Letter to a Younger Me
A couple of recent things have me reflecting on the nature and shape of pastoral ministry today. First, I spent last week at a Pastors Conference in Vancouver where the theme was “Cultivating Christ-Like Persons of Character & Faithful Ethical Action.” It was good to be reminded of the central importance of character and virtue and the life-giving habits of prayer, solitude, worship, and Scripture in this weird and wonderful vocation called “pastor.”
The second was an email from a younger colleague in another part of the country wondering if it would be ok if they referenced some of our earlier correspondence in a sermon they were preparing. Having little recollection of the specifics of this correspondence, I proceeded to dig it up for a fresh look. It was interesting reading indeed! This person was in the first months of pastoral ministry and was seeking advice/wisdom from those a bit farther down the road. They framed this request in the form of a very interesting question for me:
If you could write yourself a brief letter (one or two paragraphs) and place it on your desk three years ago as you started on this journey called vocational ministry, and reading this letter was very first thing you did on that first day three years ago, what would you write?
I remember initially feeling very silly about presuming to offer advice about such a thing. I remember feeling like I barely had a clue what I was doing most of the time, and certainly didn’t have much to offer anyone else by way of advice on pastoring. (I still roughly feel this way three years later, come to think of it!) Nevertheless, I was honoured to be asked by this bright young pastor, and so I wrote the following letter to myself. As I reread it today, three years later, there are some things that I might want to add or say differently, or even omit (I have never, it seems, been able to say things in “one or two paragraphs” 🙂 ), but I post it here more or less as I wrote it three years ago in the hope that perhaps some others in the early stages of pastoral ministry (or other equally important areas of work) might find it helpful as they embark on the journey.
It also occurs to me that today is a very good day indeed for my older self to begin taking some of this advice to my younger self more seriously.
Dear younger me,
Well, you’re about to embark on the journey of pastoral ministry. Like everything else about the journey of following Jesus, it’s good for you to be reminded here of the primacy of God’s activity over yours. You need to always remember that the grace of God is and has always been operative in the lives of the people you will be serving—God was at work in this church and in these people, long before you arrived on the scene, and will continue to be at work long after you are gone. This is both encouraging and humbling. You don’t have to do everything—and it’s not all about you. Be glad. Don’t take yourself so seriously.
Also, remember that pastoral ministry always takes time. Many people will explicitly or implicitly encourage you to do things in order to get results—more people in the pews, more “converts,” more programs, etc. But you are simply called to walk with people as they journey with Christ, and this takes time. Take the time to learn individual stories. Listen. Listen. Never underestimate how much this simple act of taking the time to honour the individual life that is before you through attention might mean. You are in the “business” of making disciples, and discipleship takes time. You might never see measurable progress, but have faith that God will honour the investment you make in people. Investing in people is never a waste, because God made people, God loves people, and people alone bear God’s image— and in God’s economy nothing truly good offered or received is ever wasted.
On a more practical level, take the time necessary to nourish your own soul. Carve out time for reading, journaling, walking, thinking, praying… Don’t fall into the trap of treating your office like, well, an office. There will never be a shortage of tasks that people are willing to give you—some worthwhile, others perhaps not. But if you don’t take the initiative of deciding what is worthwhile and what you will prioritize, others will do it for you—and often, based on assumptions of what pastoral ministry is or is not that you do not (or should not!) share.
Continue to feed your mind, challenge yourself intellectually, consider new ideas. This will not only help you in your preaching and teaching, but will model to your congregation the importance of loving God with all of who you are, body, soul, and mind. This isn’t easy, but I am convinced that it is vitally important to your own health and sanity, as well as to the health of your congregation.
Finally, simply follow Jesus. One of the best gifts you can give your congregation is your example. Never underestimate how much simply being a person of integrity, honesty, compassion, and truth can do. You will impact people more than you can imagine simply by being what you are called to be as a Christian—a good person who loves God and neighbour.