As a young pastor of a booming church, I remember seeking the advice of countless mentors who had walked in my shoes. Wisdom was a resource I couldn’t get enough of. For those of you who relate to that feeling and are looking for counsel and wisdom from experienced pastors who were once facing the same challenges as you, you won’t want to miss the advice of my friend, Gordon MacDonald.
Gordon MacDonald grew up as the son of a Baptist pastor in New York and attended the University of Boulder and Denver Seminary. In the past 55 years, he has dedicated his life to various forms of ministry, such as serving as a pastor and an interim seminary president, as well as authoring multiple books. When Gordon turned 80 years old, he made a point to write down the top factors that he found to determine success or failure as a leader. I asked him to join me for a conversation to share these 15 life lessons and more.
The 15 Most Important Lessons Learned
1. Put the most significant people in your life first.
Your spouse, family, close friends, and mentors should be put into your calendar first.
2. Never stop growing; explore new ideas and fresh ways to increase your knowledge.
Sustain your physical and mental health, sharpen your skills, and increase your knowledge and spiritual life.
3. Be more of a priest and less of a preacher to people.
Bless people with powers of hope, grace, courage and love.
4. Always keep in mind you will have to relinquish your titles, privileges and at some point, slip into obscurity.
5. Prepare for occasions when you will suffer, fail, face conflict, or experience some sort of loss.
6. Be trustworthy and dependable.
Be a person who keeps their word. Don’t make promises you can’t keep.
7. Be a spiritual father or mother to teachable people who may someday inherit your responsibilities.
8. Live modestly.
Stay free of debt, be generous, develop a financial strategy, and always be wary of those who try to buy your favor.
9. Expect to reorganize your spiritual life every seven to ten years.
10. Receive compliments, criticism, and counsel with humility.
Avoid whining, complaining, and self-pity. Assume that there is at least a grain of truth in everything your critics say about you and your work.
11. Stay alert to all evil and temptations around you.
12. Be quick to say with sincerity, these five things: “Thank you; Well done; I am sorry; I forgive you; How can I help you?”
13. Always maintain a good relationship with a mentor.
14. Master the art of asking penetrating questions that will open someone’s heart.
Then listen carefully, with respect and discernment, to what is revealed.
15. Retreat to the Cross regularly.
Express gratitude for things you’re thankful for, name your sins, pray for the world, and listen for God’s call to do things that are bigger than you are.
The Necessity for Personal Ministry
Preaching is good and beneficial, but lives are predominantly changed through one-on-one contact: sitting, asking questions, working through wisdom. That is where change occurs. After this pandemic, especially, the church will need a lot of relearning. Lives will not be changed through auditoriums hearing 30 minutes of advice, but through one-on-one counsel that helps someone grow intimacy with God, process their hurts and their wounds, siphon off their anger, and feel the anointing of God’s spirit. People crave a priest, someone who assures people of God’s presence more than someone who simply stands up and teaches.
Seeking and Maintaining Mentorship
Discerning the right mentor can feel like finding a needle in a haystack. When seeking a mentor, always ask the question, “What sort of person do I need to tuck up under at this stage of my life? Do I need what this person has to offer?”
It’s also important to keep in mind that mentors have a relatively short half-life. Someone may only mentor you for a few years, through a certain stage of life when you need what they have to offer. Gordon spoke of the 9 great mentors he’s had over 80 years for specific areas of life such as marriage, leadership, fatherhood and so on. It’s okay for mentors to change as our seasons of life evolve. This is why we also need a few special, deeply close friends: people who we know will be around for a long time, who can speak honestly with you
Knowing When It’s Time To Walk Away
As Gordon said in point number nine of his fifteen pieces of advice, it’s important to reevaluate your life and your direction every 7-10 years. When Gordon was 55 years old, he and his wife set a goal to get out of organizational life at the age of 60. This would allow for 20 years of good, healthy, vigorous activity, and they wanted to make sure this was something they prepared for rather than waiting until it was too late. He was confident that he could continue to make a living by continuing to write books and by speaking, and has spent the past 20 years feeling just as fulfilled and aligned with God’s will as when he was in organizational ministry. After spending time speaking in Germany, and being told repeatedly that he spoke personally with people like a father would, Gordon realized that his call for his next season would be to be a father to young men and women in leadership. This has been his calling ever since. It was this active choice to look around, reevaluate, and listen to the Lord’s voice that showed him when to move from one season into the next.
Ministry leadership can be a challenging calling, but the rewards of serving the body of Christ are incomparable. As you continue to develop as a Christian leader, I hope Gordon’s insight will serve as a powerful reminder of what’s important and how to truly succeed in this space.