The First Step In Being a Great Pastor

I want to be a great pastor. I make no apology for that. It’s an ambition. I want to lead and shepherd well. I want to preach and communicate effectively. I want to develop leaders and cast vision and build a great staff. So where should I start?

Level zero.

One of my favorite lines from the original Kung Fu Panda is when Po shows up at the dojo to begin his training and tells Master Shifu, “Let’s just start at level zero.” Shifu explains that there is no such thing, but gives Po a chance to prove his most basic skill of punching one of those wobbly inflatable toys. It doesn’t go well, and after Po returns to Shifu’s feet, beaten, bruised, and burned by all the equipment he accidentally stumbled through Shifu pats him on the head and softly declares, “There is now a level zero.” Here’s the clip, in case you need a break from politics.

That’s me!! Sometimes, I just need to back to level zero. What’s level zero, for pastors and church leaders? What is it that we need to put into practice before we begin doing anything else? What is it that, regardless of our knowledge, our talent, and our charisma, we cannot or at least should not lead without?

The first step in being a great pastor is to walk with God. 

I’m not speaking of “walking with God” in mystical terms, like Eddie Murphy’s white-robed-guru character in Holy Man. And I’m also not in any way promoting the kind of atmosphere that appears in some circles where the clergy are revered as existing on some separate plane closer to God than everyone else.

What I’m saying is that we who lead must first be led. We need to come to God, like clueless children with wide-eyed wonder and spend time wandering through the heavenlies hearing from God in prayer, through his Word, as his Holy Spirit imparts life to us. As 1 Chronicles 16:11 instructs, “Search for the LORD and for his strength; continually seek him.” (NLT)

You can lead without depending on God. You can build great organizations all by yourself. People do it every day. But being a great pastor is more than being a great strategist or a great communicator or a great writer. Being a great pastor is a matter of shepherding people, caring deeply for their souls, drenching yourself with divine truth and wringing yourself out week after week with a word from the Lord for the broken.

In seasons where my quiet time has been neglected, I grow infatuated with all the wrong pictures of success while also growing colder in my feelings toward other people. My relationships suffer – starting with self and home and spreading to the flock.

But when I’ve sat at the feet of God, being humbled and shaped and encouraged by his truth… when I’ve laid my soul bare before him, owning my sin and submitting to suffering… when I’ve cast all my cares and anxieties upon him and have elevated him in my vision above all else, then I am ready to preach. Then I am ready to lead.

Level zero.

If you haven’t been training there lately, clear your calendar – at least the next hour – and open your Bible. Ask God to show you something. Tell him about all of your potential distractions and your recent failures and then lean into his presence and his grace.

Greatness lies ahead of you! But greatness may not look the way you expected, and it won’t arrive through the means you would devise on your own.


Why My Wife Worries About Me

This week, Pastor Pete Wilson’s name is coming up on newsfeeds after he stepped down as Pastor at Cross Point Church in Nashville. Pete’s a great guy and handled his resignation in a positive way. He stepped down, primarily because of exhaustion and burnout. He’s tired. He’s broken. He’s not okay. But he is in the good hands of a good Father.

Unfortunately, over the last month or two, dozens – perhaps hundreds of pastors, have stepped down from their positions because of burnout. It’s epidemic. And that’s the point Karl Vaters addresses on his blog, Pivot, this week…

The pain of one pastor is intensified under the unforgiving glare of the spotlight, while the pain of another is ignored. Both hurt equally…

The pain of the megachurch pastor is intensified by failing under the unforgiving glare of the spotlight, while the pain of the other is amplified by failing in anonymity. Forgotten by almost everyone.

Both scenarios are toxic. They break the heart of Jesus, they damage his church, they devastate pastors’ families, they ruin ministries and they make it harder for church members to trust a pastor again – or to trust God again.

It doesn’t have to be this way. It shouldn’t be this way.

We have to let go of the unbiblical expectations that have been placed on pastors’ shoulders. That we’ve placed on our own shoulders.

Pastors were never meant to carry this big a burden. No one person is capable of being the preacher, teacher, vision-caster, CEO, leader, evangelist, soul-winner, fundraiser, marriage counselor, and all-around paragon of virtue that we expect pastors to pull off – many of them while working a full-time job outside the church walls.

But it’s been done this way for so many years, it sometimes feels like a runaway train that can’t be stopped.

It must be stopped.

No one can stop this runaway train but us, pastors.

We have to say no.

