I can’t tell you the number of times I thought, “I wish somebody had taught me this in seminary before starting a ministry.”
Don’t get me wrong – I’m exceptionally grateful for the time I’ve had in ministry. A couple of decades into it, I’d wake up every day, thankful I got to do this and excited to get started.
But if you’re thinking about starting a ministry or planting a new church, I figured it’d be good to share some lessons I’ve learned (or wish I’d learned). Hopefully, if you’re at the beginning of the process, this article will help you navigate and prepare for the realities of starting (and doing) ministry.
This article was updated and republished on May 30th, 2023
Make Sure Your Ministry Is Needed
I don’t want to sound harsh, but before you start the long process of launching a new ministry or church, you need to make sure that it’s actually necessary.
A lot of times, a new ministry isn’t needed because it already exists in some form or fashion in your community. For example, if you’re planting a new church, does your community really need a new church? Or would it be better to partner with one that already exists? It’s important to keep in mind that a lot of “church growth” – especially for new churches – tends to be “transfer growth” from other churches.
So, what makes your church different from other churches in the area? Could the community you’re trying to serve be reached more effectively by partnering with a pre-existing ministry or nonprofit organization?
Sometimes our desire to “start a new thing” is partially motivated by a desire to seek ownership and validation from our efforts. So, before you set out to create something new, interrogate your motives and make sure there’s not another organization out there already capable of doing what you want to do.
7 Things I Wish Someone Would Have Told Me Before Starting Ministry
1. Your Character Will Be Tested More Than Your Competency
The road is strewn with bodies of leaders who were extremely gifted but lost their ministries because of sex, money, power, or other forms of moral failure.
In ministry, your character will be tested more than your competency ever will.
It’s great to develop a skill set, but it’s also easier to build a skill set than it is to build your character.
If you want to stay in ministry for the long haul, constantly building and refining your character is paramount.
2. Leading People Is More Difficult Than Reading Greek
In seminary, I had to learn how to read Greek. It was difficult, but I actually won a prize for it in my class.
Little did I know how much more challenging it would be to lead people than to learn an ancient language. Yet we didn’t take a single class on how to lead people. Nothing on leading congregations, teams, staff, or boards.
In fact, chances are your most challenging task as a ministry leader is to lead people – to help lead them in their relationship with Christ, but also to help them work alongside each other in a common mission.
That’s one of the reasons I write this blog. To help me figure out how to lead better than ever before, and hopefully to help you do that too.
3. Strategy Matters as Much as Vision and Mission
I know mission and vision are important, but strategy is where the real payoff begins and the vision takes flight.
Mission and vision get universal buy-in (love God, love people, change the world). But strategy doesn’t (and we’re going to play this music or change our programs this way).
Many leaders don’t think clearly about strategy, or if they do, they don’t articulate it well.
I led for years without realizing how powerful a great strategy could be. And how, as much as it can divide, it can also unite.
It helps if you can create a highly motivated team.
4. You Will Be Tempted to Cheat On Your Family Because You Love God
I’m not talking about having an affair (although that does happen far too often in ministry). I’m talking about cheating your family out of time and attention.
It took me a few years to realize that I mistakenly believed that saying no to work meant saying no to God. I would make my family wait because ‘the call of God’ beckoned.
God may have called you to ministry, but he’s also called you to your family.
Cheating your family for the sake of ministry forsakes your ministry.
Saying no to ministry means saying no to work. It does not mean saying no to God.
Ministry can be confusing and full of pressures for young leaders.
5. Mentors Aren’t Optional
There has always been something in me that says, “You can figure this out by yourself.”
I wish I had fought that voice earlier.
Ministry (and life) are complex enough that I wish someone had told me that mentors aren’t optional.
I’m fortunate to have more than a few great mentors in my life these days (here’s how to cultivate a great inner circle, by the way). I just wish I had started sooner.
6. Just Because Your Organization Is Growing Doesn’t Mean You Should Do More
My default assumption was that when we had more (money, people, opportunities), we would do more.
As our church began to grow, we added lots of programs, programs that were, in retrospect, random – they didn’t lead people anywhere.
That was a mistake.
About a decade into my time in ministry, we rethought all of that and went through the painful process of shutting many programs down.
We picked a destination for people (in our case, small groups) and created steps to help them get there. And we decided to do a few things and do them well.
The result has left us reaching more people than ever before with greater effectiveness. It just took longer to get there than I would have liked.
Few things in life are as powerful as focus.
7. Perseverance Is Underrated (Especially When Starting in Ministry)
Ministry isn’t easy. Far too many people leave before their call has expired.
I am so thankful I didn’t quit the many times I was tempted to.
That’s true not just in ministry, but in life and friendship and marriage.
What’s sadly ironic is that most people are tempted to quit moments before their critical breakthrough. If they had stayed, they might have seen the fruit of their years of intense labor.
Not convinced perseverance is all it’s cracked up to be? You have no idea what you miss out on when you keep switching jobs.
And, of course, sometimes it is time to move on.
Covering the Basics When Starting a Ministry
Now, unless you plan on keeping your ministry a “side hobby” funded from the goodness of your own heart, you’ll have to take some financial and legal steps to legitimize your ministry in the eyes of the state.
I’m not an expert on this topic, so you’ll need to consult with a lawyer and accountant. Some of the tasks you’re probably going to need to accomplish, even if you want to start an online ministry, include:
- Applying for a 501(c)(3) license
- Creating the legal, founding documents for your church or ministry
- Recruiting a board of directors
- Filing for tax-exempt status, etc.
If you’re part of a church planting network or being planted by a larger church, those organizations should have people and systems in place to help you work through those milestones.
However, if you’re doing it all on your own, you’ll need to consult an expert to help you overcome any financial and legal hurdles you may encounter.
Starting a Ministry Starts With a Team
I’m going to say this again in case you missed it the first time: You can’t do ministry on your own. You’re going to need to build a team that supports each other. Your church structure is vital to your success.
Sure, you don’t have your dream team. Dream teams don’t randomly assemble. They’re built.
So, what do you do instead? You start with who you have.
Yes, I know you probably don’t have the team you want. No one really does when they’re starting out in ministry. And yes, everyone else seems to have a better team.
You need to realize, however, that’s where most leaders begin. When I started ministry at three tiny, stagnant churches over 20 years ago, the buildings weren’t exactly teeming with high-capacity leaders.
So, start with the best leaders you can find. If you begin by working with the best people you have in the room, eventually, higher-capacity leaders will fill the room.
Starting a Ministry Is Hard. Stick With It.
Most churches, nonprofit organizations, and ministries fail within the first couple of years. I’m not trying to be negative or talk you out of anything – just being realistic.
You’re probably not going to see immediate results (or “fruits”) from your labor. The “dream” of doing ministry rarely aligns with reality. And that means you’re probably going to be discouraged – a lot.
But here’s something I’ve noticed – Leaders who focus on what they can’t do always miss what they can do.
When you’re feeling negative, discouraged, or worn out, refocus your attention on what you can do right now. Wallowing in self-pity about how nothing is going your way or what you expected doesn’t really help anybody.
But there’s always something you can do. Focus on that. At the start of a ministry, it’s going to feel like you have to take everything a day at a time – and that’s okay. Ministry isn’t a bunch of mountaintop experiences – you’re going to be discouraged and frustrated.
It’s so easy to be negative. In fact, it takes zero work. It’s the default of the human condition.
As a result, it’s easy to complain about everything you lack and what seems impossible.
So, what CAN you do? Answer that, and go do it.
Keep doing it, and eventually, you’ll accomplish far more than you ever thought possible.