There comes a time in every minister’s life when he or she has to say, “Enough is enough.” And that’s the day when you decide to change your life for the better by committing to sustainable ministry.
I know what it’s like. Before I figured out how to be in ministry in a new way, I spent a lot of time being frustrated and thinking about how to make things different. I purchased a lot of books on the topic. I went on retreats.
The problem was, I really wasn’t serious about changing my approach to ministry – I actually didn’t even know what I needed to do. Oh, all the ministry books stacking up on my bookshelf made it look like I was serious. I used up my entire book budget, which made me look like I was doing something. But I never took serious enough action.
But then something happened that rocked me to my very core. And maybe you can relate to this…
One day it seemed like everything was fine. I was a little stressed out, but basically I was rolling along in my ministry. Then suddenly, without any warning whatsoever, I had a wakeup call. I was standing in the back of the church one Easter Sunday, when someone from the executive board said to me, “You know, someday we’re going to have to do something about those cracked toilets.”
I can’t even begin to tell you how this little conversation shocked me. I was speechless. I wanted to say, “Why are you telling me about this now?!” It really was the proverbial wake up call. I felt like I was trying so hard, and they just weren’t getting it. It took me a while, but I realized I had to do something differently, or I was going to wear out or burn out.
And I started learning some new ways to be in ministry that were sustainable. It wasn’t always easy. I quickly found out the learning curve is steep when you’retrying to learn how to change your approach.
But I did it. Over time, I went from near-burnout to having more fun and a bigger impact. I ministered in that congregation for another nine years (thirteen in all), and have applied what I’ve learned to helping hundreds of other clergy over the last thirteen additional years.
So believe me when I say I know what it’s like to be stressed and exhausted in ministry. I struggled with ministry burnout, too. But once I discovered the secret of sustainable ministry, my whole life changed. And now you too can learn these same secrets, without all the trial and error.
To learn how, check out my year long program, Leaders Who Last. At just $97, it’s the wisest and easiest investment in your future you’ll make this summer!
So much of your time is spent planning, crafting, and speaking. Yet one of the most important practices that I guarantee will build your leadership is listening. It’s an essential part of pastoral care AND it can enhance your leadership by deepening your connection with people in your church.
Here are six ways to practice listening at church. Bonus: you can practice at home.
- In any conversation, listen as much as you talk. Become aware of how much you talk in relation to others. Even if you don’t try to listen more, monitoring this will probably lead you talk less automatically. This applies to meeting with your congregation president, board meetings, pastoral care visits and conversations with your spouse. Don’t listen only to respond or refute. Give them the gift of your attention. (And notice how it feels when people give you that space too!)
- Give up arguing. Try listening. It’s easy to get caught up in trying to convince others of the rightness of your position. You’re so well intentioned! It’s so obvious! It’s based in Scripture! It will benefit the congregation! However, when people change their position, it’s usually not because you argued them to a standstill. When you listen, and give space, you create room for them to move. You also create room for you to truly ponder their position.
- Stop defending yourself. Pause and listen. It’s understandable to feel defensive when someone criticizes you. You can explain your motivation, get emotional, or feel insulted. Instead, I recommend you take a breath, and simply listen. If you know you blew it, apologize. If you disagree with the criticism, thank them for being honest with you. Later when your feelings are less raw, consider whether there is truth, whole or partial, in what they were saying.
- Let go of defending someone else. Give space and listen. When someone criticizes someone else, you are in a triangle. You can’t change a relationship you don’t belong to, remember. In this case, you might not want to listen to a long harangue about another person. That is a valuable boundary to hold. So pause, listen, and then ask, “Have you talked with them directly?”
- Be curious while you listen. What can you learn about this person? Every conversation is a chance to go deeper with someone and gain more perspective. If they talk about their family story, make note – where are they in the order of siblings? Were/are they close to their parents or distant? This will help you better understand how they function in other settings. What are their values and interests?
