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

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 this, I wake up virtually every single 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 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 will be

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 labour.

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.

So those are 7 things I wish I knew before starting ministry.

Your turn:

How about you? What do you wish someone had told you?

Leave a comment!

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


  1. Doug on July 5, 2021 at 8:26 pm

    This is a great beginning list for those interested in a church like ministry. However, there are many different kinds of ministry. Many do not require a lot of organization. I do now realized though, after reading this post, that even so, we should have a clear idea and understanding of what we are called to do, and an outline path by which to follow.

    Thank you.

  2. Ron Beed on June 19, 2021 at 11:04 am

    Carey. Useful, practical points drawing on , I think your experience and most important for me as well , your reflection on the experiences ….which always resonates with me.

  3. Kelly Thomson on February 10, 2021 at 9:44 pm

    First I should thank you sir, I have a calling and I want to start a ministry. I have been challenged by your words and I had no idea of the insight I have got from your writings. God bless

  4. Rowaida on February 1, 2021 at 12:24 pm

    Hi must begin to minister and want some of information where to start

  5. Evang Daniel. on January 21, 2021 at 3:34 pm

    Good evening to you all, I have a call from God to go into ministry and I was asked by God to go to port harcort but I dont have anybody there so pls what should i do??

    • Njaga Emmanuel on March 16, 2021 at 8:38 am

      Go! He has kept someone there for you.

    • Doug on July 5, 2021 at 8:18 pm

      The thing is, if you read the book of Acts, how many times did God move someone when they had no idea why or what the end result might be? But the, God showed up and completed the mission. Just go, and do. God will take care of the rest.

  6. Pst. Kelly Anthony Firstson on November 28, 2020 at 3:29 pm

    Wow thanks a million sir your words are just so true

  7. Rosemary Atakpa on November 25, 2020 at 3:44 am

    Thank you so much sir for this post,as a Catholic,I have been in to part time ministry,and I know that God called me to full time ministry and I have been running away from full time ministry due to my church doctrine,but now, your teaching has really energized me to move into what God want me to do without fear, God bless you sir.

    • CJ Caufield on November 28, 2020 at 3:36 pm

      Rosemary, along with Carey’s insightful and pithy insights, I am invigorated in new ways as well. Thank you.

    • Chuck on June 19, 2021 at 8:30 am

      Must admit that first point KO’d me. Nice shot! I think that applies in any career track not just ministry, especially to the Christian. Some years ago I had an annual performance review at my job, and my supervisor put it bluntly. He had nothing to say about my performance at all, as it was near flawless (I’d gotten two superior achievement awards recently). He said I had a choice: we could end the review there and sign off a-ok or we could spend the rest of the review time talking about what he felt I needed to work on—my character. I took him up on his offer (and stayed for Choice B). After a humbling discussion on what he observed as this or that character issue, he revealed that his directness had a purpose (he was grooming me for an actual supervisory appointment soon to come).

  8. Godwin Otuu Oyim on August 8, 2020 at 6:01 am

    Thanks so much for this insightful write up .

  9. Andrew Paul DeRier on July 20, 2020 at 6:40 am

    I have been in full time ministry for 45 years + (long before the internet) my oldest son , in ministry himself, introduced me to this web site. It is spectacular! I now teach at Faith Bible College International in Charleston Maine. This particular article will be a full class period of discussion in both the Pastoral Theology classes I teach. Students will be required to join and use the site while under my tutelage. Thank you So Much for the meaningful insights!

  10. Jon Karn on July 19, 2020 at 8:14 pm

    I’m in my 60’s. This is STILL great! 🙂 Thanks Carey!

  11. Steve on July 19, 2020 at 9:24 am

    What advice would you have for someone moving into ministry later in life. A second career. I know of several like me that have done just that. Finished long careers in the corporate world, then became a pastor while attending seminary. Some of us had already gone to bible school, just never went down that career path. I meet pastors my age (60) that almost look at me with daggers as they finish up their career in ministry. I must tell you I have never been happier!

