20 20 visionI was back in my home church over the weekend. I was there as part of their 50th anniversary celebrations. Talk about your trip down memory lane.

* I had my salvation confirmed in this church. * I received my call to full time church related ministry through this church. * It was the first church I served as pastor. I was 30 then.

With the 20/20 vision of retrospect I realized I was crazy to be leading an established church at the age of 30. I had some gifting for the role. I had an excellent theological education. I knew the latest church growth literature. But I had minimal life experience. I was 30.

At that time it seemed clever to say that Jesus started His ministry at 30. At 51 you laugh at your own hubris. I was and am not Jesus. (Surprise!) And the no 1 requirement of ministry is not knowledge or skills. It is biblical wisdom, something that was in short supply at that age.

After two decades of life and ministry following that initial pastorate, I have come to see that the primary role of any Christian leader is spiritual guidance. Heather Webb puts it this way:

” ‘What is my calling?’ ‘Should I marry the person I’m dating?’ ‘What am I doing with my life?’ ‘Why do I feel so alone?’ ‘Why doesn’t anyone understand me?’ ‘Do I matter in the world?’ ‘Who is God in my life?’

Questions like these are the cries of all who long for their lives to connect with a broader story, with God. These questions are profoundly personal, yet inherently relational. They are the kinds of questions people ask of their most trusted friends, those whom they believe will listen thoughtfully and advise carefully. They are reflections of an ache for meaning and a craving for a life that matters. They proceed from the hunger of souls seeking the sacred.” [Small Group Leadership as Spiritual Direction]

The life of the church is built on the foundation of the Word and not on any man. So the need for leaders to provide biblical teaching is a given. And yes, some organizational skills are useful. But the pastor/church leader is first and foremost a spiritual guide. And it is hard to guide folks without adequate life experience.

I am embarrassed and sad when I think of the proud, insecure, defensive, impatient, quick-tempered, goal obsessed man who led the church twenty years ago. I think of all the mistakes I made, the people I hurt. The church deserved better. The only mitigating circumstance I can think of is that there were so few of us going into vocational church related work. They made do with what they had.

There were depths of despair and heights of grace I had yet to experience when I began my first pastorate. I can only imagine how I would have viewed people, and life, if I had gone in with the things I were to experience in the twenty years that were to follow. If the experience of death is the prerequisite to experience life (John 12:24) then I still had a lot of dying yet to do then. And now.

My view of Scripture has not changed through all these years. The bible, properly interpreted, is still the foundation of my life and ministry. But life and ministry is always an interaction between the infallible word of God and the realities of life in a fallen world. I took four years to receive an excellent education in the former. I took twenty to begin my foundational studies in the latter.

I understand now why church elders were, well, elders, and why church leaders are called “fathers” in some traditions. As a Baptist growing up in a Catholic School, I was always bemused that my catholic friends called their priests, fathers. Now I understand why church leaders should be fathers, at least in function. Now I understand why Paul insists that church leaders be first proven as leaders in the home before they can be leaders of God’s families (1Timothy 3: 4-5). And why Paul describes his own leadership in parental terms (1Thessalonians 2:7-12).

Those of us who have had the privilege of serving as parents know of the joys and heartaches of parenting. There are no promises, no guaranteed results. We do our best, fumbling often, trusting in the grace of God as we seek to guide our children to maturity. And whether our children fulfill our expectations or not they are still ours and we love them as best we can. We celebrate them for who they are not for what they accomplish. Often they become much more then we could ever expect and we know it is God.

I am not implying that one has to be a parent before he or she can be a church leader. I am not even implying that a person should be married, or 50, to be one. Paul also instructed Timothy not to let anyone look down on him because of his age (1Timothy 4:12). God has various ways to mature His people. All I am saying is that church leadership requires wisdom, and age and parenting sure helps a lot in that area.

As Eugene Peterson reminds us:

“In the first century St Paul observed, ‘Though you have countless guides in Christ, you do not have many fathers’ (1 Corinthians 4:15). It is easier to tell people what to do than to be with them in discerning, prayerful companionship as they work it out. The unfavourable ratio of ‘guides’ to ‘fathers’ doesn’t seem to have changed in twenty centuries. If anything it is aggravated by the mass marketing of spiritual helps. People looking for guidance get paperback best-sellers, digest articles, television talk show guests. But the very nature of the life of faith requires the personal and the immediate if we are going to mature: not only wisdom but a wise person to understand us in relation to the wisdom.” [Working the Angles]

(Peterson is here contrasting healthy spiritual guidance as parenting that treats each person as an individual, and unhealthy spiritual guidance as an impersonal exercise of giving people stock answers.)

Still, as I returned to my home church, I also celebrated the many good things that happened all those years ago. There was much to thank God for. Yes the pastor was young and inexperienced. But God was also there. And thank God, He is a God who works through earthen vessels and imperfect channels. And therein lies our hope.

For there is no perfect leader at any age. At mid life you do have much more life experience. But you also have temptations peculiar to this stage of life, including the temptation to trust your experience more than you trust God. There are no perfect leaders. We look finally to Jesus the Author and Perfecter of our Faith. And those of us, who have the responsibility of providing leadership in God’s household, must continue to be teachable, aware of our own need for grace, seeking His leadership always, at every stage of life.

So thank you, Georgetown Baptist Church for trusting me all those years ago. That too was grace though I didn’t understand it then. May that same Grace guide us all into His glorious future.

Your brother, Soo-Inn Tan