#5 Hiding From Critique
Despite what your grandmother told you that first time you preached, you aren’t very good at what you are doing. Thing is, everybody is bad at their job in the first year. You are also really fragile during that first year, so any critique feels like a personal attack, and you really shouldn’t be that mad at the lady with blue hair. Maybe the students did trash the church van or the music is too loud. You don’t consider that when you hide from critique—when you have closed your office door or gone home for lunch so you could cry while you watched Deadliest Catch (guilty of both).
#6 Avoiding Conflict
I ended #5 sharing some of my more embarrassing ways I dealt with critique, and I have to say that I have a similar track record with conflict. People who enjoy conflict resolution need to be medicated or at least easily identifiable. There is nothing worse than someone who is going through their “I’m going to tell you all the things that annoy me about you because I need to be honest” phase. Having some tact is always a good thing.
Regardless of what the other person does there comes a moment when you need to have a talk with them. It is awkward, difficult, and painful, but the only thing that will make the situation worse is putting the conversation off.
#7 Not Being Clear
You are fresh out of college leading a team of people who are older and more experienced than you. You (and by “you” I really mean “I”) want them to respect and like you, because you lack confidence in your own abilities. Which means you never lay out clear expectations or guidelines for them. You (again I really mean "I") think you are giving them freedom from restrictions but you are only causing them frustration and avoiding a direct conversation.
#8 Ignoring Accountability
Guess what, you are an idiot. You are not only capable of neglecting to planning a rain alternative for the kick ball tournament, you are also capable of fraud, adultery, and any other number of things that will cause you to be the lead on the local news. Sure you may not ruin everything and end up in jail and maybe no one will ever catch you in your sin. You might get lucky and just become distant from the important people in your life and live a lie.
I don’t think this has to follow the “accountability partner” model where you get together with someone at Starbucks and you beat each other up, but there have to be people in your life asking you hard questions and not accepting your easy answers.
#9 Trashing Your Predecessor
As soon as a pastor leaves the critics are quiet and the supporters get megaphones. You are probably walking into a situation where you are immediately compared to the leader who came before you. It is also easy at this point to blame things on him/her. They aren’t here to defend themselves, and maybe you are accurate in your assessment.
Problems arise as soon as you open your mouth. Odds are the people on your team liked the previous leader, and with their absence their memory of them has gotten better—not more accurate but more positive. It is also immature. Which is probably one of the critiques coming your way, so don’t reinforce it.
#10 Stop Learning Names
You get embarrassed when you forget their name a month in or you realize you never learned it in the first place; either way not asking is a bad idea. Learning names isn’t about being friendly or not being friendly but about understanding the importance of relational equity in ministry.
That great idea you have won’t get off the ground in that first year if you don’t have support. This may feel like playing church politics, because it is. Call it whatever you want, but this is how it works—so you might as well build real relationships and redeem something that can be so ugly in the process.