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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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.
Are you exhausted? Do you feel the weight of your church? Edwin Friedman used to say, “Stress comes less from overwork than from taking responsibilities for the problems of others.” It’s the most common source of clergy burnout. It’s that simple. Simple, but not always easy to address.
Here are some problems that clergy often take responsibility for:
- The relationship between squabbling members.
- Whether or not the congregation will still be in existence in a generation.
- What people think about them (if it’s negative).
- Whether staff members are happy.
- What parents think of the youth leader
- The relationship between parents and children in a church family (whatever their age, adolescents/parents or adult children/aging parents).
People will do their best to make these your problems. They think that is what you get paid for, and sometimes you think that is what you get paid for.
You don’t have to know everything.
One way to handle these is to get “stupid.” Act like you don’t know the solution. It won’t be an act, because you don’t know. You can’t change how adults behave, relate or think. You can’t know the best answer for someone else. It’s up to them.
Here are a few possible responses:
“Gee, I don’t know what to do about Mrs. So-and-So. What do you think?”
“If I knew what the answer was to make sure we are still in 30 years, I’d ask for a big raise. What do you think?”
“The Lord moves in mysterious ways to put you and me in the same church.” (A classic Friedman line that gets you out of the bind of trying to make them happy.)
Now, you may not have the nerve to use any of these. I’ve found, however, that sometimes simply thinking one of them helps me loosen up and lowers my anxiety enough to consider what I actually can get out of my mouth.
Friedman said that if you keep rescuing people you never get change.
Avoid clergy burnout by focusing on your own goals
What to do instead: focus on your own goals, not on other people’s goals for you or your goals for them. You will be better off. Though it may seem counterintuitive, they will be better off, too. You are insisting they take responsibility for themselves, their relationships and their future. In addition, you are doing the same for yourself.
That’s productive work.
And here’s a post on working a little less hard.
Here are 3 ways to make stewardship preaching easier.
I recently interviewed Rev. Dr. Clayton Smith, executive pastor of generosity at the Church of the Resurrection in Leawood, Kansas, in preparation for launching a podcast. But I don’t want to wait for the podcast to share with you some of his helpful thoughts on stewardship and preaching about money.
Clayton said that his D.Min. research showed that 2/3 of the pastors he interviewed would truly rather have a tooth pulled than preach about stewardship. The other 1/3 have more prophetic gifts and don’t mind stepping on toes. Which are you?
Here are three ways to reduce the pain, Clayton said.
1. Focus on the mission.
Review your mission statement, and look at the last three years of how your financial program has done. Think, for example, “We could do so much more if we had an increase of 10%.”
2. Focus on the ministry of it.
He says at the Church of the Resurrection, attention goes not to what they want from their people, but first what they want for them—more financial freedom, more generosity, more awareness of God’s provision. The purpose is “faith-raising” as much as “fund-raising.”
3. Focus on the relationships.
“Nurture the relationships you have with people,” Clayton said. He added that if you had coffee with givers once a month, in a year’s time you would make real progress. He also suggested you ask, “Would you consider giving a gift, or giving more?” He said that word “consider” helped make it easier for him to ask individuals to make bigger gifts.
Note: when you develop those relationships, it becomes easier to preach because you know people better. In addition, it will be far easier for people to hear what you have to say. Of course, in a larger church you can’t do this with everyone, but you can focus on key leaders.
Here’s a word of hope. Clayton said for many years as a senior pastor, this was his own most challenging area of ministry. Now it’s become a specialty and a calling. His book Propel is well worth reading.
Here’s an excellent article he wrote on setting stewardship goals.
Do you want to be a better pastor? Here are three tips you can use to improve your leadership at church, courtesy of Jesus. They come from the great commandment:
“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbour as yourself.” Matthew 22:27-40
Of course, these are far more than tips. They are commandments, which means God asks us to live them out. They are not simple, and not easy. However, even a little progress in any one of them can make us better pastoral leaders.
This is obvious, and you’d think we’d put this at the top of our priority list. You might say, I’m serving God, don’t you think I love God? However, it’s all too easy to put God at the bottom of our priority list in terms of time spent. Prayer gets crowded out by the busyness of ministry life. We know God will be there waiting, and the board chair/dying parishioner/noisy son or daughter can’t seem to wait.
Alternatively, we may feel a little cranky with a God who called us into such a challenging ministry, with the attendant struggles and often personal and congregational financial challenges. We avoid having the hard conversations in prayer.
I’ve said before that five minutes, or even one minute, of prayer is better than no minutes. I don’t want to make you feel guilty for not praying. I want you to get the spiritual support you need for your ministry. Remember, even if you don’t feel like you can love God right now because you are struggling, God always loves you. See if you can at least receive that love for a moment or two each day.
Love your neighbor.
Let’s face it: this can be a challenge in ministry. It’s easy to love the neighbor (read, church member) who loves us. It’s much harder to love the church member who is constantly critical, has no boundaries, or can’t tolerate even an ounce of change.
Yet there’s this commandment. Can you open your heart even an inch more to the most difficult person in your congregation? Note: this doesn’t mean letting them get away with everything, including taking hours of your time each week. It does mean accepting them just as they are, trusting that God loves them despite their challenges or the difficulties you have with them.
If you move toward loving those who are most difficult, you’ll notice a lighter spirit in relation to them. It may never be easy, but it can be a little bit easier.
At the same time, make sure to spend some time with the easy wonderful people in your congregation, the ones who are easy to love.
Jesus doesn’t say explicitly love yourself, but he does say Love your neighbor as yourself. So in fact this shouldn’t be last. When I was a child I learned a Sunday School song that said, “Jesus, others, then you, what a wonderful way to spell joy.” Message: always put yourself last. I don’t think that’s what Jesus intended here.
Can you love yourself no matter what is going on in the ministry, whether worship attendance is up or down, or giving is up or down, whether people in the church love you or are ready to ask you to leave?
Love yourself as much as God does – or move in that direction – and you’ll be more joyful.
Here’s a post on lowering your ministry stress.