For some of us, that means saying no to the unreasonable expectations of our church members, deacon boards and denominational officials. But for all of us it means saying no to our own unbiblical expectations of ourselves. Saying no to a paradigm that we have built and perpetuated around a combination of our own egos and insecurities.

We are not the builders of the church, Jesus is.

We are not capable of working ourselves to the bone emotionally and spiritually without something breaking inside us.

We can’t keep pushing ourselves physically with too little sleep, too much food and too little exercise.

We can’t keep neglecting our spouses and families while we burn the ministry candle at both ends and not expect that everyone – our families, our churches and ourselves – will pay an enormous price for it.

We have to redefine what success in ministry looks like. Because too many good people are being hurt as we pursue our current, unsupportable version of success.

I was there once. My wife has had reason to worry about me in the past. After reading about Pete’s experience and knowing that he’s fourteen years into what we would deem a very successful church planting effort, she thought about that possibility that I could reach the precipice of burnout again, as I have done once before.

I’m in a healthy place at the moment – not because things are going well circumstantially, mind you – but because I’ve been discovering over the last few years the power of God’s grace, the healing found in confession and repentance, the burden-easing blessing of being vulnerable and having friends, and the enormous support that Angie is to me on a daily basis.

But I could be there. If I drift from Jesus… if I fall out of rhythm again… if I fail to tap deeper into the gospel… it could be me. It’s been too many of my friends and of our brothers and sisters serving the flock for God’s glory.

If it’s you, reach out. Talk to your spouse. Talk to a friend, a mentor, a coach, a counselor. There’s never shame in leaning on the support of those who are gifted and sent into our lives to help us bear the burden of our calling.

Read Karl’s Full Article

How to Know if God is Calling You to Ministry Leadership

Is God calling you to serve Him in ministry?

First of all, it’s a big YES.

God draws lost people to himself to save them, and his desire is that all saved people serve people. So, if you’re a believer, you are called! Obviously, however, there is a kind of “calling” that sets certain individuals apart for positions of ministry leadership. The New Testament refers to some people as apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers. And they are given to the church to teach, preach, shepherd, equip, and instruct.

It should be noted before moving any further that everyone within the body of Christ is of equal worth and importance. We may serve different functions, but the gap between “clergy” and “laity” is an imagined one. All believers are “ministers” even though a few may receive a special calling to lead and to take responsibility for the health and welfare of the flock as undershepherds who follow Jesus.

Some of these leaders are paid and some are not. Some work for churches full-time, some part-time, and others on a volunteer basis. Regardless of their formal relationship with a particular church body, they are called to a higher level of responsibility for the maturing of the body of Christ. So they preach, they lead, they counsel, they give oversight, and they cast a vision for the fulfillment of the Great Commission.

Here’s the million dollar question among those who grapple with this subject: Is the call of God to ministry leadership discerned mystically? Or practically? Is God’s call heard supernaturally? Or naturally?

And again, the answer is YES.

I have friends who testify that God showed up in a moment of their lives in an unusual way and made his presence known to them in the moment of their calling. But this isn’t always the case.

Personally, I would describe my own experience of God’s calling in three phases:

I was hungry. I couldn’t get enough of the Bible, and I couldn’t seem to read enough about ministry or ask enough questions of my mentors. This hunger grew over several months as I found my way back into a local church. (As an aside, we ought to pursue this calling in the context of a local church community and under the mentorship of our pastors and leaders.)

I was convinced. I came to a moment when I simply knew that God wanted me to spend the rest of my life in full-time, vocational ministry leadership. It was on a bus ride to Louisville, Kentucky when I was a senior in high school. I jotted in the margin of my Bible the phrase, “3-1-95 Called to Preach”. I wrote it next to Jeremiah 1:5, which I was reading that day…

Before I formed thee in the belly I knew thee; and before thou camest forth out of the womb I sanctified thee, and I ordained thee a prophet unto the nations.

I became confident. Once I knew God was calling me, sadly, it took another seven months for me to find the guts to go public. In October of 1995, I preached my first, rather pitiful eighteen-minute sermon. But that experience lit a fire under me that burns to this day, and I still can’t hold it in.

While I believe God can and does often speak his calling into our lives in precise and unique ways, I believe that there should be some practical confirmation of that calling. After spending twenty years talking to younger leaders just getting started, I’ve developed a sense for those who are serious and those who aren’t – those who will go far because they lean into God’s grace and launch out in faith, and those who squander their time and energy on the sidelines.

When someone expresses an interest in ministry or talks of a calling, there are several questions that are quite appropriate to be asked, and through which a prospective leader can and should be screened, and I would divide them into five areas.

