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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Do you come home from church and complain? Belly ache about the frustrations of ministry, a difficult church member, or your crazy schedule?
Complaining about church is nearly inevitable—however, I recommend you do it as little as possible, especially because…:
- Complaining reinforces your negative thoughts. Venting to your spouse will not make you feel better, or not for long. It can even cause you to feel worse. (See this.)
- Complaining creates negative feelings in your family toward the church. When I was a pastor, of course I complained from time to time. However, I did try to keep in mind that my husband had relationships with these people, too. If I ranted and raved too much, I knew it would have a negative impact on those connections. I’ve seen cases where pastors’ children have not only left the church but left their faith behind because of how the church treated their father or mother.
- Complaining reinforces your feeling of helplessness—and theirs. They can take no action which will improve your situation. In fact, the opposite is true: if your spouse were to step in, it would create a triangle that will not benefit your ministry. A defensive spouse can never do any good.
- Complaining doesn’t build your relationship with your family members. In fact, it can be detrimental to those relationships. Trust me: if you complain a lot, you are not a delight to spend time with.
So what do you do, when you feel the need to vent or complain? Check this out:
- Find a neutral party. When you need help thinking through a challenging church situation a coach, colleague or friend can hold that space for you without the major relationship impact of venting to family.
- Strategically assess what to say to your spouse. You can share your own experience and thoughts without complaining. The conversation will be more productive, I guarantee it.
- Consider what the complaint gives you. Can you turn your complaint about the other person into a request to them? If the youth director turned up late and caused a problem with the youth retreat, you can set up a conversation and request that she be in time in the future (and follow up next time). What opportunity is hiding in the complaint? Be curious and creative.
- Celebrate the positive things at church and share those with your family. We often put more energy into responding to the negative than we do the positive.
- Instead of complaining, pray for the person or situation you want to complain about. In some cases, simply mentioning the name to God may be all you can do. That’s enough.
Questions for reflection: Am I in the habit of complaining about church at home? What positive habit can I substitute?
The last time I wrote to you I outlined the #1 reason pastors burn out: overfunctioning. There’s a second reason pastors burn out, and it’s related to #1. To be honest, I’m not sure which one is first or second. I know I’ve been caught in both, and you probably have, too.
Ready for the cold hard truth?
Pastors burn out because they take responsibility for other people’s relationships.
Pastors feel responsibility for people getting along. For fixing broken marriages, or tending wounds between siblings. In family systems thinking, this is called being caught in a triangle. And it happens all the time at church.
Some triangles go with the job: You, the board, and the congregation. You, your predecessor, the congregation. You can’t get out of them. Other triangles are ones that you get invited into: A mother and her daughter, and the mother’s expectation you can straighten out her kid. The administrator and the custodian have a problem, and you are expected to fix it.
The trick is to be in these triangles you are a part of without being caught-without feeling like it’s up to you to fix other people’s relationships. That’s a kind of overfunctioning. It can be deadly. It’s certainly stressful, and it distracts you from your own ministry goals.
Here are four ways to approach your triangles. I’ve written these down before, but even I have to remind myself about them all the time, and you probably need reminding, too.
1.You can’t change a relationship you are not a part of. If you are in a triangle, or get invited into one, the only people who can affect the “other side” of the triangle are the ones who are in that relationship. This is an absolute fact.
2. When you try to change the relationship, it often gets worse. The more you try to get the administrator and the custodian to get along, the worse it gets. Now, I’m not saying you simply let it go. You may need to be clear with each of them about what you expect from your employees. But you let go of your feeling that it is up to you to solve the problem. You leave the responsibility where it belongs –with them.
3.The person taking the responsibility feels stressed. When people pull you into a triangle, they want you take on the stress. They are happy for you to relieve their anxiety-it releases them from the responsibility for their own relationships. But it’s not good for you, and it’s ultimately not beneficial for them. It also sets up a pattern that you are the go-to for any problems, and we know that dynamic is detrimental.
4. You can only change a relationship you actually belong to. And even then, most of the time you can really only change yourself, your perspective, and your behavior. You can connect directly with people. With staff members, for example, you can refuse to listen to one complain about the other, and talk with each one instead about their own goals for their functioning and their work. Simply because you’re invited or pulled into a triangle, doesn’t mean you have accept the invitation.
Questions for reflection: Where am I taking responsibility for other people’s relationships? What might I do instead?
Learn more: Israel Galindo wrote a helpful series of seven blog posts on triangles, based on an interview I did with him on triangles some years ago. You can find the first one and links to succeeding posts here.
Get more help: It can be tricky to tease out the triangles in congregational life. I do a lot of coaching with clergy on these matters. Contact me for a free conversation to see if I can help you think it through.
