leadership

Ministry for the long haul

img_0065 “I’ve had enough, Lord.”

That cry of the prophet Elijah in 1 Kings 19:4 is familiar to many people in ministry.

Why was Elijah so distraught? Hadn’t he just witnessed astonishing displays of God’s power at Mount Carmel (1 Kings 18:20-46)? Sure. But if you’re a church leader, you’ve felt Elijah’s dejection. You know how often a big Sunday becomes a blue Monday.

Conventional wisdom says at least 1,500 pastors hang it up every month. I doubt the situation is that dire. Still, many ministers of the gospel are blue not just on occasional Mondays but constantly. They feel underpaid and overstretched, discouraged if not depressed. They say they no longer hear the music of God’s love. They’ve had their fill of crises, conflicts, and complaints. Their bodies may be in the pulpit, but their hearts no longer beat with gospel enthusiasm.

There have been times in my thirty years as a pastor when, like Elijah, I’ve wanted to walk away from ministry and try my hand at something else. But by the grace of God, I’m still in. I love preaching the Word, administering the sacraments, and shepherding God’s people. And while many things have contributed to my survival, three key decisions have kept me going.

First, I have decided to expect difficulty. To be a pastor is to be called by Jesus into confict. I was naïve about this in the beginning. But I’ve come to agree with the evangelist Alan Redpath: “If you’re a Christian pastor, you’re always in a crisis—either in the middle of one, coming out of one, or going into one.” Pastors are in daily conflict with the world, the flesh, and the devil, not to mention very broken people. And we ourselves are broken—fragile jars of clay, says Paul (2 Corinthians 4:7).

Jonathan Edwards expected difficulty. In his farewell sermon in Northampton he said, “It often comes to pass in this evil world, that great differences and controversies arise between ministers and the people under their pastoral care.” Indeed. Many of you reading this post know exactly what Edwards was talking about.

Second, I have decided that I am me and not someone else. That may sound elementary, but it’s critical for ministry leaders to feel comfortable in their own skin, and (dare I say it?) to like themselves. As a mentor told me years ago, we minister out of who we are, not out of who we wish we were.

Shortly before his death in 1732, Thomas Boston wrote a little book titled, The Crook in the Lot: Or, the Sovereignty and Wisdom of God Displayed in the Afflictions of Men. In that book Boston argued that everything—even our weaknesses, struggles, and failures— everything happens at God’s command and by God’s design.

Armed with faith in God’s sovereignty, we can relax and enjoy ministry. We can focus on our strengths and freely admit our faults. We can accept our limitations and say with the psalmist, “The lines have fallen for me in pleasant places” (Psalm 16:6). And we don’t have to compare ourselves—to anyone! That’s good news in a culture that celebrates the big, grand, and slick and denigrates the small, ordinary, and faithful.

Third, I have decided that I need people. I can’t do ministry alone. I need helpers and I need friends.

No matter how loudly we may protest, most of us in ministry have a messianic complex. We believe we are God’s gift to the church. After all, we have the seminary degree, the right theology, the gifts and the experience. With Jesus’ help and people’s cooperation, we’ll grow the church!

The truth is, pastors are some of the loneliest folks around. According to research, about seventy percent of pastors say they have no close friends. A 2009 Lilly Endowment study of three Christian denominations found that most pastors lack strong friendships with other pastors. Like everyone else, people in ministry fear intimacy. We find excuses not to pursue community. And unless we’re careful, ministry tasks only contribute to our isolation.

I am your classic introvert. Nevertheless, I am intentional about being in the company of men and women who know me, love me, hold me accountable, help me laugh, and keep me sane. My wife and I belong to a small group. I meet every Wednesday with five men who know my sins and failings. I have lunch once a month with a pastor whom I’ve known since our seminary days. I have friends—not just the Facebook kind—with whom I regularly socialize and speak freely. And when it comes to ministry, I don’t try to do everything. My job is to equip and develop others, not keep ministry to myself. Wasn’t self-imposed isolation one of Elijah’s problems? “I am the only one left,” he said (1 Kings 19:10, 14). God broke the news to Elijah that 7,000 faithful Israelites had not bowed the knee to Baal (1 Kings 19:18).

These three decisions have helped me see that ministry survival, while challenging, is not impossible. God has given us his Son, his Spirit, his Word, his promises, and his people to sustain our faith and fuel our joy. Take advantage of these means of grace and, God willing, you’ll be in ministry for the long haul.

