Six Ways to Last in Ministry
I created this FREE one-page pdf that includes my top six strategies to:
- Energize your ministry day to day and long-term.
- Find more resources for ministry
- Create more space in your life and work
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Here’s one thing I learned about church leadership: It’s not about changing others. This was a hard-won lesson for me, after years of trying to do just that. And it was a relief when I finally learned it.
What is church leadership, then, you may ask. Isn’t that what I’m here for? Isn’t that my call?
Well, no. If people change, they do it themselves in partnership with the Holy Spirit. We can help create conditions that make it more likely change will happen. And the truth is, one of those conditions is that we aren’t in their faces all the time telling them they should change. Typically, that has the opposite effect!
You may wonder, What am I supposed to do instead? This is the job of pastoral leadership:
1. Work on yourself and your own clarity. Know who you are. Know what you believe about God’s call on your life and ministry, and your understanding of how God is leading you forward. Be yourself in your ministry — your best self, not your sleepy pajama-clad self, or your cranky need-a-snack self. Pay attention to your own growth and put to work what you are learning.
2. Connect. Show up and be present. Stay in relationship with key people in your congregation. For change to happen, little by little, you have to build relationships. You connect with people for their own sake, not simply to convince them to come along with you.
Over time, you do develop allies. But it starts with simple connection. Who are the key leaders and influencers? Have coffee with them. Connect, in person, in a way that works for them. Ask them questions. Listen and be pastoral. Remember, you are in a years-long process. Even if the situation seems urgent, take the long view.
3. Stay calm. When change happens, people get upset. If people react to where you want to lead, it’s a sign you are on to something. Don’t take it personally: it’s not about you. Rabbi Edwin Friedman used to say “Don’t get reactive to the reactivity.” The main thing is to keep your head. Recognize that this is part of the natural process of leadership. If you react, step back and think it through. Get someone to help you reflect on your experience and see what you can learn from it.
As you face people’s reactions, you can repeat #1 and #2. Ask yourself: 1) “What do I think? What principles are at work here? What do I believe? What is my call?” Then 2) “Where can I connect? Whom do I need to talk to?” That doesn’t mean you need to process endlessly with someone who is upset about something. But don’t avoid them, either. Make sure to connect with those who give you energy as well as those who drain it.
Then, repeat #1, #2 and #3. Over and over. Yes, it’s hard. Yes, it’s tiring. Yes, leadership is a challenge. However, remember to pay attention to what is right, what is working, what are the small achievements. Be patient.
Like you, I so want things to be different, better, easier. I have to remember that all change takes time. While vision is important, I don’t ultimately know what is best. I have to trust God is in the process. Over time something new may emerge I never even imagined. The key part is how I manage myself. What happens right now is only momentary. This little upset won’t matter in a year, or ten years — or in heaven. My job is to pay attention to myself.
All clergy should memorize and put to work these words of Warren Bennis, a business leadership expert: “Becoming a leader is synonymous with becoming yourself. It is precisely that simple, and it is also that difficult.” (On Becoming a Leader, p. 9)
How are you attending to your own growth?
My daughter has a sweatshirt my mother-in-law gave her. “So many books, so little time.” We might add, “So many blogs, so little time.” In ministry it’s possible to spend what little spare time we have reading other people’s words. It’s easy to think that the right idea, the right technique, or the right turn of phrase are out there somewhere just beyond our grasp.
Julia Cameron, author of The Artist’s Way, suggests that many creative people are addicted to other people’s words. She recommends that you take a week off from reading and other forms of media to break your reliance on others’ opinions and give yourself a break.
I did this in the days before the Internet was everywhere. I gave up reading everything except the Bible, and I decided that I would only check email once a week (yes, in those simple days…). I’d been reading books every day since I was about five years old, so I expected it to be quite a difficult week.
However, it wasn’t as hard as I thought it would be. I decided to experiment: Could I write a sermon without any external resources? Thankfully, the lectionary texts for the week included I Corinthians 13. God was kind! Even so, I had never written a sermon without consulting commentaries and looking to outside sources for illustrations.
When I stood in the pulpit that Sunday, I felt powerful. I knew I had a message that I had developed with my own best thinking, in prayerful reflection on the text as I understood it as well as on the people I knew and loved who would be sitting in the pews that day.
