My Walk through the Kingdom: Reflections on 30 Years of Ministry

This year I celebrated my 30th year in pastoral ministry. The years have flown by like a flock of geese heading south for the winter. Those years have been filled with countless weddings, funerals, counseling sessions, staff and Elders meetings, hospital visits, sermon preps, writing projects, mission trips, church planting adventures, seminary classes, and denominational meetings. During those years, I’ve had the privilege to serve five churches as a lead pastor, including a country church, a suburban church, a First Baptist Church, and two church plants, the last of which I’ve served for the past 17 years.

Over the years, I’ve experienced nearly every imaginable high and low. I’ve lived the excitement of planting a thriving, healthy, missional church, and I’ve been asked to leave a church because I was reaching too many new people. I’ve felt the joy of leading people to Jesus and growing them as disciples, and I’ve felt the sorrow of watching people that I’ve invested in for years leave the church over petty, personal preferences. I’ve called many wonderful associates who have served alongside me for years, and I’ve had a few grow discontent and undermine my ministry in significant and harmful ways. Yet, through it all, I’ve been grateful for the gift of serving God’s beautiful church.

T.S. Eliot, in his famous work The Dry Salvages, warns against the crush of the present, which both chokes us off from our past and offers a mirage of our future. He warns us that this approach to living robs us of our experiences in the moment and our understanding of them over time. He notes, “We had the experience and missed the meaning (II, 45).” I fear that this is an all too common mistake that we make in ministry. As week follows week, we are buried under an avalanche of ministry responsibilities, and survival becomes more important than introspection. As I take my pen in hand (yes, I still like the weight of a fountain pen and the feel of journal paper), I sense the pressure of my church responsibilities and that incessant feeling that my time would be better spent digging than writing. Yet, I shall put my shovel aside for a moment, take up my pen, and indulge myself in “the backward half-look over the shoulder (II, 54)” to reflect on some of the most important lessons I’ve learned about ministry during the past 30 years. I’m hopeful that the “meaning” might be helpful for you, too.

1. Time invested for God is not the same as time invested with God. I still recall my seminary days with great fondness. Theological education had a transformative impact on my life and ministry. I found great joy studying with my professors, learning from both their expertise and wisdom in ministry. The satisfaction from hours spent in the study was only exceeded by the time spent with my fellow seminarians, discussing and debating the finer points of theology, ecclesiology, and missiology. In this crucible, I was crushed and refashioned into a competent minister. I was pastoring my first church during those years as well, so I was also fully engaged in the task of ministry. I was writing and teaching three sermons a week, while also caring for a growing congregation. Already, the avalanche of ministry had swallowed me whole. It was during that time of complete immersion in theological study and pastoral ministry that I learned this lesson: vocational ministry is the easiest place to drift away from God spiritually. Gradually, I began to substitute study and service for my daily time with God. I felt that I needed that time to accomplish my many tasks. After all, I was in the Bible constantly. Couldn’t I just count that as devotional time? The answer, I’ve learned, is no. I was investing time for God but not with Over time, this approach to ministry produces service without satisfaction. The demands of ministry are so great that we must have God’s daily presence with us to survive; living in His shadow is not enough.

2. Knowledge is easier to gain than wisdom. I love to learn! I’ve spent much of my adult life pursuing graduate education in order to maximize the gifts that God has given me. When I’m not studying or writing, I’m attempting to learn about a new interest. In fact, rarely a day goes by that I’m not soaking up knowledge. This has been true in my ministry life as well. I enjoy the study of Homiletics and Hermeneutics as my academic disciplines, so I’m routinely reading new books, articles, and position papers. And, I serve as a Homiletics professor for several seminaries, so I’m constantly reading and grading the assignments of my students. Throughout this journey, I have gained a tremendous amount of knowledge to apply to my ministry as a pastor. Knowledge for ministry is not enough, however. I need wisdom. Knowledge tells me what; wisdom tells me how. Knowledge gives me answers; wisdom gives me application. Knowledge can be gained in a day; wisdom requires knowledge, experience, and time. When I finally understood this, I surrounded myself with men whose service in ministry was measured in decades—not years. They had the ability to speak wisdom into my knowledge, thus expanding both. Ultimately, this is why the scripture reveals my need for God’s transcendent wisdom. A fool thinks he has all the answers—a wise man remains teachable.