  12. Njabulo Biyela on May 11, 2020 at 9:13 am

    Inspired, few things I have learned – I believe they will help me to know all I need to know about about ministry and leading a church well as I am preparing myself to start a ministry after covid-19.

  13. Pastor Mike Felix on April 12, 2020 at 7:24 am

    I had to take notes of this great and helpful message. thanks a lot. I’m so grateful for I am just 23years old and I have this great zeal to serve God as God has called me.

    • Elemese Pelumi on May 6, 2020 at 4:57 am

      Thank you so much for the write-up.
      I was really blessed by it.
      More grace

  14. Mpho on January 28, 2020 at 7:10 am

    Powerful information. I would like to start a ministry . Where to learn .

  15. Ojinga Gideon Omiunu on January 23, 2020 at 6:55 pm

    Hmm, this is great Joe. This is exactly what fuel jelousy and strive in some denomination in Africa. We just have realise that we are just filling one part- finish. Focus this part and do your best.

  16. Treasure C. on October 1, 2019 at 12:51 am

    Glad I got to see this. I’m truly blessed and empowered by it. Thank you sir.

  17. Tombra John Walket on August 13, 2019 at 7:10 am

    I am Pastor Tombra John Walker from Nigeria. Thanks daddy am blessed with your post.But daddy I have a burden to start a Evangelical outreach money as always being a problem to start. I need this kits a speaker and wireless mic,bible,track etc to start up.how can I overcome this financial crisis?

    • Njabulo Biyela on May 11, 2020 at 9:27 am

      I am not a pastor but I have walked with God from high school (2004), you don’t need money to do God’s work. As you preach the Gospel God will send right people to sponsor your ministry.

      For now just use what you have. If you start now looking for funds I would advise you to go and do business.

      Go do one-on-one evangelism, some of those people can open their houses for home cells or even invite their friends and train them to do what you called to do. Your ministry will grow but please money must be not your motive otherwise you will fail in serving people and in serving God.

    • Njaga Emmanuel on March 16, 2021 at 8:40 am

      Go without purse and scrip, God will provide.

  18. Ezeja ikenna on May 8, 2019 at 10:37 am

    Thank u all for ur contributions I believe this will go a long way in directing most of us that God have called into ministry.

  19. Nma Onyikwo on April 20, 2018 at 11:24 am

    Thanks so much for this write up. My husband and I are in our early stage of ministry in Nigeria, I know these points would really help.

  20. Ryan Visconti on April 4, 2016 at 2:52 am

    Carey, can you give some example of ministries you started doing when you grew or things that didn’t necessarily lead anywhere? Struggling with this right now, as we just started averaging over 1000 per week, and the opportunities to do more abound. Thanks for everything you do!

    • Carey Nieuwhof on April 4, 2016 at 7:20 am

      Sure Ryan, basically anything that wasn’t a step. We had men’s ministry, women’s ministry, Alpha, a bible study program, Wednesday night services, membership classes and more. We killed them all, including membership and ended up where are today. You can check out our programs (which are very few) at connexuschurch.com. Everything we do is there online. Very minimal. And we’re more than three the size we were when we were running all those programs.

  21. Travis Stephens on August 5, 2015 at 6:39 am

    I would add, your dream to work in ministry isn’t necessarily your spouse’s dream. In fact your spouse may have to sacrifice some of their dreams so you can live yours. This can create a lot of stress on the relationship if not managed properly.

    You get used to seeing Holly Furtick, or Lisa Young, on stage beside their husbands to talk through marriage or other topics, and you think your wife should be that person. But often times they’re not.

    I have an amazing wife who is very supportive, but she’s had to give up her dream of being a stay at home mom because I don’t make enough money to support us. She’s ok with that, but it’s a sacrifice for her.

    I’d love to see a survey done that would ask pastor’s wives if they wished their husband had a different occupation because I just think ministry can be harder for those around us than maybe we realize.

    • Dean Bowers on July 19, 2020 at 4:22 am

      Some of us don’t have spouses so there’s that. Also, some spouses are male or men since the pastor is female or women. Many women serve churches as pastors today.