I also had a lot of extra time in my week. Because I wasn’t reading anything in my free time, I had time to go through all my clothes and get rid of the things I never wore. I spent more time talking with my family. I tried out some new recipes.
You may not want to do a full week of media deprivation. But at the very least, I recommend you pay more attention to the words you consume. It could be a meditative practice. Notice when you instinctively turn to the Internet or a book instead of thinking for yourself. I still find myself turning to others before I reflect for myself.
It’s not all about improving your preaching, of course. It’s about ministry in a broader sense, and about life. There’s no need to be a know-nothing or to think others have nothing to teach you. (If you are reading this I know that’s not you, anyway.) However, when you have a question about something, try this: stop, breathe, and ask yourself, “What do I think about this?” Write something down. Then ask someone else or do your research. This will help develop the muscle of thinking more deeply. And you will have a baseline to assess other people’s ideas.
Could you give up other people’s words for a week? A day? Comment below and tell me what you think.
We have a historically thorny relationship with money in the church. We need it to live and we need it for ministry. And we are little afraid of it.
Pastors and lay people can view money as secular. At an event where I spoke about money to pastors and lay leaders, one man came up to me afterward and said,
“Our pastor doesn’t talk about money, and we don’t want him to.”
We feel like money is a little tainted. There’s no doubt that money can be tempting, as the story of Judas shows. Jesus spoke about it so much because he knew it was important to develop it spiritually and work on our relationship with it.
And yet: can Christians, who have a theology of incarnation, step away from dualism? Can we see ways that money can be baptized and become holy?
Money is holy when it is used for holy practices:
- to sustain life,
- to support ourselves and others,
- to care for God’s creation.
Holy doesn’t have to mean wholly utilitarian. It’s been a great pleasure in my life in recent years to spend money on art made by artists I know. (Note: Original art doesn’t have to be expensive.)
Money is intended to flow. It becomes less holy when it is stops flowing. Perhaps money is like anxiety. My colleague Michael Nel used to say that anxiety is like manure: it stops things up if it’s stuck in one place. And it fertilizes if you spread it around. Money, anxiety, and manure are meant to be spread around. (And love, while we’re at it.)
I remember riding the bus regularly when we first got to Portland. Karl was driving an hour to work, and we only had one car. I asked myself, “What would Jesus drive?” (Remember this was the early 2000s.) I decided Jesus would take the bus, or be driven around in a Mercedes by one of his wealthy friends, like those women who supported his ministry. In fact, I had a friend with a Mercedes who would sometimes give me rides. She was sharing her resources with me at a time I really needed it. It was a blessed, if difficult, time.
I have a car of my own now. And of course, there are many, many people in my city, in this country and in the world who will never own a car: Some by choice (this is Portland, after all), and some because they cannot afford it. I always want to remember how wealthy I am (and was, even then), by global standards.
Here are ways money has been holy in my life:
- When I’ve been surprised by God’s provision when I didn’t think there would be enough.
- When I can take care of myself and my family.
- When I can give it away to support work I believe in (through giving and through payment).
- When I have the opportunity to do work I’m called to and receive payment for it.
- When money has come in for ministries I lead (and when my own salary has been paid by the generous gifts of others).
If we view money with the potential to be holy then we can be in a different relationship with it. Instead of the fear and anxiety and greed and longing (all of which I have felt), we can gratefully appreciate the flow of money into and out of our lives. We can allow more of it to flow outward to others, according to our resources.
How has money been holy in your life?
I’ve been taking voice lessons for almost 20 years, 16 of them with the same teacher, Judi Stabler. I’ve learned a lot of lessons from her. Three are particularly relevant to ministry:
First, be yourself. Judi is clear with me that I have the voice I have. No one is going to make me into a giant-voiced operatic singer. It’s not going to happen. She works hard to help me find music that suits my relatively modest voice. If the music says fortissimo (really loud), she says, make it forte, one level down. I don’t have the voice for fortissimo. She also has said many times, “If you try to sing like someone else, it sounds bad.”
Likewise, I’m never going to be flashy in my ministry. It’s just not me. I think I’m thoughtful and engaging, but not flashy.
