Five habits worth cultivating in ministry



Here are five habits that can make ministry more joyful and less stressful. I’ve been cultivating these habits myself, and they have helped me make big shifts. And at the end of the article I’ll share a habit-change strategy that I’m finding helpful.

  1. Don’t complain.

This is a habit I’ve taken on this year, and I’m finding it to be a great mood-changer. When we complain about someone to someone else, we create a negative triangle. And nothing changes. When we complain about the church or church members to our families, we simply cause them to have negative feelings about the church. When we complain about the world or the news, we do nothing to create a better world. Since I’ve taken on this habit, I feel more positive about other people every day. Here’s a link to a fascinating article, “Help me stop being mean,” by someone who took this on. (Note: language warning for the question asked at the beginning. It’s well worth reading the whole, lengthy answer.)

  1. Answer email in batches.

Turn off notifications on your phone and computer. I’ve said this before, but when you answer email as it comes in, you are letting other people set your agenda. When you choose when to respond, you are controlling your own schedule, and you’ll find yourself being more productive. True confessions: this is a habit I am still working to develop (see below for my commitment to you). I actually stopped while writing this article and answered an email. As my father used to say, “Do as I say, not as I do…”

  1. Ask yourself, “What do I want?”

It’s not a selfish question, but a clarifying one. When I coach pastors, I frequently ask “What do you want?” and they say, “That’s a good question…I don’t know.” Then they get clear very quickly, and can decide how to take action. You can ask it about the smallest daily questions as well as the biggest life issues. It’s a good question to ask as a habit.

  1. Pray daily for at least one minute.

I know, that’s not much. But one minute is better than no minutes. Three ideas:

a. Take one minute and give thanks for five things in your life (20 seconds each).

b. Take one minute and breathe in and out, “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.”

c. Take one minute and pray for five people you love.

  1. Every week, work on a project that isn’t due until after this Sunday.

Even if it’s just for five minutes, plan for the following week’s sermon or worship, Advent or even Lent. Or next year’s vacation. In ministry, it’s so easy to focus on the short-term, because the pressures of next Sunday, or immediate pastoral care needs, or you name it, are so relentless.

And here’s the habit change protocol I’ve been learning:

  1. Commit to it. Write it down, and tell others. (And here is my commitment to myself and to you – I intend to limit email to three times a day. No more avoiding article-writing by checking email.)
  2. Monitor it. Do it in writing. I like stars on a chart.
  3. Practice, practice, practice (without self-reproach).
  4. Joyfully acknowledge even the smallest steps toward change.

My suggestion to you: pick one of these five ministry habits, or another habit you’d like to create, and try the protocol. Let me know what your commitment is – either via email or a comment . (And for more on changing habits, see the book Falling Awake by Dave Ellis.)

Are you overwhelmed by your ministry work load?

ministry workI was talking with a pastor I’m coaching and asked, “How are you?” She said, “It’s September…” She suggested a blog post on the topic, so here goes…

It’s easy to get overwhelmed in ministry. There’s the constant pressure of preparing for Sunday, the inevitable interruptions, the evening meetings. Not to mention the email.

I just got some great tips for dealing with being overwhelmed from Lynne Twist (author of The Soul of Money). Lynne often talks about sufficiency. She suggests we do all we can to stay in a place of sufficiency – that we are enough, and we have enough time. I try to tell myself I have enough time to do everything God wants me to do. I truly believe that (even though I forget it sometimes), for myself, and for you in your ministry.

Here are some tips Lynne Twist shared. The first four come from the work of Edward Hallowell, and the fifth is one of Lynne’s, along with a few of my own remarks on each.

  1. Work on your highest priorities in your highest energy time.

You know what that is. For me, it’s morning.

  1. Refuse to rush.

I know I never do my best work when I’m rushing. Right now I’m trying to focus intently and work fast without rushing.

  1. Cultivate the “lilies” and avoid the “leeches.”

Lilies are the people, projects and priorities you love, and the leeches are the ones that drain you. I know that in church ministry you can’t always completely avoid the people leeches, but I believe you can set limits with them so they don’t drain you so much.

4. Put things in real priority order.

I think this means being honest about what we really are going to work on now, and what we’re going to set aside for later. I find myself keeping things on my list and never doing anything about them. I’m trying to set them aside for now, and pick a few key projects, rather than pretending to myself I can do more than is humanly possible.

  1. Let go of the things you’re not working on when you’re not working on them.

We spent a lot of time worrying about projects and tasks when we’re not and cannot be working on them. Then we’re not present to the people (including our families) and tasks that are right in front of us.

What are some ways you deal with that overwhelmed feeling?

And here’s a post on nine ways to simplify your ministry.

How to make church stewardship easier

church stewardshipIf you are getting ready to launch your fall church stewardship campaign, here are a few ways to make it easier. (And if you do it in the spring, save this article in a place you’ll find it then.)

  1. Write a purpose statement.

You can do this even if you are almost ready to go, based on the work you’ve done so far. It will help you execute what you’ve planned. “The purpose of our stewardship program this year is…” It could be: encourage tithing, focus on new givers, increase giving so we can add a staff person, highlight mission giving. It will be much easier to decide what to include and what to leave out. And it will be easier to evaluate after. (You are going to evaluate, right?)