1. Your Spiritual Life

Are you presently walking in the presence and power of the Holy Spirit? Are you soaking in God’s Word, praying regularly, and growing in grace and in the knowledge of Jesus? And does it show in your closest relationships? Would those nearest you (especially a spouse) describe you as Spirit-filled?

2. Your Heart

Do you WANT to lead the church? Do you crave it? Hunger for it? Is your appetite insatiable enough that you cannot be stopped? Do you desire to do the work of a Pastor?

3. Your Ability

Obviously we should never attempt to serve merely in the power of our own flesh, but to be effective, we must be sharpening our skills and abilities. This is why teachability is one of the most vital characteristics of ministry leaders. When you stop learning, you will stop leading.

4. Your Personality

Your unique personality doesn’t really determine whether or not you’re ready to lead in ministry. Rather, it relates to HOW you should lead. One of the most beneficial exercises I’ve ever gone through is the DISC profile (or one of dozens of similar personality and temperament assessments). I’m laid back (a high “I”), so I have to work at communicating clear expectations. I hate conflict, so I have to be intentional about confrontation. And I’m an introvert, so owning this and being at peace with it is important.

5. Your Experiences

A decade and a half ago, Angie and I started to go plant a church, and had we done so, it would have been disastrous. I only know that because of all that we’ve encountered in the last five years that I would have been totally unprepared for back then. All of your past experiences – the good, the bad, and the ugly – prepare you for what is next in your life.

If you’ve come to a place in your Christian walk where your hunger to serve and your conviction that God wants you to serve line up, and you have the maturity, the desire, the ability, the personality, and the experience necessary to prepare you, then GO FOR IT!

Every believer is “called.” We’re all called to serve others, to share the gospel, and to glorify God. And we’re all called to do these things “full time.” But thank God for granting the special opportunity for some to be fully immersed in the life of leading the body of Christ forward for the gospel’s sake!

7 Spiritual Challenges for Imperfect Leaders

Yesterday, I had a phone call with a young leader convinced he was no longer qualified to lead because he’d messed up in a way that pretty much every man on the planet has messed up repeatedly. This morning, I received an email from a Pastor wanting to know if he was qualified to lead when he still struggles with sins of the heart and mind.

First, a disclaimer… Paul made it clear in the pastoral epistles that those who desire to be overseers must live lives that are above reproach. Certainly, no one can actively serve as a Pastor who is secretly harboring or openly flaunting unrepentant sin, and often confession of certain sins sidelines our ability to lead with credibility.

But what about those weaknesses that are common to man? Not the scandal that brings reproach upon the cause of Jesus, but the sins which arise out of our struggle with the flesh and with humanness? I love this summary from Robert Coleman in his classic work, The Master Plan of Evanglism:

Our weaknesses need not impair discipleship when shining through them is a transparent sincerity to follow Christ.

Continue reading 7 Spiritual Challenges for Imperfect Leaders

The Pleasure and Power of Preaching with Sincerity

imagePaul addressed the issue of sincerity in preaching on several occasions throughout the New Testament. One such instance is 2 Corinthians 2:17, “For we are not as many, which corrupt the word of God: but as of sincerity, but as of God, in the sight of God speak we in Christ.” As I have reflected on this verse, it’s given me some comfort to know that the issues that plague modern Christianity also faced the apostles. I’ve also found an important value in preaching – sincerity.

Sure, there are false teachers, hucksters, and impostors in pulpits across the land today. There were in Paul’s day too. It’s nothing new. But the contrast to this trend is a revival of sincerity in the pulpit. Preaching has been defined by D. Martin-Lloyd Jones as “the communication of God’s truth through human personality.” So we preachers get to represent God’s truth through our very personality. The prayer, “hide me behind thy cross, O Lord,” doesn’t reflect an accurate understanding of what preaching is all about. God has called me to represent Him as only I can, and for you to do the same.

So sincerity is a key to effective communication. You can’t fake sincerity for obvious reasons, but you can certainly do a self-test to ask the tough questions…

  • Do I really believe what I’m saying?
  • Do I live what I’m asking others to live?
  • Am I preaching as me, or as Billy Graham?
  • Am I wearing a mask or being transparent?
  • Am I preaching at people, or having a teaching conversation?

