7 Things I Wish Someone Would Have Told Me Before Starting Ministry

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If you’re in ministry, at some point you probably told yourself “I had no idea it would be like this.”

I can’t tell you the number of times I thought “I wish somebody had taught me this in seminary before starting ministry.” (My friend, Rich Birch, has done a great job of compensating for that with his site, UnSeminary.com.)

Don’t get me wrong—I’m exceptionally grateful for the time I’ve had in ministry. A couple of decades into my time in ministry, I’d wake up virtually every day, thankful I get to this and excited to get started.

But the ‘virtually’ part is true because there are days where I think “What’s going on?” and “I didn’t sign up for this.” And even on my good days, I find I’m having to learn things I never expected I’d have to learn.

So let’s speed things up for those of you still on the front side of ministry or just starting ministry.

And this might also help those of us who have been at it for a while but are still ready for some inside-track preparation.

Here are 7 things I wish someone had told me before starting ministry:

1. Your character will be tested more than your competency

The road is strewn with bodies of leaders who were extremely gifted but who lost their ministries because of sex, money, power, or other forms of moral failure.

In ministry, your character will be tested more than your competency ever will be.

It’s great to develop a skill set, but it’s also easier to build a skill set than it is to build your character.

If you want to stay in ministry for the long haul, constantly building and refining your character is paramount.

2. Leading people is more difficult than reading Greek

In seminary, I had to learn how to read Greek. It was difficult, but I actually won the prize for it in my class.

Little did I know how much more difficult it would be to lead people than it was to learn an ancient language. Yet we didn’t take a single class on how to lead people. Nothing on leading congregations, teams, staff, or boards.

In fact, chances are your most challenging task as a ministry leader is to lead people—to help lead them in their relationship with Christ, but also to help them work alongside each other in a common mission.

That’s one of the reasons I write this blog. To help me figure out how to lead better than ever before, and hopefully to help you do that too.

3. Strategy matters as much as vision and mission

I know mission and vision are important, but strategy is where the real payoff begins, and where the vision takes flight.

Mission and vision get universal buy-in (love God, love people, change the world). But strategy doesn’t (And we’re going to play this music or change our programs this way).

Many leaders don’t think clearly about strategy, or if they do, they don’t articulate it well.

I led for years without realizing how powerful a great strategy could be. And how, as much as it can divide, it can also unite.

I wrote more about strategy here as a secret to creating a highly motivated team.

4. You will be tempted to cheat on your family because you love God

I’m not talking about having an affair (although that does happen far too often in ministry). I’m talking about cheating your family out of time and attention.

It took me a few years to realize that I mistakenly believed that saying no to work meant saying no to God. I would make my family wait because ‘the call of God’ beckoned.

God may have called you to ministry, but he’s also called you to your family.

Cheating your family for the sake of ministry forsakes your ministry.

Saying no to ministry means saying no to work. It does not mean saying no to God.

If you want to read more about why ministry is so confusing to so many of us, I wrote about it here.

5. Mentors aren’t optional

There has always been something in me that says “you can figure this out by yourself”.

I wish I had fought that voice earlier.

Ministry (and life) are complex enough that I wish someone had told me that mentors aren’t optional.

I am fortunate to have more than a few great mentors in my life these days (here’s how to cultivate a great inner circle, by the way).  I just wish I had started earlier.

6. Just because your organization is growing doesn’t mean you should do more

My default assumption was that when we had more (money, people, opportunities) we would do more.

As our church began to grow, we added lots of programs, programs that were, in retrospect, random—they didn’t lead people anywhere.

That was a mistake.

About a decade into my time in ministry, we rethought all of that and went through the painful process of shutting lots of programs down.

We picked a destination for people (in our case, small groups) and created steps to help them get there. And we decided to do a few things and do them well.

The result has left us reaching more people than ever before with greater effectiveness. It just took longer to get there than I would have liked.

Few things in life are as powerful as focus.

7. Perseverance is underrated (especially when starting in ministry)

Ministry isn’t easy. Far too many people leave ministry before their call has expired.

I am so thankful I didn’t quit the many times I was tempted to.

That’s true not just in ministry, but in life and friendship and marriage.

What’s sadly ironic is that most people are tempted to quit moments before their critical breakthrough. If they had stayed, they might have seen the fruit of their years of intense labor.

Not convinced perseverance is all it’s cracked up to be? Here’s a post on the 5-year cycle of most jobs and what people miss when they quit too soon.

And of course, sometimes it is time to go. Here are 5 signs it’s time to move on.

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Carey Nieuwhof
Carey Nieuwhof

Carey Nieuwhof is a best-selling leadership author, speaker, podcaster, former attorney, and church planter. He hosts one of today’s most influential leadership podcasts, and his online content is accessed by leaders over 1.5 million times a month. He speaks to leaders around the world about leadership, change, and personal growth.