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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Today, I am writing you a long letter. Usually I try to keep things concise because I know how busy you are, but here’s the thing–this challenge is one of the biggest that leaders face. It’s one almost all of my coaching clients have grappled with. And it’s an important conversation to have. So please, give yourself these next few minutes with this letter. I’d appreciate it, and I know your congregation will too.
So, I know that every pastor has had this experience: You know the direction you want to go, whether it’s big or small. You float the idea in a conversation, in a board meeting, or in a sermon. You get one or more of the following responses:
- Their eyes glaze over.
- They respond with some version of “no.” Sometimes they say, “It would never work here,” or, “We tried that and it wasn’t successful” or even, “Over my dead body.”
- They say “yes” but then…nothing ever happens.
And sometimes, it’s infuriating.
What’s a leader to do? After years of having this experience myself, and then coaching leaders and even boards through this, I’ve come up with four steps to take.
First, calm down. Remember, this is part of the inevitable process that happens when leaders move forward. It’s not about you personally. It’s not about how well you made your case. It is not about whether they like you or not. It does not mean they don’t value you. You’re won’t minimize the resistance by talking longer or louder. Consider yourself in good company with every other leader. They make a move, and someone opposes it, actively or passively.
As you get calmer, do all you can to let go of the outcome. This doesn’t mean you don’t want what you want. It doesn’t mean you don’t care about the ministry. What it means is that you can be freer. See how close you can get to thinking you can handle it whether they say yes or no. Paradoxically, that gives more emotional space for people to hear you and over time to come along.
Know someone who needs to hear this point? Click the image to share on Facebook.
Second, get clearer. Go back and re-think what you are proposing.
What do you want?
What are you really asking?
Are you setting goals for others they don’t have for themselves?
(That’s the classic burnout position.)
Clarify for yourself what you can control and what you can’t. What decisions can you make, and what do others need to make. Then write down some “I” statements (remember those?) about what’s important to you, and what you are going to do (and in some cases, not do).
Third, connect. The knee-jerk reaction here is to withdraw or withhold. I get it, but it doesn’t serve you or the relationship. So as much as it may feel like climbing Mt. Everest, make sure you stay in touch with people. Connect in general and about the issue at hand. Pay extra attention to pastoral care. Stay interested in people and cultivate connection with them as individuals and as leaders and members of the congregation.
Then, have conversations with key individuals about the topic at hand. Lovett Weems, director of the Lewis Center for Church Leadership, speaking at the Ecumenical Stewardship Center Generosity Now Conference recently shared a brilliant question: “Who are the people without whom this will not happen?” He recommended you have conversations with those people, whether or not they are in formal leadership positions or not.
The purpose of these conversations is not to convince them of your position, but to briefly share some of your thinking and to truly hear their perspective on this issue. In many cases they know the congregation better than you. If you respectfully ask their opinion and deeply listen, you will more likely enlist their support later. Don’t try to convince them of anything in this conversation. Use your pastoral skills and listen.
Finally, keep going. Ministry is all about the long game. You may decide, after further thinking and listening that now is not the time for this initiative. That’s OK. You don’t want to waste your effort. Come back again later. Or you, may decide, in consultation with others, that now is the time. You will have to be prepared for further resistance, but now you will have enough allies to make it possible. Persistence is essential in leadership. But remember, you’re not leading if no one is following you.
Now, having said all this, when have you faced resistance? How have you handled it? What worked for you to enlist support for ministry ideas? I’d love to hear from you. Take a moment to reflect on how you’ve grown through these speed bumps and comment below, or email me your stories.
P.S. I’m going to add something new to complement this blog—live video! On most Mondays at noon PT I’ll be doing a brief Facebook live video on the topic of the week, whether it’s. I’ll share my initial thoughts on the topic, then will look for your input so I can make Thursday’s article as relevant as possible.
Make sure you friend me on Facebook so you’ll see when I go live. And let me know what questions you have about these ministry topics: leadership, money, relationships, productivity, personal growth or communication. What do you struggle with? What do you want to know?
Here’s one of my best tips for getting more done in ministry. I’m wondering if you did it this morning.
Plan your day . . . before you check your email.
If you did that this morning, awesome. And if you didn’t–well, try it tomorrow! I find there is a close correlation between my ability to do this and how productive I am, and I’m hooked on this strategy.
