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3 Lessons from Three Decades of Ministry, Marriage

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I entered the pastorate with a fair amount of preparation.
From graduate to post-graduate work, I was surrounded by motivated friends and a world-class faculty. It was the best of times. I had every opportunity and I loved it.

Along the way, I had the chance to apply what I was learning in “student pastorates.” I’ll never forget the good people at these churches whose patience and affirmation was just what I needed.

But it didn’t take long to understand that when it came to leading a church, formal education would not be enough. Some things can only be learned on the job while other things take a lifetime to learn.

I believe the same is true with marriage. My wife and I have been married for 36 years, and we entered this journey prepared as well – at least we thought we were.

We participated in premarital counseling, had support from family and friends, and read many relationship books. But the harsh reality is that nothing can prepare you for living with the same person day in and day out.

It’s like standing in front of a well-lit mirror that reveals spots and blemishes, sags and wrinkles. But we have managed and we are thankful.

The truths I’ve discovered in marriage apply equally to serving in one church. Here are the top three lessons I’ve learned.

1. Nothing is easy.

We tend to think that if we are in love, marriage should be easy. It’s one thing to “counsel” couples about shared values, communication skills and conflict management. It’s quite another to use those tools in your own marriage. It’s not easy.

The same is true with regard to leading a church. You can go to as many leadership conferences as you can afford, subscribe to blogs and podcasts about church ministry and read relevant books from the best-seller lists.

But it takes hard work. And there are plenty of rough spots.

No matter how well prepared or well intentioned you are, tears will be shed because people inevitably hurt each other. Sleepless nights will arise because you will not be able to comprehend the actions of others in your congregation.

But together, in church and marriage, there are seasons of accomplishment and joy. But the price is a kind of monastic discipline.

2. Learn to listen.

I’ll never forget my first leadership meeting as pastor. I was over-prepared, coming to the meeting with a five-year plan that I had carefully crafted from textbook and classroom.

All we had to do was implement it – or so I thought. Was I ever surprised when there were actually questions and competing ideas.

It didn’t take long to realize that there would have to be an actual exchange of life and perspective.

Leadership in ministry requires building trusting relationships. We had to get to know one another, learn to appreciate our differences and find a way forward together.

Listening to each other would prove our love toward the other. When I started listening, every facet of our relationship greatly improved.

3. Great stories aren’t read, they’re written.

“And they lived happily ever after.” Isn’t this what we would choose? After all, we all long for the story with the perfect ending.

To reach a happy ending, you can’t be passive in marriage or church leadership. Remember, you are a character in the story.

And in the best stories, characters grow and overcome adversity in order to achieve the ending they so desire.

So, embrace the truth that difficulty is to be expected. In the best stories, they lead to the climax when you can look back and realize the pleasure of living and leading “happily ever after.”

Bill Owen is an associate at Pinnacle Leadership Associates and is the pastor of Mt. Carmel Church in Cross Plains, Tenn. He blogs at Learning to Live Like Jesus, and you can follow him on Twitter @owenrevbill. A version of this article first appeared on Pinnacle’s website and is used with permission.