- Pay attention to your own response. Are you anxious, bored, interested, agreeing, disagreeing? What do you notice in your own experience? When we can become more reflective on our responses to others instead of just reacting, we have more choices in how we relate to them. And when we do speak, we’ll be more grounded and thoughtful.
Big questions for you to mull over:
What are your own listening challenges? What do you want do to become a better listener?
Immediate question to answer in the comments below:
When has someone truly listened to you? How did that feel?
And here’s a brief post with a great quote from a secular leader about listening to God.
It’s common for pastors to be so busy and hurried that relationship building falls to the wayside. But if you keep it front and center, you’ll be amazed at how so many other pieces fall into place.
To break it down for you, here are four areas that will enhance your ministry and your leadership. Print this out so you can pay attention to all the key players!
Four Steps to Build Relationships at Church
- Connect with leaders. This is a top priority. Yes, pastoral visitation is important. However, your relationship with your leaders is essential to move toward where you want to lead the congregation. Whether you have a congregation president, moderator or senior warden, stay close to them. Even (or especially) if you aren’t sure they are up to the role or are supportive of you, keep them close. Talk with them about themselves, their family, and their interests, as well as church matters. Think process, not content: relationships contribute to outcome.
- Connect with critics. This can be a tough one. When someone is critical or difficult, we want to avoid them. If you feel your heart pounding when you see someone across the room at coffee hour, experiment with flipping the script – -and be the first one to walk over and say hello. You don’t always have to discuss the content of their criticism, necessarily. Just stay in touch. If they have a pastoral need, make it a priority to follow up. Present yourself as someone who genuinely cares and who values their ideas. One caveat: don’t chase them if they don’t want to connect with you. They’ll just run farther and faster. Do your best and let it go.
- Connect with staff. Whatever the size of your staff, stay connected with them. If you are the senior pastor, work most on your relationship with those who report to you directly. If you are a staff pastor, the most important relationship is the one with the senior pastor. You can’t do your job without him or her. If you are a solo pastor with part-time staff, stay in touch, without chasing after them. Be clear about where you are heading and what you want from them. In addition, spend some time learning about them and talking about non-church matters. Add in fun moments, inside jokes, and opportunities to connect as people – not just staff. By building relationships, without being overly accommodating, you are more likely to get what you want.
- Connect with “lilies.” These folks may or may not have a formal role in the church, yet you always come away from conversations with them feeling more energized. They typically don’t need have a lot of pastoral needs, and you may feel like you “should” spend more time with people who are needier. Yet these are the ones who will help keep you going, and they can be allies in moving key initiatives forward. And really, it’s simply fun to be with them. Let them know that you value this role in the church and your life!
Now let’s wrap it up with a couple of questions to get you more connected.
Big question for you to mull over:
Who are the people in all four areas you most need to connect with soon? (And when will you do it?)
Immediate question to answer in the comments below
Who has been a “lily” in your ministry, someone in a congregation you served who has brought life and energy to you? How did they do it?
I can’t wait to read your responses, and see what inspiring stories you have to share!
P.S. Here’s an article with nine suggestions for connecting with church members in the summertime.
We’ve been talking about a lot of pressing issues in ministry, and I’m excited to take a breath and dive into today’s topic: Productivity. It’s easy to be overwhelmed by the burden of ministry: the constant feeling of responsibility and the mounting tasks each week. You may have decided, “NOW I’m going to be more organized…more productive…take more time off,” and yet still find yourself spinning your wheels. Below are the most common productivity mistakes I see in ministry – and how you can avoid them.
First mistake: Thinking the church is all your responsibility.
There’s no doubt about it: Pastoral leadership is a big responsibility. The truth is, it’s not all up to you. The quickest route to an impossible schedule is thinking it all rests on your shoulders.
When we think it’s all up to us, we say yes to everything and everyone, because we’re afraid nothing will happen if we don’t do it. Or we think it won’t be good enough if we don’t keep our hands on every detail.
There’s a spiritual element to this way of thinking. First, we don’t actually trust God enough to let go. So we sacrifice ourselves, and sometimes even our families, to make sure everything happens the way it is “supposed to.”
