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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Who 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:
- 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.)
- Ask a fun-loving sibling for ideas on what to do on your day off.
- 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.
- 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.
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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?
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?
Ministry 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.
I replied to his comment this way: “The flip side of this article is that people with a vision can get out of touch with reality and get grandiose about the vision – and impatient with those who don’t get it, including the senior pastor if they are in the second chair. It’s an art not a science. Personal and spiritual maturity are critical.”
Pursue your ministry vision – yet be realistic
So I’ve been thinking about this further. Of course, persistence is essential when pursuing a ministry vision. And yet…we’ve all seen leaders who were rigid and uncompromising, or moved too fast. They torpedoed their own vision by their inability to be patient, to adapt to the realities they faced, or to cultivate relationships with the people who opposed them.
Here are six ways to temper your vision for your church with realism:
- Take a look at the history of your church or ministry to see how new initiatives have taken root. Get curious.
- Talk with key leaders about what they value about the church, without trying to convince them your vision is the right way.
- Think about your own bottom line for the ministry – what can you live with?
- Double your timeline, and embrace the longer perspective.
- If you are a “second chair” ministry staff leader, stay connected to the pastor, even if you disagree with the pastor’s approach or don’t feel like you are getting the support you want for your own vision.
- Reread the story of Moses. Take a look at his beard in Michelangelo’s sculpture. It took some time to grow that long! They got there eventually, but it took 40 years.
What are some other ways you can increase your patience while still holding onto the vision?
And here’s another post on the relationship between your vision for your church and reality.
Do you hate conflict at church? I’ll be honest with you. I’m as conflict averse as the next church leader. My mother hated conflict, and so do I. My heart starts to pound and my palms sweat. In my heart of hearts, I want everyone to like me, and everyone to get along with me and with each other.
Church conflict can be be good news
I’ve learned increasing my tolerance for conflict can enhance my leadership effectiveness. We can actually celebrate church conflict, both personally, and for the congregation as a whole.
Here are five reasons:
Congregations with no conflict aren’t going anywhere.
Churches with zero conflict have little energy and will eventually decline. When church leaders are brave enough to take stands and speak a vision, some won’t like it. Conflict may actually be a sign you are on the right track.
Church conflict gives you a chance to work on yourself
You get the chance to develop a backbone and thicker skin. As a pastor, I got to the point where I truly could celebrate that someone got mad at me. To be honest, I didn’t love it, but I knew it was growth-producing for me, and for the congregation.
You’re in good company if your church has conflict.
The churches Paul wrote to, especially the church in Corinth, had plenty. And of course, Jesus faced plenty of criticism and even danger.
It’s a sign that people care about their church.
When people complain, I heard someone say recently, look for the deeper commitment behind their complaint. If you learn to appreciate the critics and complainers, dealing with conflict will be easier and more productive.
It gives you an opportunity to assess people’s functioning.
Notice who takes the conflict personally (maybe it’s you!) or says, “How can you say that!” And notice who is able to say clearly and calmly, “I disagree.” The latter are the ones you want to tap for future leadership.
How can you see the conflict in your church as something to celebrate?
And here’s another post about how to approach church conflict.
Yes, you really can improve your leadership by cultivating a resource church leaders sometimes neglect: your own family. I don’t mean you neglect them because you are too busy, but you may not think of family – especially extended family – as a resource for ministry.
Here are three ways you can tap your family to improve your leadership:
1. Reflect on your family’s story and the strengths they had. My own father is, still at 92, a flaming extrovert. (This picture was taken last week.) When I was a child, I hated that he wanted to meet everybody he saw. (“Noooo, Dad – don’t talk to them!”) Yet it was a huge strength that contributed to his success in sales and in making his way through life. A bonus: he’s happier late in his life because he knows how to connect with people.
But now, even though I’m a bit of an introvert, I can talk to just about anyone. I’m grateful for that skill. It helped in my ministry as a pastor, and it helps now in the work I do supporting pastoral leaders.
What gifts did your family give you?
2. Ask extended family for advice. You may be surprised. Your parents, siblings and cousins have life skills that can help you in your ministry. Sometimes a pastor will say to me, “But they don’t know anything about church!” But family members may know about life in ways that surprise you.
