surviving 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.

The place I find myself

“Who are you?”

It was 1973. I was a 19-year old student at Furman University in Greenville, South Carolina, eating lunch with friends. Stephanie—serious, inquisitive, known for deeply diving into matters of the heart—was sitting to my right in the dining hall. As I munched on my dry hamburger I could tell she was staring at me. I glanced over at the eyes that were looking into me. She asked again, “Who are you?”

I thought: What do I say? Friends are around, waiting to hear. Do I say something funny or wax profound? What’s she expecting me to say? Is she in love with me, or getting ready to attack?

I didn’t know. So I looked at her, smiled, swallowed my bite of burger, said my full name, and hoped she’d either go away or give me a hug. Stephanie did neither. She kept staring, and asked again. “Who are you?”

It was the era of Watergate, Vietnam, hippies, psychedelia, and campus unrest. Self-discovery was all the rage. We were the “Me generation.” So no wonder she asked. It was a good question. Who am I?

I think Stephanie knew that I didn’t know.

Do I know now?

~~~~~

Stephanie’s question has haunted me since that day in the Furman dining hall.

For the last thirty-three years, I’ve been a pastor. I’ve had a challenging and happy career as a preacher, leader, and shepherd of four different congregations. I’ve baptized, married, nurtured, and buried hundreds of God’s people. Had you asked me a few months ago who I am, I would have told you about the children I’ve raised, the friends I’ve loved, the places I’ve traveled, the sermons I’ve preached, and the people who say I did them some good. All good things.

But do those good things answer the question, Who am I? Isn’t it possible to have done all those things and still not known my true self? Yes indeed.

And what do I say now? I am no longer “Pastor Mike.” In February, 2019, I stepped down from church leadership. I decided I’d had enough. I wanted to do something different.

So I semi-retired. I took a job at a theological seminary as the Dean of Students. It’s part-time. I’ll do some teaching, mentoring, and a bit of preaching here and there. I’ll be free on weekends to travel with my wife and visit our kids and grandkids. But I won’t be wearing my pastor hat anymore. People won’t thank me for a good sermon or a helpful counseling session. I will no longer tell folks that I pastor a healthy, healing church. My email inbox will no longer be filled with questions, meeting requests, and forwards from well-meaning church members.

So if Stephanie were to ask me today, “Who are you?” how would I answer? How would you?

~~~~~

In his book Emotionally Healthy Spirituality, pastor and author Peter Scazzero writes, “The vast majority of us go to our graves without knowing who we are. We unconsciously live someone else’s life, or at least someone else’s expectations for us.”

I agree with that. Most of us get our identity from what we do. And that’s not entirely bad. But when you no longer do what you’ve done for most of your life, you need to know that you are more than the sum of your contributions to society. The world around us measures us by what we achieve, own, or look like. But all those things are fleeting and unsatisfying. The truth is that identity and value are intrinsic to our being as the people of God. This is why the invalid in the nursing home is just as valuable, just as glorious, as the cancer researcher or the best-selling author or the homeschool mom.

When someone asked Thomas Merton who he was, he said simply, “I am the loved one.”

