I was speaking with a pastor in Iowa the other day and shared that I’d just completed forty years in parish ministry. He offered some generous congratulatory sentiments and thanked me for my service. But then he paused and asked me a really great question: “What has God been showing you during that time?”

I spent two days sitting and pondering, praying and wrestling. What exactly has God shown me over those years?

To be fair, it’s more than just the passage of time. It’s forty years of working in the church and working with churches. Forty years of education. Forty years of trial and error to find solutions to church problems. Forty years of conversations with church leaders across the nation about what’s working and what’s not and what’s changed and what needs to.

What have I learned? What has God been showing me?

The truth is, lots. I have one heckova list of things God’s taught (often with a two-by-four up the side of my head!). But the question hung out there, taunting me, awaiting a response. What follows are three of those things … three things I think are some of the most important lessons I’ve learned.

1. Leaders Lead Where No One Wants to Go

When everyone is moving of their own volition in the same direction, they really don’t need a leader. The truth is, maintaining status quo doesn’t take any great feat of leadership. The sheep only need a shepherd when there’s a need to move them from Point A to Point B, whether that move is for their own protection or to take them to still waters and green pastures.

But here’s the point … when the sheep need to be moved, by and large it’s a huge inconvenience and they don’t really want to change. They kinda like it where they are. Sure, there are greener pastures “over there somewhere,” but really – there’s enough grass here for us. So, it’s at that moment the flock needs a leader and out comes the rod, the staff, the Old English Sheepdog, and whatever other leadership tools and skills the shepherd needs to move the sheep to move them on to where they don’t want to go.

You get the analogy, I’m sure. If you’re going to lead the church, you might as well get used to the reality that most of your members really don’t want to move or change or even to allow change. And that means you’re going to have to be the leader who rolls up their sleeves, picks up the staff, slips on the leadership mantle, casts a compelling vision, and does the hard work of moving the unwilling into the greener pastures of disciple-making. And you do that because you ARE the leader and that’s your job: To move the unwilling to where they need to go for the sake of the kingdom.

Pastor, you ARE the leader and that's your job: To move the unwilling to where they need to go for the sake of the kingdom. @billtb Click To Tweet

2. Preaching Needs More Than Just a Good Point

The second thing I’ve learned over the past forty years is that it takes more than three-points and a poem and a suggestion to transform lives.

The story goes that President Lincoln attended worship at one of the capitol’s cathedrals on a Sunday morning. The “paparazzi” of the day gathered around the steps to interview the President when he departed. After services, he met the press and one of the reporters asked, “Mr. President, did you hear a great sermon from a great preacher?” Honest Abe paused and responded that the preacher had crafted a fine homily and delivered it with energy. “But,” he continued, “It wasn’t a great sermon because he didn’t ask me to do any great things.”

To be honest, in my experience, very few sermons do. In fact, the best prepared and delivered sermon I’ve ever heard was at a Lutheran church plant some years ago. The pastor wove scripture, experience, history, story, and current events into the sermon so masterfully delivered that I was literally on the edge of my seat the whole time. She was an incredible speaker and expositor of the scripture. She spoke for thirty-five minutes and then wrapped it up. I was SO READY to be inspired to “get out there and win one for the Master …”

Her challenge to the congregation?

“We must be more forgiving.”


No One needs to be mesmerized for thirty minutes – or even five minutes – to be told that it’s a good idea to be more forgiving.

Atheists know that.

Agnostics know that.

Every member of every major world religion knows that.

It’s not that the sentiments aren’t important … they are. But she completely wasted a golden opportunity to transform people’s lives. Instead, we all went home with memories of a couple good stories and a fine delivery. And I went away seriously disappointed.

The preacher didn’t ask me to do anything great.

You may ask, “What could she have said to make her sermon transformational?”

One of the things I’ve learned over these past forty years is this: The things that people “know” doesn’t matter nearly as much as would like to believe – it’s what we do that’s important. We have churches filled with members who “know” all about the Great Commission who haven’t shared their faith with anyone … ever. We have members who show up every week to church and “know” all about the Great Commandments, but they’re bullies and tax cheaters and racists and liars and frauds, Oh My. They “believe” the right things, but the “do” part is completely missing from their lives.

