Thirty Things I’ve Learned in Thirty Years of Ministry

It was thirty years ago that I began serving a small rural church in southern Indiana. I was so incredibly green then; I’m glad I didn’t always realize it. I loved those people in that church and, for some reason, they loved me too. I had to be one of the most inept pastors in history, but they just continued to show me grace and love me even more.

Now, three decades later, I reflect back on what I’ve learned in ministry. Some lessons came rather naturally; others were very painful.

  1. God is always faithful. Always. Always. Always.
  2. My family is my greatest gift beyond my salvation. I wish I always realized it.
  3. I spent too much time worrying about things that I can’t even remember today.
  4. I took too many criticisms personally. Most critics weren’t mad at me.
  5. I always grow stronger when I spend time in the Word and in prayer.
  6. My wife endured a lot in our ministry. I needed to minister to her more.
  7. When I can laugh at myself, I am more effective in ministry.
  8. I learned to be more compassionate through the deaths of my parents and grandson. I can now understand the pain many experience.
  9. I am always hurt when I hold grudges.
  10. I need to ask for forgiveness more quickly.
  11. I need friends to share both the joys and the challenges of ministry.
  12. I wish my sons had not seen my frustrations when I was a pastor.
  13. Life is short. Live it totally for Him every moment.
  14. Some of my most miserable days came when I grew jealous of others in ministry.
  15. Some other miserable days came when I lived to please people rather than God.
  16. Children are young but for a season. Some of my greatest joys have been with my three sons.
  17. I’m not nearly as smart as I sometimes think I am.
  18. I am always wiser when I listen to the wisdom of others.
  19. The devil is always looking for a way to trap me (1 Timothy 3:7).
  20. My success is not measured by the size of my church or the prestige of my organization.
  21. I’ve had a lot of grace shown to me. I need to pass that gift forward more.
  22. Some people who disagree with me have proved right.
  23. I need to mentor more men.
  24. I am rarely as diligent I should be sharing the gospel.
  25. Every church has some really mean people. God has called me to love and serve them too.
  26. I fight pride more often than I’d like to admit.
  27. Some of my worst moments in ministry were when I lost my temper.
  28. Encouragement works better than harsh words.
  29. I need to read more.
  30. My grandchildren are almost perfect.

What have you learned in ministry? What can you add to this list?


  1. Chuck Lawless says

    Thanks, Thom. This year, I celebrated 32 years in ministry, and your list has reminded me of how much God has taught me through the years . . . and how gracious He has been . . . and how much I still have to learn.

  2. says

    Very emotional to read your blog this morning. Your list captivated my soul and reminded me of my faults and regrets. I see more clearly than I did several years ago, but still enter the fog of ministry at times. Thank you for the reminders via your life.

  3. Scott Osatin says

    This is one of those topics that deserves a book so that people just about to start out in full time ministry can learn from those with experience.

  4. says

    I like this entire list, Dr. Rainer, but #8 really hit home with me. Two years ago my dad died unexpectedly of sudden-onset-pneumonia at the age of 57. It has forever change me. I have so much more empathy and compassion for what people are going through. It made it so much easier to see those who often feel like “enemies” within my church as people who are hurting and in need of prayer.

    I miss my dad greatly, but knowing he is in Heaven, and seeing the positive changes it has made in me is a great comfort.

    Thanks for the reminder.

  5. tim smith says

    Thanks for the article. Next spring will mark 30 years pastoring for me. I am grateful for God’s grace and all He has shown me of himself. This list is a reminder of many blessings, some of them coming in spite of my failures, and sweet memories of gracious people I have had the privilege to pastor. My oldest son will be ordained to the Gospel ministry this Sunday. I will share this list with him and discuss some specifically from my own experiences. Thanks again for your encouraging work.

  6. says

    Thanks Thom,
    I am a fairly new pastor and as I read over your list I see some of the things I already have struggled with and need to remember. Thanks for the insight that you and others here continually share. The encouragement is great.

  7. Ron says

    Many of your comments are related to family. I have been in ministry 33 years as a pastor and Director of Missions and I realized and practiced this more the second half then the first half of my ministry. It is interesting that I have been happier and I have seen God work more during the second half of my ministry than the first half.

  8. says

    Enjoyed the list, Thom. I am getting real close to 30 yrs of full-time ministry myself. I’ll need to do the same thing. :) Thanks for the inspiration and wisdom in the post.

  9. says

    Thanks for allowing God to use you. A friend and I were recently comparing notes- both of us have served churches in the NWBC and in various capacities in associational, regional, and national denominational life for a little over 30 years each. You captured much of what I have learned. I might add one thought- I am replaceable. As I wind down two yes as Pres of NWBC I will be replaced in November and in a few months people will likely forget my name. And I am at a place where most days I am OK with that.

  10. says

    One of the biggest lessons i have learned is that I can not change people. Only God can do that. Since I can’t change them, I should not try and carry the weight of that responsibility.

  11. says

    Dr. Rainer, this is gold! I mark the 20th year of ministry this year, which is hard to believe. I resonate deeply with the list you’ve given today. Thanks for taking the time to reflect and to share these things — I pray this post will bless and challenge others, as it has done for me!

  12. says

    It took me way too long to learn that the first job of a Pastor is to disciple his wife and children. This is a very helpful list. Thanks for your openness and humility and thanks for posting it!

