My name is Greg Atkinson and today is my 47th birthday. As I get closer to the big 5-0, I started thinking about lessons I’ve learned over my nearly 5 decades on planet Earth.
I was thinking of leaders like you when I wrote this. I pray God will amplify the words that are just for you.
I was the high school intern at my home church in 1992 and ’93. I started on staff at my first church, as a freshman in college, at the ripe old age of 18 (in February of 1994). That was 28 years ago. Wow!
I had to learn a lot of tough and powerful lessons over the past nearly three decades of ministry. I saw a discussion happening on Facebook about things you wish you knew in your 20s. I had too many comments to share in one Facebook post, so I decided to write about it.
Please allow me to share lessons that God has taught me and continues to teach me. These are in no particular order and I’m positive I’m leaving something out.
1) God uses weak people. God uses broken people. God will break you eventually. It seems that brokenness is an ongoing thing. Don’t boast in your strengths, you can do those in the natural. The supernatural kicks in in your weakness, that’s where God’s strength is made perfect.
2) The gospel is about repenting and believing. Constantly repent and believe the good news of the gospel. You are who God says you are. Your identity is a child of God – not a pastor, not an ethnic group, profession, gender, or any other thing – your identity is a child of God. Meditate and daily reflect on justification. This will ground you and free you to be who God is calling you to be. It will also give you a great sense of thankfulness, wonder, peace, love, and joy.
3) God uses us despite ourselves. No one is perfect. All pastors and church leaders sin daily. Repent. Thank God for His amazing grace.
4) Everyone goes through pain in his or her life. I’m living proof that there is a purpose to the pain. As Rick Warren says, God never wastes our pain.
5) Hurt people hurt people. You must live and practice forgiveness.
6) Depression is real. Don’t oversimplify mental illness into not having a quiet time or healthy prayer life. Study the brain and do all the reading you can on mental illness and the church.
7) We all have highs and lows, mountains and valleys. God is near to the brokenhearted. Cry out to Him.
8) Death stings and families grieve, no matter how old the deceased is.
9) God pursues me.
10) Staff, servants, and volunteers are precious.
11) As the Word says, Be ready in season and out.
12) Often people will come to you for help or counsel and you realize you’re more messed up than they are.
13) We all stumble and fall, some harder than others.
14) You can’t have success, wins, breakthroughs, and innovations without risks and failure.
15) Smaller churches and church plants are usually the most creative and innovative. I watch them for inspiration.
16) Weddings, funerals, and new births happen non-stop.
17) I’ve said it before: Sunday comes every week.
18) Baptisms are extremely important and special, never take them for granted.
19) When you arrive, never bash your predecessor. When you leave, never burn a bridge.
20) Sometimes God asks you to stay somewhere when you’re begging to leave.
21) Sometimes God asks you to leave when you want to stay and fight.
22) Never let a denominational affiliation keep you from pursuing friends in ministry. Some of my closest friends in ministry are from different denominations.
23) God can and often does speak through lost people to you. Most pastors don’t know any lost people. I said: Most pastors don’t know any lost people. You have to be intentional to get out beyond the four walls and form relationships with those that are not like you, don’t believe like you and may never enter the doors of your church.
24) Study doctrine and Scripture, but live grace. Jesus was full of grace AND truth. Model compassion, mercy, unconditional love, and unwavering integrity.
25) God’s creation/nature is His gift to you and should not be taken for granted. Let it refresh, refocus, encourage, and inspire you.
26) God changes lives. We simply get to partner with the genius of the Holy Spirit (as Dave Browning says). I’ve come to learn (the hard way) only God saves. Only God heals. Only God restores. And only God can set someone free from whatever they struggle with (pain, pride, addiction, you name it.)
27) Some people will refuse Christ. I have watched people with blinded eyes reject the Gospel and no academic or theological argument or debate could convince them of the truth. God has to draw them to Himself and open their eyes. You can’t debate someone into the Kingdom.
28) When you feel your weakest, God uses you mightily. The Word truly is a lamp unto my feet. Abide in Christ. Cling to Him. Rest in Him.
29) Don’t neglect your health. Prioritize your spiritual, physical, emotional, mental, relational, and financial health. Too many pastors have dried out spiritually. Too many pastors don’t eat well and exercise, thus not having healthy outlets for stress and anxiety. Hire a coach and/or see a professional counselor (both should be someone outside your congregation). Relational health is often over looked. Don’t use people. Be intentional about making friendships and prioritizing relationships with those inside and outside your congregation. Get and stay out of debt. Be an emotionally healthy leader. Constantly practice being self-aware. Go away on a retreat and ask God to reveal your blind spots and weaknesses to you. Ask for help. Get plenty of sleep and weekly rest. Take a vacation. Take a sabbatical. Encourage your staff to take vacations.
30) Always assume the best in others. Most people (not all) have good intentions. Don’t be quick to demonize others. Don’t be quick to rush to judgment. Give others the gift of trust. Until you are proven otherwise, assume the best. Note: Ask your leadership to do the same with you.
31) I’m thankful for my wife, my mom and step-dad, and a ton of precious people that consistently intercede and pray on my behalf. Don’t be afraid, ashamed or too proud to ask for prayer! Prayer warriors are Godsends.
