Church Ministry

Patience: The Way to Do Ministry

Christian ministry is hard. There are struggles, temptations, and challenges that are unique to pastors, missionaries, and other Christian workers. And we must respond to these situations in a godly way or else they will be our ruin.

One of the unique temptations we face, especially in these days when technology is ubiquitous, is impatience. We expect too much of ourselves. We want to be holy and obedient and loving and kind and skilled and pure…right now. We expect too much of others as well. The church, for example, has to be perfect. Church members expect their pastors to meet their every need and to know how to do everything. We pastors expect our congregations to respond enthusiastically to every sermon and every initiative. We even expect God to turn on a dime, to answer our prayers right away, to give us what we need when we want it.

The Bible, on the other hand, consistently promotes patience.

  • Psalm 40:1 – “I waited patiently for the Lord; he inclined to me and heard my cry.”
  • Psalm 130:5-6 – “I wait for the Lord, my soul waits, and in his word I hope; my soul waits for the Lord more than watchmen for the morning, more than watchmen for the morning.”
  • James 5:7-8 – “Be patient, therefore, brothers, until the coming of the Lord. See how the farmer waits for the precious fruit of the earth, being patient about it, until it receives the early and the late rains. You also, be patient. Establish [strengthen, NASB] your hearts, [stay steady and strong, MSG] for the coming of the Lord is at hand.”

Patience is the bearing of provocation, annoyance, misfortune, or pain without complaint, loss of temper, and irritation. It is the willingness to suppress restlessness or annoyance when confronted with delay. It is quiet, steady perseverance.

Patience is necessary for us in ministry because gospel ministry is meant to be slow and plodding. Like Eugene Peterson says, ministry is “a long obedience in the same direction.”

There have been two key times in my ministry life when I failed to “suppress restlessness” and as a result made some big mistakes. One was when I was a pastor in SC in the 1990s. I had been at this church for about seven years but was impatient for the church to become more open to change. Rather than hang in there, preach the Word, love people, build leaders, and be patient, I started looking around for greener grass. I soon left that church and wound up with bigger problems in a different church.

Unfortunately, even there in that new church I was in too big a hurry. Within the first six months I made significant changes to the worship service and pushed the elders to adopt a new vision statement. That congregation was neither ready for nor desirous of such massive change. In retrospect, I should have taken at least a year to even explore such changes.

Twenty years later, I’m now of a different mind. I believe that had I been more patient, I would have saved myself, my family, and those congregations a lot of pain. And who knows? The kingdom of God may have advanced a bit more quickly.

Here are some practical ways you can practice patience:

  1. Slow down.

Literally, slow down your pace. Drive more slowly. Allow more time to get places. Don’t plan things back to back. Put cushion into your schedule. Say no. Keep a “not to do” list. Ask people to help you. When it comes to your church or ministry, stretch out your vision. Take the long view. Instead of a one- or two- or five-year vision, talk with your leaders about a ten-year vision. Instead of thinking about the destination, look out the window and enjoy the ride. You will by-pass many good people and opportunities if you’re only looking at the goal posts.

  1. Choose your battles with care.

Some battles are worth fighting; others are not. Think about Paul in Philippians 1. While Paul was imprisoned in Rome some Christian workers were preaching Christ out of envy, rivalry, and selfish ambition. But Paul chose to rejoice because “in every way, whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is proclaimed.”

I have found the following battles are worth fighting:

  • Sin in the camp, especially among leadership
  • Staff insubordination
  • Bad hires
  • False teaching
  • Divisive church members
  • Efforts to take the church off mission

But many other battles are best left alone or left to God. Some battles you will not win and probably should not try to fight. If you don’t care for something your church is doing (such as a program), you can let it die a slow death on its own rather than call in the artillery.

Consultant and author André Bustanoby recommends answering these seven questions before engaging in battle:

  • Does the church have a history of driving pastors away?
  • Have your efforts to achieve peace in the past repeatedly failed?
  • Are your leaders prepared to pay the price of victory?
  • Is there a critical mass of support in the congregation?
  • Is the opposition willing to negotiate, or do they demand unconditional surrender?
  • How will fighting the battle affect your family?
  • Why fight? Is it to benefit your church and community or satisfy your personal need to win?
  1. Ignore the greener grass

It isn’t.

  1. Dial back your expectations.

Ambition is one thing; hubris is quite another. Excellence is wonderful to shoot for, but it often masks a sense of self-importance. It’s great to want to win the world to Christ. But maybe you should focus on your neighborhood. Aiming for the bleachers is a wonderful goal, but is it really necessary? What is “excellence” costing you—your health? Your marriage? Your friendships? Your joy? Your Sabbath? Your rest?

