Brandon Cox: The First Step to Being a Great Pastor

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I want to be a great pastor. I make no apology for that. It’s an ambition. I want to lead and shepherd well. I want to preach and communicate effectively. I want to develop leaders and cast vision and build a great staff. So where should I start?

Level zero.

One of my favorite lines from the original Kung Fu Panda is when Po shows up at the dojo to begin his training and tells Master Shifu, “Let’s just start at level zero.” Shifu explains that there is no such thing, but gives Po a chance to prove his most basic skill of punching one of those wobbly inflatable toys. It doesn’t go well, and after Po returns to Shifu’s feet, beaten, bruised, and burned by all the equipment he accidentally stumbled through Shifu pats him on the head and softly declares, “There is now a level zero.” Here’s the clip, in case you need a break from politics.

That’s me! Sometimes, I just need to go back to level zero. What’s level zero, for pastors and church leaders? What is it that we need to put into practice before we begin doing anything else? What is it that, regardless of our knowledge, our talent, and our charisma, we cannot or at least should not lead without?

The first step in being a great pastor is to walk with God. 

I’m not speaking of “walking with God” in mystical terms, like Eddie Murphy’s white-robed-guru character in Holy Man. And I’m also not in any way promoting the kind of atmosphere that appears in some circles where the clergy are revered as existing on some separate plane closer to God than everyone else.

What I’m saying is that we who lead must first be led. We need to come to God, like clueless children with wide-eyed wonder and spend time wandering through the heavenlies hearing from God in prayer, through his Word, as his Holy Spirit imparts life to us. As 1 Chronicles 16:11 instructs, "Search for the LORD and for his strength; continually seek Him." (NLT)

You can lead without depending on God. You can build great organizations all by yourself. People do it every day. But being a great pastor is more than being a great strategist or a great communicator or a great writer. Being a great pastor is a matter of shepherding people, caring deeply for their souls, drenching yourself with divine truth and wringing yourself out week after week with a word from the Lord for the broken.

In seasons where my quiet time has been neglected, I grow infatuated with all the wrong pictures of success while also growing colder in my feelings toward other people. My relationships suffer – starting with self and home and spreading to the flock.

But when I’ve sat at the feet of God, being humbled and shaped and encouraged by his truth … when I’ve laid my soul bare before him, owning my sin and submitting to suffering … when I’ve cast all my cares and anxieties upon him and have elevated him in my vision above all else, then I am ready to preach. Then I am ready to lead.

Level zero.

If you haven’t been training there lately, clear your calendar – at least the next hour – and open your Bible. Ask God to show you something. Tell him about all of your potential distractions and your recent failures and then lean into his presence and his grace.

Greatness lies ahead of you! But greatness may not look the way you expected, and it won’t arrive through the means you would devise on your own.


Brandon Cox is a coach for couragetolead.com. He also serves as the church planter and Lead Pastor of Grace Hills Church in Bentonville, Arkansas, and online editor of Pastors.com. He lives with his wife, Angie and together, they have three children.