  1. Don’t waste energy wishing you’d started earlier.

Sure, earlier planning is better, but regret doesn’t get you any closer to your goals, and it takes a lot of energy. Just do what you can now, and mark your calendar for next year.

  1. Don’t be defensive.

You don’t need to apologize (even in attitude) for asking people to support God’s work in the world. Ask your most generous givers – they know the joy of giving. If you can free yourself from that sense of apology, you’ll find the whole process easier. I’ve said it before: asking people to give is a ministry to them.

  1. Let go of the outcome.

Of course, having a clear goal is important, both for dollars and for households. And it’s exciting to reach a goal and disappointing to fall short. However, people make giving decisions for a whole range of reasons, many of which have nothing to do with you and your team. Do all you can, and leave the rest up to God.

5. Pray

This is a variation on #4. And a corollary is: ask your prayerful folks to pray for the campaign. View this as a spiritual process, get spiritual support, and you’ll find it easier.

And here’s another post on what you can celebrate about stewardship.

Here’s a little-known way to improve your leadership at church

church leadership

Chris Patten, the last British governor of Hong Kong

To improve your leadership at church: focus on what you can control, not what you can’t. Most church leaders spend a lot of time and energy trying to do the impossible: change others and control the future. Here’s a better use of your time:

Focus on yourself, your own clear thinking and your functioning in your role.

I spent my recent vacation reading about Hong Kong – I recently met a number of colleagues from Hong Kong, and we have a young friend who is teaching there, so it caught my interest.

One book I read was East and West, by Chris Patten, the last British governor of Hong Kong. I was impressed by his clarity about his purpose during his five years as governor. He was clear he wanted to do all he could do to bring as much democracy as possible to Hong Kong before handover to the Chinese. He wished his predecessors had done more, but he knew that was out of his control. He knew he couldn’t control what the Chinese did after the handover. But he worked as hard as he could with as much openness as he could about his purpose, to achieve that. He didn’t get as far as he wanted, but he got a lot farther than others thought he could.

Patten said he had never thought harder about what he believed about political and economic freedom. In that sense, a terrifically hard job was a great opportunity for him. He also had to deal with criticism from all sides without letting that get him off track. The criticism and the international spotlight, in fact, forced him to get even clearer.

Here are three questions to consider about your leadership at church:

  1. How clear are you about your own principles?
  2. What is your short-term and long-term purpose?
  3. If things are hot for you at church, can you use that as an opportunity to refine your thinking, rather than simply react to criticism?

Note: I didn’t intend to read about Hong Kong to engage my thinking about leadership. I just thought it would be fun. I recommend reading outside of church and theology, especially on vacation!


Photo credit: By James Yuanxin Li (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 ( or GFDL (], via Wikimedia Commons

Pastors: help your people see money in the light of faith

church moneyDo you wish you could help people make the faith connection with their money?

The most faithful of church people are bombarded with ads many times a day, more each year. Businesses ask them for their money constantly. Few are able to create space to reflect on what it might mean to bring their faith into these decisions. Helping people do this reflection is an important ministry need.

Here are four ways to work on it in your own ministry:

1. Focus on your own growth in this area.

It’s hard–even impossible—to teach what you don’t know. You, too, are receiving the same flood of messages. You, too, may be thoughtlessly spending money, without reflecting on your values. It’s easy to do. Try this: write down everything you spend for a day. Then review the list in prayer. What do you notice?

2. Invite your congregation into some new practices.

Without criticizing them or denouncing our materialistic culture, simply ask them to consider their everyday money practices in the light of their beliefs and values. Try this: have someone who does this already share for a moment or two before the offering. Ask them to talk briefly about their own practice in relation to their money—not necessarily about giving, but about their spending practices.

3. Talk about faith and money when you are not asking them to give.

Think of it as pastoral support and encouragement, not stewardship. Separate it from stewardship. Simply offer a sermon on this topic, months apart from stewardship season.

4. Start them out young.

Incorporate some kind of money awareness into your programming for children and youth. It’s easier to create new habits when you are young than change them when you are older.

5. Create some structure.

Use the church calendar to encourage some more focused practices. Try this: this Advent, create some opportunity to reflect on their holiday spending. This is also a great way to work on #4, as families can bring their children and teenagers into the conversation. Check out for some resources. And next month I’ll be releasing a new resource to help you do this in your church

What ideas do you have to help people live a faithful life in relation to their resources?

What church leaders can learn from lazy people

church leadersWho is the laziest person in your extended family? The word “lazy” might be a little judgmental. Put differently, who is the person who most knows how to have a good time and is the least compulsive about work?

Many church leaders are hard-working, serious about their work, and sometimes have trouble setting boundaries between work and leisure. There’s no doubt that ministry is hard work. But overfunctioning leaders, those who take too much responsibility for others at church (and often, in the family), do themselves and others no favors.

You might have something to learn from the person in your family who is more carefree (perhaps someone everyone else thinks is irresponsible), who tends to underfunction. Often, though not always, it’s a younger child in the family, whether it’s a sibling or a younger cousin.

