Prince Raney Rivers: Gaining a heart of wisdom

Prince Rivers takes stock of what he’s learned about authority, hope, delegation and preparation during his first decade in ministry.

“So teach us to number our days that we may gain a heart of wisdom” Psalm 90:12

A wise pastor once pointed out to me that when you’ve owned a car for five or ten years, it’s old. But someone who joined the church five or ten years ago is often still considered a “new” member.

I passed the decade mark in pastoral ministry last year. I know that I’m just getting started. But seeing my facial hair go from jet black to salt and pepper (mostly salt) means I’ve been practicing the art of ministry long enough to look back on the wisdom I’ve acquired.

I’m serving my third call and living in my third house. I’ve pastored in two different states and in two different denominations. I am happily married to my wife and together we are raising two children. Scores of ministers leave the ministry each month for a variety of reasons. One 50-year veteran was asked if he ever thought about leaving the ministry. He said, “Yes, nearly every Monday morning.”

I wouldn’t go that far, but my journey has been both exhilarating and exhausting. I have walked out of meetings filled with awe at how the Spirit of God works in the lives of people and congregations. I have also driven home from meetings frustrated and angry. I’ve wondered how I was supposed to mount the pulpit the next Sunday with a message of hope. That’s when advice I learned second-hand from the late Rev. C.A.W. Clark of Dallas, TX came in handy. Clark said, “Don’t try to stop a rumor from the pulpit because everyone hasn’t heard the rumor.” This simple truth helped me walk worthy of the calling and refocus on the big picture. Here are a few more of the lessons I’ve learned.

Don’t use your authority until you get some. You would think this would be obvious, but someone forgot to tell me that just because a preacher thinks she or he has been at a church long enough to change something doesn’t mean anyone in the congregation agrees. This is one pearl that seasoned ministers really need to share with younger ministers. I am grateful for the mentors who have counseled me to respect my limitations and wait on God.

No institution embodies hope, joy and care like the church. What a privilege it has been to watch members cross the boundaries of language and culture to assist in the resettlement of refugees from Vietnam. When my uncle, the Rev. G. W. Raney, died, nearly half of my congregation traveled out of state to be with my family at the funeral. As I stood up to preach the eulogy I was strengthened by the praying eyes I saw staring back at me. The church is a beautiful place, warts and all.

You haven’t really done anything until you’re not doing everything. This is more than the management principle of delegation. This means fulfilling the job description of pastoral ministry. We equip the saints for the work of ministry. I look back on pictures from a youth conference at the first church I served. Most of the pictures show people other than me leading, teaching and praying. That day I saw the potential of that local church. I think the members did, too.

Lack of preparation in preaching is inexcusable. The grueling regularity of Sunday morning was difficult at first. The lectionary is not commonly used in my tradition and it takes a while to gain a panoramic view of the scriptures that enables you to “see” where you’re going homiletically over a period of months instead of Sunday by Sunday. I have heard colleagues talk about not having enough time to prepare a sermon during the week. I remember one minister telling me how he often woke up at the crack of dawn on Sunday to write his sermons! The best lesson I learned was how to make myself temporarily unavailable to the constant calls for pastoral care and administrative emergencies to hear from God. I learned early on that I could not give what I did not have.

A short blog post is not adequate for me to talk about all I’ve learned. Each day I’m learning more about what I’ve learned. I do know that ministry has been both delightful and demanding. I still wake up each day excited about what God has called me to do. God only knows what lies ahead, which is fine with me. Hopefully, I’m gaining a heart of wisdom along the way.

Prince Raney Rivers is pastor of United Metropolitan Missionary Baptist Church in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.