So, what lessons have I learned? There is a certain amount of overlap in these. For example: my Gnostic tendencies regarding place also found a home as I considered competition and balance. Finding your voice as a preacher and being authentic in ministry are nuanced distinctions of a principle that must be worked out in all of ministry.
In an effort to further discussion, there are books listed I’ve found helpful in wrestling with these ideas. And so – the lessons – in no particular order:
Lesson One: Why a big, theological melon will not overcome a sinful, selfish heart when you’re a pastor.
The purpose of theological education is to prepare you to serve the church, not to give you a theological arsenal to unleash upon unsuspecting congregants. You’ve got to love being a Jesus follower more than you love being right, or the smartest dude in the room. If my love for Jesus is not cultivated on a daily basis, then my love of being a pastor will take its place in my affections – and believe me, it’s a poor substitute.
Lesson Two: What Wendell Berry can teach us about place.
In a strange way, the novels of Wendell Berry made it intellectually OK for me to return to Fremont. Reading the exploits of Ptolemy and Minnie Proudfoot, Burley Coulter and the Catlett clan impressed upon me the beauty of local economies. In whatever place God has put you, you are a part of the “local membership.” Loving the gospel is one thing, loving the people you serve is another, but you really must learn to love the place you minister as well. Not for what it could become, or what it was. You must come to love it for what it is. The gospel is not lived out in some disembodied way; our presence as Jesus followers is an incarnational intrusion in a specific place. We are not Gnostics. For too long, I fear I was indeed rather Gnostic in my thinking about place. Ironically, God used a writer from Kentucky to help me come back to Nebraska.
Helpful reads: Wendell Berry, A Place on Earth; Hannah Coulter.
Lesson Three: The myth of prophetic fits.
It is tempting, as pastors who are neck-deep in the trenches of difficult places of ministry, to develop a C.H. Toy complex. When our methodology, our soteriology (any – ology, really) is questioned, we respond with hurt and anger. To use a favorite southern expression of mine, “we pitch a fit.” Now, we do indeed think such a fit is justified, even needed. After all, our integrity as a God-ordained minister of the Gospel has been questioned! Pistols at dawn are not really an option, nor can we call down the Thunder of Hulkamania on the offending parties, so we settle for “pitching a good fit.” What we soon learn, however, is that responding to stupidity with stupidity is rarely the path of godly wisdom.
Lesson Four: The importance of authentic friendship in ministry.
A friend loves at all times, and a brother is born for adversity. – Proverbs 17:17
Perhaps the greatest lasting benefit of going to a residential seminary is the friendships you make while pursuing your M.Div. (As my friend Paul House says, “This presumes a high view of friendship, not a low view of theological education.”) Throughout ministry, these friends have told me I was acting like an idiot (when indeed I was), and still came to my defense when the fruits of my stupidity came to full bloom. These friends, despite all evidence to the contrary, never gave up on me. Furthermore, as men committed to faithful preaching and teaching of the Bible, we’ve been able to have prolonged, serious conversations for over a decade. Sadly, there has been little serious theological reflection on the nature of friendship within evangelical circles.
Lesson Five: Jesus wants me to squat, bench and dead lift.
Life changing conversations ought to have some sort of theme music that accompany them. Sadly, they never do. Such was the case when my friend Will Witherington was telling me about his golf game. Will is in campus ministry, and since I view golf as requiring both time and money, I finally got up the nerve to ask him how in the world he played so much golf. Will’s response was an epiphany for me. “I’m a competitive guy. Golf is my outlet. I’m a better husband and father – heck I’m a better minister because I have that outlet.”
I was dumbstruck. The realization that I had been competing in ministry hit me immediately. If you don’t already know this, competing in ministry is one of the dumbest things you could ever do. It’s bad for your soul and for the souls of your folks. By trying to win, nobody wins.
So, since I’ve always found lifting weights cathartic, I compete as a drug-free powerlifter. To quote a tweet from bodybuilder Mark Dugdale (who is a believer), “Two things tend to put things in proper perspective – digging into the Bible and performing high rep squats. Don’t neglect either.” You may not be a lifter, but you should find an avenue for competition outside of ministry. You’ll feel better – physically and spiritually.
Helpful Reads: Mark Rippentoe, Starting Strength; www.coolrunning.com, “The Couch to 5K Plan”.
Lesson Six: Find your preaching voice – not someone else’s.
Imitation is indeed the sincerest form of flattery. Early in ministry, if you had been listening closely, you would have been able to identify whom I’d been listening to that week. Alistair Begg, Mark Dever, John Piper and Kent Hughes formed my preaching “Super Friends.” My preaching reflected not my own style, but theirs. Find your own voice. It’s hard work, and it takes time, but your wife will tell you when you’ve found it.
Lesson Seven: Live on the knife-edge of authenticity and godliness.
If you’ve not done the work of finding your own voice in the pulpit, you’ve probably not got it figured out for the rest of pastoral ministry either. Early on, I figured out what people expected their pastor ought to be like, and then tried to do that. But, it wasn’t me, I was awful at it, and I was miserable. Be yourself.
That, however, comes with an important caveat: as much as I might think people want to be around my awesomeness, not every part of my personality is helpful or edifying. I am a work in progress. The Holy Spirit is engaged in the same work of sanctification in my life as He is everyone else’s. There is a constant tension here: I gotta be me, and yet me is not always a good thing.
Lesson Eight: Trying not to be a train-wreck as a husband and father.
One of my professors at Taylor, Mark Cosgrove, dedicated a book he wrote to his three sons, “In whose lives I must do my best writing.” I can’t even remember the title of the book, but the dedication has stuck with me. My wife Amy, and our kids Gabrielle and Nathaniel deserve my “best writing”, and yet, they rarely get it.
That’s the crappiest part of having a rough go in ministry, isn’t it? It’s our families who have to put up with us. The people we love the most, we often treat the worst. While I don’t have this one figured out, I do know this: I’ve gotta work harder at it than at ministry, and I’d be dead in the water if my wife and kids did not bestow grace upon me. If you’ve been a tool to your family, start by earnestly asking their forgiveness. By God’s grace, you can rebuild from there.
 Berry describes Ptolemy as “overabundant in both size and strength.” His wife is Tol’s exact opposite, “Miss Minnie was as small and quick as Tol was big and lumbering.” If you’ve ever seen Amy and I, you know why this fictional couple is dear to me.
 You can read Toy’s story here: http://www.sbts.edu/media/publications/sbjt/sbjt_1999spring3.pdf
 Three words: ‘80’s Hair Bands.
 Sarcasm is my love language. To paraphrase Sammy Kershaw’s “Queen of my Doublewide Trailer”, I’m the Charlie Daniels of sarcasm.
Kyle McClellan is pastor of Grace Presbyterian Church in Fremont, Nebraska. He has degrees from Taylor University and The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He is married to Amy and has two children.