32) Your spouse is along for your wild ride and weathers each storm with you. Sometimes things people say about you hurt them worse than you. Always listen to the counsel of your spouse. Make decisions as a couple and move forward together in-sync.
33) Leaders take bullets (from the Enemy and people). Better have your shield up. You cannot make everyone happy. Someone will not like you. Please try to accept that. Not even Presidents have a 100% approval rating. Leadership is not for the faint of heart. For the tenderhearted, yes, but you must be strong and courageous.
34) Don’t be a bully. Read that again. I don’t care if your DISC Profile says you’re a “High D.” Don’t be a bully. And NEVER shame anyone – not a staff member, not a leader, not a volunteer, not that guy that never serves, that person that never gives, not your congregation that doesn’t share their faith – no one. Never shame. Exhort and encourage. Lead and challenge, but be above shaming people into doing what you want them to do.
35) Your devotional life is key. Go too long without it and eventually you’ll get spiritually dry and crash and burn, or burnout. I’m speaking from personal experience. Allow God’s Living Word to refresh, revive, encourage, and guide you.
36) Real ministry happens in small groups. Corporate worship is wonderful, but I really see God move in home groups and recovery ministries like Celebrate Recovery and Divorce Care, etc. At my church, we say, Life happens best in circles, not rows.
37) When all is said and done, the people, the memories, those you’re closest to, those that are so special and you’re special to them, are because of unplanned, out-of-the-ordinary events, crises, emergencies, tragedies, etc. It’s hardly ever your job or what you get paid to do, or is on your job description that God uses to allow you to grow closer to an individual or group of people.
38) Life is messy. Don’t oversimplify. Spiritual and social issues are complicated and messy. Don’t oversimplify.
39) Please don’t just send people and money overseas if you’re ignoring your own city. Some of the poorest and most lost people in the world are in your community. The U.S. is the 4th largest unreached people group in the world. Christians in Africa send missionaries to us. Read that again.
40) In my experience, it seems every breakthrough or victory by God is followed (and often preceded) by attacks from the enemy. Be alert, full of hope, and don’t let the enemy steal your joy. The joy of the Lord is your strength.”
41) Leaders are readers. Leaders are life-long learners. Leaders are listeners. Never stop growing. Never stop being teachable. Never stop caring.
42) Lost people are not targets and notches on your belt. Be a champion of relationships. Don’t get a twisted philosophy of befriending someone just to convert them. Genuinely care for people whether or not they come to your church, accept Christ, or get baptized. People matter. Life is all about relationships.
43) Pride will sneak up on you. Ask the Holy Spirit to reveal areas of pride, arrogance, boastfulness, and self-righteousness to you daily.
44) Have a mentor. I’ve been blessed over the years (and still am) with tremendous men twenty years older than me to pour into me, invest in my personal and professional life, and when needed, speak the truth in love to me.
45) Surround yourself with godly counsel. God will often speak through others to get your attention. There’s usually a grain of truth in every criticism. Dig deeper. Do some soul searching. Listen to feedback. Pay attention, and know when to acknowledge fault. Apologize when you mess up.
46) Pick your battles. Not every hill is worth dying on. Wisdom is knowing when to say, Yes. Let’s wait. or No.”
47) Lead by example. If you don’t build relationships with those in your community, don’t expect your congregation to. If you don’t serve others well (with grace, mercy, and compassion), don’t expect your congregation to.
48) Don’t mail it in. Whether you preach, sing, lead youth or children, create videos and communication pieces – whatever you do – do it as working for the Lord. Give your best effort. Have a value of excellence.
49) Less is more. I can sum up the book Simple Church (which I highly recommend) by saying, “You can accomplish more by doing less.” Most churches are too busy. Stop putting more things on your people’s calendars and encourage them to be involved in the community and an active parent at every ball game, piano recital, band concert, you name it – be present. I’ll add: Lead Pastors, don’t make a staff member choose between a church activity and a family activity. Our first ministry is to our family.
50) All of life – ALL of it – the good, the bad, the ugly, the highs, the lows, the struggles, the pains, the hurt, the sickness, death, and disease, the study of Scripture, prayer, godly counsel, hard lessons, your kids, your parents, your spouse, your friendships, your congregation and all its issues, your neighbors, your calling, your devotional life and spiritual disciplines… ALL of life is to conform you into the image of Christ. God has a purpose and He’s molding you, shaping you, pruning you, refining you, and making you into the image of His Son, as a part of the Body of Christ. Thank God for His work through you. Praise God for His constant work IN you.
BONUS: Never lose sight of the faithfulness of God. Be a worshiper. Plan on finishing well and enjoying the journey. May I, and you, be found faithful.
I’ll end with 7 quotes from men I respect:
1) “The world for which we were trained no longer exists.” – Pete Briscoe
2) “We as a church don’t have a mission. The mission has a Church.” – Reggie McNeal
3) “As I look back over fifty years of ministry, I recall innumerable tests, trials and times of crushing pain. But through it all, the Lord has proven faithful, loving, and totally true to all his promises.” – David Wilkerson
4) “Expect great things from God; attempt great things for God.” – William Carey
5) “Go straight for souls, and go for the worst.” – William Booth
6) “God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pains: it is His megaphone to rouse a deaf world.” – C.S. Lewis
7) “Your greatest ministry will most likely come from your greatest hurt.” – Rick Warren
SO… What would you add? What are your life lessons?