All I Really Need to Know I Learned in... My First Church
Dr. James Emery WhiteJames Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, North Carolina; President of Serious Times, a ministry which explores the intersection of faith and culture (www.serioustimes.org); and ranked adjunctive professor of theology and culture on the Charlotte campus of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. Dr. White holds the B.S., M.Div. and Ph.D. degrees, along with additional work at Vanderbilt University and Oxford University. He is the author of over a dozen books.
- 2016 May 09
Several years ago, Robert Fulghum wrote a bestselling book with an intriguing title: All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten. It talked about playing fair, putting things back where you found them... flushing.
It was a fun book.
Reflecting on that title, it made me think of my own leadership and role as a pastor. And how I could write a book titled: All I Really Need to Know I Learned in My First Church.
My “first” church was a county-seat Baptist congregation in a small town near the school where I went to seminary. It was a big church by student standards – 300 or so in attendance, and it had a staff that consisted of a part-time youth minister, a part-time worship leader, a couple of administrative assistants and a groundskeeper.
The church did not, however, have a good history with pastors.
If I recall correctly, I was going to be at least their fourth pastor in less than a decade. The pastor before me had an emotional breakdown in the pulpit. They gave him a 90-day medical sabbatical. At the end of his break, he announced he had accepted a position at a new church in Florida.
It seems he used his sabbatical well.
The pastor before him was told by a deacon – who visited the doorstep of the parsonage one night to deliver the news – that if he didn’t leave, he would make it so hard on him he’d have to.
So there I was, the young seminary kid.
And I do mean young.
I was 25 years old when I delivered my first message to that church as its leader, finding myself leading a church that left a trail of pastors’ bodies in its wake.
I served that church for just over three years. I carry many a scar from that time to this day. Yet it taught me some of the most important lessons I’ve ever learned for ministry – kindergarten kind of lessons.
1. Stand up to bullies.
Almost every playground has a bully. And there’s only one way to stop a bully:
Stand up to them.
There was a certain man in the church who had terrorized pastors for years. He was big, burly and intimidating. He was also a “parking lot” manipulator – talking to people before and after services, maneuvering them to his side of things. And if there wasn’t a “side” in play, he simply sowed seeds of dissention, division and discontent. He was a master at taking control of deacon and business meetings, bringing “blindsiding” to an art form.
No one had ever confronted him about his behavior before.
I was young and stupid enough to be the first.
I asked him to meet with me and I told him that it had to end. I told him that I wanted to be his pastor, but that he had a trail of pastors’ bodies in his wake. I told him I had talked to those former pastors (another story), and that to a person they had named his name. I then told him that if I had to take this further, in whatever way needed to end it, I would.
The church of Jesus mattered too much not to.
He broke down crying, and he was quiet from then on (maybe not reformed or repentant, but he behaved) until I left.
2. Pick a captain of the team. And then, let them captain.
One of the biggest lessons I learned is that church.structure.matters. Really. How decisions are made, who is put in charge, and then letting them lead the charge, matters.
In my first church, you had to go to a congregational business meeting to buy paper clips.
You think I’m kidding?
It’s like recess. You want to play a game? You pick sides, right? But how do you do that?
You pick captains.
That captain gets to pick. They get to lead. If they don’t do a good job, fine. Next recess, new captain. But that doesn’t mean you don’t have captains.
I’ve told many a church planter that one of the biggest “secrets” about Meck is its church structure. Church planters will dream about a thousand things: weekend services, bands, buildings, marketing efforts…but they seldom dream about “structure.”
Because it’s at the heart of making sure that leaders get to lead.
3. Give gold stars.
Do you remember posters on the school wall that had everyone’s name listed and then categories for little gold sticker stars? Maybe for being on time, getting in line fast, answering a question correctly, or just having a neat desk.
What do people get stars for in church?
In my first church, I learned that mission matters. Why? Because at that church there didn’t seem to be a clear missional target. There was no poster on the wall dictating what you could get a star for.
What were we trying to do?
What were we trying to accomplish?
What did it mean to get a “win”?
I learned that the poster for stars needed to be about turning irreligious, unchurched people into fully-devoted followers of Christ.
And that singular mission fuels me to this day.
And that people tend to do what you give stars for.
4. Everyone deserves a special day.
The last lesson I’ll mention is that everyone needs a special day.
Remember what it was like to go to school on your birthday? Your mom may have made cupcakes for everyone. You got to go to the head of the line for lunch. You were treated special.
In my first church, I learned that everyone deserves a special day.
Maybe not with cupcakes, but with attention.
At my first church, I did every hospital visit, every wedding, every funeral. I actually visited people whose only ailment was an ingrown toenail or who had a tough day at work (I know, it seems ridiculous, but I have stories.).
Yet there was something about the visit, the personal attention, the… presence.
Granted, I now lead a church where (by necessity) that is neither my primary nor best role.
It’s not even a possibility.
(We can talk about the pros and cons of that later. Hint: it’s mostly pros.)
But it is still my role to ensure that it is cared for.
And I do.
And, for what it’s worth, I still do countless personal appointments every week; in truth, about as many as my schedule can physically handle.
What I’m trying to say is that people matter to God, and therefore they should matter to us. To put it bluntly, we are in the people business.
That’s easy to forget.
I try to remind myself every day that I get up in the morning for,
Well, you get the point.
If I ever forget it’s all about the people, then I have forgotten what Jesus has called my life to be about.
And forgotten everything I ever learned in kindergarten…
…my first church.
James Emery White
About the Author
James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and the ranked adjunctive professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, where he also served as their fourth president. His book, The Rise of the Nones: Understanding and Reaching the Religiously Unaffiliated, is available on Amazon. To enjoy a free subscription to the Church and Culture blog, visit ChurchAndCulture.org, where you can view past blogs in our archive and read the latest church and culture news from around the world. Follow Dr. White on Twitter @JamesEmeryWhite.