Advice to a new young pastor (and what all of us can learn from it)

27 Mar

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On July 1, 2008 I became the senior pastor of Faith Church.  I was scared.  What had I gotten myself into?  I had been youth/associate pastor at the church for the previous six years.  The youth group was awesome, and I had a ministry umbrella over me, deflecting the rain of difficulty, responsibility, and leadership.  That umbrella was the senior pastor.  On July 1st, 2008, I learned what it was like when that umbrella was gone.

Actually, I was surprised to discover the umbrella wasn’t gone.  I became the new umbrella.  I was the responsible one.  In the months leading up to that day, I was excited, I had dreams and looked forward to becoming the pastor.  I also held secret fears and anxieties.  Was I cut out for this?  I had a really good gig as youth pastor! Was I stupid for making the change?  So I read and listened to one passage of Scripture over and over.  It is a good one for young or new pastors.  If you’re not a young or new pastor or leader in the church, I think you’ll find that it is very important for you as well.

Take a look at 1st Timothy 4:11-16, and see if you can find out why this passage was meaningful to me.

I identified with Timothy because in verse 12 Paul says to Timothy, “don’t let anyone look down on you because you are young.”

I wonder who was looking down on Timothy?  When Paul goes on to ask Timothy to set an example for the believers, it is best to understand that it was people in Timothy’s church looking down on him because he was young.

But how young was he?  We don’t know.  The word Paul uses could refer to someone as old as 40.  Some feel Timothy was maybe in his mid-30s.  I was 33 in July 2008, so this verse seemed like it was written to me!  Most scholars tell us that at the time Paul wrote this, Timothy could be anywhere from 25-40 years old.  The point, though, is not his specific age but that culturally it was not normal for a young person to have a position of authority.

Furthermore, Timothy is trying to fill some big shoes.  This church was started by Paul, one of the most respected leaders in the entire Christian church, from Jerusalem to Rome.  These Ephesian Christians could easily be talking to the Christians down the road in a town like Colossae, saying with chests puffed out, “Yeah, Paul is OUR pastor.  You should have heard the other day the discussion we were having in the lecture hall of Tyrannus with some Greek philosophers.  He schooled them!  It was awesome.  It rocks having Paul as your pastor.”

After a few years Paul leaves, and he installs Timothy as leader.  Timothy was young, and because of what Paul says to Timothy in his letters, we wonder if Timothy also had a much more timid style than Paul.

What a difference from older respected Paul to younger timid Timothy!

Over the years I have heard of pastoral transitions gone bad.  A new pastor follows the tenure of a well-loved leader, and the new pastor struggles in the shadow of that leader.  Maybe you’ve heard of a church like that. It happens regularly, truth be told. Anecdotal evidence suggests that 25% of a congregation will leave a church when there is a pastoral transition, and if true, that is sad.  From July 1, 2008 to July 1, 2010, we experienced something like that at Faith Church. Some of the attrition was the result of poor decisions on my part.  Some was death.  But a number of people left because I was different from the previous pastor.  I suspect some moved on simply because I was young, about half the age of the previous pastor, and young enough to be the grandson of many of the senior members of the congregation. I know there was a lot of talk going on during those years.  Some of it made it to me, much didn’t.

You can bet that kind of talk is going on there in Ephesus.  And you can bet Paul has heard about!  “Man, Paul, are you sure about Timothy?  He’s…well…young.  Are you sure he’s ready?  I’m mean, have you heard him preach?”

It is possible that Timothy’s authority, gifts, and abilities for leading the church are being called into question.  I have a feeling that not only has Paul heard about it, but so has Timothy.  It might have been Timothy who contacted Paul saying, “Are you sure about this?  Are you sure I’m ready?  These people aren’t always responding so well.  I’m getting push-back about being young. I don’t know that they will respect me.”

And so Paul says “Don’t let anyone look down on you because you are young.”  What does looking down on mean?  It is defined as “to feel contempt for someone or something because it is thought to be bad or without value.”[1]

“Don’t allow people to look down on you, Timothy,” Paul says.  But I think to myself, how is Timothy actually to deal with this?  If people start disrespecting him, is he going to step in and say, “I do not allow you to do this anymore.”  You can hear the snickering if he would try that.  Now if it got to a point, yes, he could make it a matter of church discipline and confront the poor behavior head on. Maybe he had to. If so, that would have been really difficult.

Disrespect of a leader in the church is always wrong.  No matter how old or young they are, we should respect our leaders.  We might disagree, but we can disagree in a respectful way.  If there is contempt going on, it must stop.  Disrespect and contempt is sinful.  Timothy would be well within his right to confront sin.

When Paul says “don’t let anyone look down on you”, I suspect he is saying to Timothy “you need to deal with the contempt and disrespect, Timothy.  You can’t let it happen. I know it is hard, but if people are behaving poorly, you need to intervene and make sure it stops.”