I greatly appreciate fine oratory. Two generations ago and further back, oratorical skills were at the top of the list of qualifications for great preaching. There’s nothing wrong with this. In fact, if preaching can be viewed as a creative art, then we certainly ought to make it pretty for God’s glory. And words are certainly the tools of our trade, so we should study them and utilize the power of them. Nevertheless, preaching is still a conversation that takes place between a preacher and each member of his congregation. It ought to come from the heart.

One of my own heroes was W. A. Criswell, who often referred to himself (making light of what others were already pointing out) as “a holy roller with a Ph.D.” I’ve listened to hundreds of his messages over at and I can tell you, this genius of a man involved his emotions in the communication process, as should we today. It’s part of sincerity – bearing all.

Sincerity is one of my own core preaching values as well as somthing I continually have to fight myself for. And it can’t be faked. So how do you bear your honest heart for a greater impact in communicating the gospel?

Believe the truth

It’s my strong opinion that those who do not trust the entire Word of God as the whole, pure, and perfect book that it is, should not be in a preaching ministry. Period. We may not understand it all, but we can certainly take God’s Word at face value if we’re going to claim to represent it.

Prepare Well

Preparation prevents faking it in the pulpit. One HUGE rule of preaching is “don’t just make stuff up!” So study, prepare, work hard. Every Sunday is a test of your dedication and commitment to the Word.

Preach With Few, If Any Notes

This adds time and energy to preparation. You not only have to compile material and arrange it in a way that makes sense, but you must commit it to memory. If I’ve studied well, the sermon flows from the heart rather than having to leap off of the page. Having said that, some of the greatest preachers in history have been those who utilize manuscripts, so this is admittedly my own angle and not prescriptive for everybody.

Make Eye Contact

See the eyes of your people when you preach to them and you’ll see a piece of their heart as well. Of course, preaching without notes helps this process a great deal, but even if you use notes, glance at them and then return your attention to those from whom you’ve asked attention.

Tell Your Story

Every sermon represents biblical and doctrinal truth, but it also says something about your life, so tell your story. Your testimony and experiences mean a great deal to your congregation. They know you more by hearing about your personal life, so let them in and they’ll trust you more and respond well when you have to apply the truth in highly convicting ways. And, humorous and painful stories create highly teachable moments with our fellow human beings.

Live It Out

Jesus embodied all of God’s truth. He “tabernacled” Himself among us. He is God wrapped in human flesh. We ought to follow in His steps and be God’s truth, wrapped in flesh. Sermons are not just taught on Sunday, but demonstrated daily as we are observed by those who listen to us. We live life in a fish bowl, to some degree, so put on a show – not the kind where you act like a believer, but where you become a trophy of God’s marvelous and powerful grace.

Love Your Listeners

One of the things I pray before every sermon is “Lord, help me love people as I preach.” It’s easier to get messy in ministry when we love people the way God does. And what we say matters to people only when we’ve loved them in saying it.

Do It All Over Again

Sincerity goes along with consistency. We must be sincere week in and week out. There must be a pattern. Sadly, one mistake can blow our testimony for a long time into the future, so we must live consistently, prepare consistently, and preach consistently.

Sincerity matters in preaching. It’s a key value, a core component of effectively representing the gospel and communicating God’s truth in this present age. In fact, we need it more than ever!

Books: People-Pleasing Pastors

People Pleasing PastorsCharles Stone has that rare gift of knowing and speaking directly to the heart of today’s shepherd-leader about the one big leadership issue we all have but rarely admit – our tendency to want to be liked. He cuts through the fluff and helps us recognize our tendency to be people pleasers and gives us a practical way back to strong, authentic leadership. Churches will be far healthier whose Pastors and leaders read this book!

From the Book’s Description

Pastors and church leaders often fall into the trap of people-pleasing. Charles Stone’s research on thousands of pastors and ministry leaders demonstrates the dangers of approval-motivated leadership. Bringing together biblical insights and neuroscience findings, Stone shows why we fall into people-pleasing patterns and what we can do to overcome these tendencies.

With practical tools for individuals and teams, Stone offers concrete resources to help you and your leadership minimize people-pleasing and have more effective ministry.

Read More About People-Pleasing Pastors

And watch the book trailer below:

Pastor, If You Could Just Dance…

Looks Like a PastorMy friend, Chris Fleury, whom I met at Saddleback Church, posted this video from Belgium’s Got Talent. For some reason, when this guy walked out on stage I thought he looked like the typical American Pastor. What he did next was rather atypical. Just watch… then try it Sunday!

Disclaimer: If you are non-charismatic, I claim no responsibility for the results…

Need help getting started? Learn to break-dance street-style!