It's not talent or ability, although those do help, but another skill that leads to the best results.
When I was a 24-year-old man, before my hair started to gray, before I was a father, before I’d ever owned a home or preached a sermon anywhere other than to my classmates in our homily-writing class, I was ordained as a pastor for the Anglican church. More specifically, I became a pastor for the Anglican Church in North America, a group that had recently split (this was in 2006) from the Episcopal church over doctrinal questions.
Because of the unpleasantness, the newly-formed Anglican churches rarely owned their own property or had much in the way of resources. After ordination, I gratefully accepted the call to pastor a recently founded parish in Brewster, Massachusetts.
I use the word “parish” loosely because it was, in fact, more of a mission or a startup than an established community. They’d been meeting for a year or so to gauge interest in the project and their average Sunday attendance hovered around 14 people. They had no property, no vestments, no rectory, no endowment. I made a perfect match for them because I had no practical experience and barely knew what I was doing. I was a brand new pastor for a brand new community.
Looking back, it was a brazen decision, one that was made because I had no idea at all what I was getting into. In retrospect, I find it amusing that I have precious few of the talents that might typically be found in the pastor of a new church. I’m introverted, not naturally a good public speaker, and bad at networking. I’m not the sort of personality that gains a lot of new parishioners based on the strength of my personality. In some ways, I was a terrible fit for the role of church planter.
Those first few years were jam-packed with growth opportunities, which is a polite way of saying I made tons of mistakes as I learned to be a pastor. I learned how to listen, how to take advice, how to be patient. I sharpened my speaking skills and learned some basic lessons about staying disciplined in prayer. I practiced running meetings efficiently, and how to develop a vision and impart direction to a faith community. It didn’t come easy.
There were some long, difficult meetings with parishioners that made me want to pull my hair out. I ended up several times apologizing to parishioners for dismissing their ideas too quickly or being stubborn about clinging to my own. Over it all lingered a constant feeling of stress over whether the community would survive long-term. At times, we would look at our budget and only have enough money to pay the bills — including my salary — for about six more months.
There were ups and downs, and at times it seemed as though we were stuck in the mud and spinning our tires, but through it all our little community persisted. The parishioners were creative and open-minded. They never let failures get them down and were always ready to try a different approach. After five years, our little church had grown to about 40 people on a Sunday and I’d started working with an additional group on another part of Cape Cod of the same size.
When my time had come to leave those churches because I’d decided to become Catholic, we had accomplished more than I ever would have expected. It wasn’t because I knew what I was doing. It also wasn’t because I possess superhuman talents or a magnetic personality. Not at all. It was persistence.
This isn’t to say that persistence is easy. Often, results lags behind effort. We try and try but aren’t rewarded with discernible success, so we give up. For years in that little parish, not much changed in terms of attendance, but we kept trying. Seemingly overnight, new people started coming. Progress was actually being made the whole time, a foundation was being built, and then, finally, results began to show.
It’s the same with almost anything we’re trying to accomplish. Much of the progress we make is unseen. So, when you’re facing a headwind and feeling discouraged, remember that the greatest predictor of success is persistence. Nothing happens overnight, so hang in there. Stay determined. Stay creative. Be open-minded and willing to adapt, but if it’s your dream and you feel strongly about it, don’t give up.
Here’s really what I’ve learned over my years as a pastor. I’m not the most gifted guy in many ways. Other pastors have talents and skills I wish I had. But I can persist. It isn’t the most flashy, gifted people who accomplish their goals. It’s the ones who grind, who keep knocking, who keep asking God to open the door.