Because this is more than a technical fix.
When you make decisions about your day before checking email, you are saying, I am going to define my day. I am not letting others define it for me. You are setting your priorities for the day. You are blocking out time when you are not going to be available. You are making time for your most important projects.
Now, I know that one of those emails could derail your plan. That’s OK. All good plans are flexible. It’s the practice of deciding, day after day, that you are in charge of your own schedule, that’s important. Then you can assess when you do read those emails what is the relative importance of the requests people are making of you.
The corollary of course, is to plan your day before you look at social media. Personally, I find this easier, although I slip up once in awhile. Social media is designed to get and keep your attention. That may not serve your highest priorities very well. (Tip: I use Social Fixer, a browser add-on for Facebook where you can make choices about what you want to see. It also only allows you to see 50 posts at a time, then you have to make a choice to continue.)
I’ve been learning a little about the brain and the way experiences that provide intermittent rewards are the most addictive. Email provides this. The social media companies are intentional about designing experiences that do it. Likewise, we need intention to take the time alone to do the daily, thoughtful planning that are essential for making progress in ministry.
How do you plan your day? What choices can you make about email and social media that will help you? I’d love to know, just email me back.
- Spend time with them.
Touch base with them between meetings. Find out more about them, their families, their interests. You will know more about their strengths and places they need to grow. You can connect electronically, but I strongly suggest you simply pick up the phone. Even if they don’t call you back, they will know you were thinking about them. An idea to consider: one pastor told the members of the board he would read a book they suggested and meet with them to discuss it. It worked so well to foster a deeper connection that he did it again another year.
If you have to choose, prioritize developing leaders over visiting shut-ins, even in a small church. Don’t feel guilty and don’t pay attention to the people who say you don’t visit enough if that’s part of the culture of your church. You need relationships with your leaders in order to do your job. You can’t delegate this.
- Use meetings to help them grow.
Teach them. Have a brief learning time at each board meeting. You’ll need to enroll the president or chair to get this on the agenda, and you may face some resistance. Here’s my experience: If you have a clear agenda and a set closing time for the meeting, you can do a few minutes of teaching and still end on time. Discussion expands to fill the time available. Some boards have studied my book Leaders Who Last. I used Ron Richardson’s Creating a Healthier Church.
Pray with and for them. Rev. Cindy Maybeck insisted that her board have a prayer time at every meeting and that they pray aloud. This was her primary teaching. They resisted strongly, and it took years, but at the end they all felt like that was one of her biggest contributions to their own leadership and the life of the church. Also let your leaders know you are praying for them, and then do it. It doesn’t have to take a long time.
- Allow them to lead.
Be clear about what their role is and what your role is. Allow them to play their role. This will vary depending on your structure. For example, in an Episcopal church, the rector has more authority than in a congregational church like UCC or Baptist. If a decision is on the table that is not yours to make, put your case forward. Then say, “I recognize this is your decision.” After the decision, even if you strongly disagree, communicate that you respect them and the choice they made. Then act accordingly
Three questions to consider:
Who are the current leaders I want a closer relationship with?
What do I want to teach my leaders or learn alongside them?
Can I stick to my role, and let them play theirs?
Here are five important things about money every pastor ought to know. Any one of them can be difficult to learn depending on your background, life experience and aptitude. This is not a 5 quick tips article. However, over time (in some cases, years) and with practice you’ll be better able to lead in stewardship and overall church financial matters.
- How to give. It’s hard to teach what you don’t know. You may have been raised in a family that was generous, or maybe you didn’t. You may have ample resources, or you may struggle under the weight of a small salary and large debt. Whatever your situation, prayerfully and thoughtfully consider how you can be generous and what God is calling you to give.
- Your own cash flow. Figure out how money flows into and out of your life and make note of your financial priorities.. Know whether you are facing a surplus or a deficit each month. Be sure you are making intentional decisions about spending, saving and giving. This will help with #1. I know we can have a lot of resistance to doing this. But I’ve noticed that not-knowing takes more energy than knowing. Facts can calm you down and help you take action, even if the bottom line doesn’t look great. And if you have a surplus, you can still make more intentional choices about how you use the money you do have.
