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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Grrrr…interruptions are the bane of pastoral ministry. It can be hard to get anything done when a church member pops into your office or sends an urgent text message, or a staff member says, “I just need five minutes of your time.” Even meetings are interrupted by someone choosing to take a phone call or glance at a text.
But when I sit back and really think, I find the worst culprit is me. I interrupt myself, and I’ll bet you do, too. I stop something important I’m working on to answer emails or check Facebook. It’s a huge productivity-buster. I’ve gotten better, and I want to share with you some ideas that have helped me.
Here are four ideas to stop interrupting yourself, from small to big-picture:
- Turn off notifications. If your phone is beeping at you every time you get an email or text, you’ll never be able to focus. You’ll be less present to the important work of visioning, preparing to teach or preach, or even to the conversations you have with others.
- Use a timer. I’ve used a timer for household chores for years. I can do something for 15 or 20 minutes and then I stop. I’ve found it helps with work, too. If you are stuck on the sermon, set a timer and tell yourself you can stop after 20 minutes. Or 40. Then you can take a break. Some people swear by the Pomodoro method, which is 25 minutes on, 5 minutes off. Right now I’m working for two 40 minutes chunks before checking email. That’s how I’m writing this article. If I check email first, my thoughts are distracted by whatever has come in, and I’m not as focused.
- Use an accountability partner. I send my friend Jill an email each morning on what I want to do that day, and another at the end of the day. I’m much less likely to get distracted by unimportant matters when I know I have to report in. And if something truly important comes up that changes my plan, I can report that. Your partner doesn’t even need to be in ministry-Jill is an editor and writer.
- Be clear about purpose. I know my overall purpose is to help leaders grow. If I’m spending too much time reading other people’s writing online and not doing my own writing, I won’t contribute as much to leaders. I’m also thinking about my purpose each three months and every day. It helps me stay on track. I interrupt myself less because I want to achieve my purpose.
Those are the four tips I use in my life, but let’s be honest. I still interrupt myself and lose focus every day. But I get back on track a lot faster than I used to.
What helps you keep on track with your most important work without interrupting yourself?
I’m curious…what do you read? Aside from articles on your phone and the occasional magazine in a waiting room, what do you pick and spend some time reading?
In addition to the Bible, I’ve read plenty of wonderful ministry books (and I still like my own). And when I meet with leaders, their office is usually stocked with books that support their ministry. While I absolutely understand this, I also believe clergy benefit from stepping outside our niche. It enriches our thinking, our practice and our life.
So in addition to your must-read ministry books, here are three reads I highly recommend:
Accidental Genius: Using Writing to Generate Your Best Ideas, Insight, and Content, by Mark Levy
This book helps you write sermons, newsletter articles or anything else. It spurs you to think through ministry dilemmas, visioning and clarifying your ideas. Levy is an advocate of “freewriting,” simply putting ideas on paper without worrying about having to get it right. He has dozens of brilliant ideas for freeing up your brain through writing.
After reading Accidental Genius, I experimented with these three tools:
- Hold a “paper conversation.” This means, on paper, writing down a brief, imaginary dialogue with someone important to you. Levy suggests you have them ask you questions about your life or ministry. I’ve done this with Jesus, Rabbi Edwin Friedman and my mother. I always learn something new.
- Do a mini-marathon: a series of 20 minute writing sessions. At the end of each session, note what catches your attention. Pick one thought and start again. I did this for two hours and got some great nuggets.
- Use prompts for writing, such as, “The simplest thing I could do to make a difference would be…” or, “The two things I could do today to make things more exciting… “ or, “I love…”
Why Won’t You Apologize, by Harriet Lerner
Harriet Lerner first introduced me to family systems thinking over 20 years ago in her book The Dance of Anger. That book had a profound impact on my life and led me to study with Rabbi Edwin Friedman. Her latest book is a fascinating examination of the apology, both giving and receiving. The chapter ”Apologizing Under Fire” is a must-read for pastors. She includes 12 points to keep in mind when we’re on the receiving end of criticism, a regular occurrence in some churches.
Here are three of 12 points about apologies:
- Listen only to understand (do not interrupt, argue, refute or correct facts).
- Ask questions about whatever you don’t understand.
- Find something you can agree with (even if it’s only 7%).
Improv Wisdom, by Patricia Ryan Madson
I have always been intrigued by the art of improv. One day I will take an improv class, so this book caught my eye. Madson suggests some useful things:
- Just Show Up. This reminds me of Friedman’s idea that what’s most important is not technique but the nature of your presence.