Burnout: the condition of someone who has become very physically and emotionally tired after doing a difficult job for a long time. (Merriam-Webster.com)
Can you relate to any of that? Do you ever wonder how much longer you can keep going in ministry? Here’s a little secret: pastors burn out not because of hard work but because of overfunctioning.
Overfunctioning: persistently taking on more responsibility than is genuinely yours.
As Rabbi Edwin Friedman says, “Stress comes less from overwork than from taking responsibility for the problems of others.”
I first heard that quote over 20 years ago and it ultimately changed my ministry and my life. You’ve heard that quote from me before and you’ll hear it again – it’s that important.. Most of us in ministry are born and bred to take responsibility for others. The thing is that it doesn’t truly help others and it doesn’t help us. Instead, it leads to burnout in us and stunted growth in others.
What to do instead? Here are my five tips.
- Redefine your “job.” As a pastor, I changed my own job description from “helping others” to “helping others grow.” There’s a big difference. When you help others grow, you may actually “help” them less. You insist they take responsibility for themselves. You provide more challenge. You also create an inherent boundary of what is and what is NOT your job.
- Lower your standards. I see pastors wearing themselves out by doing things others ought to be doing, whether it’s planning worship, leading the youth group, proofreading, being in charge of music. None of these tasks are detrimental in themselves. But if you persistently do them because others can’t perform to your standards, or there just isn’t anyone to do it, it is a warning sign to let go. While I’m all for excellence in ministry, when all the excellence rests on the back of the pastor, it’s not good for anyone.
- Take a breath before you say yes. Simply pause and ask yourself, “Is this my responsibility?” You may need to make a split-second discernment, and you won’t always get it “right.” It’s a spiritual practice. What is yours and what is the responsibility of others? Should you say yes or should you say no? If you ask yourself the question, you’ll overfunction less.
- Let your church’s future be its responsibility. Of course, the role of pastor is important. Solid leadership is essential. However, you can’t 100% ensure your church’s golden future, even if you stay there the rest of your life. You don’t have that kind of power. This is the biggest burnout position for pastors. Denominations want you to take this responsibility on. So does your church: “Pastor, if you only [preached longer/shorter/visited more/attracted younger people….]’ Do your best, then let go.
- Be willing to feel a little guilty. Overfunctioning pastors who step it down a little feel guilty. This is a good sign! Just because you feel guilty doesn’t mean you are doing the wrong thing. Just because others criticize you for not doing enough doesn’t mean you aren’t working hard enough. Treat it like thoughts during meditation–let it pass through your brain and let it go. Don’t get defensive. One caveat: If you overfunction less, others won’t step up immediately. Be prepared for some lag time, and some pushback. (“Pastor, why aren’t you [fill in the blank] any more?”) That’s all right. In fact, if you get some criticism about it, you’re probably on the right track.
Questions for reflection: What is one area you might be overfunctioning? How could you step back a little?
When I started in ministry 30 years ago I knew next to nothing about stewardship. I was anxious, puzzled, and didn’t feel up to the task. So not up to the task that I remember that first year I called my judicatory representative in a panic saying, “What do I do?!” For someone who always wants to look competent and in control, that said a lot.
And if I could go back in time, here’s what I would tell my money-avoidant self:.
- Financial stewardship is ministry. Helping people in their relationship with their resources is one of the most important things we do in ministry. It helps them mature spiritually, become more generous and find greater freedom. What could be more important?
- Talking about money once a year is not enough. I didn’t know that an annual campaign could never provide what the church–and its people–need. I, and a lot of other leaders, loved pushing aside the money conversation until one focused moment in time and then rushing through it when the time arrived. It took me years to shift this mindset and learn the lesson. It became easier when I talked it more often. It normalized money for me and for the congregation
- Stewardship can be fun. Believe it or not, working with a motivated year-round stewardship team, full of creative people, became one of the most satisfying and enjoyable parts of my ministry. Most of us take money very seriously, in church and at home. I still have to work to lighten up. But in fact, when we get are more light-hearted about money matters, it easier to be creative, and we make it easier for people to decide to give.
- Money can be a blessing. I grew up with a dualistic attitude toward money. My dad was in business, and I can remember my mother being a little apologetic about it. (Her own father was a pastor.) In some church circles, we are ashamed to talk about money. We think there’s something tainted about it. Yet when we have resources, we can do ministry that isn’t possible without it. Not only can money offer blessings, we bless people when we give them an invitation to share their money to do God’s work on the world.
- I don’t need to be apologetic or afraid. I got better and clearer in leading stewardship. I got braver. I had help, with mentors both in person and in writing. I’m still learning. But I’m not afraid to ask people to give money to what I believe in anymore.
