Lessons Learned

10 Things I’ve Learned Pastoring 10 Years and Finally Breaking the 500 Barrier

As of this past August I have officially been a senior pastor for 10 years. Also, around the same time, our church surpassed 500 in attendance (on a “normal” Sunday) for the first time. I don’t think those two milestones coinciding is a coincidence, but I’ll talk more about that later.

Due to reaching a decade of senior-pastor ministry and the celebration of growing our church beyond a growth barrier, I’ve been feeling nostalgic and reflective lately, so I wanted to share the best things I’ve learned along with way. These lessons learned are what has helped our church to grow and allowed us to keep going during the toughest seasons of ministry.

I genuinely admire so many pastors who have been pastoring much longer than I have, and I’m not presenting this list as “rules” as much as I’m trying to share what practices and mindsets have risen to the surface after most of my fads and gimmicks have faded away.

1. Almost Everything I Think Is Important Is Unimportant

I am thankful for the “church growth” movement that swept the American church landscape over the last 2 decades. If nothing else, it reignited our passion for evangelism and outreach to our communities. But as with any great movement, I think we could all agree the pendulum may have swung a little too far in the “consumerism” direction. With that swing came an enormous amount of self-infflicted pressure for pastors to feel like their church has to provide a high-scale list of services to convince people to come and stay.

That’s not all bad because let’s be honest, church for a long time was really tacky, unorganized, and underwhelming, but while the opposite is more entertaining and enjoyable, it runs the risk of disguising spiritual health as public progress. Video announcements, website, graphic design, click tracks, loops, intelligent lights, haze machines, coffee, plexiglass podiums, helicopter egg drops, social media strategies, guest gifts, live-streaming, phone apps, the list goes on and on of all the things it feels like it takes to lead your church. So what do you do when you feel like your church needs to do more to keep up? You try to do more than God has resourced or called you to do, and you usually try to do them yourself. You stop being a Pastor and you start being a technician.

Anyone who knows me knows I love gadgets, and strategies, and anything that will help reach people who don’t know Jesus, but after 10 years of pastoring, I’ve come to the conclusion almost everything is unimportant. Will offering better services bring more people to your church? Probably. But any gimmick that works feels like it has to be sustained or improved out of fear of people leaving.

The best advice I could give a new pastor just getting started is this: If you have to do something because no one in your church is willing to do it, God is probably not calling you to do it. (yet) Maybe you’re at the wrong church, or perhaps you’re trying to do something too soon before God wants you to do it, but 80% of your church’s effectiveness comes from 20% of the actions. Focus on the 20%.

2. The Most Critical Factor to A Pastor’s Long-Term Success is Their Circle of Friends

I love conferences, podcasts, and books. I devour all the resources I can get my hands own, but after a decade in ministry, I believe what’s more important than all those resources is being connected to life-giving pastors and friends. I’ll admit it can be harder to find life-giving pastors than it should. Unfortunately, we can be some of the most jaded, negative, cynical people. (I wrote more about how pastors lose heart in my book Toxic Soul: A Pastor’s Guide To Leading Without Losing Heart.) I understand why, the longer you pastor, the easier it is to be discouraged, but I am determined to talk on the phone every week to friends who will celebrate, challenge, and encourage me. The size of their church is not important. My friends’ churches have a wide range of attendance, what is important is that they believe in me, they love my family, and they know how to laugh.

I began to notice something over the years, during seasons where my church was growing, their church was growing. The more good ideas they had, the more great ideas I had. The more services they started, the more services I started. Without even trying, we spur one another on. Iron sharpening iron. The tragic reality for so many pastors is that they either don’t have anyone to call, or they do have a tribe of friends they belong to, but the conversation is negative, filled with excuses, and a victim mentality. If you don’t have anyone to call, you can call me. My number is 502-762-2295. If I don’t answer, leave a message, I’ll call you back. I would love to encourage you (but I’ll probably challenge you too.)

3. People Need to Leave Your Church

I could write for hours on this lesson alone. When I started pastoring, I assumed the path to church growth was adding additional families, but I was wrong. The path to church growth involves addition and subtraction. There is probably no greater emotional challenge for a pastor than watching families leave the church, it’s personal, and it’s painful, but over the last decade, I have learned this important truth: the only thing worse than someone leaving my church is someone staying who needs to leave.

I wrote a lot more about the emotional challenges of church turnover in this post, but if I could give one piece of advice to a new pastor just starting out, I would give this: Every painful ending is a new beginning.

The truth is, some of the unhealthiest churches in America have no turnover. The same people have been in the church their whole lives. No one new comes in, and no one leaves. If you are making progress, some people will get left behind. I don’t mean left behind like they are incapable of moving forward (even though some are) or left behind like they are bad people (even though some are), or left behind like they cause problems (even though some do) they are left behind because new places require new faces; new gifts, new voices, and new leadership (sometimes the senior pastor). In my opinion, it’s the biggest reason why 85% of churches never grow beyond 75 people, because the pastor is unwilling to endure the pain of transition. I wrote about that topic in this post.