- Say Yes. I coach many leaders on being able to say no, especially to those who don’t have boundaries. Yet it’s also important to say yes, and even to find the, “yes” in the “no.” Madson suggests saying “Yes” for a whole day.
- Change it Up. One great idea of Madson’s: if things are stuck, move to a different place. I wonder about having a board meeting in another room in the church than you usually do. Or try taking a walk with someone to see if movement shifts the energy in the relationships.
So, these three books are not for ministry, yet support it.
What non-ministry books have you read lately? Comment below and let me know. And if you haven’t read any, consider checking out one of the books above.
It’s true. Nothing will help support your ministry like prayer. So let’s get to some prayer ideas to try for Lent:
- Pray through your calendar.
As you review your schedule do it prayerfuly. Do this monthly, daily, and weekly as you plan. Approaching your activities with prayer rather than with the frantic sense you will never get it all done can transform your experience of it. It will help you thoughtfully choose your priorities. You know you can’t do it all, and that means making choices. Don’t go it alone. Ask God for help on what to do and-even more importantly-what not to do. You have to do some planning anyway, so it won’t even take extra time.
- Practice intercessory prayer.
You’ll find it easier to persist in ministry if you pray for your people and for the ministry as a whole.You can pray for the leaders and potential leaders, for your staff, for those in difficulties. This doesn’t take hours. A few minutes daily or a few more minutes weekly will help you considerably.
- Practice meditative prayer.
Most of us pastors love to talk. Much of the prayer we do involves talking to God, whether publicly or privately. I recommend trying meditative prayer for five minutes or less. I find even that brief time helps my busy mind calm down. As challenging as quiet prayer is, I think it is unsurpassed at helping us find more peace, not only when we are praying but throughout the rest of our day.
- Pray while walking or running.
For some pastors, sitting still is like pulling teeth. I’ve known a number of clergy who run or walk daily and use that as their prayer time. I met one pastor from the upper Midwest who even ran on ice with special shoes, and he prayed throughout. The rhythm of your gait can act like a prayer word or phrase to help you keep your mind on your prayer. If you’re a runner or a walker, you can pray without adding any time to your schedule.
- Pray with others.
For extroverts who find being alone a challenge, group prayer can be a wonderful practice. For introverts, it can be a structured way to be with others (far easier than the church coffee hour). If you have any special Lenten gatherings, try including five minutes of group prayer-for your own sake, as well as for others.
Of course, praying is not simply about saving time. However, I find it’s easy for pastors to feel guilty that they aren’t praying more. Don’t let time be a roadblock. Simply take five minutes today and try one of these ideas.
How do you pray? I’d love to hear what your practice is.
And here are some additional ideas for Lenten practices.
Do you dread meetings of your church finance team or committee? If so, you’re not alone. I often hear:
- “I feel SO uncomfortable dealing with money matters. It’s outside my comfort zone”
- “I get frustrated with the bottom-line mentality of business-oriented lay leaders. Everything can’t be quantified.”
- “The conversation is always about how much we don’t have and how much we need. It’s depressing and wears me out.”
Those are big concerns and I completely understand. Finances can bring up a lot of emotions and challenges. AND these meetings are critical to your leadership success. So here are three ways to make finance team meetings easier (for everyone):
- Prepare thoroughly. Develop your skills at reading church financial statements. If you need to find a mentor, whether inside or outside the church, do so. Even if you know a lot work to increase your skill level. There’s always more to learn. Do your best to obtain and review the statements in advance of the meeting. Ask questions of the treasurer or bookkeeper so you understand. Don’t be afraid to admit you don’t know something-that’s how you learn! I discovered that the more competent I felt, the lower my anxiety was.
- Keep your sense of humor. Take a breath. Every leader has to grapple with finances and meetings. So lighten up about it. When I was a pastor, I always found that if I could stay light, I had a much better time at the meeting. My anxiety didn’t infect everyone else, and I was less vulnerable to the anxiety of others. I was less likely to get caught up in fear, blame or a sense of inadequacy. You are learning and so is everyone else.
- Remember that money is never the issue. This is true in families, in the wider society, and, of course, at church. Our anxiety focuses on the money. Keep your eye on the bigger picture of what’s going on in the congregation and beyond. If you can remember that it’s not “about” the money at all, it will help you keep your cool in the meeting. If there’s a financial crisis, ask yourself, “Why now?” What else is going on in the congregation and beyond? What is the history of this congregation in relation to money? Stay curious and interested and see what more you can learn about your church in every finance meeting.
I’d love to hear from you!
What has helped you in your leadership around church finance?