(Click here to read last week’s article on 5 things about ministry I wish I knew 30 years ago.)
And if you’re looking or more tangible tools to have your own financial breakthrough – check out my e-book Money and Your Ministry: Balance the Books While Keeping Your Balance. (Click here for the paper or Kindle versions.)
I’m writing to you from my heart. I was a pastor for 15 years, and I’ve been helping pastors with their ministries for another 15. Yes, that means I’ve had 30 years seeing churches from multiple sides: as a pastor, as a member, as a consultant, and as an outsider looking in. I realized there are some major lessons I wish I’d known back in the 80s. I want to share those with you, so you don’t have to three decades to learn them.
First, I wish I’d deeply believed that it was truly NOT all up to me. I knew this in theory when I started, but now I really know it at another level. When you are serving a church that is 50 or 100 years old, there’s a cloud of past witnesses surrounding you. The past is formative and essential, and you can’t change it. You are also surrounded by a crowd of people who can make the ministry happen (or not). Pastors place enormous pressure on themselves. Leadership is important and so is truly being part of a community. God is present with us, no matter what the results. Extend yourself some grace.
Second, I wish I’d not taken criticism to heart. We are all humans. We love praise, and avoid criticism. I love it when people love what I do, and I still don’t like criticism. However, I learned over the years to toughen up and keep it in context. Part of my work is to help other pastors do the same. Criticism can actually be a sign you are making progress. If no one criticizes you, you probably aren’t doing enough to rock the boat. I learned, not to like it, but to see it as the price of progress.
Third, I wish I’d known that “this too, shall pass.” I heard this as a child-it was one of my mother’s favorite quotes. But what I didn’t know was how essential it is in ministry. People get upset. I get upset, angry, afraid, frustrated. “This too, shall pass.” The emotions of the moment will not last. My husband sometimes says, “Will this matter in ten years?” I hate it when he asks this, and I also know it’s a good question. More often than not, the answer is no.
The same is true about the moments of elation and even great success. They will pass. Tomorrow there will be yet another challenge. It’s tempting to think, “We’ve made it,” but progress is two steps forward, one step back. It’s the nature of life. If I can accept that, I can be more present to what’s actually important right in front of me.
Finally, I wish I’d known that being myself as God intended is my #1 job. As my mentor, Larry Matthews, used to say, “Being myself is a full-time job.” My job is not to make other people change. It’s not to “succeed.” It’s not to grow my church. It is to be faithful to my call.
It’s wonderful to write this all out. Thank you for reading this list. I hope it resonated with you. This level of authenticity, mentorship, and reflection are what motivate all my workshops, speaking engagements, and online products. My most successful and impactful program is called Leaders Who Last . It’s a year of support, and clergy all over the US and Canada are reporting more clarity, calm, and confidence in their ministry. In being myself as God intended, I am honored to continue to support these masterful leaders in their own endeavours. If you’d like to join Leaders Who Last, or even just check it out, you can click here.
Here’s to all your important work, and the lessons we’re always learning,
Church communication is necessary, and difficult. Improving communication is like painting the Golden Gate Bridge. You always have to work on it.
So with that in mind, I created 10 ways to keep your communication humming. Take a look at this list – give yourself a pat on the back for the ones you’re already doing, and then experiment with adding in the new ones.
Ready? Let’s go:
- Know the purpose for every communication. If you are writing anything, write this sentence first: the purpose of this __________ is ___________. You will automatically communicate better. If you are calling someone, know your purpose before you dial the number. When you’re facilitating a meeting, clearly state the purpose up front, and come back to it again and again.
- Define yourself.Say as clearly as you can what you think, want, believe, or hope for. The effort of getting clear for yourself will improve your communication.
- Don’t worry about convincing people, just say it. Let go of how people will respond to your ideas. Don’t try to talk people into anything. It never works in the long term, and your ideas get lost in the process.
- Focus on people who are motivated. Don’t chase after people who don’t want to listen. No matter how valuable your message, they can’t hear you. Whether they are church members or your own teenagers, the principle is the same. Look for those who are motivated, whose eyes light up. They are ready for your message – so share it with them.
- Communicate with the listener/reader in mind. Even as you are defining yourself, think about those who will receive the message. What motivates them? What language do they use? Help them hear your message.
- Avoid insider jargon. Assume people don’t know Christian shorthand, Bible stories, or church acronyms. It’s better to over-explain than under-explain. One of the best ways to make newcomers feel like outsiders is to talk in cryptic language.
- Listen as much as you talk. In any meeting or conversation, monitor how much you are talking. Stop and listen from time to time. Don’t be a pastor who monologues.