- How to read a financial statement. I didn’t learn much about this until I had been a pastor for a number of years. I’ll ever be grateful to Andover Newton Theological Seminary for offering a Woodbury Workshop seminar on this topic which transformed my relationship with our financial reports. If you don’t have a business background, take a course or find a mentor.
- How to ask people to give. You don’t have to apologize or feel like you’re been intrusive. Remember, it’s a gift to give people the opportunity to give to causes they believe in. You can work on your learning in a couple of ways. First, help people grow in stewardship in their lives as disciples. The second way you can learn to ask people to give is to ask specific people with resources to support special projects. Many pastors never do this. If you have done a capital campaign, you may have had the opportunity to do this. I hated it at first, but I’ve learned so much, and have found it a blessing (and still growth-producing) to ask.
- That money is a tool. We shy away from money talk and from asking for money, as if money were suspect or even dirty. But money, given well, makes ministry possible. The flow of money can be a blessing.
Re-read this list. Which one can you choose to go deeper with now?
Whether the launching of a new outreach ministry, dedication of a new building, or simply the completion of a particularly successfully program year, you might feel proud of yourself and your people. You did something together! Your heart swells as you look at all you accomplished together. You might think “I’m so proud of them!” Or “I’m so proud of myself—look at what I did.” You might even feel proud of yourself for surviving a particularly difficult year, when things didn’t go so well, but you are still standing.
Pride is a double-edged sword, however. On one hand, it’s important to share your accomplishments. Sometimes pastors and other church leaders are excessively modest: “Oh, it really wasn’t that much.” Or, “I couldn’t have done it without the team.” (That is laudable and true, but they couldn’t have done it without your leadership.)
My grandmother always used to say, after a particularly delicious meal, “That was a good dinner, if I do say so, who shouldn’t.” In other words, she didn’t think she should say anything positive about her efforts. It’s become a catchphrase in our family. I now look at sharing my accomplishments in a different way: you can unapologetically claim your own giftedness and how you put it to work, without coming off as arrogant. You don’t have to brag to everyone, or overshadow the contributions of others. But you can be proud of yourself and share the remarkable accomplishments you’ve had in your life with those closest to you.
Pride of course has a dark side, though. It’s one of the seven deadly sins, after all. Benjamin Franklin in his autobiography said of pride, “For even if I could conceive that I had completely overcome it, I should probably be proud of my humility.”
The real trap of pride is conflating our accomplishments with our self. Our identity can quickly become wrapped up in our achievements. Then, when things don’t go the way we expected, we can lose our sense of ourselves. This is a deeply spiritual issue for pastors. If God called me to this ministry and I responded and it’s not going how it “should,” what does that mean for who I am? I can remember as a pastor sitting in the front of the church as worship began, and my mood would depend on how many people were sitting there. Even in that moment I knew I shouldn’t feel that way, but I couldn’t control it.
Here are two ways to free yourself of the trap of pride (over time)
- Claim your intrinsic value. As a child of God, you are worthy for that reason alone. You don’t have to prove it or earn it.
- Celebrate everything. I’ve found that celebration makes me freer than pride does. I can find something to celebrate in every circumstance of life, if I look for it. If an effort fails, I can celebrate that I learned something from it. It’s not so attached to me and my efforts. If I have a major accomplishment, I can open my heart to a full celebration of what I’ve done, whether on my own or together with others.
So: What are the many ways you can claim your value before God?
And: What are the many things you can celebrate about your ministry?
Historically, churches have always struggled with communication. Whether it’s trying to let people know about new programs, or recruiting coordinating volunteers, to communicating the vision–we face a long list of communication challenges.
Pastors I coach say, “We need a communications committee that works,” or, “We’ve got to get someone on staff to handle communications.” As useful as those fixes can be, they don’t address the more fundamental challenge: addressing the emotional side of communication.
Communication is rooted in relationships. How and whether people hear you depends on what kind of relationship they have with you. This is true even in large churches where people may not know you personally. It’s true when a parent speaks to a child, when a president addresses the nation, and when I write you an email.
Edwin Friedman talked about this emotional side of communication in A Failure of Nerve, the book I mentioned in my last article. (p. 128.) His ideas have helped me more than any other communication training I’ve had.
Friedman talked about what he called “three interrelated variables.”