That is not all Paul says though.  He also makes a very different second suggestion.  I suspect Paul knows that the root of the problem is the age difference.  People that are older do not always have a hard time submitting to and respecting younger people.  Sometimes it goes well.  But let’s face it, the general tendency is for younger people to have older leaders.

How many of you have gotten a new boss that is younger than you, and you have found it hard to respect them?  I’ve heard the stories.  The new young boss comes to the company with energy and new ideas and starts making changes, and it can be very difficult.  They don’t know the culture.  They don’t know the people.  They don’t know what you’ve been through.  And as much as you complained about the old boss, you now find yourself wishing you had the old boss back.

Think it is any different in the church?  It’s not.

Paul has situation on his hands.  He spent so much time with the Christians at Ephesus.  He loves them.  But he has left them in the hands of his young associate Timothy who he also loves. Paul knows exactly who the people in the church are.  He knows their ages.  He knows by name who is probably struggling with Timothy, and as I said above, Paul might already have been hearing from those people: “Can’t you just come back, Paul?  This isn’t going well with Timothy.  Come back!”

So Paul knows Timothy needs to grow up fast.  He gives Timothy a very interesting suggestion.  He says “set an example for the believers.”  Paul could go on and on telling Timothy to confront and discipline.  But he doesn’t.  He says one line about not letting the people despise Timothy, but he moves quickly into a suggestion that is far more powerful: set an example.

“Timothy,” I can hear Paul saying, “I want your life to shine so brightly, that those people have no reason to look down on you.  Set an example for them.  Let your life do the talking.”

When I was in high school at Warwick in Lititz, PA, we had a pretty good basketball program.  We were always a contender for playoffs, and some years went very deep into them.  We also had a very rowdy student section, which I loved.  Cheering for our guys in the overheated old gym is still one of the highlights of my life.  One of my favorite student section cheers was only one word.  Repeated over and over.  Can you guess it?

The game scenario in which we would use this cheer was when my team was leading, and other team would start rallying.  They would be scoring points, catching up, gaining momentum.  That would fire their student section up, and from the other side of the gym they would get louder and louder. Back on our side, we would be feeling nervous.  We didn’t want them to catch up!  Our guys on the floor needed a boost, and we would say one word: Scoreboard. Scoreboard.  Scoreboard.  It was a great cheer.  We would really draw out the word “Scoooooorebooooooard”.  We wanted it to be a sobering reminder to everyone there that though the other team was rallying, we were still ahead.  We were winning.  In that moment, the scoreboard did all the talking.  We didn’t have to say anything, except to point to the truth.

The absolute worst, though, was if the other came back and won the game.  You know what the student section from the other school would start chanting back at us? “Scoreboard…scoreboard.”  Whew was that painful.  But the point was made.  The scoreboard still did the talking.  We might be walking out of the gym dejected, angry, thinking “we are a better team than that. We are way better than that.  We should not have lost.”  But the scoreboard told the truth about what was really going on.

Paul, in other words, is saying here to Timothy, “Let your life example tell the truth about who you really are.  Those people might be saying all kinds of stuff about you.  That you are too young.  You are an inexperienced leader.  That you are not as good a teacher as me.  That you are not as smart as me.  That you are not me. But let your life be the scoreboard.  You won’t have to say a thing, Timothy.  Let your life do the talking.”

How should he set the example?  In five ways: speech, life, love, faith and purity.  These are crucial areas.  Imagine if you were setting the example in these five?

  • Speech obviously is how you talk. No surprise to me that Paul lists it first.  Our mouths get us in trouble!  What would it be like for people to look at you as someone who sets an example in how you talk?  You would be gracious.  You would be kind.  Your words would be gentle, self-controlled.
  • Life is your conduct, your way of life. What would it look like for you to set the example in how you live your life?
  • Love is the word agape. Would people say of you that you are a loving person?
  • Faith, it is important to note, is not just believing the right things. This is best understand as faithful.  Having faithfulness.  Can people say of you: “There is a person who is faithful”?  Not because you know the Bible through and through.  Not because you know a lot of theology.  Faith is primarily not about knowing and believing the right things.  It is that.  But it is much more a choice to live them out.  I recently heard Richard Rohr put it this way “you don’t think your way into a changed life, you live your way into changed thinking.”
  • Paul is kinda saying the same thing over and over here, isn’t he? Be pure.  Be holy.  It’s not easy to do this in our world.  But pursue it. Set an example of purity.

Clearly this passage is not just for young Timothy.  This can apply to everyone.  So review it those five categories, all of us.  Are we setting an example in them?  Might there be one category that you sense God is speaking to you to work on?

[1] Louw, Johannes P., and Eugene Albert Nida. Greek-English lexicon of the New Testament: based on semantic domains 1996 : 762. Print.

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