This may seem counterintuitive. Here’s one way to think about it: We are more effective in ministry if we are spiritually free. This means in part we understand the work is not all up to us, that we can say no as well as yes, and that we take time for sabbath rest. We have more choices. I believe one way to develop more options in our functioning as leaders is to be in touch with our extended family, especially the ones who seem to be different from us.

Learning to be a more relaxed leader at church

Here are a few ideas to explore this learning:

  1. Simply reach out to someone in your family you think of as “lazy.” Call, email or text them, or connect via social media. (You might not hear back right away, remember.)
  2. Ask a fun-loving sibling for ideas on what to do on your day off.
  3. If the “lazy” person is one of your parents, ask them for advice on working less hard. If they give you an idea, try it out a little even if you don’t like it.
  4. Get together with one of these family members. If they live far away, see if you can piggyback a day onto another trip. Don’t organize it, and manage your internal chatter about the way it isn’t the way you would do it. Just try to have as much fun as possible.

Why bother to do any of these? We learn how to relate to the world (and our work) in the family we grew up in. In your own learning, you found a role in the family. For most clergy and other church leaders, it was a highly responsible role. Over time, that can wear you out. Connecting with those who learned a different, less responsible role, can help you find ways to avoid burnout and sustain yourself. That’s a gift not only to yourself but to those you serve.

And here’s an article for church leaders on doing nothing as spiritual practice.

The top church leadership mistakes almost everyone makes

church leadershipAre you making any of these church leadership mistakes? If so, you’re in good company. I’ve made them all, and you probably have too.

  1. You overfunction.

    You take too much responsibility. Many church leaders overfunction – both on behalf of the congregation as a whole, and for individuals (staff and members). Then they get frustrated because others aren’t responsible enough. Remember: underfunctioners don’t step it up until overfunctioners step it down. (See my last post for some questions to ask yourself.)

  2. You get caught in triangles.

    This is a variation of number one, in which you take responsibility for other people’s relationships. You can’t change a relationship you aren’t a part of. You can only work on your relationship with each of the other parties. Here’s a post that explains more about relationship triangles in ministry.

  3. You don’t disconnect enough.

    But with today’s technology, it’s harder and harder to find quiet time and space. But constant availability is not good for you – nor for the people you lead. They need to figure things out without you. Take Jesus as your model – if he needed time alone, so do you. Try this: wait at least 30 minutes after you wake up to check your phone.

  4. You think the answer is out there somewhere.

    Sure, there is plenty to be learned from others. But remember to value your own creativity and the ingenuity of your people. What ideas do you have for making a difference in your own situation? No one else knows your ministry setting the way you do. Try this: take a current challenge and generate a list of 20 possible ways to solve it. Pick the top two or three and try them.

  5. You get infected by the anxiety of others.

    People say to you, in effect, “Pastor, you should be upset about this because I am.” It’s easy to take that on. Yet just because someone is anxious doesn’t mean you should try to calm them down (and go away more anxious than you were). This rarely leads to productive thinking. Think it through: is this really your responsibility? Can you take it a little less seriously? Is there some way to push the anxiety back?

  6. You take the short-term view.

    We’d all like a quick fix, and we live in a society that wants instant results. But the things that count take years to develop. And many of the things we worry about don’t matter much in the light of eternity – and won’t even matter in a year, or a month. How can you extend your vision: five, ten, thirty years?

Photo: hobvias sudoneighm   Creative Commons

Three questions to lower your ministry stress

ministry stressMinistry is stressful, there’s no way around that. The ongoing weekly pressure of sermon and worship preparation. The pastoral challenge of helping a family with a tragic death. Changing giving patterns that make supporting the budget more difficult. You know the stresses better than I do.



Ministry can be less stressful

But it can be less stressful. As you face the flood of e-mails, texts, people who catch you in the office or after church, simply take the time to ask this question:

Is this my responsibility?

You may decide, yes, it is. But some of the time, the answer will be, no, it isn’t. You might start with the e-mails where you have simply been copied – that’s an instant triangle. Just because you were copied on it doesn’t mean you have to respond. Let people work things out themselves.

If you want to take it another step, ask this:

Will this help me with my ministry goals?

Even if the answer is no, you might respond anyway. Sometimes you just have to dive in and set up tables because it needs to be done. Yet the question is another tool to slow you down and reflect on the best use of your time and energy.

A third question to ask is:

Do I want to do this?

Again, sometimes you answer no and do it anyway. Every job includes tasks you don’t want to do. A hospital visit to your biggest critic may not be at the top of your want-to list (but it might help you with your ministry goals). Yet sometimes it’s all right to say no just because you don’t want to. Or you want to spend the evening with your family more. It’s not selfish just because you want to do it.

Slow it down

Increasingly our world anticipates an instant response. I don’t think that leads to the best or most productive decisions and actions. Take the time to stop and ask yourself at least one of these questions, and you’ll make better choices – and overall experience a little less ministry stress.

And here’s another post on managing stress in ministry and taking better care of ourselves.