Remember the adage “Less is more.” Don’t expect perfection or completion this side of heaven. My wife is good about reminding me to shoot for a 7 or 8 instead of a 10. The prophet Jeremiah told his secretary Baruch, “Do you seek great things for yourself? Seek them not” (Jeremiah 45:5).

What explains the massive departure of clergy from their posts? Could it be that they entered the ministry expecting to be the next Tim Keller or Matt Chandler or fill-in-the-blank, but found out very quickly that it was a pipe dream? The internet has helped create a celebrity culture among Christian leaders that is killing the souls of many good men and women who truly love the Lord and want to be a blessing to God’s people but are not extraordinarily gifted.

What the church needs today are ordinary men and women patiently, faithfully keeping in step with the Spirit and fulfilling their callings, however great or small they be. We need more people who are “content to fill a little space, if God be glorified” (Anna Waring).

  1. Dial back your expectations of other people too.

Grant them the same mercy you give yourself. Forgive them when they disappoint you. Remember that they, like you, are sinners and need the grace of God. If God “knows your frame and remembers that you are dust” (Psalm 103:14), you should treat other people the same way.

The church is made up of people just like you. The church will not be purified and holy till we get home. Until then we will let each other down, sin against each other, and often, like Paul and Barnabas, decide to go our separate ways. Give the church grace. Be patient with her. If you must complain, do so kindly, and complain directly to the people who need to hear from you. Don’t spread bad reports about God’s chosen ones.

  1. Care for yourself.

Don’t take yourself so seriously. Have a day of rest. Honor the Sabbath. Waste some time. The sky is not falling. Your church or ministry will not fail if you take a personal day now and then. Have some activities and hobbies that renew your soul and bring you joy. Exercise. Enjoy nature. Go out with friends. Eat good food. Get counseling. Read books and listen to music. Do things just for the fun of it, and don’t feel ashamed.

As it says in James 5:11, “the Lord is compassionate and merciful.” Be compassionate and merciful with yourself.

Ten reminders for pastoral joy

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Seems like every week or so I speak with another discouraged, burned out pastor. If you’re one, here is a list of ten reminders I’ve compiled over the years that help keep me going. Reminding yourself of these things is a way to preach the gospel to yourself. I hope you’ll write them down and keep the list close by.

  1. I minister out of who I am, not who I wish I were or who others want me to be. I’ll be comfortable in my own skin.
  2. I’ll be kind to and patient with myself. I’m just a jar of clay.
  3. The world needs more people like me. It’s not that I’m perfect–far from it! But God has called, gifted, and anointed me to be his man in this place for this season.
  4. I’ll do what only I can do. Otherwise I’ll get involved in things to which God has not called me, that others can and should be doing.
  5. Home is my first church. If I fail anywhere, it won’t be with my family.
  6. It’s not all up to me. I am not the Messiah. I am not ultimately responsible and I am not in control.
  7. Everyone has a story. I’ll remember that next time I’m tempted to get impatient and aggravated at someone.
  8. God is for me. He is, this very moment, in my midst–rejoicing over me with gladness, quieting me by his love, and exulting over me with loud singing (Zephaniah 3:17).
  9. I won’t take myself too seriously. I’ll laugh, play, enjoy people, take my time, and be willing to fail without it devastating me.
  10. God is always at work. No matter what.

Guarding the church from emotionally unhealthy people

“Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood. I know that after my departure fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock…. Therefore be alert….” (Acts 20:28-31)

The further I get from pastoral ministry the more clearly I see some things I should have done better. One of those is being more careful about letting certain people control or manipulate me and set the agenda for the church. Instead of being on guard against them, confronting them, and protecting the body from them, I allowed them to cause me anxiety and stress. And worse, in the name of love and compassion, I actually failed to truly love these people and the congregations I was called to serve.

Paul is clear in the above text: You must be on your guard against “fierce wolves.” There are people in the body of Christ who are dangerous, who will hurt others (intentionally or not) and sabotage your ministry. The Bible says there are tares among the wheat. There are evil people in the midst of the church (e.g., Proverbs 5:1ff.). God warns us to “make no friendship with a man given to anger, nor go with a wrathful man, lest you learn his ways and entangle yourself in a snare” (Proverbs 22:24-25). Even Jesus, the most loving Person in the universe, “did not entrust himself to [people], because he knew all people and needed no one to bear witness about man, for he knew what was in man” (John 2:24-25).