When you are trying to communicate with others, pay attention to what direction they are moving emotionally. Are they coming toward you or moving away from you? Do their eyes light up? Or do they glaze over? Typically, what we do when someone’s eyes glaze over is this: we keep talking. We think if we marshal better arguments they will come around.
What to do instead? I recommend you STOP pursuing those who aren’t getting the message. Instead, connect. Stay in touch, without trying to persuade. Be patient—it may take months or even years for some folks.
When you set out to deliver a message, assess how close or far the person is, emotionally. You may have trouble communicating if the person is either too close to you or too far from you.
Too close: if there’s no emotional space, there’s no room to communicate. A parent can try like crazy to communicate the value of education with no response. Then the kid comes home quoting a friend’s parent, with the same message. Why? There’s more emotional space in the relationship, and so more ability to hear the message.
Too far: if you aren’t well enough connected with people, they won’t be able to hear you. There’s not enough of a relationship. They are too far from you emotionally. At church, this might show up in the finance committee when the chair can’t hear what the relatively new pastor is saying, but can hear it from a long-time member on the committee.
When people go to the doctor, they can find it hard to remember what the doctor says. It’s not just the medical jargon: their anxiety is higher, and they find it harder to process the information.
When anxiety in a congregation goes up, communication will be more difficult. Anxiety is like static. People simply can’t hear as easily. In a time of major transition, or when there’s a big conflict, pay even more attention to communication. Don’t be surprised if people act like they’ve never heard a message. They haven’t. Be patient.
If you pay attention to these three variables, you will almost automatically communicate better AND be less frustrated.
So, how can you use just one of these ideas to improve your communication?
Do you know how to watch out for a potential problem person at church?
It’s not the most fun thing to do, but being aware and alert about this can help save you lots of heartache in the future. To build up your skills, I highly recommend Edwin Friedman’s A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of Quick Fix. I’m re-reading it now. Friedman’s brilliant insights into the nature of societal anxiety are more relevant now than they were 20 years ago. They apply to the global and national context, to family life—and of course, to congregational life.
He lists ten characteristics of what he calls potentially “viral” or “malignant” members of institutions. I’m going to simplify and share my favorite four of the ten. (See pp. 144-145, if you’ve got the book.) And don’t just take my word for it—go read the book.
Spot a Potential Troublemaker:
- They are easily hurt and collect injustices. They have a victim attitude and sometimes a long, long memory that fixates on details. You might hear them say, “No one visited my sister in the hospital…” (when they didn’t let anyone know she was there.)
- They tend to idolize their leaders – until they don’t. Friedman says, “Beware of those who adulate you early.” They can turn on a dime and suddenly be your worst enemy
- They are often black and white thinkers. They can’t tolerate difference or dissent. Their opinions are rigid and they are quick to proclaim what is right and wrong.
- They are prone to groupthink. Friedman says, “they fuse with others like them into an undifferentiated mass (like a tumor).” Often they already have a few people close to them who support and echo their ideas and behavior.
You can’t lead people like this by being empathetic and trying to see their point of view. You may want to, and others may urge you to do so. However, “…promoting in others the initiative to be accountable is far more critical to the health of an institution than trying to be understanding or insightful.” (p. 147) This is a hard lesson for church leaders to learn. We are trained to be understanding and insightful, not to take a stand.
Every church has people like this. Some have quite a few. In some churches they run the show. Remember, the impact of people like this is dependent on a host which allows them to make trouble. Leaders are like the immune system. Rather than blaming them or accommodating them, you and other leaders are called to take a stand and say, in essence, “You can’t act like that here.” Pastors need lay allies to do this, but it starts with you being willing to take a stand.
Where do you need to step away from endless empathy and toward clarity?
As you approach these last days of Holy Week and prepare for the celebration of Easter in your community, please know you are in my prayers.
Here’s a blessing designed to offer at the end of the Easter service. I hope you too can experience it this Easter.
Short Easter Blessing
(a short prayer suitable for blessing the congregation with at the end of the Easter service)
May the celebration of resurrected life bring new hope to your being.
May the victory over earthly death turn your eyes to the promises of heaven.
May the empty tomb help you to leave your sorrows at the foot of the cross.
So that God’s hope, promises and forgiveness reign in your life forever.
From www.prayerscapes.com (used by permission)