Patience! Pick Your Battles Wisely

Article
06.10.2024

“Pick your battles.” This phrase is commonly given to new pastors because there are battles aplenty to be fought.

Young pastor, as you settle into the ministry, you will likely identify an array of things you desire to change, from the weighty to the trivial: changing bylaws, updating the sanctuary lighting, hiring (or firing) a staff member, reviewing the membership rolls, reformatting the bulletin, introducing new songs, repainting the offices, overhauling the children’s curriculum. What a list!

Common sense tells you that you can’t address all those issues immediately. You lack the time, expertise, institutional knowledge, and, perhaps most importantly, the relational capital to tackle everything everywhere all at once. Generals avoid wars on multiple fronts, and wise pastors should know how to pick their battles carefully.

But which battles should you pick? How do you prioritize change? Why should you renovate this but wait on that? These are questions I’m currently wrestling through. Though I have been a senior pastor for over 26 years, I’m now in my third congregation, and I’m in yet another initial five-year window. In all three churches, I’ve learned that wisely picking battles depends on many factors. An easy win for a pastor in Church A might be a suicide mission for a pastor in Church B. That said, here are five categories of issues you might consider prioritizing earlier on in your ministry.

1. Pre-Loaded Issues

Pick battles that have been declared prior to your first day on the job. Sometimes, the church declares the battle. At my second pastorate, the governing board told me up front they wanted to transition to an elder model. When I arrived, we immediately went to work and amended the bylaws in less than a year and a half.

Sometimes the pastor declares the battle before arriving. At my current church, I made it clear on the front end that, if they called me, I would lead them to replace their council and committees with biblical elders and deacons. We amended our bylaws after three years.

In fact, I strongly encourage pastors to put major, foreseeable changes on the table during the candidating process. As I’ve heard another pastor say, “Try to get fired during the interview.” Declaring your intentions up front is a kindness to the church and a safeguard for you. When the church picks you, they’re also picking the battles you declared. This principle doesn’t guarantee a problem-free process, but it does give you a mandate of sorts and sets a priority for you.

2. Biblical Church Patterns

Speaking of elders and deacons . . . choose to pursue the Bible’s priorities and patterns for the church. Here I’m thinking of structural things: church membership, Bible-saturated and Bible-governed corporate worship, the right administration of the ordinances, and the congregation exercising the “keys of the kingdom” (Matt. 16:19, cf. 18:18) both in joining members and removing members. All of this requires clarity on the offices of elder and deacon.

But that’s not all. Prioritize expository preaching, evangelism, disciple-making, praying for and modeling a one-another culture of mutual edification, and church planting. All these disciplines help the church’s gospel work. The church is Jesus’s, so when he speaks about his church’s form and function, we need to prioritize and apply what he says.

Of course, picking these battles doesn’t mean trying to win them in a day, or even a year. It takes time to teach a church what Scripture says. It takes even more time to persuade your people that biblical patterns bring greater blessings than mere tradition. Furthermore, implementation often progresses slowly and in stages. When it comes to these changes, remember the adage festina lente: “make haste slowly.”

Here’s the point: aim for biblical priorities regardless of how long it takes. Don’t let the skirmishes of daily ministry distract you from your focus on the long-term, strategic campaign of teaching your people to obey everything Jesus has commanded in his Word.

3. Crises of Gospel Integrity

Sometimes you don’t pick your battles. They erupt around you. In these moments, you must fight for the sake of the church and the integrity of its gospel witness. Suppose you discover in the first few months that the deacon chair has been having an affair with the associate pastor’s wife; or that the office administrator—who happens to be the daughter of a prominent family—has been embezzling; or that an influential adult Sunday school teacher has been teaching the prosperity gospel.

It’s extremely risky for you, as a new pastor, to hit these crises head-on. It could cost you your job. But these sorts of situations are so egregious that you have no choice but to run toward the fire. The honor of Jesus’s name placed on your church is at stake. You didn’t pick these battles, but God has sovereignly picked them for you, and you must stand for his glory.

4. Providential Opportunities

Other times, you pick a battle not because it’s so calamitous but because it’s so easy. In fact, there’s no real battle at all. God moves mysteriously and an opportunity for progress arises. Grab it! Be opportunistic, in the best sense of that term. In my experience, church reform progresses through intentional, slow leadership as well as through non-linear, surprising providences.

I came to my current church during COVID. Like congregations around the world, our church had implemented a livestream option. I’m opposed to livestream (i.e., viewing the service online, on Sunday morning, in real time) because it tempts people to forsake the assembly and causes them to think about Jesus’s church in consumeristic ways. How exactly does one “attend online”?

Then an opportunity came. A monster hurricane wiped out our church building. We had to meet in another church’s facility for months where we didn’t have livestream capability. I took advantage of that strange providence and never restarted the livestream. We reverted to the old-fashioned method of recording the sermon and posting it later in the week.

Be on the lookout for such low-hanging fruit. You will often find that God already prepared the soil for you. He may have even provided the people around you to help get it done. I’ve often seen how the Lord has raised up pivotal influencers within the church’s leadership and membership. Trust their local knowledge for how and when to move forward.

5. The Fiercest Battle of All

There’s one more battle that you must pick. It’s a fight that will dramatically affect the future of you and your church. And it’s the fiercest fight of all.

Brother pastor, you must fight impatience in your own heart.

Yes, there are battles to pick early on. But more often than not, you will serve your church better by being patient, slowing down, and playing the long game. The list of battles not to pick is much longer than you think.

How do you fight impatience? Fight it with faith in God’s Word. Trust that God will work in the hearts of his people through faithful expository preaching applied to the life of the church. Help your people see, week after week, how God’s Word not only speaks to their personal lives but also to the church’s corporate life. Then trust the Holy Spirit to work in his time. The most helpful thing you can do for your church as a new pastor is establish the pulpit with faithful, gospel-centered exposition. Could it be that our impatience with the church reveals our lack of confidence in the sufficiency and power of Scripture?

Resist impatience with prayer. Make a list of all the things you wish you could change at your church. Then commit them to prayer and wait on the Lord. You will be amazed at how God answers prayers in the most surprising ways.

Battle impatience with humility. What if some of the problems or flaws you see in the church are matters of indifference, or even strengths? What if things you want to change are merely reflective of your own personal preferences, culture, or conscience? Could your impatience be borne of personal insecurities or pride? Cultivate the grace of self-suspicion.

Finally, kill impatience with love. Your church is not fundamentally an organization to be restructured, a problem to be solved, or an ideal to be realized. It’s an assembly of the blood-bought children of God. Your church is Jesus’s household, Jesus’s bride, Jesus’s flock. Impatient pastors often love the idea of the church more than the people in the church. But Jesus loves them. And he’s slowly, patiently, and gently maturing his children, preparing his bride, and leading his flock.

May Jesus fill us, his undershepherds and stewards, with his love and patience for his saints.

By:
Jeramie Rinne

Jeramie Rinne is an author and the senior pastor of Sanibel Community Church in Sanibel, Florida.

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