What does this mean for you? God calls you to be you in your ministry. Not someone else. Sure, you can learn from others and what they are doing in their ministry. But don’t try to imitate them. Learn your unique strengths, your individual “voice” in preaching and in ministry as a whole.
Second, take criticism as a learning experience. Judi does not mince words when giving feedback. She’s been known to say straight out, “That sounds bad.” Thankfully, she doesn’t say it as often as she used to. As someone who tends to hate criticism, it’s been a wonderful growth-producing experience to get regular feedback that isn’t necessarily positive. If I hadn’t gotten that feedback, I would not have grown much as a singer. I had to learn to toughen up in order to continue studying music.
You and I both know that criticism is a constant in ministry. There’s always something that somebody doesn’t like. It’s not always from people who are trying to teach us something. But what if we could view each critic as a teacher in some way, even if we disagree with the content of the criticism? And perhaps there’s a nugget of truth in there, a place where we really do need to improve? At a minimum, most of us can improve in this way: we can get less reactive to the inevitable criticism.
Third, take risks. While Judi has taught me to accept myself and my voice in some ways, she’s pushed me hard in others. She’ll sometimes say, “Don’t sing like a Baptist minister!” She wants me to be freer in my singing, and a better actress. I’ve made a lot of progress. A peak was singing the French song La Vie en Rose last year, sitting on a stool with a beret and a fringed red shawl.
Doesn’t this conflict with the first point? When you are yourself, living in your own skin, it’s easier to take some risks. It’s not imitation, but experimentation. And of course, when you take risks in ministry, you get to practice the second point, dealing with criticism!
What is one small risk you are taking or could take this year in your ministry? Comment below and let me know. I’ll keep you in prayer.
P.S. If you want to see a video version of this (and see the red shawl), click here.
P.P.S. The photo is from a recital I gave a couple of years ago.
This year I’m giving up online news for Lent I don’t always give up something. Sometimes I add something on. A couple of years ago I gave away money every day. Last year I wrote a thank you note every day. I’ve even given myself a treat a day for Lent.
It’s never hard to decide what my Lenten practice should be. Once the idea comes to mind, it’s clear what I should do. The year I decided to give money away every day for 40 days, I knew it was the right thing, because immediately I knew I didn’t want to do it! It would be a sacrifice, and that would be in the spirit of Lenten practice. It was one of the most powerful disciplines I’ve taken on.
Over a year ago I decided I would only read paper news. It’s a cooler medium. I don’t listen to radio news or watch television news. I would read our newspaper, The Oregonian, and The Economist (it’s a weekly, and British so has a somewhat outside perspective on U.S. news).
Well. I didn’t keep it up. I got seduced by a $19 subscription (for a year!) to The Washington Post. I’ve also gotten intrigued by FiveThirtyEight. And recently I discovered that The National Review provides a well-written and thoughtful conservative perspective. (Note: I’m not providing links to these sites! I don’t want you to get sucked in, too…)
All these sites keep posting things all day. It’s addictive. It’s distracting. And it doesn’t help me focus on my goals, which have to do with increasing my ability and opportunity to help leaders like you.
So, the idea came to me: Give up online news for Lent. Go back to baseline: reading paper news. I knew it was the right thing for me for Lent. Then I came across this article by Shane Parrish (my new favorite blogger): Why You Should Stop Reading News. Everything he writes is interesting, but this one was brilliant and timely (even though he wrote it a few years ago).
Parrish says: “…most of what you read online today is pointless. It’s not important to your life. It’s not going to help you make better decisions. It’s not going to help you understand the world. It’s not going to help you develop deep and meaningful connections with the people around you. The only thing it’s really doing is altering your mood and perhaps your behavior.” I run into a lot of people who are upset all the time because of the news. Sometimes I’m one of them.
I’ve also been listening to the audio version of The Book of Joy: Lasting Happiness in a Changing World. It’s a conversation between Archbishop Tutu and the Dalai Lama. It’s the opposite of what Shane Parrish describes as the news altering your mood. Rather, these two spiritual leaders describe how to live in such a way that your mood is not dependent on what is going on around you. They acknowledge the challenges, but lift up (and demonstrate) the possibility of great joy.
The news doesn’t help me live joyfully. It doesn’t help me carry out my calling in the world. Sometimes it does just the opposite. I’m going to keep reading my paper sources. But for the next 40 days, I’m staying off the news sites. And I’m using Social Fixer to manage what I see on Facebook so I don’t get hijacked by someone else’s outrage.