What helps you keep perspective?
And for lay leaders, how can pastors improve in this area?
It’s no secret: some pastors do better than others. They enjoy ministry more, their churches seem to thrive, whatever their size. So what does it take? Here’s my take on the four basic principles pastors can utilize to step up their leadership game:
- They take a stand. To be a leader, you have to have a position. You have to, over time, develop a sense of where you are headed, and actually get up and tell people what you think. You have to say, “I believe in this.” “This is where I sense God is leading us.” “This is what I will do (and won’t do).” You need a strong spiritual life and growing emotional maturity to be able to do this. And good leaders take stands.
- They relate to people who have different perspective without getting defensive or overly anxious. Effective leaders anticipate the pushback, rather than get surprised by it. They don’t try to talk people into something they are not prepared to support. They are curious about new ideas and perspectives and can even separate the viewpoints from the person – which allows them to continue to value every interaction with that person, instead of dread it.
- They tolerate other people criticizing them. Being a pastor means going through some tough criticism, even attacks. In my observation and experience, those who can ride this out end up doing better in the long run. Sometimes they need help. (Some of my own coaching practice is helping people get through times of intense criticism and conflict). Edwin Friedman called this “not getting reactive to the reactivity.” He thought the reactivity was inevitable when a leader took a stand, and the ability to manage oneself through it was critical for leadership. Criticisms will come and go – can you stay steady through it all?
- They adapt without being a pushover, and persist over time. You won’t always get your way. That’s the reality. Sometimes paying attention to feedback and backing off is the better part of valor. You can come back with your vision and ideas later. You have to discern when to push through and when to step back, and to let go of needing to take the credit. I’ve heard more than one story of a board member bringing up an idea the pastor mentioned earlier and having it be enthusiastically accepted. These pastors laid the groundwork, even though it took longer than they thought. Adapt and persist.
These are my top four recommendations for long lasting leadership. Of course, every church is different. Some churches have more potential than others. There’s no magic formula. It’s about the relationship, about the wider community, and a myriad of other factors.
However, all you can work on is you and how you take a stand, relate to those who differ or are critical, and cultivate flexibility and persistence. Whatever your ministry setting, you can always pay attention to these matters.
Which of the four leadership tasks above are you doing well? Let me know!
Today we live in a world inundated with messages and people clamouring for your attention. What can you do to cut through the noise? Especially when you are trying to communicate with your congregation and the wider community. One of the best ways to get more attention is to write stronger headlines and titles.
Whether you are writing a title for a sermon, a newsletter article, or a blog post, spend a few moments thinking it through. When I was thinking about titles for my book Leaders Who Last, I read something that said, “A title is a promise.” So, what are you promising with your title? Depending on what you’re writing it could be a small promise – but it needs to communicate clearly what the person reading will get.
One of the best resources I’ve found is How to Write Magnetic Headlines, an e-book from the site Copyblogger.com. It’s free, though you have to register to receive it. It’s well worth it. This e-book includes more than 50 pages of recommendations. I had always hated writing headlines, and suddenly I found it easier, more creative, and fun.
Here are my six tips:
- Write the headline or title first. It took me a long time to do this, but it’s a huge time-saver. If you know what the piece is about before you write it, you can dump the content much faster, and then you can edit according to the promise you made.
- Use numbers. (3 ways to, 4 reasons why, 5 steps to) This can make it easier to write the sermon or article, because it will focus your thinking. Just like your elementary school teacher told you, outlining helps. It also helps frame the piece for people because they know up front what they’re getting.
- Ask a question. “Do you want to…? Want to learn how…? Wish you could…? Wondering what to do when…?” People love answering questions, especially ones that relate to them. Plus asking a question already invites the reader or listener in. Don’t be afraid to ask! This is still a promise, as it hints at what the audience will get.
- Use secondary headlines. This is easy if you have numbers. It helps you as a writer and also helps the reader.
- Use one of the magic words/phrases: easy, free, how to, you. (See a lot more here). Of course you want to be careful. You are in ministry, not advertising. But you, like advertisers, are in the communications business.
- Write at least 3 headlines before you pick one. Not only is this a fun exercise for your brain, but you’ll end up with a better result. For example, the three ideas I played with for this newsletter were: .the one above, “Write Stronger Headlines and Titles” and “Cut Through the Noise.”
Now, I’m always careful to make sure I’m not promising too much or dumbing down my content. I want to be clear but not simplistic, whether I’m writing a sermon, blog post, or article. These recommendations all come ultimately from the advertising industry. Of course you will go deeper with your content. But if no one pays attention to what you are writing or speaking about, your message won’t go very far.