- When you listen, listen fully. Spend your listening time seeking to understand the other. Don’t be too distracted by formulating an answer. If you need to answer, it’s all right to say, “I need to think about this.” Then come back to them with a clear purpose and response.
- Over-communicate when anxiety is high (and at all other times, too). Don’t assume one communication is enough. Communicate multiple times and in multiple ways. At times of transition or stress in the congregation, anxiety will make it even harder for people to hear. Double your efforts to get the message out. Never take it personally if someone doesn’t get the message.
- Remember to keep it brief. We remember sound bites, not entire speeches. Leave people wanting more. Now more than ever, people need a short, clear message.
Question for reflection: which one of these can you commit to attempting this week?
In the busyness of life, you do have dinner with your family, right? So, what do you talk about at the dinner table?
I recently read an article about Robert Caro, author of multiple biographies of President Lyndon Johnson. His wife is his researcher. Yet Caro says they never talk about LBJ at dinnertime.
That struck me. I do have dinner with my husband most nights I’m not traveling. And, I noticed how I spent much of that time talking about my work and what happened that day (with a little about his day…). I decided to change my habit.
My husband is a public reference librarian, and in quiet moments he looks up science news online. I started asking him, “Did you read anything interesting on the Internet today?” It’s made our dinner conversation far more interesting and even inspiring. Plus, I’m getting a deeper understanding of what makes him tick (after decades–). Last night he told me about some new research into trilobite fossils. (Here’s the link for you science geeks.)
Bring your pastoral skills home.
Day in and day out, you listen at work. So it’s time to practice listening to your spouse and your children, and talking about what they are interested in. Broaden your perspective. Treat them as well as you do members of the congregation.
Whatever you are talking about, keep it positive. No ranting about church or politics.
Does this mean you never talk about church at home? Of course not. It’s close to your heart and you want to share it with those you are closest to. However, venting about church to your spouse is overrated and it doesn’t help you solve the problem. (Stay tuned for that article).
Here are three suggestions for your next family meal:
- Ask each person what they want (for tomorrow’s dinner, for vacation, in life). Then listen.
- Tell each person what you appreciate about them.
- If you do talk about church, share the good things that happened.
If you try these steps out, please do email me and let me know how the experiment goes. I’d love to hear how this works for you.
Question for reflection: If you are partnered, what is your partner most interested in? When can you engage them in conversation about it?
Until next week,
Are you ready for September? I know, some of the organized types started planning for fall this last January. But if the pastors I speak to are representative, you’re not completely ready yet. When I was a pastor, I don’t think I was EVER completely prepared for September when it came. I always put off the hardest stuff (like stewardship!) until the last minute.
However, I’m a convert to planning and prioritizing. My friend, Sage Cohen, puts it this way in her wonderful new book on writing, Fierce on the Page:
“When you don’t know what’s most important, you can’t prioritize how to spend your time, you don’t know when you’ve met your goals, and you can literally end up working through the night—usually on the wrong project…Whatever is loudest or most uncomfortable or most important to someone else gets your attention first, and thus you remain in a cycle of doing instead of planning.”
Instead of staying in that cycle, take a little time and step back. Think about the time between now and Advent and map it out. Here are my favorite three steps to get the ball rolling.
- Look back. Review the last three months. Make a list of what you accomplished, and celebrate it. “Accomplished” here includes resting, watching the Olympics, camping, or whatever gave you joy this summer. And it includes work-related tasks you completed and any projects you did around the house. It’s important to take the time to claim the progress you’ve made. It will give you momentum for fall. (True confessions: I’ve been doing this myself this year, but in this quarterly planning cycle I forgot. I had to go back and do it. I got a burst of energy when I saw everything I did this summer, including taking three full weeks off the grid!)
- Look ahead. I just did this for myself, using my own Breathing Room: Create a 3-Month Ministry Plan. I wrote a purpose for the next three months, looked at the commitments I already have, and one or two additional projects I want to take on. THEN, I made my plan. Looking at the whole quarter helped me get a sense of what is realistic to add to my current schedule. It gave me a greater sense of control.
- Use your plan every week. I know how often church strategic plans end up in a file, untouched and inefficient. Personal plans can suffer the same fate. At the beginning of the week, get out your plan and take a look. Make a decision about how you can move your projects forward a little. You won’t carry out the plan 100%. That’s OK. You’ll get much farther with less effort than you would have without a plan.
Question for reflection: What do you want for the next 90 days?
Here’s to your next 3 months!
P.S. Need a bit more guidance for your next quarter? Check out my Breathing Room: Create a 3-Month Ministry Plan in 5 Sessions, and get my help to make this season your best yet.