Thinking about my 10 Years as a Full-Time Preacher
by Travis Bookout
It was May 2008. That’s when I began preaching fulltime for the Morton Street church of Christ in Denison, TX. I had just graduated from Bear Valley in February. In those few months in-between, I worked building railroad switch points and I married the lovely Lauren Bookout. But now it’s May 2018. 10 years later. I’m now living in Monroe, LA, still married to the somehow even lovelier Lauren Bookout, father of Oliver and next monthish I’ll get to meet son #2, Levi. A bit has changed in my life over the last 10 years, but one thing has remained consistent: I can’t imagine doing anything other than preaching.
I have never wanted to switch careers (probably because I don’t really have any other skills to fall back on and building railroads was pretty “eh”), and I’ve never dreaded getting up for work the next day. Preaching is awesome. This post is intended more for preachers, ministers, or anyone who may be interested in getting into that field. Here are 10 things you should know about ministry in the church.
10. You can’t make the church grow: This is true and frustrating and true and heart-breaking and true and humbling and true. It’s just true. And you should know it from the get-go. There are two really important reasons why you should remember this. 1. If the church grows, awesome! You need to know it wasn’t you. 2. If the church doesn’t grow, that’s tough. You need to know it wasn’t you.
No one person can make the church grow. That’s not how the church works. When a church grows, there are generally several/numerous/many people involved in that process. When a church dies and shrinks, there are several/numerous/many people involved in that process. Besides, if Scripture is to be believed, humans can’t really make stuff grow anyway. I can plant a seed, I can put it in a sunny spot, I can make sure it’s well watered, I can work hard on providing a healthy atmosphere, but growth does not come from me: “I planted, Apollos watered, but God was causing the growth” (1 Cor. 3:6).
Remember God’s words to the discouraged Zerubbabel: “Not by might nor by power, but by My Spirit” (Zechariah 4:6). You can control how hard you work. You can control if you are divisive or friendly. You can control how much you prepare, engage, visit, support, and care. You cannot control growth. You just work hard and let God do His thing.
9. You’ll never be perfect: There are many people who are scared away from full-time ministry because they don’t believe they are “good” enough. Not necessarily talented enough, but “good” enough. They believe they are too weak and sinful. Sure, some of these folks may be right, but I believe many have an unrealistic view of “the minister.” No minister is perfect. Every single minister struggles with sin. Every. Single. One.
Hypocrisy is not committing sin, while saying that people shouldn’t sin. Hypocrisy is excusing or overlooking your own sin, while condemning others for the same things. You will sin. You will do a poor job sometimes. But the church is not held up by the perfect preacher. The church is held up by the mercy and love of God for all Christians who struggle to do what is right and strive to be pleasing to Him. That’s the preacher as much as the elder and deacon and parent and widow and new Christian and long-time stalwart of the faith. Plus, Christians are usually better at forgiveness than the world. They at least know Jesus wants us to forgive. You’ll mess up, but people will encourage you through it.
8. I’m a way better minister when I work with others. There are things I love about ministry and there are things that I struggle with. Some folks love visiting hospitals and making phone calls and checking up on people. I guess this makes me sound awful and uncaring, but those are my struggles as a preacher. I love study and teaching and preaching. I love making spiritual connections and growing and trying to encourage growth in others. But I struggle walking into a hospital room. I don’t know what to say. I feel unhelpful and awkward and out of my comfort zone.
But you know what? Whether I’m comfortable or not, visiting is important. This is why I say, work with others. I’m a much better visitor when I go with an elder. Or a member. I go visiting every week with one of our elders. When I preached in Texas, I would do the same thing. I have visited with my wife, my sister-in-law, my friends and peers in the church, elders, former ministers, and new members. It’s an awesome help to me, but it’s also encouraging for them.
Visiting is just my personal illustration, but this applies to most any area of ministry. Work with others on sermon ideas. Bounce illustrations off of people. Ask for help visiting, teaching a class, or writing. You are part of a whole church, use the resources at your disposal.
7. Use sources wisely: Study on your own. Exegete the best you can. Read the Bible and read it again. Read whole books of the Bible at once. Study and be honest and trust yourself. BUT, you are not the only Christian. You are not the only thinker. Again, you are part of a whole church, use the resources at your disposal. Consult others on your conclusions. Read books written by wise Christians who have also studied. Further your education. Follow good blogs. Listen to sermons. Email preachers who don’t live near you. Get coffee with preachers who do live near you. Find sources and use them wisely.
Do not use bad sources. Your illustrations or preaching points better not be coming from some random meme, or article that popped up on your facebook page. Peer review is an important process. Multiple attestation, criterion of dissimilarity, criterion of embarrassment are not only helpful tools in ascertaining history, but also checking your sources. Do others agree with this source? Are my sources biased? Are there people who don’t agree with me, yet admit this source is accurate? Confirmation bias is both pleasurable and extremely dangerous. Think critically. Check yourself and your sources before you say (or post) anything publicly.
6. Grow: If you are supported to work with the church, you have an obligation, a moral responsibility to grow. You have time to study that others do not. And that’s an amazing opportunity. You have the benefit of time to practice Christian disciplines that others do not. If you do not have that time, then you are probably using your time poorly. Study things you have not studied before. Learn interesting things. Pray. Try to learn original languages. Challenge yourself. Set goals. Go to lectureships, get on iTunes/Youtube and listen to lectures. Pray. Practice things you are not good at. Get ideas from others, think about them, pray about them, use them. Memorize Scripture. Read scholarly books that are hard to understand at first. Learn early church history. Pray. Pray for hours. Fast. If you’ve never fasted, start. Meditate, if you don’t have time, change your schedule. If possible, further your education. Go to the BETTER Conference, go to Polishing the Pulpit, get involved in a church camp. Write more. Read more. Pray.