Second, we don’t trust other people. We don’t believe they can do it as well as we can. Sometimes that’s actually true, yet there are times when it’s better to allow someone else to do something that doesn’t meet our standards. It’s a practice of stepping back—how else will they learn? How else will we learn?
Second mistake: Working until it’s “done.”
You know as well as I do that ministry is never done. There’s always one more email to answer, one more visit to make, one more administrative task to complete. Of course, the sermon has to be written. You’ve got to have something to say.
But if you always work until that one more thing is done, you’ll never be free. You’ll always have something more you could be doing. No one works all the time, but some clergy come close. Never taking time off is a sign you are over functioning.
My two favorite alternatives:
- Set a stopping time. Choose a time that you are done by and stick to it. Close the computer, put the phone away, and leave the office. You are likely to be more productive if you have a stopping time. Work expands to fill the time available.
- Practice “good enough.” The sermon is good enough to preach. You’ve responded to enough emails for today. Trust that God will use your good enough for the sake of God’s work in the world.
This won’t work every day, of course. The unexpected is part of ministry. Some weeks you do want to craft a wonderful sermon that takes extra time. Yet the practices of making a decision, every day, about when you intend to finish can make a difference.
Third mistake: Responding to every interruption.
Interruptions are part of ministry and managing them is critical to helping your productivity.
There are two problems with interruptions. First of all, if you respond to every interruption, you allow others to set your priorities.
A second problem is that you can never concentrate enough to do focused work, whether on sermon planning and preparation or big picture visioning. And that’s the opposite of who you want to be!
Tips for Managing Interruptions:
TURN OFF NOTIFICATIONS! If you are beeped every time someone sends you an email or your Facebook account is updated, you’ll never get anything done. And you’ll end up watching cat videos – am I right?
In some church offices, people stop by the office when they want to. If you are always available, you train them to do it more. I know much ministry takes place in these on-the-fly conversations. This will vary depending on the size and demographics of your church. It’s tricky: If you are always too busy to talk to people, you’ll have problems with your leadership. It’s a balance between presenting yourself as open and setting appropriate boundaries.
However, if you think about it instead of just reacting to every interruption, over time you will find a better balance. You can institute “open door” hours where you are happy to chat, and other times where you are unavailable. Take this as an opportunity to practice (and holding!) boundaries.
Now let’s wrap it up with a few questions to get you more productive.
Big question for you to mull over:
What are the ways you are taking too much responsibility in and for your church?
Immediate question to answer in the comments below:
How do you manage interruptions in your ministry? What works well for you?
I can’t wait to read your ideas, and see what the community wisdom brings!
When a congregation doesn’t have enough money, anxiety goes up. Then the church looks for solutions, usually to their pastor first. And when a pastor is uncomfortable talking about money, everyone is thrown off and is challenged. If the church’s lay leaders want to leave the pastor out, that adds a whole new layer of complication.
Here’s what I want to remind everyone of: every crisis is an opportunity for growth. If you can take it on as an opportunity, you’ll do better.
So, if your church is currently, or may down the line, go through a financial struggle, let’s outline what to do.
First of all, keep clear. You can do this in two steps.
First step to keep clear: Assess the actual situation. Gather with others to get the needed information.
Here are some questions to consider:
- What is actually going on? What do the numbers say?
- Is this the result of a long-term decline that has finally moved into crisis territory?
- Is it a sudden drop? Do you know some of the reasons? Stay in research mode.
- What is the history of this congregation in facing financial challenges?
Second step to keep clear: Determine your thinking. What would you like to say to the leadership about this matter? Remember, you don’t have to solve this alone, but you do have the responsibility to say what you think. It’s best to do some thinking before any meetings. Write it out, ideally by hand (it stimulates your brain)
Then, keep in touch. The key leaders are your greatest allies at this point. Look especially for those who can stay calm and who have a sense of resourcefulness. Practicing explaining your thinking, listening to their concerns, and attending to the relationship.
