Tommy Williams: Lessons from 20 years of ministry

Illustration of a church made out of people

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The congregation and the community may change, but certain practices underlie effective ministry no matter the context, writes a veteran pastor.

I’ve experienced a number of different communities in my 20 years of ministry. I’ve served in rural and urban settings, from a county seat in southeast Texas to urban Houston, where I now serve a large church near downtown.

Adapting to each context -- being open to change with a kind of graced intentionality -- has been crucial. Yet I’ve learned over the years that a deliberate consistency has its place as well. There are certain practices that characterize an effective pastor no matter the context. Here are some practices that I’ve found fruitful in my ministry.

Love the people you’ve been given. You can always tell when a pastor loves the people he or she has been given. The people can tell it, too. A community notices.

Now, the people we’ve been given are not always lovable. And, of course, neither are we! This is where pastors must first remember that we are disciples of Jesus. We are disciples before we lead anyone -- and disciples pray for each other.

When we pray for people over time, it becomes hard not to love them. And it works both ways. One of the most profound gestures in Pope Francis’ address to the throng in St. Peter’s Square just hours after his election was his request for the people’s prayers. “Pray for me,” he said.

Pray for your people -- and sincerely ask your people to pray for you -- and you will grow to love one other.

Ask good questions. When we preach, we must have something to say that is both rooted in Scripture and in touch with people’s lives and the life of the world. People are hungry for their preacher to help them make sense theologically of the world they live in and the hurt they know. So serve up good questions that defy neat answers, and engage those questions with a pastoral touch. Your people will respect your attention to the world’s complexity.

When one of my congregations was discerning whether to begin an apartment ministry in a poor neighborhood, I asked the gospel question, “Who is my neighbor?” Wrestling with this difficult question, we allowed Scripture to guide our way forward.

Let good news drive your preaching. Throughout my pastoral work, I have found that people are profoundly lonely and afraid. Most other emotions tend to be covers for these two. Thus, people need to hear the good news of love and grace.

Preaching can easily slide into do’s and don’ts -- the Pharisee trap. Virtue and character qualities have their place in your sermons, of course, and the Scriptures will speak to them. But they are derivative of the good news Jesus Christ has come to share.

I once had lunch with a very wealthy man. He was influential and popular and much sought-after for his generosity. But I was shocked to learn how he longed for a real relationship, one in which he did not feel like an ATM. I realized that what he needed to hear from the pulpit was the undeserved grace of God.

Invite people to imagine what God is doing. Be attentive to the Holy Spirit’s movement within and outside the congregation. Often, our laypeople have not been invited to imagine what God is doing in our community. Consider your role as giving permission for people to dream.

Sometimes you will lead the way; other times you will follow the lead of good laity. When signs point to the Spirit’s movement, go. That might mean collaborating with other churches and nonprofit organizations. In those cases, focus less on your differences than on your shared commitment to the Spirit’s work. Hold your theological integrity, but hold it humbly.

In a multicultural setting in which I served, a nearby church of another denomination wanted to build a housing project on its property. This caused quite a neighborhood uproar, and some in the community lobbied to stop the project.

Our congregation supported the church publicly, prayed for them, advocated for them with local officials and walked with them. We helped raise their confidence to see the project through to completion. Our people discerned the Spirit at work in a sister congregation, and we joined them.

Attend to the pace of progress. “Trust in the slow work of God,” said the Jesuit philosopher and scientist Pierre de Chardin. At times, local ministry can feel like it is moving at a snail’s pace. Take the temperature of your church periodically with informal, one-on-one conversations. Don’t obsess over it, but tend to it. Sense how much you can hit the gas and how much you need to pump the brakes.

Some of us are steamrollers by nature; some of us are turtles. There is a time for pushing and a time for holding back. No person can tell you the right time for each. However, the voices of strong laypeople are often a good guide to the congregation’s readiness for action.

Remember, you aren’t leading if no one is following. Listen to what makes your people come alive, and intersect the gospel work with it.

Answer the why question. A congregation that knows why they are doing what they are doingis one that will be fruitful in ministry. We are about God’s mission in the world because we are following this Jesus who redeems people and communities. Churches must be able to answer why they exist in their particular contexts. Pastors who have clarity in articulating the why can offer wisdom and guidance in a world full of noise.

As we move through diverse contexts in the course of our ministries, preachers are called to adapt and to change. But a certain kind of consistency is important as well. With the consistent practices outlined here, a pastor can lead a congregation faithfully in the work of God’s mission in the world.