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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One of the best resources for church leaders is constantly available, and free. It’s your breath. Using breath consciously can help us slow down and pay better attention to ourselves and others. Our brains need oxygen to work well. In a difficult meeting or conversation we can find ourselves breathing rapidly and shallowly, which can keep us from thinking clearly, just when we need to most.
Here are some ways to use breathing to help your ministry:
1. In prayer. Sit still and breathe, in awareness of God’s presence, for five minutes. Or one.
2. In meetings. When you notice your heart pounding, start breathing more deeply. Take at least five breaths. No one will notice, but you will calm down.
3. Before worship. Stand in the worship space before anyone gets there, and breathe to the back of the room. You’ll be more present in the pulpit. (This exercise comes from the great vocal coach for actors, Patsy Rodenburg.)
How are you breathing?
How focused are you? Too much can be as problematic as too little, and widening our horizons can benefit our leadership. I recently led a clergy retreat in Hoquiam, Washington, on the Olympic Peninsula. Before I headed home, I asked how far we were from the ocean. “About fifteen minutes,” someone said. I am not one to meander home; typically I drive straight through with minimal breaks. But I thought to myself, it’s ridiculous to be this close to the beach and not go. I could feel the pull of the many things I had to do, but I made myself take the little trip. I didn’t spend all afternoon there, but I did find that even a short glimpse of waves and sand, and especially the long ocean horizon, gave me a much-needed sense of perspective.
Widening our perspective and taking a break are about more than stress relief. When we have some new experiences, we can begin to see our leadership context in a new light. And when our perspective is different, we lead differently, and others have the chance to respond to our wider view.
Here are some things that help me keep my focus from becoming too narrow:
1. Nature. In addition to the ocean, there’s a park near my house with old, tall trees. I lean against a tree, and it reminds me that it’s been around a lot longer than I have. My anxiety of the moment is just for a moment, not for a lifetime. I’m really an indoor person, but getting outside is a gift to myself and those I work with.
2. Art. Music, art and fiction feed my own creativity in writing, speaking and leading. I do better work when I keep my creative vision fresh by staying in touch with those who are creative in the arts.
3. Other leaders. In my own arena of church leadership, and in others, it’s easy to connect only with others in my field. I find when I connect, in person and by reading, with leaders in other fields, I discover the gifts of my own area, and that my struggles are not unique to the church. I’m challenged to learn some things I need to know. And I’m more gracious and less whiny when I stay in touch more widely. And beyond collegial relationships, making friends who are not clergy keeps me fresher and makes my life more interesting.
How’s your focus? What do you do to keep it broad enough? What might you try? Who might you connect with who brings a different perspective?
I lived in a parsonage next to the church for thirteen years, a situation that is becoming less and less common. But wherever the pastor lives, the question of managing the intersection of family and church life is almost always an issue.
For church leaders who are married, it’s important to be thoughtful about how much to share about the ministry with our spouses. It’s tempting to vent, particularly when challenges arise: when we have a difficult pastoral encounter or come home furious from a board meeting. Clergy are automatically in an emotional triangle with their spouse and their congregation, and we often want to pull the spouse in more intensely when things get difficult. This response is probably inevitable at times, but there are reasons to avoid doing it automatically.
Here are some reasons not to vent to a spouse:
1. He or she often has a relationship with the people we are venting about. Our venting causes the tension that properly belongs in our relationship with the church member can spill over into that other relationship. And it may keep us from directly addressing the issue appropriately with the parishioner.
2. Our spouse will find it hard to be neutral. They are probably going to automatically take our side (which is what we want when we’re upset). But counsel they give us may not be the most helpful. It may be more useful to find someone outside the congregation, a calm and trusted colleague, mentor or coach, to work through the issues.
3. If we’re talking about church all the time with our spouse, we are not working on our relationship. Ministry even at the best of times is not enough to support a marriage. And when anxiety is high, we may lose sight of the other person altogether.
4. Boundaries are critical in ministry. Ministry marriages need boundaries, between the church and the marriage, and between the pastor and spouse. True intimacy requires appropriate boundaries. As a pastor, I found that if I could keep from blowing off steam about church to my husband I could manage myself better when I had to go back to church. Getting outraged just seemed to feed my outrage, and didn’t help me face the challenges at hand.
This week, consider: what do you tell your spouse, and why?
Teresa of Avila is another leader who inspires me. Like Shackleton, I’ve been considering her work for nearly a decade, and I never get tired of her story. Teresa became a leader in 15th century Spain, a time when women were expected to know their place. She was a mystic in a time when mysticism was suspect. Yet through savvy, charm and sheer determination, she reformed her Carmelite order, navigated the challenges of the Inquisition, and wrote books about the spiritual life which are still read today. She was the first woman declared a Doctor of the Catholic Church.
Here’s a beautiful image of Teresa by Robert Lentz. I have this picture in my office, and I look at it every day.
Who are your favorite leaders? One of mine is Antarctic explorer Ernest Shackleton. I’ve been intrigued by his story for the last decade.