Religion attracts imbalanced people. The gospel attracts the mentally ill and the emotionally unhealthy. The church attracts narcissistic and self-centered people. This shouldn’t surprise us because the good news is for broken, messed up people. We want these people to have the means of grace and meet Jesus. Jesus spent much of his time in ministry to these types of people. You and I are imbalanced too! That’s why Paul says to “pay careful attention to yourselves.” When we restore others we must “Keep watch on [ourselves], lest [we] too be tempted” (Galatians 6:1). So we are not immune from anything I’m addressing in this post. Nevertheless, we must not shrink from our responsibility to confront evil, maladjusted, off-balance, or otherwise unhealthy people when their bad attitudes, words, and behavior negatively impact the congregation. We must have more concern for the body as a whole than for indulging, protecting, and coddling these individuals.

In a moment I will describe six types of people to be on guard against. But first, four caveats:

  • Caveat #1: The proper names below were not selected because I’m thinking of particular people.
  • Caveat #2: The gender-specific names below aren’t meant to imply that men are more given to a problem than women or that women are more given to a problem than men. The problems I describe belong to both sexes.
  • Caveat #3: I offer these as generalizations only.
  • Caveat #4: All six of these proclivities operate in me all the time.

Herewith are six types of unhealthy people from whom we must guard the church:

1. Legalistic Louise – This person believes that there are certain RIGHT things (right, i.e., as defined by her) people must do in addition to following Christ, in order to be truly spiritual and loved by God.

In this group you will find…

  • homeschoolers, public schoolers, classical educators, and Christian schoolers
  • right wingers and left wingers
  • TR’s and Arminians
  • conspiracy theorists
  • dominion theologians
  • pro-lifers and pro-choices
  • flag wavers and Woke people
  • Trump lovers and Trump haters
  • people with a passion for a particular cause or ministry that everyone must be about

This person’s mantra is “You/We would be on the right track if only you/we did or believed _______.”

Legalistic Louise believes you can’t be a Christian and watch TV-MA shows or R-rated movies, listen to any music other than Z88, or read novels. She wants you to get behind campaigns to support Christian movies and doesn’t understand why you don’t like them. She likes to impose rules about personal devotions, family worship, etc. She likely opposes church debt, progressive outreach ideas, updated hymn tunes, Bible paraphrases, drums in the sanctuary, and creative efforts to contextualize the gospel.

2. Hyperspiritual Harry – This is Louise’s first cousin. For Hyperspiritual Harry, everything is a spiritual battle and it often involves politics.

Harry will approach you and say, “Pastor, you need to call the church to repentance and prayer….” or to some such spiritual campaign.

Harry’s mantra is something like, “We have to get prayer back in public schools.”

These people are unteachable. They can’t hear the other side. They are off balance. They don’t respect the field of psychology. They want an American flag in the sanctuary. They believe Satan is behind every bad thing that happens. Many of them carry a Bible filled with underlining and highlights but they scream at their kids and can’t get along with their spouse and no one on their street likes or respects them. They believe that sickness is probably due to sin. Many Hyperspiritual Harrys believe that God promises health, wealth, and prosperity to those who have sufficient faith.

3. Hasty Hermione – She will tell you, “The church must do this NOW.” Everything is urgent to Hasty Hermione. Everything is an emergency. If we don’t act, things are going to fall apart.

Her mantra is, “The sky is falling, and pastor, you need to do something about it.”

Hermione doesn’t see it, but haste is actually one of the great enemies of the church. The sky is never falling. God is sovereign and is always at work accomplishing his purposes. We need to trust his hand and not rush or make hasty, impulsive decisions. Invariably, people get hurt from impulsivity.

“Wait on the Lord” must be our mantra. That doesn’t imply passivity or inactivity. But it implies that God is bigger than our challenges and is quite adept at managing his world without our help.

4. Bossy Bobby – This person wants to be in control. He resents that you are over him in the Lord and will make your leadership difficult.

Bobby’s mantra is, “Why, if I were you, here’s what I would do. I’d do what we did in my company. Come on, pastor, it’s not rocket science.”

These people are used to being in power. Perhaps they are the CEO of a company, the boss of others. They crave attention and don’t like following. They want their way, and if they don’t get their way they’ll cut back on their giving or withhold it entirely. And though they expect you to give in to their demands, they may not even be members of the church. When a Christian refuses to take membership vows, you know something’s not right.

5. Whiney Wendy – Nothing is ever right or good enough for this person.

Wendy’s mantra is, “I wish things were like they used to be.”