3. Success in church ministry is measured by health, not size. Success is a difficult thing to quantify, especially in local church ministry. In business, you measure success in relation to the bottom line. In sports, you measure success by wins and losses. In education, you measure success by letter grades and diplomas. You get the point. Quantifying spiritual success, which must be measured in the human heart, is impossible for anyone but God. Consequently, churches and vocational servants often use secular measurements to determine if a ministry is succeeding. To determine this, the following questions are often asked: How many people have you baptized this year? How many people have joined your church? How many people attend your church? Have you made your budget this year? How many churches have you planted? The list is endless. While it’s true that the answers to these questions may speak to a church’s popularity or momentum, they say little about the spiritual success of a church. As a young pastor, I was drawn towards this success paradigm. If you worked hard enough and saw enough growth in your church, you would have the potential to go to a larger, more affluent church or be selected for a denominational career. Ultimately, numerical church growth became the measure of all things.

That is not the picture that I find in scripture, however. God’s wisdom reveals that success in the local church is measured by the health of the body. An environment that produces body health includes things like faithful Bible exposition, prayer as a spiritual discipline, intentional disciple-making throughout the congregation, a comprehensive missional strategy (including evangelism and church planting), church discipline, and Elder leadership. Body health can be attained when churches embrace these core biblical values intentionally, regardless of the church’s size or growth trajectory. Every church and pastor should pursue body health above all else, and leave the numbers to God.

4. Sometimes it is God’s will for us to suffer. For generations, pastors in the US were valued and respected members of society. They often held both church and political offices, spoke as a voice for good in the community, and addressed ills that threatened to undermine it. Pastors enjoyed a freedom of the Christian religion that was unparalleled in the world. As secularism has grown in the US, pastors have been pushed further and further towards the margins of society. Even in the church, pastors are often viewed like a piece of old furniture—it belongs in the room, but no one really knows why we still keep it around. Suffering is one of the by-products of this cultural transformation. As our culture has begun to view the role of pastor with disdain, it has become easier to target Bible-believing pastors as outdated relics from a by-gone era. Even in churches, people may decide that the old piece of furniture needs to be scrapped in favor of something new and more modern. Often, this results because they are viewing success through a secular lens. Other times, it is a result of Satan’s efforts to destroy the testimony and effectiveness of a church congregation. Regardless of the reasons, pastors often suffer. I can relate—I’ve experienced several painful wounds during my 30 years of ministry.

When it first happened to me, I was in shock. The questions rolled around in my mind: How could this happen in a church? How could people who claimed to be Christians treat me like this? Why would God let this happen to me? Why would anyone choose to stay in ministry when this can happen? Unknowingly, I had succumbed to the myth of the American church: You aren’t supposed to suffer in ministry here. Over time, however, I discovered the truth about ministry. Regardless of where you serve in the world, sometimes it’s God’s will for you to suffer (Heb 11:35-39). God is our commander, and those of us who serve in ministry are His enlisted men and women. God is always working in His churches, and He sends us to accomplish specific tasks. Sometimes our service takes us to places of great joy, where we see God work through His people in amazing ways. Yet, sometimes our service takes us to places of great heartache, where we see little fruit and suffer much. God is sovereign over both. God has sent me into both types of ministry, but I must confess that I’ve enjoyed the first type of ministry most. Still, it was in the difficult places that I experienced significant growth and came to understand that my primary responsibility in ministry is obedience and faithfulness. I must trust everything else into the hands of my very capable, omniscient, and sovereign commander.