What we know doesn't change lives … It's what we do. @billtb Click To Tweet

To make a sermon life transformational, we must do more than just make a good point. To paraphrase Lincoln, we must ask the crowd to do something great.

Or at least to do SOMETHING.

Every life transforming idea we hear always moves from our heads to our hands, feet, or lips. If a good and worthy idea doesn’t affect our behavior, it failed to do its job. We really don’t need more “believers” in the church who believe that we should be more forgiving. We need more disciples in the church who are actively forgiving their neighbors, their enemies, and especially their one-anothers.

What could she have asked me to do?

  • “This afternoon, go home and pick up the phone and call that person you’re still holding a grudge against – or who’s holding a grudge against you. Have a conversation. Take the first step. Begin to build a bridge.”
  • “This week, sit down with your New Testament and read Matthew 6:5–15. Write a reflection on the consequences of not forgiving your childhood bully, your manipulative parent, the political party that has angered you. Then spend at least ten minutes a day in prayer asking God what you need to do about it.”
  • “By Tuesday, make an appointment with a therapist and begin the hard work of dealing with the betrayal and pain you suffered from someone you trusted.”

Which brings actual transformation: “Be more forgiving” … or “do something that helps you to be more forgiving”?

Every sermon needs more than just a good point.

3. You Can’t Grow Your Church From Your Office

To be fair, God showed me this very early on in my ministry years. Back in 1986, while I was attending Florida Baptist College, I had the privilege of having a short one-on-one conversation with Win Arn, one of the founders of the Church Growth Movement. I had shared my passion for evangelism and making effective disciples and he held up his hand to stop me. “If you want to make disciples, then be a church planter. You’ll make more disciples doing that than in any other setting.”

By the end of the year, I had a job as the door to door canvaser for a new church start. Almost every day, I spent two to five hours meeting with people and intentionally sharing my faith. The new church flourished and baptisms were a part of most Sunday services.

In my senior year, I was a Methodist and was appointed to a very small, rural church. I adapted what I’d learned earlier and managed to almost double the size of the small congregation from 38 to 72 in less than three months.

Seminary came quickly after that season. There I was taught to think theologically and trained to be a “mainline pastor.” I served a student church and, during the first six months or so, I did the work of a pastor as the seminary was teaching me to do. I visited the members. I did some Band-Aid pastoral counseling. I spent ten to twenty hours in my office working on my weekly homiletic’s project (the sermon). And I visited the hospitals religiously.

And the church didn’t grow. It was during those student pastoral days when I was able to contextualize Win Arn’s words to my situation. Yes, it was great to be a church planter, but the lesson to be learned was that Jesus didn’t say, “Y’all come.” He said, “Go!” Whether it was knocking on doors or hanging out at the Chamber of Commerce and with the local biz-networking group, you can’t grow a church sitting in your office.

So out I came. In fact, I stopped hanging out in my office completely and spent my time almost exclusively with unchurched people. Cafés, local festivals, high school sporting events, even the library. I got to know the Mayor and key city officials. And I made a connection with the local newspaper editor (this is back when newspapers were a thing!). I shared my faith in all sorts of different ways, but they were effective ways for the context. And the church grew. In fact, the church grew so much that we won a national award from Net Results Magazine.

All because I’d learned the lesson …

You can't grow your church from your office. @billtb Click To Tweet

So, there you have it. The three key things God’s been showing me over the past forty years. Three things that I’ve seen transform ministries in churches I’ve served and in churches I’ve consulted with. They’re not necessarily the most popular axioms in the sphere of church leadership, but I can tell you from experience, they’re three of the most effective.


Since 1980, Net Results magazine has been delivering Good Ideas for church growth and evangelism to pastors across the nation. It’s written by pastors and church leaders who are actively engaged in the ministry field, so you get current “what’s working today” ideas from those in the trenches.

Back in 1991, my church was honored with the Net Results Church Growth award for our annual growth in attendance and baptisms. We were grateful for the recognition. Years later, I wrote a couple articles for NR about things that were working in my churches. Little did I know then that in 2007 I’d become the managing editor of the magazine. For forty-two years, NR has been delivering great ideas for church leaders from church leaders.

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