For Whiney Wendy, something’s always deficient about your church. Either…

  • the website is not up to par or it’s too fancy
  • the service is too liturgical or not liturgical enough
  • the sermon has too many stories or not enough stories
  • the staff is too big or too small
  • the Sunday bulletin is too wordy or not expansive enough
  • the greet-one-another time is too long, too short, or non-existent

She will remind you that you didn’t visit so-and-so in the hospital. She will wonder why “no one from the church” (and she means you) called so-and-so when he was ill. She will complain about how unfriendly your church is. But interestingly, no one likes her or thinks she’s very friendly.

Beware: This person will often pit one pastor against another or draw a following to create ill will against you.

6. Cheap Grace Charlie – This person lacks commitment to worship, fellowship, and mission. He’s always talking about our freedom in Christ but when you probe a little you find he doesn’t feel compelled to give or to serve. He may show up for church or he may not. He says he does whatever the Spirit moves him to do.

Charlie’s mantra is, “God loves us unconditionally, just the way we are.” He talks a lot about justification (a precious, precious doctrine) but never talks about sanctification (also a precious, precious doctrine).

When you call the congregation to something like a building campaign or a service project or a higher level of consecration, Charlie will spread dissension by telling his small group that God loves us whether we do such things or not (which is true) and that “law” is Old Testament, not New (which is untrue).

*******

What do all these people have in common? They lack submission. Ultimately they do not love.

Submission problems are love problems.

One of the vows members take in my Presbyterian denomination is to submit to the government and discipline of the church and promise to study its purity and peace. To “study” means to strive after, devote oneself to, cultivate, and apply oneself to.

God calls his people to love the church, to pursue unity and peace, and to submit to their church leaders. Hebrews 13:17 says, “Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account.”

What should you do with people like the ones described above?

  • Build a strong elder board. Let your elders take the heat and share the burden. They are partners in the shepherding business. Don’t expose yourself by tackling difficult people by yourself. Instead, bring elders into discussions with difficult or dangerous people. Don’t put yourself in the crosshairs.
  • Recruit a team of mature, godly women who will fight with and for you. In my ministry I have always tried to bring wise, bold women alongside me as I dealt with difficult people. If you’re in a denomination that ordains women, these women will be key members of your Session, diaconate, or elder board. If your church does not ordain women, you need to deploy a cadre of wise women who love you and love the church enough to help you confront agitators.
  • Carefully organize and monitor the officer nominating and training process. Be extremely watchful about who winds up getting ordained as officers. They need more than theological vetting. They should also be evaluated for mental, emotional, and spiritual health. See Peter Scazzero’s book, The Emotionally Healthy Church, for ways to do this.
  • Confront the difficult people. For practical tips on how to do this, see Chapter 8 (“Tell the Truth”) of my book, Surviving Ministry: How to Weather the Storms of Church Leadership.
  • If you tend to avoid confrontation, get counseling. Develop skills in peacemaking and conflict management.
  • Even if you’re not good at it, push through your fear. Do the right thing. 1 Timothy 1:20 says that Paul “handed Hymenaeus and Alexander over to Satan that they may learn not to blaspheme.” In 1 Timothy 1:3, Paul instructed Timothy to “charge certain persons not to teach any different doctrine nor to devote themselves to myths and endless genealogies which promote speculations rather than the stewardship from God that is by faith….”
  • Refer unhealthy people to professionals and urge them to get counseling and/or medical care. Counselors and psychiatrists are trained to treat these people long-term. You have neither the training nor the time to get overly involved with unhealthy people.

Thoughts on Pastoral Leadership during Crisis

I’ve been amazed by the response of churches in and around my community to COVID-19. Pastors quickly devised online strategies for worship, fellowship, service, and mission. Churches are communicating, comforting, and connecting through online sermons, Zoom meetings, and other means.

John Piper once famously said, “Don’t waste your cancer” and he wrote a book about it. It’s important for us who are in Christian ministry to not waste this virus. I don’t mean that flippantly, of course. What I mean is, we need to reflect upon the current crisis as pastors, missionaries, and ministry leaders. What is the pandemic teaching us about pastoral leadership? What are we learning that will help us now and the next time a crisis arrives on our doorstep (and it will)?