  13. Johnny Blevins says

    As one who has been in the ministry 30 years I truly identified with your list. Number 8 is one that God continues to teach me as I learn compassion. I know this will sound trivial (and I guess it is) but my collie and good friend of 14 years just died last week. It hurt me more than I ever thought it would and I learned a new level of compassion for people who experience losses that I had at one time considered trivial. I would also love any suggestions on fulfilling #23. I’ve never done that well but realize that at age 53 that will probably be my most signigicant contribution to the Kingdom now. Thanks again for your wise perspective.

    • Carol Middlekauff says

      Johnny Blevins,

      On fulfilling #23, you might contact Michael Lewis of the North American Missions Board. He has recently taken on the task of encouraging young pastors and could possibly be a mentor who will help you mentor other men.

  14. Tim Lowe says

    This list is very insightful – my father was the ‘minister’ of the family but so I see this more from the POV as I believe your sons would. Your ministry may be in the forefront but ours is there nonetheless and it never ceases to amaze me the good we or I can do if I just stay out of the way and let God take care of things AND never be afraid to speak up for what is right and true. If I had to highlight my deficit is wholly through inaction. You’ve written my list of ‘excuses’ within the list of 30. Thank you for reminding me we all face the same demons. Pray I approach new opportunities with boldness.

  15. Craig says

    Thank you for imparting the wisdom Thom. I was sent to your blog to read you May 28th 2009 post and have been encouraged by so much of what you write. I am a young pastor (36 years old), just 9 years in as a pastor, and it is so helpful to read and learn. Thanks for being transparent and humble.

  16. Shawn Anderson says

    Excellent list, Thom! I have also learned that problems are never as big as I think they are, and, time is short so make the most of every moment. Thanks for sharing.

  17. Carol Middlekauff says

    Thom, thanks for the good words of wisdom. We should all be kicking ourselves because of #24. I dare all of you to tell somebody (not in church) about Jesus this week! And encourage another Christian to do likewise. And to get some good practice, join Bill Glass Champions for Life in a prison near you. You won’t be the same after that.

  18. says

    I didn’t know you were a Hoosier once! I’m in a small rural church in Indiana now with my husband, the pastor. I can’t add anything more because you hit on some of the same things: not shielding my kids enough from the pain of ministry; needing my husband to minister to me more effectively; not loosing my cool. Ugh. It’s not that I lose it as much as people interpreting my tone that way. If there’s one thing ministry does it makes us grow. I wrote some of my best songs while in the worst church of our pastorate. They were mean, abusive, controlling people. Yet God’s grace flowed in such precious rivers. And yes, there are mean people in every church and we are called to love them, too.

  19. says

    I’m in ministry about 15yrs now. I’ve learned a lot but not yet all the lessons of that list. It’s encouraging and challenging at the same time. Thank you so much for sharing the wisdom God has given you.

  20. says

    Thanks for this article, Thom. I have been serving as a Connect Group Leader for over 10 years, I recently became an elder. Although the 2 roles are similar (shepherding & teaching), they are very much different (addition of ruling, expanded age range).

    Points 4, 6, 14, 15, 24 & 26 are great reminders and challenges to me.

    Your ministry along with 9Marks, The Gospel Coalition and Ligonier have been very helpful to me.

  21. Grace says

    Thanks Dr Rainer. My dad has been a pastor for almost 30yr. This list reminds me that pastors are like normal people who go through ups and downs. I salute every pastor!
    May the Lord give you grace and wisdom.

  22. David Ripley says

    Thank you for this list! Love the emphasis on family priority. After 30 years myself this is a great list.
    Early in my ministry a seasoned pastor told me, “you will never regret time you spend with your family, make it regular and often.” They were right! God has blessed my family and my ministry greatly!

  23. says

    This list definitely rings true with so many of us, and that is incredibly encouraging as it drives home the truth that we are all part of a world-wide body of fellow laborers who constantly ask the question: “Who is sufficient for these things?”
    There are a number of FREE eBooks available at that many have found to be of great encouragement in the ministry and that the next generation of pastors would do well to read: “All Things For Good By Thomas Watson”; “An All-Round Ministry: Addresses to Ministers and Students By Charles Spurgeon”; “Homiletics and Pastoral Theology By William G.T. Shedd”; “Lectures To My Students By C.H. Spurgeon “; “The Christian Ministry By Charles Bridges”; “The Reformed Pastor By Richard Baxter”.

  24. says

    I saw this post when it first came up on my reader. I quickly saved it to read for later. I knew immediately the tender memories of a time when John and I so desperately needed a godly pastor would flow from my heart and leak out my eyes…that was back in 1990-1993 at Greenvalley. Two kids with a baby, newlyweds, shaken and trying to figure out if God could still use them. Not once did you or any other leader tell us no. You spurred us on in love. That family holds a special place in my heart. To know that we were a part of the front end of your thirty years in ministry is dumbfounding, to know your precious boy who we played with at VBS lost a son- John and I share that type of loss- reveals how much life has occured, how much growth and how much wisdom have been acquired. Yet, in those early days when you served John and I, you carried grace and wisdom and humility with you each day. You may have learned a lot in thirty years, but the impact you made 22 years ago held my family together. Thank you for being the pastor I needed at such a time as then. Amy

    • Thom Rainer says

      I am humbled by your words Amy. They are both words of encouragement and words of challenge. Thank you for the grace you have shown by taking time to remind me that God can still use a broken vessel such as I.

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