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Things I Wish My Younger Self Knew

In June my wife and I will celebrate 20 years of marriage and December will mark 20 years for me in full time ministry.  Ten of those years have been at Element Church.  Last month marked ten years of ministry for me here at Element.

Wow!  Ten years ago, my wife and I, our four kids and three other families set out on an adventure to start a church in Cheyenne, WY that we hoped would make an impact in the name of Jesus.  It’s hard to believe its already been ten years.

At this ten year mark, our church is extending to our family a three month sabbatical for rest, renewal and replenishment.  (The three “S’s” of a Sabbatical, it must be from God)  With the sabbatical now only two weeks away, it got me thinking about the last 10 years here at Element and the last 20 in my marriage and in ministry.  My how I wish I could go back and tell that young 22 year old young man some things that I know now.

So here it is, five things I wish I could go back and tell myself.  There are way more than just these, but as I reflected, this is what stood out.

1. It’s okay to tell people how you’re REALLY doing! —  Being a pastors kid, then a pastor, I started out in marriage and ministry thinking I had a “face” I needed to put on.  Not just a happy face, but a holy one as well.  I needed to keep up appearances because, well, I’m a pastor.  I’m supposed to have it all figured out.  I’ve been a Christian since I was five, a pastors kid my whole life then I went straight into ministry.  “I can’t let anyone know about THAT!”  Whatever “that” was at the time.

Because I didn’t feel like I had the freedom to talk about how I was doing, there was sin that crept into my life, stress that nearly took me out and situations I needed to tell someone about but didn’t.  What I realize now that I wish my younger self knew was, people were for me before they were for my ministry.

The enemy reigns in darkness, so he wants to keep our issues there as well, and boy did he reign in different areas of my life because I didn’t bring it in the light.  I know there were people in my life that if I would have been honest they would have immediately offered their loving help and support.  Not everyone should know everything about my life, but someone should!  I’ve learned to allow those “someone’s” in and I wish I would have learned that before.

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2.  Don’t focus on building a program focus on building people — Well into our ministry here  at Element Church I feel like my focus was on building a program and not building people.  I truly do believe my intentions were good, but well intentioned people have led many failed programs before me.

When I started out in ministry as a senior pastor in a little country church, I remember the denomination giving out actual plaques and awards for churches who grew the most, grew the fastest or having certain percentage of growth in a year.  Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for a growing church, but that became my focus.  “How can we get the church bigger,” instead of “How can we build the people better?”

I remember one season as a youth pastor where our attendance had declined dramatically in a year and I was borderline distraught.  What makes me cringe now is, my disappointment was not in the fact that we weren’t impacting those student’s lives any longer, it was “how will this look when the annual report comes out”?

Even here at Element, we went through a season were God really did a number on my heart.  In our effort to expand God’s Kingdom, I got caught up in building the program and not building the people.  Then, in the span of one week we closed a campus and saw three core staff members resign in the process.  I was reeling.  “What have we done God?  Did I miss the vision?”

It was in that season of disappointment that God led me to a podcast.  I don’t remember who it was or what the sermon was even about, but the pastor said, “Money is the currency of earth but people are the currency of Heaven.”  God just spoke to my heart, “Jeff, in an effort to build this program you’ve lost sight of the people.”  I was wrecked.  What I learned was, pastors don’t build great programs, the people do.  When you focus on building up people the church will be built up!

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I still want our church to grow.  We will still do everything in our power to reach more people for Jesus, and raise them up to be like Jesus.  Right now we are actually talking about what’s next at Element Church to set ourselves up to handle the continued growth that God is bringing to our church with new people, I just want to make sure that our focus remains growing the people and let God worry about growing the church.

3.  Read your Bible more and let the Bible read you!— Seriously!  I had a horrible devotional life as a young adult and even continuing into ministry.  I’m embarrassed to say it, but it’s true.  Here I was trying to lead people into becoming fully devoted followers of Jesus and I’m not sure I was fully devoted.

Sadly, I think this is too common among Christians and even among pastors.  I won’t bore you with the statistics that you’ve probably already heard a pastor use (maybe me) to guilt you into reading your Bible more.  It’s no surprise this is such a struggle for people.  The enemy knows better than anyone that “man does not live on bread alone, but on the very Word that comes from the mouth of God.”  Jesus told him that.  He understands the power of the Word, the question is, do we?

I used to not do my devotions on Sunday mornings because, I was already going to church.  How dumb is that?  That’s like me saying I’m not going to talk to my wife in the morning because, “We’re going on a date tonight.”  That won’t last very long.  It won’t last in our relationship with God either.  Early on in ministry I even counted my sermon prep time as Bible reading because, “I was in the Bible.”  That would be like Tom Brady counting Sunday’s game as his workout because “He was playing football.”