In my own ministry there have been crises similar to the COVID-19 pandemic in terms of their negative impact. 9-11 of course comes to mind. I had been a pastor in Orlando, Florida, for just a month when that happened. But other things I’ve experienced include…

  • Hurricanes – it’s Florida after all
  • Suicides – I’ve had to deal with three or four as well as one attempt
  • Untimely deaths – I’m thinking of a father of three boys who was killed while riding his bike and a deacon who had a heart attack & died while I was administering the Lord’s Supper
  • Election seasons – the one ahead of us is going to be a real slugfest
  • Shocking events during the worship service – a man keeled over from a heart attack while I was preaching one time (hopefully not due to my sermon!); you can count on all sorts of unpredictable things happening during worship services, like protests outside the building, mentally ill people causing a disturbance, suspicious people who look like shooters, etc. These things are unsettling.
  • Key staff transitions – when a staff member is fired or decides to leave, it can take months or even years for people to heal
  • National tragedies – assassinations, stock market crashes, natural disasters, etc. all take their toll

Times like these can and should be our finest hour. We in ministry have a unique and solemn opportunity: to speak for God’s people and to God’s people.

Speaking for God’s people means to be the voice of their emotions, confusion, fear, doubt, and worry while communicating a sense of calm. We must expose and express our emotions, thereby giving our people permission to feel and express their emotions. There will be no healing without the acceptance and expression of feelings. Too many of us are out of touch with our own emotions and are uncomfortable crying, being sad, or expressing outrage. We must get in touch with our emotions and let these things out, otherwise there’s no empathy. We must be willing to express strong emotions, to weep, to show righteous anger, to grieve. But at the same time—and this is not easy to do—we must try to maintain a calmness and composure that will help people feel confident in our leadership. We can fall apart privately, but not publicly.

To be the voice of a congregation in times of crisis means to speak in the first person plural in our sermons and communications: “We are sad… We are angry… We are in distress… We are feeling isolated.” When people hear us affirm these things, they know we are one with them and they are able to vent their own feelings to God and to each other.

Speaking to God’s people involves picking up on a central biblical theme and reminding people of what they already know: God knows. God understands. God is in control. God has suffered too. God is with you. God will make things right. While simple concepts, these are the truths that will carry believers through times of trial. I suggest we take a break from our regular sermon series and preach on a Scripture passage that captures one or more of these truths. Keep to the simple gospel story.

However, speaking to God’s people does not mean doing a bunch of talking. It’s important to stop, be quiet, and let people have time and space to process what is happening. It’s tempting in times of crisis to think that our role is to teach principles, to fill up the air space with truth content and not leave people alone. No. Let’s not try to be Jesus. Let’s let Jesus be Jesus. Let’s allow our people to go through pain; don’t protect or distract them from it. It’s in their suffering that they will meet Jesus.

I would suggest, during a season of trial like the one we are currently in, that it’s good and right to slow down the programming of the church, to bring certain things to a stop, and to give people more time with their families, friends, and neighbors. We are not the Messiah. Our people will be OK. Let’s keep our messages basic and simple, and spend our time praying more and talking less.

Also, we should speak to God’s people without using formulaic, scripted, clichéd, easy answers. You may disagree, but the midst of a crisis is not the time to tell someone, “God is good all the time; all the time God is good.” Or, “All things work together for good….” Are these things true? Yes. But are they helpful? I don’t think so. Silence is probably better. We in ministry need to be OK with ambiguity, with not knowing why God does what he does. We need to be quiet and not feel we must justify God, explain God, or get him off the hook. I have found that it’s almost always better to just offer my presence to people who are suffering, either without words or with simple acknowledgments like “I know. God knows. God understands. God cares. I love you. Your church loves you. We will walk with you through this.”

Finally, during a crisis it’s really important to “touch” our people as often as possible. I don’t mean physically (although appropriate physical touch is a powerful way to love). I mean to make personal contact via phone calls, texts, notes, and messages with as many people as possible, as frequently as possible. And not just while the crisis is going on. The crisis will continue to rumble through our churches and ministries for weeks, months, and even years. So we ought to keep a spreadsheet of everyone in the congregation or ministry and figure out ways to reach out to them for a long time. Some individuals will obviously require more “touches” than others. We can recruit others to help with this. Elders and deacons should serve as caregivers along with us and other staff members. As we model caregiving, we will encourage the congregation to care for one another so that our churches become hospitals for the weak and weary, the sick and sore.

 

Sometimes, Less Is More

 

peaceful-scene-jordan-hillI attended a heated meeting of homeowners in my community a few nights ago. It seems that our community golf course is closing and a developer wants to build 304 new homes on it. There are all sorts of problems with this, as was made clear by a couple dozen angry homeowners who spoke at the microphone. I agreed with everything they said. But if I’d had the gumption to approach the mic and speak my mind, this is what I would have said to support my community:

Sometimes, less is more.

