My Advice To A Younger Pastor - The 15 Ways 90% Of Leaders Fail According To Gordon MacDonald



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, and has authored multiple books. When Gordon turned 80 years old, he made a point to write down the top factors that he’s found determine success or failure as a leader. I asked him to join me for a conversation to share these 15 life lessons and conduct a Q&A with Tyler Sollie, Senior Pastor at Life Center in Tacoma, Washington on succeeding as a younger pastor. After the conversation, I felt other pastors could benefit from the conversation, so here’s a rundown of what we discussed including:

  1.  The 15 most valuable lessons he had learned by 80,
  2. The necessity for personal ministry, 
  3. The importance and process of seeking mentorship, and
  4. Knowing when it’s time to walk away.

1. The 15 Most Important Lessons Learned:

I’m thankful Gordon had the insight to consider and share these life lessons. While some he learned the hard way, some with grace from God to learn more quickly, and others with the help of mentors, these are the 15 principles he say determines success or failure as a leader:

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 the 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.


2. 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.

Gordon shared personal stories detailing the significance of human connection for our well-being. He emphasized the need for pastors in this day and age to be deeply connected and integrated into their communities in order to truly serve their congregations in the way people are craving. With the ability to stream the best sermons at any time, people are not lacking knowledge or inspiration, but relationship. Hyper-localized pastors are the leaders who change lives by walking in step with their communities.

With the ability to stream the best sermons at any time, people are not lacking knowledge or inspiration, but relationship. Hyper-localized pastors are the leaders who change lives by walking in step with their communities.Tweet: With the ability to stream the best sermons at any time, people are not lacking knowledge or inspiration, but relationship. Hyper-localized pastors are the leaders who change lives by walking in step with their communities.

3. 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. That 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.

Mentors and special friends do not come easily; it may take 2-3 years to cement those relationships into place. Be willing to put in the time and effort to see if someone fits your needs and can provide the mentorship you’re looking for.

When considering mentoring someone, you must also see if you are able to truly guide and do life alongside a mentee. If you are not geographically close to that person, you cannot truly experience each other's failures, successes, and life changes together. Just like the most influential pastor is local, the most impactful friends are those you can meet with in-person to form and maintain bonds in an uninterrupted, safe space.

4. 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.

At Vanderbloemen, our heartbeat is helping the Church find and develop their key leaders. We have dozens of resources on Christian leadership to help you navigate the challenges and gifts of this calling.

As a leader, it’s critical to know when God is calling you to your next season. Rather than waiting until the call comes, how can you prepare now to ease that transition for you and your church? My latest book, Next: Pastoral Succession That Works, Updated & Expanded is a great place to start. Experience 150 pages of never-before-seen research, insider stories, and interviews of succession failures and successes in dozens of churches, including some of the nation's most influential, and practical solutions for succession planning. If you’re ready to talk about your succession plan today, connect with our team. We’d love to serve you through this critical time.