Who am I and why did I write a book about ministry survival?

I’ve written a book for pastors, missionaries, and other people in Christian ministry. It’s called Surviving Ministry: How to Weather the Storms of Church Leadership. But let’s be real. You don’t know me from Adam. You’ve never heard of me. Why would you pick up this book? Print

Maybe the following interview by Christianbook.com will help you get to know me and why I wrote Surviving Ministry:

Tell us a little about yourself. I have been a pastor since 1986, serving Presbyterian (PCA) churches in Missouri, South Carolina, and Florida. I’m an avid racquetball player, cyclist, guitar player, and fan of classic rock and historical fiction. My wife and I have been married since 1976. We have four children and eleven grandchildren. I maintain a website for church leaders called Surviving Ministry, as well as a blog called The Greener Grass.

What was your motivation behind this project? 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 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 stormy years.

What do you hope folks will gain from this project? Even the best pastors and healthiest churches can go through storms of adversity. This book will help pastors and other ministry leaders look for the signs of an impending church storm, limit its damage, learn its lessons, and live with gospel optimism for the future. In addition, it will give them a layer of protection from ministry fatigue and failure so they may move forward in their calling with hope.

How were you personally impacted by working on this project? Writing this book was therapeutic. It helped me better understand my own story and how it shapes the way I do ministry both positively and negatively. I connected with many other pastors who shared their experiences with me. I came to a clearer understanding of factors that lead to organizational conflict and how to recover from it.

Who are your influences, sources of inspiration or favorite authors? Over the years I’ve been impacted by the writings and lives of several figures in church history, particularly Jonathan Edwards, Martin Luther, Charles Spurgeon, George Whitefield, John Murray, etc.; and more recently by J. I. Packer, R. C. Sproul, John Piper, Tim Keller, and many others.

Anything else you’d like readers to know: Failure can be not only the means of identifying heart idols but of finding a new, more gospel-centered way to live and minister to others.

To purchase the book, here’s one place you can go: https://www.christianbook.com/surviving-ministry-weather-storms-church-leadership/michael-osborne/9781498280280/pd/280283

Or, if you prefer Amazon: http://ow.ly/N66K305DJkw

 

 

Here’s My “Key Life Pastor Chat” with Steve Brown

Recently I visited the Orlando studios of the Key Life Radio Network to be interviewed 2016-09-21-12-41-36by author and seminary professor Steve Brown. He wanted to feature me on his October 2016 “Pastor Chat” regarding my book, Surviving Ministry: How to Weather the Storms of Church Leadership. We were joined by fellow pastors and friends Randy Greenwald and Kevin Labby.

Steve asked me some probing questions about pastoral burnout, church conflict, and my own recovery from a difficult pastorate. If you’re going through a hard time in ministry, I hope this interview will (a) prove to you that you’re not alone, (b) give you some pointers, and (c) furnish you with hope and maybe even some laughter for the journey ahead.

Click here to listen to the interview. Click here to buy my book.

Do what you do best

sullyMy wife and I just watched the movie Sully. It tells the story of airline pilot Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger, who on January 15, 2009, saved all 155 passengers and crew on board his disabled Airbus A320 by landing it on the Hudson River.

The moral of the movie was that sometimes, in order to survive, you have to do something radical.

I am no hero like Sully Sullenberger, and no movies will ever be made about the following story. But in 2013 I did something that some people would consider radical. I decided, after five years as senior pastor of my church, to trade roles with my able associate pastor, a man almost half my age. It was a move that was about seven months in the making, requiring the support of my elders and staff, numerous meetings, tons of communication, and the approval of 4/5 of the congregation.

It was a change not without risks. I’ve heard of only a couple cases where this kind of pastor switch worked. There were no guarantees my church would go for it or that it would prove satisfactory to me and my younger colleague. Many people have asked me why I did it. Some have credited me with humility. But as God knows quite well, humble is not one of my attributes. No, I was motivated by a simple desire–to do what I do best.

And doing what you do best is an important key to surviving ministry.

My journey began when I gave serious thought to the fact that I was not the young man I used to be. I would soon be sixty years old. So I took some time to ask myself some probing questions:

  • What’s my “sweet spot”? 
  • When am I at my best? 
  • Where can I make my most significant contribution in my last “third” of life?
  • How can I simplify my life in order to be at my peak for the Lord?
  • What should I focus on now?
  • How can I maximize my value to my church and the kingdom of God? 

