Four Paths to Avoid When Beginning in Ministry

by Dave Miller, Co-Founder, Lp

A Christian College senior sat down in my office in February of his last year of undergrad studies in ministry and was perplexed. Like most of the good ones, he’d spent the better part of the last two years on a developmental path of part-time ministry under the guidance of a great youth pastor.

“I don’t know which of these opportunities I should pursue,” he said.  He’d had several different churches approach him about his post-grad plans. He had narrowed down to the final two. I knew of both churches. Church A had the right zip code and the right salary for a college grad who was married with a child at home already. Church B was less attractive on the surface with a not so great address and substantially less of a salary package.

I knew Church A well and I knew that the last five staff people who had finished their time there left on bad terms, damaged, and dropping out of ministry. My knowledge of Church B was that most staff members were put on a developmental path, and the ones who left had gone on to plant churches supported by the home church. 

This is a very real snapshot of what some 20 to 25-year-olds face when making a first ministry decision. I get asked daily “where are all of the talented 29-year-olds who’ve been in ministry for seven years and built something?” It's as if many (or is it most?) chose the wrong path and they didn’t make it to the checkpoint. 

I’ve seen four reoccurring paths that I’d call “paths to avoid:”

1. THE ROCKY PATH.  This one I’ve already described above as Church A. We’re not sure what’s wrong, but there sure are a lot of dead bodies of former staff people littered on that road. It leads nowhere and is full of quicksand, and toxic waste dumps. Most do not survive. Meet someone who began on this path, and they barely like Jesus three years later, let alone the church.

2. THE WORLD IS FLAT PATH. On this path best practices from conferences and leadership resources are suspect at best. This church is not necessarily “old” but potentially is stuck believing their thing is somehow different. If you meet a leader who joined this team and stayed a decade they can be a pretty angry individual. They’ve learned how to blame everyone around them for where they find themselves. They know what’s wrong with that big church across town. It hasn’t “really happened” for them yet, and they are stuck. On the surface, they appear to be “faithfully sticking it out,” but internally it’s a mess. In moments of tearful-honesty, they will admit they wish they could do something else with their life. I feel for this individual but in speaking to them I typically am thinking, "...and you want me to send you a youth pastor candidate?"

I’ve heard one or two retired pastors tell of how they started in ministry. They started on this path.  I drove four hours each way and preached to 19 people every Sunday and they could only pay me in fried chicken and sweetened tea. For every one of these stories, I’ve heard dozens/hundreds who never made it beyond the World is Flat Path. They did two or three years and switched professions.

3. THE RED-BULL-GO-PRO-PATH. We’ve all seen the exciting video of the skier going straight down a cliff with no path at all. Are they skiing or just falling? We can’t tell.

This church staff is making the news because of their amazing growth and sexy innovations. They are young, they are fun, they are cool, and if their new hire can make it down that mountain with no helmet they will have a great story to tell. A new green hire into this path MUST go in with an outside coach and someone to help them stay sane. These young bucks are the ones who get asked back to speak at Seminary because of their marque employer. But beware this path is marked with stories of divorce, cancer, and burnout.

They typically tell me that there is amazing stuff going on around them, but when they get honest they have burned it at both ends for so long they can barely remember their name, let alone why they got into ministry in the first place.  We must come alongside these high potential leaders before they kill themselves. These are the ones who need a developmental path more than anyone. Three years of development, then go jump off that mountain with a Go-Pro and they might survive it!

4. THE "NO GUIDE" PATH. This is very similar to number 3, but it looks safer from the outset. Many have gone down this path, there’s a map, and there are even clear markers. It doesn’t appear to be dangerous, but the missteps early on are many. Those on this path make the same mistakes that others have made over and over. That’s why this path can also be called the Path of the Stupid Tax. Those on this path are often wondering if they are going the right way.

Those that were LUCKY ENOUGH to live this path and continue on think it’s fine, and actually almost a good thing, that those younger on their team are paying the stupid tax. Many are casualties of this path. With no plan, and no developmental help, these young leaders try, fail, and are eventually kicked off the path. We all know that pain is a great teacher, but let’s face it, there’s plenty of opportunity for pain on down the road.

We must help these young leaders avoid the dumb mistakes we made. We were lucky. Let’s admit that.

I’ve heard many who I’d call ministry veterans recount a conversation with a young leader trying to make a vocational ministry decision. They pray with them, they do a great job listening to them, and then they say well-intentioned things that are not helpful like “Well give it all to Jesus and I’m sure you’ll make the best decision.”

 We need to guide, coach, beg, even push the youngest and most talented to the best developmental path before them. It could be less money (or no money), or a less desirable place to live, but it might keep them moving forward longer than what the average is currently.

Full circle back to my story above…I told this college senior to go find where the last four or five staff people were and come back and report to me. Sure enough, he’d looked far enough under the hood to realize that something was not quite right. I asked him, “What do you ultimately want to do someday?” He replied with, “Advance the gospel, preach, and plant churches.” I told him his choice appeared obvious. He had to go to someplace with a track record of that with its young staff. 

Two years later he’s still on his way to doing just that.

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