In 1914, Shackleton set out on an expedition to cross the Antarctic continent for the first time, but disaster struck. His ship, The Endurance became frozen into the ice. When the ice began to melt, further disaster struck. The pressure of the ice began to break up The Endurance, and they had to abandon ship. After a couple of attempts to haul the lifeboats and their supplies, Shackleton ordered a halt. They camped out on the ice to wait for the movement of the pack ice to bring them to open water.
Months later, they were finally able to launch the boats. After seven days, they landed on Elephant Island—nothing but barren rock and seals. Shackleton knew he had to go on. With the largest of the lifeboats and five key men, he headed back to South Georgia Island, 800 miles over the roughest ocean on the planet, in winter. Through incredible navigation and sheer luck they landed 16 days later—but on the wrong side of the island. Shackleton and two of his men had to cross the mountainous island which had never been charted. After 36 hours of continuous walking they reached the whaling station on the other side. Then they returned to rescue the men on Elephant Island. Unbelievably, no one was lost from this expedition.
Shackleton showed tremendous courage, and the willingness to attempt the impossible. He knew exactly what he was after. After the disaster, his goal became survival for all, and he never lost sight of that goal. He was able to tolerate the loneliness of being in charge, of being responsible for his men. He could deal with the challenges of the environment, and also with the challenge of dealing with a diverse group with varying needs, even facing down a potential mutiny.
At the same time, Shackleton was always connected to his men. He was always aware of what was going on with them. He pushed them hard, challenging them to do more than they ever thought possible. He coddled them, at times, and made sure they had as much fun and entertainment as possible.
Most of us don’t face life or death choices, or an Antarctic climate. Shackleton’s story gives me perspective on my own challenges, and shows me that the impossible can be possible.
What about you? What leaders inspire you? Post your comment here.
Are you thinking about succession? What will happen when you leave? Churches frequently don’t pay much attention to planning for future leadership. Sometimes a long-term pastor is understandably dependent on his or her role, and finds it too difficult to discuss the future. “Who am I if I’m not the pastor of this church?” may be a very real question. Another may be, “Who is this church without Pastor X?” Considering these questions over time as a transition approaches, or even before, personally and with key leaders, can be good for everyone’s growth. Pastoral leaders can feel vulnerable discussing this. We can wonder, what if they say, we’d be better off without you? But helping the church grapple with difficult questions about the future is part of leadership.
Churches are not the only organizations who struggle with succession. Here’s a fascinating article from the New York Times Magazine about the New York Yankees: “Oedipus Bronx”. And check out the story of King David’s sons to see how intense it can get (II Samuel 12-I Kings 2). It makes church life look easy.
I’ve been blogging about church leadership for just over a year now. I hope it’s been helpful to you as you’ve read it. Here’s what it’s done for me:
1) Provided a structure for me to write down my thoughts about leadership at least a couple of times a week.
2) Given me access to the thoughts and reflections of others on topics that I value. Thanks so much to all you who have commented. Keep it up!
3) The discipline of writing regularly led me to write a book proposal for my new book, Leaders Who Last: Sustaining Yourself and Your Ministry, which was accepted by Church Publishing and will come out early next year.
4) Gave me the delight of seeing people at speaking engagements around the country who say, “I’m reading your blog.”
Thanks for reading. I look forward to more in the next year.
Have you ever said about your followers, “If they would only–“? If we pay more attention to our own goals than to what others are doing, ultimately we will find ourselves having more influence.
As leaders, we do need to keep our eye on our followers, because we’re not leading if no one is following. But if we’re thinking more about them then about our own purpose, we won’t know where we’re going. It is exhausting to think about others all the time. And we can find ourselves spending a lot of energy trying to convince others to agree with us. Or we tiptoe around those who are difficult and make a lot of noise, which can also wear us out. Or we ask people where they want to go so we can lead them there.
Before you focus on others, you need to focus on yourself. What are your goals for yourself as a leader, long term and short-term? For example: you can plan how to spend your time this year. For example: I’d like to learn more about supervision, or dramatic presentation methods. Or, I plan to get out of the office more and connect with people in the community. Goals can also be short-term and immediate: in this particular meeting I plan to say less–or more.
We use our energy better when we focus on ourselves and our own functioning, rather than constantly trying to scope out others. For one thing, we can control ourselves, not others. I can’t control the outcome of any given meeting, no matter how critical. I can only manage how I function, what I chose to say and do in that meeting. Paradoxically, how I act, particularly if I can stay calm and clear without getting anxious or defensive, can make a difference to the outcome. Controlling how I act changes how others respond to me, which is different from, and far more effective than, trying to control how everything turns out.
Clarity about our own purpose takes time and energy. Discerning our direction deserves our attention. But if we have clear goals for ourselves, both short-term and longer-term, our anxiety will automatically be lower. A clear, calm leader lowers everyone else’s anxiety, too, and helps give people the confidence to follow.