That’s who I am too. I am God’s beloved. I’m his child, the object of his affection. To me (and you!) God says, “You are my beloved son; with you I am well pleased” (Mark 1:11).

~~~~~

So here’s the place I find myself: I’m discovering that my identity is not rooted in me and what I do, but in Christ. Pretty basic, right? I’ve stopped trying to be somebody. I don’t care that I don’t tweet. I’ve given up on trying to make a name for myself in my Presbyterian denomination. What would that have accomplished anyway? I’m trying to heed Jeremiah’s word of warning to his scribe Baruch: “Do you seek great things for yourself? Seek them not….” (Jeremiah 45:5).

After years of trying to be a good, successful pastor, I’m now trying to enjoy being God’s son.

I’m not there yet. Like unraveling a knot, it takes time to undo a lifetime of seeking reputation and honor. But “I press on,” as Paul says in Philippians 3, to “gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith–that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead” (Phil 3:8-11).

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.

The Greatest

A certain well-known mega-church pastor is quoted as saying that his church “is the greatest church in the world.”

I can’t imagine saying that.

I love my church and all, but it’s not the greatest church in the world. It’s pretty messed up, actually. We make mistakes, we don’t love the Lord as much as we should, we don’t love one another or people in our community as much as we should. I can imagine lots of greater churches than mine.

One of my church’s biggest problems is right here: I’m one of its pastors. I have a long way to go. I don’t have it all together, and neither do my fellow pastors. Elders, deacons, small group leaders, etc.: we’re all “weak and wounded, sick and sore,” as hymnwriter Joseph Hart said.

Look, if we’re going to ‘survive ministry,’ one of the things we pastors need to stop doing is evaluating ourselves, our churches, and each other by things like buildings, attendance, money, programs, music, geographical location, and such. The arrogance! My goodness, churches aren’t competing against each other! We’re competing against the idols of the day, all the things that capture people’s hearts and draw them away from the living God.

Every church where the Word of God is preached, the sacraments are administered, and discipline is practiced is a dearly-loved, blood-bought manifestation of the church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth (1 Timothy 3:15). Statements like “my church is the greatest church in the world” only serve to discourage faithful ministers of the gospel and stoke the pride of people whose trust is in the wrong place.

OK, so maybe this pastor was simply trying to rally the troops or encourage his congregation. Still, it repulses me. If he’d said, “The church of Jesus Christ is the greatest church in the world,” I could get behind that. But neither a pastor nor his congregation can sustain the pressure of being “the greatest church in the world.” One of these days, the truth will seep out. Someone will fall. Then what?

Perhaps then that pastor will announce, “Jesus is the greatest Savior in the world.”

On Failure

imageI’ve been reading a biography of Calvin Coolidge, America’s thirtieth president, written by Amity Shlaes. I didn’t know Coolidge experienced so many setbacks in his life. Shlaes writes,

[until] his death in 1933, Calvin Coolidge did confront challenges. The acres he inherited were so poor that the men in the Midwest laughed when they recalled it, more rock and hill than dirt. When Coolidge reached high school age his family sent him to school in Ludlow, twelve miles from Plymouth, and often he walked. Death visited Coolidge constantly; he lost his mother, probably to tuberculosis, the winter he was twelve; the ground was so frozen she could not be interred for weeks. Several years later, Coolidge’s companion and only sibling, Abigail, died suddenly and of mysterious causes. Young Coolidge himself was always so sickly that both his father and he worried that he might never complete his education. He was deeply shy and found it agonizing to meet even the adults who entered his parents’ front rooms. Adulthood brought more trials. Indeed, to an improbable extent, the chapters of Coolidge’s life after childhood are chapters of near failure upon near failure. Coolidge almost didn’t leave the village, almost didn’t make it at college, almost didn’t get a job, almost didn’t find a wife, almost disappointed as a state senator, almost stumbled as Massachusetts governor, almost failed to win a place on the Republican presidential ticket in 1920, and almost failed in Washington once he arrived there as vice president in 1921. As president, Coolidge almost failed to win the backing of his party, almost gave in to grief after the sudden death of his sixteen-year-old son, Calvin, Jr., almost capitulated to a recalcitrant Congress and unruly foreign leaders. Surveying the travails of the thirtieth president, some writers have suggested that those personal defeats are the essence of the Coolidge story. They err. Coolidge’s is not a story of “Yes, but.” It is a story of “But yes.” For at every stage, Coolidge did push forward, and so triumph. Coolidge himself identified perseverance as the key to that triumph. “If I had permitted my failures, or what seemed to me at the time a lack of success, to discourage me,” he wrote in his autobiography, “I cannot see any way in which I would have ever made progress.”

What are the lessons we pastors can learn from stories of failure like Coolidge’s? I can think of at least five:

  1. The most successful people don’t ordinarily get there without a long record of mistakes, losses, and failed attempts. You’ve heard those famous words of the inventor Thomas Edison? “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” The absence of failure is evidence that one is not really trying hard to succeed.
  2. Failure keeps us humble. Nothing’s worse than a church leader who thinks s/he is invincible and unbreakable. “Pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall” (Prov. 16:18).
  3. When we blow it, our church members see that we are human. The distance between pastor and people is often bridged by our failures. Especially when they hear us being honest about our mistakes and running to Jesus for forgiveness.
  4. Failure strips from us those stubborn tendencies of the flesh to look for contentment in this world instead of the next, to yearn for the praise of men rather than the praise of God, and to rely on our record instead of Christ’s.
  5. Failure helps us learn to reach out for the help of others instead of trying to do everything ourselves. We often fail because we’re trying to do something we’re neither gifted for nor called to do. Maybe we should have asked for help long ago.

What lessons have you learned from stories of failure–your own or that of others?

 

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

Identity

For a long time, I got my sense of identity from having a successful ministry. Sunday morning attendance figures, compliments (“Great sermon, pastor!”), a calendar filled with appointments, money streaming in, baptisms… these were the metrics by which I judged my effectiveness and the blessing of God.

Then I failed.

And along with bodies in the pews and bucks in the offering plate, my joy in ministry plummeted. I had built my sense of identity on the unsteady sand of success rather than the unchanging love of God.

Do you know who you are? The Apostle John’s answer is: “See what great love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God! And that is what we are!” (1 John 3:1)

Maybe you need to hear these words from Henri Nouwen as much as I do, every day:

During our short lives the question that guides much of our behavior is: “Who are we?” Although we may seldom pose that question in a formal way, we live it very concretely in our day-to-day decisions. The three answers that we generally live–not necessarily give–are: “We are what we do, we are what others say about us, and we are what we have,” or in other words: “We are our success, we are our popularity, we are our power.” It is important to realize the fragility of life that depends on success, popularity, and power. Its fragility stems from the fact that all three of these are external factors over which we have only limited control… Jesus came to announce to us that an identity based on success, popularity, and power is a false identity–an illusion! Loudly and clearly he says: “You are not what the world makes you; but you are children of God.”…Our true identity is that we are God’s children, the beloved sons and daughters of our heavenly Father.[1]

[1] Nouwen, Henri. Here and Now: Living in the Spirit. New York: Crossroad, 1994, 188-189.