Do I think we should withdraw from the world? Of course not. However, I want to engage in thoughtful ways, not determined by the ups and downs (mostly downs) of the 24-hour news cycle.
What do you think? How do you manage yourself in the face of the onslaught of news?
P.S. For a positive alternative, check out Lent Madness. It’s a fun version of the March madness basketball bracket, using saints.
Every pastor has one: That church member you dread to see coming. The one who monopolizes your time. The one who pushes all your buttons. The one you think about in the night, wondering what to do. Sometimes it’s a staff member. Sometimes it’s a leader. Sometimes it’s a long-time member.
What’s a leader to do?
Here are four questions to ask:
- What’s the bigger picture? You can get so focused on individual behavior you lose sight of the fact that this person has a place in the system. It’s not simply about them and their behavior. For one thing, in many cases the church system has put up with their behavior for years, even decades. It’s a reciprocal relationship. No one has been willing to say, “You can’t act like that here.” For another, they probably are not the first one to occupy that position.One pastor I talked to said, “Oh, yeah–before he came, there was someone else who bullied lay leaders into doing what he wanted.” Step back and think about it. What’s the history? What are the patterns?
- What’s the hook for me? In addition to the church system, you’ve got your own programming which makes you vulnerable to this person. Think about your own family story. Who are people you find most challenging? How do you deal with them? Do you confront? Avoid? Placate? Notice if there are any similarities to the way you approach your “problem” person. When we are allergic to someone else, it’s not just about them. Some difficult people we can simply ignore or easily handle. Something about THAT church member challenges you emotionally.Can you dig a little deeper and see what might be going on for you? It may be a challenge to unearth these patterns, and you might need some help. Some of the coaching I do helps clergy reflect on this.. Even when you figure it out, it’s not a quick fix, but it can help you get perspective. I know I get hooked by big, aggressive men. It comes from the multigenerational history of my family, and it took me a long time to figure it out. Now I’m able to say to myself pretty quickly, “Oh…I see what’s happening here,” and I can calm down and do what I need to do. But it took years (literally) to get there.
- Who else can help handle this? I find many pastors feel like it’s up to them to deal with people who are creating problems. You do need to work on your own reactivity to that individual, as I’ve just discussed. In addition, in some cases you can share the responsibility. A member who is creating havoc is the church’s problem, not just yours. You may have ideas, but you might also say to one or more key leaders; “I’m just not sure what to do. You’ve know her longer than I have–what do you think?” It’s can be a way of sharing the anxiety appropriately.One of my favorite Edwin Friedman lines is this: “I can leave, but you’re still going to have to deal with this person.” I was never brave enough to use it, but you might be.
- How can I pray for them? You can work to unhook yourself from your reactivity to this individual through prayer. If you find it difficult, simply mention their name to God. You don’t have to figure it out. However, if you regularly pray for them, over time, you will be calmer in relationship to them, at least a little. If you are less reactive, the relationship will improve, at least a little. In addition, you will be in a better place spiritually in your leadership of the congregation.
I know what it’s like to preach week after week, year after year.
It’s exhilarating–and exhausting.
It’s satisfying–and terrifying.
It’s fun–and a grind.
So as we walk through one of the busiest times in our year, here are three ways I found to make preaching easier.
- Plan ahead. I’ve talked before about the value I found in lectionary preaching. However you choose the text, I strongly suggest you do at least some minimal planning ahead. It took me years, but I finally got to the point where I was laying out a plan for three months at a time. I didn’t make detailed plans, but I knew where I was headed. It made preaching so much easier. I did use the lectionary, but I often looked for a sequence of texts in one Bible book. That way the study each week built on the week before. In addition, when you have a plan, you can look for supporting material over the weeks in advance. Online tools like Evernote or Pocket can help keep track of this.
In addition, when you work in advance, you can put your unconscious to work with no extra effort. I always tried to mostly finish my sermon at least a couple of days in advance. Then when I went back to it, it had magically improved, or I could quickly see how to fix it. (I got this idea from Kenneth Atchity, A Writer’s Time.)
- Know your purpose. For each sermon, write one sentence about where you want people to be by the end.