To be clear, we’ve lost people from our church because I mishandled situations, mismanaged leadership, and sometimes I was just outright rude. Every exit wasn’t God’s leading, but even in my failures, God has orchestrated people coming and going to build a beautiful congregation of people moving forward. If you plan on pastoring your church for decades, accept this reality now; most of the people with you now will not finish with you. If God blesses you, like David, with a few mighty men and women who go the whole distance with you, give them a big bear hug, and thank God every day.

4. People Who Come from Another Church Usually Go to Another Church

Every pastor and church leader will tell you they don’t want transfer growth, and that they only pursue “lost” people. While our intentions are noble, the truth is people switching churches is inevitable, especially if word spreads that your church has momentum. When people start showing up saved, trained, and tithing, it can feel exhilarating, because it feels like progress, and it is, but in almost every case there is a shelf life to the tenure of your new church member because people who come to you from another church usually leave to go to another church.

Yes, some are “church hoppers,” but most are not. They have every intention of being with you for the long haul, they really do love your church, but the reality is people who leave churches leave churches. If you can accept that God sends people for different seasons and different reasons, you can enjoy your ministry season together, but not have unrealistic expectations for their future. I’m not advocating an abandonment mindset where you assume the worst about people, I’m talking about a strategic and grateful mindset to commit to pastoring people and using their gifts as long as you have them.

*Bonus Tip – In my experience, the people who will grow and stay with you the longest are the people who get saved under your ministry. People have a built-in loyalty to the minister who leads them to the Lord. Take more risk, empower and develop “homegrown” new converts.

5. Fight for Optimism

If you asked me what one change made the most significant difference in our church over the last 10 years, my answer would be optimism. I became a senior pastor at 24 and was the stereotypical young leader who thought cynicism and sarcasm was cool. It took me a few years to finally learn people don’t want a contrarian for a pastor, they want a hope-filled, caring, visionary. In my experience, the most significant barrier in a church’s growth is the mindset of the pastor. No one will care more than you, dream more than you, be more excited or passionate than you.

For our church to see good things happen, I had to start believing good things were going to happen. I’m not talking about hype or hyperbole. I didn’t post, “Sunday is going to be the greatest service ever” on social media every week. The changes were more subtle and personal. I started telling people, “I’m proud of you, and I’m praying for you.” I started hugging people. I started saying things like, “I can’t wait to see what God does in your life.” Instead of preaching the contrarian’s point of view on topics like giving and prayer, I spoke to the majority and encouraged them to imagine what God could do in the life of a prayerful giver. A funny thing began to happen, as I started to expect and believe for more, so did everyone else.

Also related to this season of change for me was making sure the people closest to me were optimistic too. (My friend Kyle wrote about the importance of having optimistic leaders in this post.) I recognize that every church is not structured in a way that allows the pastor to select their governing boards, but we began to make sure the staff and elders were generally optimistic in nature. I don’t mean “yes men” who agree to everything, I mean people whose first reaction isn’t to tell you why an idea won’t work. We started empowering people whose first reaction is to say, “God can do it.” We embraced the motto, “It may not work, but let’s try it anyway.” The attitude shift began to change things. Since then, I’ve noticed in all the great churches I visit that generally the pastor and the people closest to them are generally happy, healthy people.

*Bonus Tip: The Book Circle Maker by Mark Batterson was an essential book for our team. It allowed us to talk about optimism in terms of faith. To this day it is a staple book for our church that new leaders read because we want them to dream big and pray big.

6. The Things You Want to Reject Are Probably the Things You Need to Accept

Without a doubt, the biggest challenge over the last decade has been leading myself. The hardest person to lead is the guy staring in the mirror every morning. When I first started pastoring, I knew everything, after I failed, I knew nothing. Neither of those beliefs is true. I’m not as smart as I feel on my smartest days or as dumb as I feel on my dumbest days, but a fairly consistent pattern over 10 years of leadership has been my propensity to resist the advice, changes, or conversations I needed the most. I heard Craig Groeschel say one time, “Whenever I hear a leader who is ahead of me, say something I want to reject, I’ve most likely identified where I need to grow.” I can attest to the accuracy of that quote in my life.

It is shocking over the years how often I have passionately defended ideas that weren’t working and written off ideas that were. I’m learning now to listen to the voice of resistance. I’m not talking about going against your convictions or violating your conscience, I’m talking about the stubborn pride that keeps you from changing styles, service times, fighting a pointless battle, or assuming something that has worked for others would never work for you. It’s amazing how many things started to go right after I learned how to admit to myself that I could be wrong.

*Bonus Tip – I’m training myself to pay attention to how often I use the phrase, “That would never work here.” It’s my natural response when something I need to do requires more work than I want to do, or I’m looking for an idea or advice that won’t require me to lead outside of my comfort zone.

7. Always Make the Staff Addition/Change Sooner Rather Than Later

Let’s talk about hiring first. Over the last 10 years I have come to terms with the fact that I need to be slightly ahead of schedule with hiring new staff, or I could say, feel slightly stretched with the amount of money spent of salaries. The tendency is to wait until you have the need and all the money to hire the staff person, but in my experience, growth requires being proactive. “Slightly stretch” is relative so you will have to determine how many knots your stomach can take, but the right hire changes the culture, teams, and results of a church.