A quick side note: even if you have financial skills, don’t go it alone. Make sure you are partnering with lay leaders, even if you are not sure they are up to it. If your leaders are anxious or less skilled, work with what you have. Coach them to bring their best thinking to the challenge.
Next, keep in touch with the congregation. Work toward openness. When you know what you want to ask of the members, communicate clearly. They will bring a variety of emotions to the conversation. Your goal as leader is not to protect the congregation but to offer them the challenge of what it means to be a community of faith together. That helps everyone to grow.
Finally, keep cool.
In any crisis, if leaders can keep calm, the crisis is less damaging to the system as a whole. Keep your wits about you as much as you can, and remember this is not your problem to solve alone.
If you have to make hard decisions, you will face resistance. If criticism comes your way, remember that it is not about you personally. Instead, it is coming to you because of the leadership role you occupy. Don’t argue with people or defend yourself; simply thank them for their concern.
Sometimes you can appropriately push the anxiety back to them ”I’m just not sure what we are going to do about this.” You don’t have to be the savior. This church is theirs, not yours. And ultimately, it’s God’s church.
Big Question to Mull Over
Think back to any money challenges and crises in your own family of origin. How were they handled, and what can you learn for your current situation (either that you want to emulate or approach differently)?
Immediate Question to Answer Below
What gives you strength when your church faces a financial gap?
Take a minute and write your answer to the Immediate Question in the comments below. I’d love to hear your thoughts.
Thanks for thinking about this with me!
Note: this article is adapted from a recent module in my training program: Leaders Who Last.
My last post was called, How to preach sermons your people will love, and many of you noted how helpful it was. One reader, David, took it one step further and asked, “Margaret, can you address how to preach sermons that make your people wiggle and keep your job?”
I laughed when I read this comment. First: it’s terrific that David is wanting to push the envelope and is embracing his leadership role. Second: I hear this question all the time: How can I take a stand about something important without stirring the waters TOO much?
So, here we go:
1. Define yourself.
Don’t tell them what to think. When you want to preach on a topic that is controversial or challenging, use “I,” not “you.” This allows the audience to hear you more easily, and play the role of observer. Think through your own values, principles and positions, then carefully write a sermon using clear, simple language that takes a stand for yourself. As you write this, let go of any expectations about whether people will agree, disagree, come along or not. Think of it as an exercise or an experiment. See how curious you can get about what the response will be, without being overly anxious about it. When you come from your own perspective and claim it with clarity, not to mention kindness for those with another view, it is much easier to push the envelope without causing turmoil.
Logistical Note: consider your length of tenure when you decide what you are going to talk about. You can get away with more when you have been there longer.
2. Prepare yourself: don’t get reactive to the reactivity.
This was Edwin Friedman’s mantra about taking a stand, whether around a leadership initiative, or with staff, or even moving the pulpit from one side of the chancel to the other. When people try to engage you in an argument, stay light about it. One of Friedman’s lines was: “The Lord moves in mysterious ways to put you and me in the same church…” When I actually used that line once upon a time, the church member responded, “Well, I was here first…” Yet what it did was help me avoid feeling defensive. It put the whole exchange into a bigger picture. Your goal in this is not to change others, but to manage and express yourself with clarity and compassion.
3. Stay connected to the people who disagree with you.
Don’t avoid them. You don’t have to talk about the topic of the sermon, necessarily. Just stay in touch. If they want to engage on the topic, you might simply get curious about their position on the issue. (See Ron Richardson’s wonderful book Polarization and the Healthier Church for much more on this.) It is often so easy to join with the people who are on your side, and ignore the rest. But that’s not the goal here, so be proactive and stay connected.
There are no guarantees, of course. However, if you can stay non-defensive and relatively light, chances are good you will keep your job, whether you are addressing a controversial social issue, the ministry direction you want to go, or what you believe about the spiritual life (in relation to money, for example).
Pushing the envelope in an established structure is not easy, and I don’t recommend you do it every week or every month. But for the times when you are called on to take a stand, this is what I recommend.
