17 Lessons I’ve Learned My First 25 Years in Ministry

I have been in fulltime Christian ministry for 25 years. (Hard to believe.) I have served as a music minister, a senior pastor, a writer, and as a leader in a parachurch ministry.

16 Lessons I've Learned My First 25 Years in Ministry

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The last quarter century has taught me lessons I’ll never forget. I learned them in the trenches of time, disappointment, and even failure.

Although some of these principles may seem to apply to those in vocational ministry, all have application to us as believers. Whether we’re parents, singles, marrieds, or even disillusioned with church—these apply.

In no particular order (except the first one), here are 17 of them.

Your Power has a Purpose

Leonard Bernstein, the late great conductor of the New York Philharmonic, once was asked: “Mr. Bernstein, what is the most difficult instrument to play?” He replied:

Second fiddle. I can get plenty of first violinists, but to find one who plays second violin with as much enthusiasm, or second French horn or second flute, now that’s a problem. And yet if no one plays second, we have no harmony.

Your Power has a Purpose

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Bernstein nailed the problem—not only in music, but in all relationships.

Very few are willing to be second, because being second requires someone else to be first, which requires giving instead of taking.

In the movie Schindler’s List, one of the most powerful scenes shows Oskar Schindler is speaking with a Nazi commander who had a habit of impulsively shooting Jews.

Watch this scene and think about the power you have in your life.

3 Surprising Solutions for Your Selfishness

You and I suffer from a malady common to every humanoid on the planet. It’s the number one reason we hurt each another. It’s why children scream most of the time.

And, ironically, it’s the prime reason we hurt ourselves. Selfishness.

3 Surprising Solutions for Your Selfishness

(Painting: “Jesus Washing Peter’s Feet,” by Ford Madox Brown, 1852-6. Public domain)

In Jesus’ day, people wore sandals, and the dusty roads produced dirty feet. When they entered a house, a servant customarily washed their filthy feet—a task akin to scrubbing toilets.

When Jesus and His disciples came to the Upper Room, they came to the large upstairs room of a furnished home.

But when they arrived, no house servant washed their feet.

I think Jesus arranged it that way.

Here’s why.

Dealing with Lonely Holidays

For many people, the holidays draw up painful memories. Sore spots from childhood or the loss of loved ones hit hard during this sentimental season.

While many people celebrate the joys of Christmastime, others suffer lonely holidays.

Dealing with Holiday Loneliness

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During one of the most desperate times of King David’s life, the anointed future king of Israel found himself running from two separate enemies—hardly a time to celebrate. With the Philistines to the west and King Saul to the east, a distressed David sought refuge in the cave of Adullam (1 Samuel 22:1–2).

David felt very alone.

His situation offers encouragement to us during lonely holidays.

The Tabernacle at Shiloh—A Promise, Person, Place & Parable

Local schoolchildren ate their lunches across the olive grove from my wife and me.

Like the kids, we came on a field trip to explore ancient Shiloh. Although our lunch was hardly a feast, it reminded me of the reasons the young nation of Israel initially came to this site. They came to worship at the annual feasts before the Tabernacle at Shiloh.

The Tabernacle at Shiloh—A Promise, Person, Place, & Parable

(Photo: Area of the Tabernacle at Shiloh. Courtesy of Pictorial Library of Bible Lands)

Ask most Americans where Shiloh is, and you’ll likely get a blank stare.

  • Historians may point to a Civil War battle in Hardin County, Tennessee.
  • Music buffs may start singing the chorus to a Neil Diamond song.

But question someone who knows his or her Bible, and Shiloh means something far more significant.

How to Fix Foundation Problems in Your Spiritual Life

Years ago, my grandmother’s 1909 house got a fresh layer of wallpaper. But only weeks later, I noticed in a high corner the wallpaper had buckled, and in some places, it had even split.

Fix Foundation Problems in Your Spiritual Life

(My grandmother’s house, built in 1909)

When I asked her about it she said: “Oh, the house needs foundation work. Every time the seasons change and the wind blows a different direction, the whole house shifts.”

That made sense. For years I shaved inches off most of the doors trying to get them to close. But the repair only lasted until the wind shifted again.

Look closely at the lives of your friends and family. Maybe even your own life.

You’ll see this old house’s problem in vivid display.

Jesus Decoys—Your Albatross of Spiritual Disciplines

I never thought an albatross would challenge my relationship with God. This one sure did.

Researchers placed 100 decoys on an island to attract endangered albatrosses and to encourage them to breed. But one albatross missed the message.

Jesus Decoys - Your Albatross of Spiritual Disciplines

Photo: by Forest & Kim Starr (CC-BY-3.0), via Wikimedia Commons.

This albatross attempted to woo a wooden decoy by building a tidy nest and fighting off rivals. For more than two years, this albatross stood by the decoy.

“He seems to have no desire to date real birds,” one of the researchers observed.

After reading this story, several activities came to mind—like Bible study, prayer, and fellowship with others.

All spiritual disciplines. All potential decoys.

Tomorrow, Today, and the Priorities of Someday

Years ago I heard about an odd work of modern art. The artist attached a chair to a loaded shotgun—with the barrel pointing at the chair. The gun had a timer set to discharge at some undetermined point within the next 100 years.

Tomorrow, Today, and the Priorities of Someday

(Photo: iofoto, via Vivozoom)

Believe it or not, droves of thrill-seekers viewed the exhibit by sitting in the chair and staring point-blank range into the gun barrel for sixty seconds. They knew the gun could fire at any moment, but they wanted a thrilling minute in the chair.

(What I would have given to sneak up and poke them in the ribs and yell, “BOOM!”)

Most of us would never dream of taking such a foolish gamble. And yet, how often will we toy with the future by counting on a future that may never happen?

What Comes First in Our Relationship with God?

If Jesus told us He had a criticism for us, we’d pull out our checklist and start down it.

  • “Should I go on a mission trip, Lord?”
  • “Should I pray more?”
  • “Maybe memorize the book of Romans?”

“You just name it, Lord, and I’ll do it!”

The most important part of your relationship with God

(Photo: By Almonroth, via Wikimedia Commons)

I have discovered that slips in our relationship with God never start with the big things. They begin with the basics.

We would never consider waffling in our morality or our theology.

And yet, how often we betray a more basic element.

2 Reasons Why Serving God isn’t Fulfilling

I hold as my single claim to fame the day I danced for the judges at the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville, Tennessee. But I’ll be honest: I never intended to dance.

There are at least 2 reasons why serving God can be unfulfilling.

(Photo: There are at least 2 reasons why serving God can be unfulfilling.)

I auditioned as a guitar player, yet when the judges called me back the next day, they asked me to dance as well! Oh dear.

End of audition. I immediately lost the job.

Why? They misplaced me.