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
Enter your email address to get Six Ways to Last in Ministry and I'll email you right away.
Most churches face a drop in giving in the summertime. People are on vacation, and giving to church isn’t always their top priority. Cash flow can be an issue, and it’s easy for pastors and church leaders to panic.
Here are some suggestions:
To do now:
- Normalize it. Even if you face cash flow challenges, expect it and accept it. Don’t cry “the sky is falling!” (even to yourself). Remember, this happens every year. It’s predictable. You figure it out every year, and you’ll figure it out this year.
- Stay in touch. Keep your church’s ministry in front of your people, even if they aren’t there as often. Maximize whatever communication avenues you use. Here are a few specific ideas:
- Send out stories about the summer mission trip or your summer children’s program.
- Send a mid-summer snail mail ministry update, and ask people to keep supporting the church. People still open their mail!
- Send handwritten giving thank you notes now.
- Instead of panicking, bring this challenge to prayer. Invite your finance team to pray. If they are all hard-headed business types, assure them you are as interested in the bottom line as they are, and share your convictions about the importance of prayer. If they won’t bite, pray anyway, and invite someone outside the team to join you.
To plan for the future:
- Track annual giving patterns. Rather than dividing your budgeted income by 12, look at the last three years and see how the giving has come in. In most churches, December is the biggest month. If you look at 1/12 each month, you’ve got bad news 11 months of the year. Instead, look at what you expect to receive in July and plan for it. You’ll panic less. When I was a pastor, this helped me keep perspective through the year.
- Set up automatic giving. It’s great when people intentionally put money in the offering each week. At the same time, the best way to keep cash flow more even through the year is to make it possible for people to give automatically. At least give them the option. Then, next year in July, they can give even when they are on vacation. Most people want electronic giving options (see this research from Vanco Payment Solutions.)
- Next year, share the summer ministry opportunities early. Invite people to give to support them and the overall ministry of the church through the summer.
Big picture question for you to mull over:
How can you keep the long view when you are facing a short-term challenge (financial or otherwise)?
Immediate question to answer in the comments below:
How does your church encourage people to support the ministry financially through the summer?
I’d love to hear your ideas!
I’ve been thinking about Moses’ leadership. I love the Bible: It doesn’t tie things up into a neat little package. Moses’ story is not like a church leadership manual. No quick fixes – it takes 40 years! I was talking with a coaching client just this week and discovered he had been thinking about Moses, too, after reading Exodus in his daily lectionary. He was struck by the fact that Moses doesn’t actually make it to the Promised Land, and said that was helping him let go of outcome in his own ministry.
I have been writing about leadership and resistance lately, and Moses certainly faced plenty. In fact, there were three kinds of resistance he faced:
- External. There were plenty of outside forces preventing them from reaching their goal. For one thing, the Egyptians did not want them to leave and sent an army to stop them. They had to travel through the wilderness and faced hunger and thirst.
In leading churches today, we’ve got plenty of outside forces: changes in how people relate to institutions, broad forces of secularization and a post-Christendom world, the simple increase in busyness which means people don’t have as much time to give to church. I’m sure you’ve got your own list unique to your setting.
What to do in one sentence: Instead of bemoaning “today’s world,” think of five –or 20—creative ideas for doing ministry in your current context.
- Internal to the community. If you want great examples of resistance and sabotage, just read Exodus. The people were happy as long as it was easy, but when things got hard, they just wanted to go back to the way things used to be. (Sound familiar?) He even faced sabotage from his own brother, Aaron, who gave in to the people’s desire for their own god when Moses was away talking to the real God.
Substitute 1950 and 1960s America for Egypt, and we could be talking about many of our churches. Some people are still harking back to the days when the pews were full and Sunday School classrooms overflowing. The wilderness of having to step beyond our doors instead of waiting for people to come to us is a challenge for many church folks. Some dig in their heels at new mission efforts.
What to do in one sentence: Instead of trying to convince others, focus on your own clarity about where you want to go.
- Internal (to Moses). Moses had his own issues. He had a temper (see Exodus 2). He was impatient. It seems sometimes he had good cause, but the text tells us he even lost it on one occasion when God told him to do something (Numbers 20).
Each one of us has our own internal resistance. We’ve got issues that get in the way of our leadership. We are impatient, conflict-averse, money-phobic, oversensitive.
What to do in one sentence: Instead of blaming others, find one area of personal growth and work on it.
Big questions for you to mull over:
Where am I heading in my ministry? How can I develop myself to help me get there?
Immediate question to answer in the comments below:
What’s an idea you have for creative ministry where you are right now?
And here’s a post on the best way to improve your leadership at church.
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!