I want to leave you with two questions to consider. The first one is a big question that you can mull over for a while, and the second question is a direct one that I want you to answer immediately in the comments below. Ready?
Big Question to Mull Over:
What issues or beliefs do I feel compelled to take a stand on in my ministry?
Immediate Question To Answer in the Comments Below:
Who have I seen take a stand for something in their ministry that was inspiring?
Take a minute and write your answer to the Immediate Question in the comments below. I’m looking forward to reading your thoughts.
Thanks for exploring this with me!
Most weeks, pastors have to preach a sermon. In addition to worship planning, it’s the most predictable part of our work. Whatever happens, you know you have to get up there and say something. Some weeks it’s a challenge.
Here are three basic questions to ask when you are preparing to preach. For most of you, these will be nothing new. However, it may be a good reminder as you go about the task of preaching. It’s easy to forget when you are pressed for time. However, they can help you most during a busy week.
(For those of you who were on my group coaching call last week, the questions below may sound familiar…)
If you regularly ask these questions, your preaching will be more focused and more relevant.
Why? What is the purpose of this sermon?
Where do you want people to be by at the end of the sermon? Of course, you can’t control how they respond to the message, but you can craft the sermon to make it more likely some at least will get there. What is going on in church life right now? Where are you in the church year, and the overall ministry plan of the church?
What? What is the central message of the text as you are living with it through the week?
What is God saying to you as you live with it, and what do you want to say to your people? Find one clear sentence that expresses what you want to offer to them.
How? What are the ways you will communicate that message to YOUR congregation?
You know that stories are one of the best ways to communicate – which ones will you use: Biblical stories? Your own stories (Yes, talk about yourself, but not too much). Theirs (with permission)? Stand with them allowing the text to address you along with them, as Walter Brueggemann recommended. How long will the message be? (I once saw James Forbes give a 16-point sermon on Nehemiah. It worked. I’m not that skilled, and you probably aren’t, either).
I know you can’t always thoughtfully craft a sermon. Some weeks just don’t go that way. Do your best. When I was preaching weekly, I found that thinking through some of these questions the week before the week I wrote the sermon helped me a lot. Something goes on in the back of your mind over time, even when you aren’t working on it.
What do you find helps you to think through the sermon?
Here’s another post on how to preach like a leader.
How is Holy Week going for you so far?
It’s easy to wear yourself out in the run-up to Easter. I talked with a pastor last week from a tradition that has services every night of Holy Week. He said one year he also had two funerals the two weeks before Easter. He’s planned ahead this year, and is taking time off after Easter to recover. What does it take to get through it?
At my church recently a couple brought their baby to be dedicated (we’re Baptist so we don’t baptize babies). The baby’s father, Malachi Williams, asked to say a few words. He talked about his late grandfather, Rev. George Dick, who was the executive secretary of the Oregon State Council of Churches from 1960-1966, as well as a pastor in Portland. His grandmother, Claribel, just reached her 99th birthday. This is a picture of the two of them together.
Mal pulled out his wallet and read to the congregation some words his grandfather always carried around:
Lord, help me to remember that nothing is going to happen to me today that you and I can’t handle together.
I spoke with Mal afterwards, and he showed me the quote. It’s a photocopy of his grandfather’s original typed version, taped on his wallet where he can see it every time he opens it.
Now, that’s drawing on the strength of previous generations of family every day.
My grandmother used to say, Do your best, angels can’t do better. I don’t remember hearing her say it, but my mother quoted her over and over as I was growing up.
Another favorite Grandma quote was this: God can only guide a moving vessel. In other words, get going, and you will be more able to fall into line with God’s will. If you stay put, you may never get anywhere.
Did your family have any wisdom that you can draw on to support you through Holy Week? Or any challenging week? You may even have found them annoying when you were young. However, they might provide strength in tough times. I’d love to hear about it.
Or you can borrow one of ours.
And here’s another article about surviving Holy Week.