It’s amazing how much my life and my preaching was infused with life when I began to take my time with God seriously.  It used to be a struggle to fit my quiet time in.  Now I’m to the point where if I don’t have my time with God I know there is something missing in my day.  My whole day feels off.  I wish my younger self would have taken the Word of God more seriously.  I feel like I’m behind because of that.

[Tweet “The devil understands the power of God’s Word, the question is, do we?”]

4.  Be yourself when you preach!  — This was a huge one in my ministry.  For the longest time I tried to preach like I thought people wanted me to preach, or preach like the pastor I most enjoyed.  It started in my first position as a young pastor.

My brother in law, who was still in high school at the time, could already preach and he was good!  He was a natural at it.  “I need to preach more like Ryan!” I thought.  Or I would pray, “Why didn’t you make me more like Ryan?”  Preaching looked like it was a breeze to him and it was a burden for me.

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When I was a youth pastor, I looked up to my senior pastor so much.  He was an incredible leader and mentor in my life.  He could preach without using a single note.  Not one!  I once saw him write his three points down on the back of the bulletin while sitting in the front row.  He then came to the pulpit following worship and waxed eloquent for forty minutes.  It still blows me away.  So I thought, “I need to preach without notes.”  And I did!  But it wasn’t me.

Then we started Element.  Early on I was following every popular pastor I could find online.  Steven Furtick, Perry Noble, Andy Stanley, and more.  I would try and preach like the pastor I watched online that week.  I don’t know if anyone else noticed, but I did.  I wasn’t being me.  It was me preaching, but it wasn’t how I was wired to preach.

It wasn’t until we were two years in to this thing at Element that the switch flipped in me.  We were sitting at Cheyenne Hills Church here in town, attending the video cast of the Willow Creek Leadership Summit.  The Summit was loaded with world class communicators.  As each one would end their session I began to take note that each one of them were excellent yet they were all different.  It all came to a head when Bill Hybels gave the closing message.

In this message, Bill was using notecards as his guide.  Bill is one of the best communicators on the planet.  He is one of the most engaging and inspiring speakers of my life time.  But I noticed the note cards.  At times he would read off them.  He would turn from one card to another.  It was while he was speaking that God spoke to me, “Jeff, I don’t want you to preach like Bill Hybels.  I don’t want you to preach like Perry Noble or Steven Furtick or anyone else.  I want you to preach like you!”

This was one of the most freeing events in my ministry lifetime.  I’ve not been the same sense.  Now, I’m still inspired and influenced by many communicators around the globe.  I love listening to sermons, watching guys preach, even watching people speak who have nothing to do with Jesus.  I want to get better at what I do, but I want to be the best Jeff Maness I can be…period.

I have now developed my own preaching style.  I even have my own preparation style.  I preach from a manuscript.  Well, kind of.  The people who see my manuscript call it hieroglyphics.  It’s an extreme shorthand language that I have pretty much created for myself.  But it’s ME!  Now when I preach I feel like I’m in my own skin.  I wish my younger self would have done that!

5.  Have fun — Ministry, marriage and family should be fun!  That doesn’t mean there won’t be hard times.  My goodness, are there hard times.  That doesn’t mean there won’t be hurt.  Wow, is their going to be hurt.  That doesn’t mean that you don’t work hard.  You won’t succeed if you don’t work hard.  It just means you should enjoy the ride.

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I’m a pretty driven personality.  I can get so locked in to the work that I don’t enjoy the process.  If we don’t stop to celebrate along the way, we’ll eventually run out of things to celebrate.  I have to say, I’m still learning this one.

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It’s so easy to move on to the next thing without first appreciating the last thing.  We do that with our kids, our jobs and our lives.  I don’t want to take for granted that 82 people got baptized the last two weeks at Element, but I’m already looking ahead to the next baptism we have in the Fall.  Isn’t that crazy?  82 people went public with their faith and 19 people put their faith in Jesus in the last two weeks.  That needs to be celebrated!

I don’t want to miss out on the moments because I was pursuing the next one.  Each moment with my wife is precious.  Each moment with my child could be my last.  I know that’s morbid, but it’s the truth.  Each Sunday in the pulpit might be the last sermon I ever preach.

If that’s the case, I hope I’m having fun!  I don’t want my marriage, my family, my life or my ministry to be a burden.  I want it to be a blessing.  That choice is on me!  I can choose to celebrate the moment or salivate for the next.  That’ll preach right there.

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So there ya have it.  It’s not everything, but it’s five things I wish my younger self knew.  I haven’t mastered them all, but I’ve gotten better.  What about you?  What do you wish you could tell yourself 20 years ago?