I read the books Halftime by Bob Buford and From Success to Significance by Lloyd Reeb. These books gave me more questions to consider. I filled out the Strengths Finder and took the Birkman Method assessment. I reviewed my Myers-Briggs profile. And of course I prayed and talked with people whose counsel I value. I sensed that God was encouraging me to make adjustments in my life so as to finish well. I don’t mean to sound morbid, but it dawned on me that I didn’t have tons of time left. I didn’t want to wait another five or ten years to figure out what “finishing well” looks like. I needed to be proactive.

My self-study led me to several conclusions. Among them were the following:

  1. I’m a relational person. I enjoy working directly with people and helping them grow. The spotlight and the boardroom are not very appealing to me.
  2. The ministry role that brings me the greatest satisfaction and, I think, the greatest blessing to others is that of shepherd. Shepherding includes teaching and preaching, but also spending unhurried time with people, counseling, visiting, practicing hospitality, ministering to the grieving, leading small groups, working with children, leading task teams, training leaders, and the like. 
  3. Less energizing are the tasks associated with top-level, organizational leadership: i.e., leading on the “macro” level, motivating, analyzing problems, coming up with new and visionary plans, managing staff, leading the elder board, etc. Those are things I’ve done for nearly thirty years. I was ready for something different. 

I didn’t know what to do next until I attended a seminar at my denomination’s annual meeting. It was a seminar for older lead pastors. The speaker encouraged us to explore alternatives to retiring or switching churches. He said something like this: “If your people trust you, and if you have an associate pastor who respects you and whom you love, you ought to think about making a ‘lateral move’ instead of simply leaving. You ought to hand the baton off to that younger colleague, and stay in your church in a new role.” 

That was the kind of direction I was looking for. I spoke with my associate pastor and he was immediately captured by the idea. I spoke with my elders and they voiced support as well. Then it became a matter of figuring out how best to present the concept to my congregation.

I wrote a letter to the church and read it aloud at a congregational meeting. I told the people about my self-discoveries and the idea of “trading places” with my associate pastor. Many members expressed support. But as expected, others had questions and reservations. We formed an Advisory Team to lead the transition process, always aware that, in my church’s polity, the decision to change pastoral calls rests with the congregation. We created ways of getting people’s input and had several meetings. Finally, the congregation voted in favor of the pastoral transition. My younger colleague took the helm as lead pastor of my church, and I became an associate pastor specializing in discipleship and shepherding.

That was over three years ago. It’s working splendidly. I’m excited about my role. I am doing what I do best and ministering in areas that I love most. My younger colleague–now my boss!–would say the same.

But there is more.

My ministry shift was prompted not only by my desire for a productive final third of life, but by another, broader motivation. I hope older readers will weigh this paragraph well. We older ministry leaders have an obligation to help younger leaders reach their full potential. That’s what some church leaders did for me thirty years ago. It is vital (not to mention biblical) that we who are older pass the baton to those who are younger. (See this excellent article by David Mathis.) Not only that–the church must embrace change if we are going to stay ahead of the game and be culturally relevant to new generations of men and women. You may have seen the statistics. Vast numbers of young people are leaving the church during their college years, and many never come back. Thirty percent of American adults under the age of 30 have no religious affiliation. The US church is aging. In many places it is dying. Today, of about 350,000 churches in America, four out of five are either plateaued or declining. According to the Pew Research Center, the median age of members of my denomination, the Presbyterian Church in America, is 59. Seventy-one percent of our membership are above the age of 50. It is time for creative risk and new ventures if we are going to reverse these trends.

“Always reforming” needs to be more than just a slogan. As churches make necessary adjustments in order to be contextually relevant–while never compromising the gospel or watering down the Word–the kingdom advances. My ministry shift was not an effort to work less. Frankly I am working as hard or harder than ever! Nor was it a response to stress or disappointment or ministry burn-out. It was, I believe, a way of letting God surprise my church and me with all sorts of new and unexpected gifts of grace. I’m also hoping that what my colleague and I did will serve as a model for other church leaders to follow.

Leo Tolstoy said, “Everyone thinks of changing the world, but no one thinks of changing himself.” If change was going to happen at my church, I knew it needed to start with me.