What’s the next piece you have to write? What’s the best headline or title for it?
I’ll be honest: this is a tale of personal experience.
I’ve been down and out of commission with the flu, or something equally gross and debilitating. (And yes, I got my shot). Instead of feeling completely pitiful, I’ve spent my sick time trying to practice what I’m about to preach to you. Because as we all know, you will get sick at some point. So what’s a busy pastor to do?
- Accept the sickness. You are human. You come into contact with illness. I had to accept that I couldn’t write a newsletter last week, and I had to reschedule several appointments. Use your prayer practice to help you accept it, and to claim the reality that God loves you no matter how “productive” you are or aren’t. At times of illness I learn how attached I am to my own productivity, and how much I judge my worth by how much I get done. Embrace the reality of God’s love no matter how you feel or what you can do. Catch yourself when you start to complain. It won’t help you feel better; it reinforces your negative feelings, and it moves you away from acceptance
- Marshall your support. I find many clergy are happy to give help but reluctant to receive it, even in the short term. Does your church have a group who helps those who are ill? It might be a ministry to them to ask them to bring a meal. When you do ask for help, from anyone, practice being specific. “Can you bring me some chicken soup?” “Will you bring me some bath salts?” “Would you be willing to lead the staff meeting on Thursday?” And if you’re up for it, connect with your extended family in some way. Who is the most supportive person in your family? I talked with my brother (actually, he called me), and even though I wasn’t up to much of a conversation I felt encouraged by the connection.
- Set goals for yourself. This is especially for the time when you are recovering. They can be extremely small: Here are a few ideas:
- Make your bed. (Then give yourself a high five when you do it!)
- Read three verses of Scripture.
- Spend 10 minutes answering emails (the easy ones).
- Call one shut-in. (Oone of the ones who makes you feel happy to talk to)
- Find an old sermon on Sunday’s text to revise. (Yes, it’s OK.)
- Take a 3-5 minute walk outside if you can.
Instead of beating yourself up for what you can’t do, celebrate what you are able to do as you get better. Also take a minute to thank your body for all it has done in the past and is currently doing for you.
Finally, consider again and again the words of Paul in Philippians 1:4-12 (NRSV):
Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
What do you do to support yourself when you are ill?
In sickness and health,
P.S. I am feeling on the up and up. Stay tuned for next week’s email – it’s a good one!
It’s less than six weeks until Ash Wednesday. Are you ready with your Lenten plans? If not, here are five suggestions for congregation-wide emphases that you still have time to implement. Some of them you can simply choose to adopt yourself and invite others to join with you, some others will need a little more planning.
- Write a thank you note each day. Encourage people to write a thank you email, or (better) a written thank you note every day to someone who touched their life. It could be someone within the congregation, a family member, or someone from their past. Step up to do it yourself as they do. You could even order post cards with inspirational images and quotes on them, and distribute them to the congregation so they can get started. Writing a thank you note each day is the practice I’m going to take on for myself this Lent.
- Engage in a “news fast.” Take a break from reading, watching and listening to the news. In the current climate, it could be a wonderful gift, and a great thing to do for your spiritual life. Invite people to take time off from the anxiety driven news cycle. Trust me, if something big happens, you will hear about it. In The Contrarian’s Guide to Leadership¸ Steven Sample talks about giving up news for six months! He didn’t miss anything significant. Invite your people (and yourself) to take more time for prayer for our nation and the world instead. You could offer three levels of opting in to this practice: 40 days completely news-free, check in on Sundays, or read paper news only (a much cooler medium) for 40 days.
- Give of yourself every day. This could be a practice, such doing something kind every day. (Here’s a host of ideas.) Or it could actually be giving at least a small amount of money away every day, which I did last year. I found it a powerful practice for finding greater freedom in relation to money.
- Read (or listen to) the same passage of Scripture together daily. There are lots of audio version of the Bible (see this guide). You could share links to the week’s text via email or social media and invite people to listen daily. If you are doing a special Lenten Bible study group, you could invite people to read or listen daily. Keep it simple.
- Help your people connect their money with their faith. This willl take a little more planning than the other ideas. However, it’s not too late to offer my Finances and Faith System for the Lenten season. It is a congregation-wide offering that focuses not on giving, but on how ordinary people can bring prayer into their daily encounters with money—perfect for Lent. Click here for more information.
Please do let me know how you observe this time. I love hearing new ideas and learning from amazing leaders, like yourself. You can leave a comment on below and I promise to reply.