One pastor realized one member of his staff was walking all over him. His brother, a school principal, coached him through taking a stand without being too harsh. His brother later came to him with some heartfelt questions about his own spiritual life. And they grew closer after these conversations.
You may get more benefits from these conversations than simply good advice. Clergy often give advice to their family, and experimenting with a reversal of the pattern may shift some habitual dynamics
3. Accept your family as they are, and you’ll be better able to deal with those challenging folks at church.
Remember: the people you react to the most at church hook something in you from your family story. Even if you change churches, there’s probably someone similar waiting for you. When you work on your reaction to the most challenging people in your family, it benefits your whole life.
Can you create a plan to shift one relationship a bit? A few ideas to consider:
- Have at least a brief conversation with each of your parents separately instead of together.
- Send a postcard to your least favorite relative.
- Set out a photo of a family member you’d like a better relationship with and pray for them daily.
Believe it or not, it may be the most practical work you do. In my own coaching work, I help people connect some of the dots between their family and the tough church relationships. The benefit can be less stress and more freedom in family and at church.
And why not play with your prayer life while you’re at it? Our ability to play comes from God, after all – so why not bring that playful attitude to prayer? It’s easy to get serious about prayer, especially when we feel guilty that we aren’t doing enough of it.
Play helps church leaders lead more effectively. There’s plenty of research to show the value of play for adults.
Prayer helps church leaders lead more effectively. We need a grounded spiritual life to discern where to lead and to help us persist on the path.
Both are true, so why not put them together? Here are a few ideas:
- Use your body for prayer. Try standing up or kneeling for a change. Recently, I’ve been using Praying with the Body: Bringing the Psalms to Life, by Roy DeLeon. Or try a walking prayer.
- Change it up. Think of it as cross-training in prayer. If you never use written prayers, try a few. If you always use written prayers, set aside the prayer book for a day or a week.
- Say many short prayers through the day. I just learned from a Jewish friend Monday that her tradition calls for 100 blessings through the day. Try it out. Even if you only get to 50, I predict you’ll feel blessed.
- Take a break. Can you go a whole day without praying? You may come back fresh. God won’t forget about you, I promise
- Pray outside. True confessions: I’m an indoor gal. This is a practice I’m going to try this year while it’s sunny in Portland, Oregon, where I live.
- Become like a child (Matt. 18:3) Play and Pray, a Scottish group. It’s designed to help adults introduce prayer to preschoolers. Their prayer station ideas: like finger painting, doodling and tasting fruit could help you get back to basics yourself.
This article gives some additional ideas for helping your own leadership with just five minutes of prayer.
It’s possible to take church conflict too seriously – or not seriously enough. In some church conflicts, it is vital for the pastor and other key leaders to take a stand and say, in essence, “You can’t act like that here.” All too often, church leaders avoid this.
Here are five warning signs you might not be taking a church conflict seriously enough.
- You think that setting a strong limit with someone is mean (or at least that they will think it is mean). In reality, it is kinder to set limits with those who can’t set them for themselves. This can be a real expression of love.
- You think if you ignore it will go away. With minor upsets this can be true, but if you passively ignore a person with no boundaries they will just become more invasive.
- You see it as a one-time matter, unrelated to anything else in the past or present. Instead, ask the question, “Why now?” Sometimes a conflict will pop up in one area seemingly unrelated to another. The balance in church life is like a mobile – touch one area and another might start to bounce. For example, a church might make a major change in worship and see upheaval in the youth program.
- You think you can handle it alone. Especially if you are the pastor, you must have lay leaders as allies in dealing with the most problematic folks, especially if they are central to congregational life.
- You think if you accommodate the difficult people it will solve the problem. Typically, they simply push the boundary further and ask for more.
I said in my last post, on taking conflict too seriously, that “seriousness is a sign of anxiety.” But by “serious” here I mean something different:
- Having the courage to stand up and set boundaries,
- Being a leader who functions as the immune system for a congregation,
- Protecting the wider community from the least mature, for the sake of the whole and for the sake of the future.
Here is another article on the importance of taking a stand.