Recently a good friend took his first job as a pastor. He asked several friends and pastors for advice on how to start this exciting and important calling. Below is my response. I think you might get something from it too.
I am honored and humbled that you asked for my wisdom and advice as you move into your first pastorate. You mention you are just a “little trepidatious” about this step in your life. That’s how I feel about writing any such letter and giving advice. As you know from our long relationship, I have a stack of life and pastoral mistakes that Sir Edmund Hillary might consider too tall to climb. Then again maybe that’s why you asked. So, with trepidation and apologies I’ll take my shot.
You are not in control.
Countless are the people and things I’ve loved and believed in so deeply and held so tight in my grip that I’ve crushed them. Unfortunately those closest to me all have bruises on their souls from my attempts at control. You are probably one I’ve crushed in this way. Please forgive me.
I’ve resorted to control mainly because I’m afraid and have very little faith. The stupid thing is that the few times I’ve managed to control something has further diminished my faith. But preachers are inclined toward believing in control and are even taught–mistakenly–to believe and act this way. After all, if we are not right, peoples’ eternity hang in the balance.
But I’m not alone in this. Most humans think life is about control. Many of us, especially Christians, live as if all bad things should and can be avoided, as if life is a disaster to be prevented rather than an unexpected gift to be lived and enjoyed. Living by the illusion of control leaves us in a daily state of frustration and leads to deadly legalism, anger, fearfulness, depression, broken relationships, and disappointment*. Believing we are in control is a denial of our frail humanity and need for God. Believe me; I know from personal experience.
Therefore, my advice to you would be for you to give up the illusion of control a few years before I did, especially before you have children. Paradoxically I know, however–because of my past–you will accept this advice while at the same time making the mistake of resorting to controlling behavior.
But you are not in control and it’s okay because . . .
God is a Redeemer not a controller.
For too long I’ve lived in regret–sometimes shame–of the mistakes I’ve made. I mean seriously where did I get the bright idea that as a frickin’ thirty-year old I could turn around a sick and wounded church, that was in decline, full of fear and hate, living in the past, and where the Senior Pastor was having serial affairs? From my own ego, that’s where. Big mistake. I moved my wife and two young children into a situation that cost us years of pain (*see the list above for the effects this had on us).
Yet, I don’t know how we would have gotten from the ugly of there to the beauty of here by another road. I met one of my best friends in the pastorate in that horrible place and your family after we moved, and then God gave us Emmy as a reminder of his redemptive grace, and Katie met Michael and now we have two amazing grand children and . . .
In the Bible God seldom, if ever, uses the word control of himself. This is especially true in the sense of how we define control: to prevent bad or painful things, or to get what we think we need or want, or to have people behave the way we think they should, including ourselves.
Rather, God calls himself Redeemer and acts accordingly. If God were controlling, the way we wish he were, he would not need to be a Redeemer. He would have prevented the fall and every human disaster thereafter. This is why the cross is the center of human/Divine history. It is the ultimate act–not of control–but redemption: raising life from death, beauty from ashes, hope from hopelessness. Redemption, however, does not mean “all things happen for a reason.” God is not passive nor reactive. Redemption means God gives all things that happen a reason.
A couple more:
You are not as important as you think nor as unimportant or inept as you feel.
Now is the only moment you have but God holds a myriad of such moments in his hands for you.
Relationships are sacred.
Love is a power not an uncontrollable feeling or abstract idea.
John Calvin, Mother Theresa, and Steve Jobs are all remarkable people. But they were human.
Somehow three is an important and sacred number.
Fun is serious. Laughing, mountain biking, making love to your wife, staring into a deep blue sky, and reading a novel are as holy as prayer.
But that’s probably more than enough for now, except this. Enjoy the ride because God is . . . a Redeemer.