The challenge of hiring staff is knowing when, who, and what to hire first. In my experience, you need to hire in the opposite order of the pastor’s strengths. Don’t use the traditional, “worship, student, associate” hiring pattern if that’s not what serves the best interest of the pastor and the church. Hire someone who can cut the pastor’s workload in half. Then your next hire needs to reduce the pastor’s remaining workload in half, and so on and so on until eventually the pastor’s left spending most of their time in their calling and sweet spot. If you’re hiring people but you’re workload is not decreasing you are hiring the wrong people or the wrong positions.

Now let’s talk about firing. It’s never easy, but in church, it feels more challenging than in the business world because so many relationships are interconnected. The hard truth is that if you are thinking about firing someone, you are having those thoughts for a reason. You may be right, or you may be wrong, but in my experience, it’s extremely rare for your attitude about an employee that has soured to turn around. Pastors typically wait too long to make a change and in the process damage the culture and unity of the leadership. My brother Jeremy wrote about how to fire an employee in this great post.

*Bonus Tip – I’m willing to bet if you’re frustrated and have been feeling like a change needs to be made for a long time, the other person is feeling it as well. I’m always amazed at how God prepares hearts and paths when we will pray through about our motives and attitude before we have the hard conversation.

8. Hire People Who Love Jesus, Love you, and are Good at Their Job; In That Order.

One of the biggest temptations in staffing is to hire the cheapest/most talented person you can find. Sometimes it’s a buddy from college, or sometimes it’s a recommendation from another pastor, but hands down, the best hires over the last 10 years for me were the hires who loved Jesus, loved me, and were good at their job, in that order.

If you spent more than a few days around my team you would hear this phrase several times, “will they stand in front of a tank for Hope City Church?” If the answer is yes we will find them a spot, if the answer is no, no matter how good they are what they do, we will find someone else, because their loyalty will be challenged way more than there competency during their leadership. For that reason, almost all of our hires have been from within. There is no substitute for a team with the right culture. My friend Brandon Stewart gave me great advice one time, “Don’t hire anyone who wouldn’t do it for free.” Naturally, I responded, “That would never work here.”

*Bonus Tip – If you consistently underpay people, they will consistently underperform. You’ll never have enough money to pay everyone what they’re worth, but don’t be surprised if you keep offering the bottom end of salaries and get the bottom end of candidates.

9. There Is No Substitute For Longevity

It was never my intention when I moved to Louisville 14 years ago to pastor one church for the rest of my life. I moved around a lot as a kid and always assumed I would do the same as an adult, but God had different plans, and if he answers my prayer, I will only pastor one church for the rest of my ministry.

I had a friend who has pastored his church for almost 30 years tell me, “years 10-12 will be when your church experiences the most progress.” I can’t speak for the future, but that has definitely been true up to this point. The sad reality is, with so many moral failures and pastors quitting, if you just avoid a scandal and love people in your community for the next 25 years, your church’s influence and impact will be more significant than you can imagine. For us, longevity has most affected areas of giving, culture, and unity. Once the congregation believed I was staying put, the buy-in went through the roof.

I want to be careful not to imply that every pastor is called to pastor one church for their entire ministry. The Apostle Paul didn’t. Some guys stay too long certainly, but in those instances where you can put down roots in a community for a few decades, there is no telling what God can do.

*Bonus Tip – Whatever you think will be easier at the next church, there will also be things that are more difficult. There is no such thing as a perfect church. Don’t trade short-term benefits for long-term influence.

10. You Will Grow As Fast As You Get People Serving On A Team

Every pastor has heard about the importance of empowering people to serve. The challenge is we assume people won’t or don’t want to serve because we asked them one time and they didn’t respond. I’m sure there are a few churches somewhere who have been able to grow in spite of a lack of volunteers, I just don’t know of any. In my experience, your church will grow as fast as you get people serving on a team.

A significant change for me was how I talked about serving. I used to use the traditional “beg and hope” approach until I realized one day that I was underselling the value of serving. The truth is, they need to serve more than I need them to serve. Once you believe that, it changes the way you recruit. We recently had a new family start attending our church, and over lunch, I said to them, “We would love to have your family at the church, we do need you, but honestly you need us more than we need you. Your family needs a place to grow, and you need a place to serve. If you don’t get connected to a great church, you’ll bounce around for the next 10 years.” Once I started believing that you need to do this more than I need you to do this, ironically more people wanted to serve, and the more people began serving, the more people started coming. Nothing is as crucial to the numerical growth of your church than assimilating guests onto a volunteer team.

*Bonus Tip – When it comes to finding leaders to lead and build volunteer teams the number one qualification, in my opinion, is the ability to recruit. It’s more important than organization and talent. In the early days of the church, the most important thing they can do is grow their team. Eventually you will need to put a seasoned leader in charge but in the beginning, look for energy.

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Jason Isaacs
Jason Isaacs

By Jason Isaacs