Less homebuilding means more green space. More undamaged beauty. More available land for a park and hiking trails. More wildlife. More safety. Better education for kids whose schools are already at capacity. All good things. Really good things.

After the meeting I started thinking that less is sometimes more for the Church, too.

Many church leaders think that more is better. To borrow from Daft Punk, they define success as “bigger, better, faster, stronger.” I know what I’m talking about because I used to think that way. I was a pastor for 33 years before retiring and taking a part-time job in a seminary. For many of those 33 years my goal was to grow my church numerically. Outgrow our facility and build a new sanctuary. Add more staff. Increase the budget. Reach more unchurched people. Those aren’t bad things, of course, but in my case they were means to an end: my validation as a pastor.

I know there are better men than me out there whose hearts aren’t as self-centered and insecure as mine. When they think of growing the church, they really do want to glorify God and help more people find Jesus. But I fear that a lot of pastors are like me, looking for self-validation. A growing church means we’re doing a good job, our sermons are hitting the mark, and God is favoring our ministry. Not necessarily. Churches grow for a lot of reasons, not all of them godly.

It’s a risky move, but what would it look like for a pastor to adopt the philosophy that less is sometimes more? I think it would mean the following:

  • He would spend more relaxed time with people. Getting to know them. Enjoying them. Listening deeply to their challenges, concerns, and questions. Getting to know his neighbors. Inviting people into his home and enjoying food and conversation.
  • He would simply be in less of a hurry. He would slow his step and linger with people instead of checking his watch and looking over their shoulders at others who want his time. He would be available and accessible.
  • He would operate out of a state of rest. He would take a real day off each week. He would not live in a continual state of panic about the next big thing, the next sermon, the next elders meeting, or the budget deficit.
  • He would take time to introduce change. He would give due honor to the practices and rhythms that were established before he showed up on the scene. He would listen to others’ opinions and earn trust and respect before implementing his own ideas.
  • He would be grateful that anyone at all wants to be in his church. He would repent of his restless appetite for more new people to walk through the doors on Sunday morning, as though the people already in the pews don’t matter as much.
  • He would support church planting and, if possible, plant a new church. This is because small, new churches make disciples better than big churches. In small churches people know each other, remember each other’s names, and get involved. In big churches people are more likely to be disconnected, anonymous, lonely, and invisible.
  • He would relish the privilege of knowing–really knowing–his sheep, and shepherding them through all the passages of life from the cradle to the grave.
  • He would not feel guilty or inferior or worthless when, at conferences and pastors’ meetings and on YouTube, pastors of big churches get all the attention and applause. Instead, because he is God’s beloved son he would (as Eric Liddell said about running) feel God’s pleasure just being who he is.
  • He would be a man of prayer. Not just talk about prayer and preach about prayer, but really pray.
  • And he would remember that his first and most important “congregation” is living inside the walls of his home.

The Church has taken too many sips of the Kool-Aid of the American Dream. America rewards the spectacular and despises the ordinary. Jesus, on the other hand, rewarded the cup of cold water offered to a child, the mustard seed of faith, the widow’s two copper coins, the five loaves and two fish. He hung out with marginalized people. Out of all his followers Jesus invested the bulk of his time in just twelve men. Of those twelve, three were his special focus. And just one of them was said to be the disciple whom Jesus loved.

Jesus lived by the philosophy that sometimes–maybe most of the time–less is more.

Here’s what I’ve learned: People need pastors. Curators of the soul who have the time, vulnerability, training, and experience to walk with them through life and show them the way. Pastors who aren’t in a hurry and aren’t preoccupied with bodies, bucks, and buildings.

What do you think: Can we reassess the metrics normally used to gauge success in the Church? Can we ministers of the gospel slow down, shepherd our people, and celebrate the “more” that we can have when we try to do less?

Sixteen Restorative Practices for Pastors

come-unto-me-and-i-will-give-you-restHere are sixteen practices that will restore your energy if done consistently. Even if you can start with a few of them, you will be taking better care of yourself. And if you want to be any good for those you lead, you need to be good to yourself. I’ve adapted some of these from J. R. Briggs’ book, entitled simply Fail. It’s a great read.