God can use suffering in many ways, and sometimes he uses it to prepare our hearts for new assignments in his Kingdom. While we should never run from seasons of suffering, sometimes God uses it to make us uncomfortable where we are. This is especially true when we’re in a successful and satisfying ministry assignment. We rarely consider new ministry opportunities when we are comfortable. So, if God wants us to move, He has to turn over the applecart of our lives. Most often, this requires changing our circumstances so that we will begin to seek His will about other ministry options. Whether it’s through suffering or a change in family dynamics, God knows just how to get our attention, and when He does, it’s always for our good.

That said, every ministry assignment will have its joys and pains, its ebbs and flows, its highs and lows. I’ve been serving for 17 years in a church I helped to plant, and it is the great ministry joy of my life. Yet, I’ve also experienced great heartaches and disappointments during those years—that is just a part of serving in the Kingdom. We cannot run every time the fire gets hot, or we will spend our ministry lives shifting aimlessly from place to place. Discerning when it’s time to leave a ministry is one of the great challenges of Kingdom service, and sometimes it’s hard to discern our true motives—am I running to something or from something? Thankfully, we don’t have to navigate that process on our own. God’s Spirit is with us as a counselor to guide our hearts and prayers; God’s Son is with us as the Head of His Church to guide our desires for ministry; and, God the Father is with us as our Sovereign LORD to guide our steps and “make our paths straight” for His glory.

5. Family and church are not mutually exclusive concepts. I have witnessed a paradigm shift in ministry over the course of my life. When I was a child, there seemed to be a philosophy of ministry that placed the value of ministry ahead of the value of family. There were many men (and some women) who were willing to sacrifice their families for the sake of the ministry of the church. Often, this produced a resentment in wives and children that resulted in devastating, spiritual outcomes. Many ministry couples experienced divorce, and many children fled from Christ and His church. In the past 20 years, however, the pendulum has swung in the opposite direction. Many men, having witnessed this phenomenon firsthand, do not want the demands or pressure of being the lead pastor of a church. Many other pastors and staff, pushing back against this poor model, will only give God 40 hours a week. If God needs them for more than that, He will just have to find someone else.

Both of these models are flawed. The first is flawed because people put their ministries ahead of their families; the second is flawed because people put their families ahead of their ministry. However, both are flawed for a far greater reason—they view serving in God’s church as a career, not a calling. I’ve discovered that the proper perspective is one that views the desire to serve God in ministry as a “whole life” pursuit for a couple. Ministry, by definition, involves serving in the realm of the spiritual—it isn’t about manufacturing or selling stuff. Ministry isn’t a timeclock profession; tragedy and trauma can’t be scheduled on the calendar.

God created the family first, and He wants our marriages and families to be healthy and happy representations of His glorious gospel. God knows the challenges that ministry creates for families, yet He still gives men and women the gifts and desire necessary to serve His church. He calls them knowing that there will be numerous evening meetings and counseling sessions, lost or rescheduled vacation days, and sleepless nights that result from heartache and conflict. Why does God do this? It’s because He knows that it is possible to lead God’s church and our families well. Learning to do this well takes time, effort, mentoring, and commitment. Additionally, this is a process that requires both spouses to view ministry as a shared call from God, not something that the husband or wife does for a living.

Everything changes when we embrace the desire to serve God together in ministry. When this happens, we begin to see ourselves as partners in marriage, in parenting, and in ministry. Every one of these areas requires surrender to the Lordship of Christ, a love for His church, and a commitment to grow spiritually in a “whole life” process. It’s a challenge, but when it occurs as it has for Lyla and me, it is a beautiful testament to God’s grace.

6. My enemy is meWhen I was a boy, there was a saying that appeared on bumper stickers and t-shirts: “The Devil made me do it.” It’s a humorous saying, but it speaks to a deeper issue. Each of us is a master at blaming others for our own issues and choices. After all, everyone else is the problem! Unfortunately, our culture relentlessly promotes this perspective, making each of us victims of external pressures and influences. Scripture tells a different story, however. James teaches that neither God nor Satan are the originators of our sin—we are. Like Bert in the movie Mary Poppins, Satan may paint an attractive picture, but we’re the ones who choose to jump into his sidewalk drawing.