5. Godly elders are the best thing in the world: I could not imagine working with a congregation that does not have elders. I seriously just couldn’t imagine that burden. I certainly don’t want to imagine working with a congregation with bad, ungodly, or uncaring elders. So I won’t. Instead, I’ll talk about good elders. I have always been privileged to work with godly elders who trust me, support me, and are as active as I am. They are my shepherds. They defend the truth, they defend me, and they visit with me and for me. They know the sheep. They know the Shepherd. They encourage me, facilitate my growth, and give me suggestions based on their years of wisdom and experience. They are kind to my wife, love my son, and are good to my family. They don’t treat me as bosses or managers, but as fellow workers in the kingdom. Get to know your elders. Learn from these good men. Ask for advice. Be honest. And be fed as a sheep, just like the rest of the congregation.
4. Be picky, but remember no church is perfect: When I say be picky, I’m particularly talking about where you choose to do ministry. If there is even a hint that my wife will be mistreated, or burdened with unnecessary responsibilities, or does not want to go, we will not go. If I cannot spend quality time with my family and be a godly husband and father because I’m too busy with other church duties, there is no way my family will go there. Some churches are awesome. They understand that a minister must be a faithful servant of Jesus first, and that includes being a present, godly father and husband. Some churches are oblivious. Be very picky about where you work.
At the same time, remember that no church is perfect. That church that says they are interested in you is not perfect. No church will always do the right thing or always treat you perfectly well. No church is absolutely right on every single doctrinal question you can think up (and you probably aren’t either). No church is without sin. No church always makes the right move, does so quickly, and never suffers a setback. No elder is perfect, no preacher is perfect, no song leader is perfect. People will say dumb stuff during prayers or while giving announcements. People will say rude things after sermons. People will sin. You have to be honest about what you are willing to work with. But you also have to love flawed people, recognize your own flaws, and strive to serve Jesus together. No church is perfect, but many are very good. There’s is no better work environment that a loving group of God’s flawed people. If you have that, you are blessed.
3. Let stuff go: Remember that “no church is perfect” point? Yea, you have to deal with that. Your ministry can’t halt every time your idea is rejected, someone is rude after a sermon, or someone gets mad at you. Not only let other people’s flaws go, let your own go. If you make a mistake, do better next time. I have 300ish other people out there listening to me every week. Every one of them has their own experiences and knowledge base. Everyone of them has their own lives, concerns, health struggles, fears, heart-breaks, disappointments, idiosyncrasies, etc. If you use a word in the pulpit and 98% of are fine with it, but 2% aren’t, you may hear about it. That’s fine. Let it go, choose a different word next time. You may accidentally neglect or forget an event in one person’s life because you are working with other people or other things. That’s not good. But do better next time.
You cannot have an ego. Sometimes people who know way less about the Bible and about ministry and about what’s going on in the church will criticize you. Their criticism may be right, or it may be unfounded, based on ignorance, or just flat dumb. That will happen if you are in ministry. That’s fine. Let it go. The vast vast majority of what you’ll hear will be kind, encouraging, and uplifting. You cannot be thinskinned. You cannot be overly sensitive. You cannot please everyone. But you can do your best. You can try, improve, let stuff go, and move on. In fact, there’s really nothing else you can do.
If you want to dwell on something, don’t choose the rare negativity or frustration. Dwell on the good, pure, exciting parts of ministry. Dwell on the funny stories. Dwell on the unique, encouraging experiences. Dwell on that recent baptism. Dwell on that young child being raised by godly parents. Dwell on that faithful lady whose funeral just passed, whose goal is being achieved, who is experiencing bliss after a life of struggles. Dwell on that member who serves anytime you ask. Dwell on Jesus. If you focus on the right areas, you’ll remember how incredible a life of ministry can be.
2. You have to remember what really matters: that breakfast you advertised but no one showed up to may have been a bummer, but that’s not ultimately what really matters. When you had that guest speaker, and people prioritized other things on that Monday night, that’s discouraging, but it’s not what really matters. When you told the elders about your new plan to encourage visitation, and they say it’s unfeasible, that’s frustrating but not what really matters.
There are so many things. So many jobs. So many ideas. So many words spoken. There are so many distractions that can cause us to forget the main goal. Don’t let the peripheral disappointments distract you from the job at hand: The glorification of Jesus Christ through His people. Remember to preach and encourage and rebuke and exhort and do it all for the glory of Jesus. Remember the good and work for more.
1. Be a sincere servant of Jesus: This is what really matters. People care about this. This is the most important part of any ministry. I have grown as a Christian because of the ministry. I didn’t make “Pray” one of the top 10 (although it deserves it), because I have referenced it so much in the others, and I’ll reference it here again. Talk to God. Pray about the ministry and your own spiritual well-being. It’s essential to serving Jesus well. Spend time with your family. I also didn’t list that one, because it fits right here. Be a godly example. Prove yourself an example in word, conduct, love, faith, and purity. Love Jesus and let others know. Show them how to let discipleship to Jesus manifest itself in all you do. Study, pray, be kind, encourage, disciple, teach, be pure, deny yourself, be selfless, be sacrificial, love your enemies, turn the other cheek, do good to those who are cruel to you, pray without ceasing, in all things give thanks. That will cover up a lot of other flaws. People will love you even after a bad sermon if you get this one right. People will forgive you even after you messed up if you get this one right. Get this one right for yourself, for others, and for God. Seriously, that’s your primary ministry. That’s what matters.