  1. Secure a mentor, coach or spiritual director. Someone with experience who listens well, cares about you, and can shoot straight with you.
  2. Attend a small group you do not lead.
  3. Visit with a trusted Christian counselor.
  4. Connect regularly with other pastors/Christian leaders who are safe.
  5. Develop friendships with people who see you as a person first and as a pastor/chaplain/missionary second.
  6. Develop a prayer team with whom you can vent and be truly honest.
  7. Stop reading how-to ministry books. Invest your time reading theology, church history, and biographies of faithful Christians. Be sure to read Eugene Peterson and Henri Nouwen.
  8. Journal—and be raw, blunt, and honest.
  9. Talk with your church leaders about what success and failure look like. Make sure you see success the same way.
  10. Avoid conferences that promote Christian celebrities and events that highlight ministry success but will only bring you under bondage and make you envious and anxious.
  11. Be the first to repent and admit weakness.
  12. Practice Sabbath. Disconnect and be refreshed. Learn to work from rest.
  13. Participate in life-giving activities. “It is more important for leaders to focus on energy management than time management.” Do things that replenish your energy.
  14. Get out of your ZIP Code on a regular basis.
  15. Exercise and eat well. “Clergy today have significantly worse health than the average American.”
  16. Listen to your spouse. He or she is the best source of wise counsel you have.

The Accidental Pastor

Harry S. TrumanI just finished an excellent biography of Harry S. Truman entitled The Accidental President, by A. J. Baime (New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2017). I didn’t know that Truman was considered a highly unlikely candidate for Roosevelt’s Vice-President in 1944. Only two percent of Democratic voters favored him. People outside Missouri didn’t know much about Truman, and what they knew did not impress. He had run a haberdashery in Kansas City, but it went bankrupt. He hadn’t earned a college degree. He had applied for a license to practice law but changed his mind. Most of his business ventures had failed. Truman’s mother revealed that he didn’t even want the V-P job. “They pushed him into it,” she said. His partnership with the gambler Tom Pendergast put a cloud over Truman’s career in the U.S. Senate. His enemies long referred to him as “the senator from Pendergast.”

When FDR died suddenly in April, 1945, Truman was thrust into the highest office in the land, an office to which he had never aspired. “No man ever came to the Presidency of the United States under more difficult circumstances than does Harry S. Truman,” said a newspaper columnist at the time.

That’s why A. J. Baime calls Truman “the accidental president.” The whole nation was anxious about their new, unproven leader. Yet he successfully finished out Roosevelt’s term in office and went on to win a come-from-behind victory in the presidential election of 1948. Consider the accomplishments of the Truman presidency: the Truman Doctrine and Marshall Plan, the creation of the United Nations and the modern Department of Defense, recognition of the state of Israel, the Berlin Airlift, the formation of the CIA and NATO, and many other things. And of course, Truman’s presidency is noted for the Allied victories that ended the war with Germany and Japan.

Sometimes we in ministry feel like Harry S. Truman. We feel like “accidental pastors.” Not that we haven’t been called and equipped by God to do what we do. Not that our congregations haven’t affirmed our gifts and responded to our leadership. But often we go through seasons when we wonder, “What was I thinking? God, what were You thinking?! I can’t turn this ship around. I’m not sure I belong here. I can’t take all these people to the Promised Land.”

It’s at times like these that we have to remember some of Paul’s words:

What is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you believed, as the Lord assigned to each. I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth. (1 Corinthians 3:5-7)

But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us. (2 Corinthians 4:7)

If I must boast, I will boast of the things that show my weakness. (2 Corinthians 11:30)

Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me…. For when I am weak, then I am strong. (2 Corinthians 12:9-10)

So to myself I say: I am a servant, not a celebrity. I’m a jar of clay. Sure I’m weak, and half the time I don’t know what I’m doing. But I’m no accident. I am who I am by God’s design. I am where I am by God’s appointment. So God, have your way in me and be glorified.

Wise words from Dallas Willard

9780310275961r1Pastor John Ortberg in his book, Soul Keeping, recalls a conversation he had with the late Dallas Willard. He asked Dallas what he (John) should do to help his church grow. That’s every pastor’s question, right? “What must I do to succeed, to be an agent of spiritual transformation in my congregation?”

Dallas’ reply is worth writing down and putting in a place where you’ll see it every day. He said to John Ortberg,

The main thing you will give your congregation…is the person you become. If your soul is unhealthy, you can’t help anybody. You don’t send a doctor with pneumonia to care for patients with immune disorders. You, and nobody else, are responsible for the well-being of your own soul. You must arrange your days so that you are experiencing total contentment, joy, and confidence in your everyday life with God.

What a strange reply! Imagine that… More than any other human factor, the spiritual health of our churches depends on our own spiritual well-being.

This is at once a comforting and a deeply humbling truth. Comforting because it releases us from the idolatry of success. But humbling because it means we must do the hard business of soul care and daily repentance if we hope to maintain a healthy spiritual life.