Early in my ministry, I often viewed the cranky Deacon or the profane WMU leader as my enemy. To be sure, they each had the capacity to reflect poorly on God’s church and to create endless headaches for me. But they weren’t my enemies—not really. There are always tares in with the wheat, sown there by the Enemy of Christ, and we must strive to bring in the harvest in spite of the many frustrations produced by their presence and opposition. Over time, however, I’ve become convinced that my greatest enemy is me.  I know better than anyone how easily I can slip on the clothes of the old man, and when I do, I am capable of quenching the Spirit and letting my flesh become an impediment to the gospel. When this happens, my emotions, speech, actions, and even my motives can hinder the work of God. It is then that I cry out with Paul, “Who can deliver me from this body of death (Rom 7:24)?”

Nothing motivates me to pursue God more than this reality. It is impossible to lead a church well without a daily surrender to the Lordship of Christ. I must die to self and put on the new man. I must walk in the Spirit so that I don’t fulfill the desires of the flesh. The fruits of the Spirit must be in evidence in my life if I hope to fulfill God’s kingdom purposes. That is the only choice that leads to the blessing and favor of God.

7. God is the source of every Kingdom victoryI grew up in churches that gave me a very man-centered theology for the Christian life. I came to believe that the fate of the Kingdom of God rose and fell on the basis of my personal efforts. If I worked hard enough, and witnessed good enough, many would go to heaven because of me. If I didn’t, their blood would be on my hands for eternity while they languished in hell. As you might imagine, I felt a tremendous burden to discover God’s “perfect will for my life,” so that I wouldn’t fail in this important mission. This view of the world produced a couple of very harmful side-effects in my life: I felt tremendous pride when I did something good for God, and I felt riddled by guilt when I did not. Both of these are flawed views of work in the Kingdom.

Thankfully, God delivered me from this poor, man-centered theology and replaced it with a God-centered one. Through the years, I’ve discovered that God is the giver of every good gift, including the gift of service in His Kingdom. God is the owner of the vineyard, and Christ is the vine. I’m just a branch, graciously grafted into Christ, capable of bearing fruit by the decree of God and for the glory of God. God has given me unique abilities and gifts, as well as a customized occupation in His vineyard. He has promised to prune me so that I will be most effective in my service, yielding 30, 60, or 100-fold. He is the one who has promised to take my talents and multiply them for His glory.

This view of Kingdom labor produces both contentment and peace. I have learned to rest in God’s plan for my life. In my early years, I fell into the trap of wanting to pastor the huge, influential church. After all, that was always put on display in our SBC world as the ultimate achievement in ministry. Despite that temptation, I have learned to be completely satisfied in God’s ministry assignments for me. I’ll never forget the day when the Holy Spirit breathed a necessary truth into my heart: “Bill, never underestimate the power of a simple life, lived well.”

Everything changed for me that day. Suddenly, I felt such contentment in my ministry. I knew that God would accomplish His purpose for me, regardless of where my journey led. I felt such amazing peace. Finally, I understood and believed that God was just as satisfied with me serving in Florence, SC, as He was with those men He appointed to serve in giant cities. I realized that all God requires of me is to accomplish faithfully the assignments he has given to me. There is such freedom in this simple truth. Men assign greatness—God gives assignments, and they’re all great!

Thirty years of ministry is a long time. It seems even longer when I pause to consider the current statistics for people in ministry. Recent data shows that three in ten seminary students survive the first five years of ministry, while only one in ten retire from ministry. These stats haunt me. They speak to the challenges of ministry and the need to encourage those who are on the journey. Ministry isn’t for the faint of heart, but the potential to faint is an occupational hazard (Gal 6:9). Mine is a simple story, lived in relative obscurity. But if the lessons I’ve learned along the way can help a fellow traveler, I will be grateful indeed.

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Dr. Bill Curtis

Bill is the Senior Pastor of Cornerstone Baptist Church in Darlington, SC. Beyond pastoring, Bill has contributed to numerous books, serves as a preaching professor, and helped found the Pillar Network. He received his Ph.D and M.Div degrees from SEBTS.