“I want them to understand grace more fully.”
“I want them to reflect on their possessions in the light of their faith.”
“I want them to see their work as vocation.”
Then you can assess all the ideas you have accumulated and see whether they fit or not. It’s better to toss out an irrelevant story and have a shorter, more powerful sermon that matches your purpose. This simplifies your preparation because you have a way to evaluate all the ideas that come your way.
- Let go of the outcome. This may sound like it contradicts #2, but trust me, it’s helpful. One of the biggest shifts I made in my own preaching was to move away from trying to change people with my preaching. I wanted to get as clear as I could about what I thought was important, and put it out in as compelling a way as possible. I wanted to do so with language and ideas that they could understand. And then I worked to let it go. Walter Brueggemann has a brilliant essay called “The Preacher, the Text and the People” where he talks about the triangle between these three. He says preachers put themselves on the side of the text against the people. Instead, he recommends you stand with the people and allow the text to address both of you. When you approach preaching this way, you are able to trust God to use the biblical text to touch people’s hearts. It’s not all up to you. I found this a tremendous relief. I simply had to do the best I was able, and let God do the heavy lifting. This doesn’t make preaching easy–of course we still work hard to reflect thoughtfully on the text and shape a relevant and engaging message. But we don’t have to work miracles.
Preaching is never going to be easy. It shouldn’t be easy. You are standing before God’s people interpreting the Scripture and calling them to live it out more fully. However, if you use these ideas in ways that work for you, it will be easier week by week and year by year.
What about you? What ways have you found to make the routine of preaching easier (or at least workable) for you? Comment below and let me know.
An endless amount has been written about time management. I’ve read a lot of it myself, and written a certain amount, too. I’ve been interested in this topic from the beginning of my ministry.
The thing is:
There’s a hoax being perpetuated that time management is essentially about technique.
Sometimes this hoax is presented this way: All you need are the right tools: paper planner, online calendar, tools to block addictive websites.
Sometimes this hoax lies behind needing the “right system,” from Getting Things Done (a complicated system I used to use to great effect) to Steven Covey to InboxZero. All these systems have value when used consistently.
However, none of these are enough. Most of them ignore the emotional and spiritual side of time management. Getting the right systems in place can really help with this, but they are not enough.
So here’s the truth. And you know this deep down.
Managing time is really managing yourself, especially your emotions.
Everyone has persistent negative thoughts and feelings in the moment that keep us from getting important things done. For example:
- “I can’t say no to this person because they will be upset with me.” So I say yes to something I don’t want to do that isn’t in line with my goals.
- “I’ll never get it all done.” So I feel so overwhelmed I do nothing, or spend hours online.
- “I’m afraid about the budget for next year-what does it mean for our ministry, not to mention my salary.” So I procrastinate preparing for the finance meeting or calling the treasurer for an update.
We’re not always this conscious of these feelings, but they keep us from engaging with the challenging work we have to do.
So, what can we do about this? First, we can pray about it. Trust me, the practice of meditative prayer can help with emotion awareness and management. Everyone has lots of thoughts and distractions in meditative prayer, and meditation gives us the opportunity to practice noticing them.
I’ve been spending just a few short minutes in meditation every morning, and it’s astonishing how many thoughts I can have. I come back to a breath prayer, “Lord Jesus, have mercy.” and then I’m off thinking about–often, what I have to do that day, or what I did yesterday. Or, more likely, what I didn’t do yesterday and should have, and what are the ramifications of that and…and…and…. Then, once again I have to bring myself back to the present moment.
Over time, as we practice bringing our attention back, we learn habits that can help us with those challenging thoughts and emotions that throw us off track. The value of meditation is not simply to help with productivity, of course, but this is a in important benefit of regular practice. St. Teresa of Avila talked about being Martha and Mary at the same time: to be busy, yet meditatively aware of God’s presence as we work.
The task is to bring our attention back.
This task, right in front of me.
This person I’m talking to.
This email I have to write, not the one that just came in.
So I am a big fan of detailed planning for the day and the week ahead. I love tools and techniques. But ultimately, they won’t do enough to get you where you want to go. As spiritual leaders, let’s go deeper.
How do you bring a spiritual awareness to your work day by day? Comment below and let me know.