May we do so.

Read my interview about “Surviving Ministry”

(Recently my publisher interviewed me about my book, Surviving Ministry: How to Weather the Storms of Church Leadership. Here’s what I had to say.)

What motivated you to write Surviving Ministry?

After being a pastor for twelve relatively tranquil years, I accepted a call that turned out to be extremely challenging. I was not a good fit for the culture of either the church or the community. Moreover, I was unprepared for the trials I would face. The church had been badly hurt by its two previous pastors. During my time there we went through crisis after crisis. Some of them were my fault; others were not. After five years I was done. I thought my days as a pastor might be over. But by God’s grace, I found a position in another church and recovered my zest for ministry. This book is a record of lessons I learned during and since those five “hurricane” years.

So you compare church conflict to a hurricane. How did you happen to land on the hurricane metaphor?

I live in Florida where hurricanes are always on people’s minds, at least from June through November. But I have personal reasons for being fascinated with Hurricane Katrina. My father grew up in New Orleans and one of my daughters lives on the Gulf coast of Mississippi. Her husband is a pastor. They accepted a call to a church in Gulfport shortly after Katrina blew through in 2005. The church had been practically destroyed, literally and figuratively, by the hurricane. When turmoil strikes a church it often comes with devastating and unexpected power, leaving piles of hurt and animosity that may or may not ever be resolved. That sounds like a hurricane to me.

What would you say are the top three lessons your hurricane experience taught you?

It’s hard to pick just three, but I would say to a pastor: (1) know yourself really
well and be comfortable in your own skin; (2) spend most of your time in the early years of ministry in a church earning the trust of your congregation; and (3) base your identity on who you are as a beloved child of God, not on your popularity or success. If I may borrow from Proverbs 31:30, success is deceptive and popularity is fleeting. Several chapters in Surviving Ministry elaborate on these principles.

In your experience, how do pastors themselves often create or contribute to ministry storms?

I can speak from both experience and observation. Pastors often act like Lone Rangers. We think we can do it all. So we wear ourselves out and alienate a number of people whose support we need when things go south. We forget that our job is not to do the ministry ourselves but to equip the saints for the work of ministry. Another way we contribute to our own burnout is failing to invest in friendship. Pastors are some of the loneliest people in America. I devote full chapters to these two topics: teamwork and friends. Another thing we pastors are prone to do is talk, lecture, or scold when we should be listening. When I look back on my five-year hurricane experience, if I’d been a better listener I’m sure some of my difficulties would have been averted.

In your book you share openly about your own church leadership crises. Do you include stories from other pastors?

Yes. While doing my research I interviewed a number of pastors in the U.S. and Canada who either were in a period of severe ministry trial or had recently emerged from one. In seven of the sixteen chapters of Surviving Ministry you will read their stories. I felt it was important to write about real pastors and real problems. To protect their identities I changed their names and the names of their locales.

Was there a common thread that ran through all their stories?

Their situations were quite different. But if there was a common thread, it was the simple fact that church ministry is difficult. I think many of us pastors believe leading a church should not be hard. We think, if we just love people, preach biblical sermons, and pray, our churches will grow and people will love us. But this is a seriously deficient view of both the pastorate and human sin. In chapters one and two of Surviving Ministry I address the problem of pastoral idealism. The fact is, we are broken people working with broken people. Pastors need to expect hurricanes. Then perhaps we wouldn’t be so devastated by them.

Who are you hoping will read your book?

Ministers of the gospel are obviously my target audience, especially those who are suffering, considering jumping ship, feeling like a failure, and needing some practical guidance. But I suggest that every pastor read this book. We are most exposed to a ministry hurricane when we think we are invincible. Many churches are just one bad decision away from turmoil. Plus, you never know when a “well-intentioned dragon” will cause trouble in your congregation. I also think this book should be required reading for seminary students. Elders, deacons, and other church leaders would be doing their pastors a favor by reading this book and encouraging them to heed its advice.

What’s your last word to a pastor out there whose church is being blown apart by conflict?

Don’t give up hope. God is proud of you. Believe the gospel. “Weeping may tarry for the night, but joy comes with the morning” (Ps 30:5, ESV).

Read an excerpt of “Surviving Ministry”

My book, Surviving Ministry: How to Weather the Storms of Church Leadership, was recently publishePrintd and is available in both paperback and Kindle. Get it directly from the publisher for 20% off the retail price, or from Amazon, CBD, etc.

To get a feel for the book, click on this link:
Surviving Ministry Excerpt

Used with Permission of Wipf and Stock Publishers