  22. Stewart Mathis on May 19, 2015 at 3:38 am

    As someone who is just starting out in ministry, these tips are great. I left the education field last year to come to the church, and I love this type of wisdom. It helps illuminate the future and keeps me vigilant of things that can adversely impact me.

    • Carey Nieuwhof on May 19, 2015 at 4:50 am

      Thanks Stewart! Glad you’re bringing all that experience into ministry!

      • CJ Caufield on July 19, 2020 at 9:17 pm

        Great insights!

        For me, the number one thing I wish I was told before entering ministry is that being a pastor is lonely.

    • Njoku vc on March 21, 2020 at 3:30 am

      How do I know it is time to start a ministry

  23. Mark Weaver on April 24, 2015 at 10:26 am

    This post is great, perfect, and wish I could’ve read it 8 years ago. I was in full time ministry since my early 20s, started off in youth ministry with all the intentions in the world to reach students far fromg God…and God honored that. Somewhere along the line my desire to be accepted and to project wholeness because of title, position, size of church; rather than Christ, my goals in ministry became adultered to the point I always wanted be on the greener grass. Because of gaps in character (never competency) I failed to be honest in interviews, resume, and references to the point I launched and led a campus for a church of over 6,000 at the age of 27, and then left to be a lead pastor of a large church in a rural setting at the age of 28.

    Everything caught up to me, every “white lie”, every bold face lie, every “omission of truth”…it hit me…my family..my friends..and The Church in the face…and hard.

    For the past few months I’ve been working with a non-profit counseling organization for pastors on becoming a restored person who once again finds wholeness in Christ, and joy in reaching those no one is reaching.

    This article needs to be given to anyone interested in ministry…and read by everyone in ministry.

    Thanks for all you do for the kingdom.

    • Carey Nieuwhof on April 24, 2015 at 12:25 pm

      Mark…thank you for your honesty. That kind of candour is still too rare…so glad you are in a new place. God will use your story. Stay encouraged!

      • Mark Weaver on April 24, 2015 at 5:50 pm

        Hoping God will use this mess for His message; you’re doing a great thing at Connexus and excited to see what God has in store

        • Carey Nieuwhof on April 25, 2015 at 6:08 am

          Thanks Mark!

          • Rowaida on February 1, 2021 at 12:23 pm

            Hi must begin to minister and want some of information where to start

    • Marino on August 7, 2019 at 2:16 am

      I’m interested in running a healing ministry

  24. […] 7 Things You Should Know Before Starting a Career In Ministry […]

  25. […] 7 things I wish someone told me before I started in ministry. […]

  26. Aaron Newell on July 22, 2014 at 8:34 am

    One of the most important things that I have learned in 18 plus years of ministry has to do with timelines. Pastors, myself included, set unrealistic goals for growth at times. If the church or ministry in the church has been in a downward spiral for the past 20 years, it is likely that it’s not going to bounce back in 2 months or six months or even a year, yet we seem to think that we are supposed to have all the answers and growth is supposed to take place instantly. Church leadership also has the same issue, many believing that bringing in a new guy or starting a new program will automatically translate to more people in church, more ministries being birthed, more exposure to the community. I wish someone had taught the importance of realistic expectations for growth and change.

  27. Lawrence W. Wilson on July 22, 2014 at 7:11 am

    My exhaustive list would probably begin with “The CD (which you haven’t yet heard of) will soon wipe out the cassette tape.” Nobody in the ’80s foresaw the effect of technology on all of church life, especially worship.

    But that’s a teeny one. The main thing I didn’t learn is that “spiritual leadership” is at least as much leadership as spirituality.

  28. […] Source: Careynieuwhof […]

  29. Joe Robideaux on July 21, 2014 at 12:14 pm

    Great post! The list could probably be 100 points longer :). One of the things that came first to my mind is learning its okay not to be great at every facet of ministry. I spent time in a denomination where the pastors were expected to be awesome at and love doing everything in the church. It took me some time to realize I had been gifted in some ways, not in others, and thats kind of how God makes people.

    • Carey Nieuwhof on July 27, 2014 at 8:40 pm

      Joe…couldn’t agree more. What a great addition. We are all only good at a few things. Thanks!

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.