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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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:
- How clear are you about your own principles?
- What is your short-term and long-term purpose?
- 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 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], via Wikimedia Commons
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 http://www.adventconspiracy.org/ 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?
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.