Rejection as a Fact of Leadership
On my TimeHop feed this morning, I got to relive a very interesting season 10 years ago. I'd posted that I was on my way for a long meeting with a church to potentially be their youth/associate pastor. It would've been my first ministry position, and I was excited because it would have solved the "How am I gonna live in the same area as Carrie" dilemma (that's another story!).
It went great. In fact I spent a whole weekend with them later where I was presented to the church, met with leaders, shared my vision, and went through a (grueling) Q&A process. In the end to go back to Louisville and get a call from the pastor "I'm calling to let you know we're not calling you." The good news is I knew it wasn't a fit. That was obvious during the discussions, so I was relieved that everyone saw things the same way.
But it taught me an important lesson about leadership: you'll face rejection. Some of that rejection will happen when you get the anonymous form letter saying "We feel led in a different direction," or it will come from within when your ideas and goals are met with indifference or opposition.
Getting rejected is not (always) a reflection of your calling or ability - It's really easy to take rejection personally, or to feel like you're not good enough. I stopped counting the number of "it's not us it's you" letters I got during the season we knew God was moving us. And I'd be dishonest if I didn't take some of them personally, that it must've been because I wasn't ___ enough for the position. But rejection many times is a question of fit. A leader needs to be the right person for the right situation at the right time. If any of those are off, it's a bad fit. But getting rejected for a position or having an idea shot down isn't always about you or your leadership. God's the one who called you, who equipped you, and who will see you through.
*Sometimes it can be a reflection of you, and that's when you have to self-assess if it's a problem of fit or you did something dumb.
Rejection forces you to depend on Christ more - In those periods of rejection, we need to remember that our source isn't our resume, our qualifications, or even our competency. It's Christ. And when difficulty comes, it's to drive us back to that source. If your faith and trust in God's work isn't increased during times of rejection, you're missing the point. But if it drives you to deeper prayer and fasting, meaningful time in the Word, and impassioned worship, then you're probably going through a season where God will work greatly on the other side.
Rejection doesn't always mean "they" have a problem - Rejection in leadership doesn't just cause us to look in the mirror, it can also cause us to look at the people who dished out the rejection and think there's something wrong with them. Sometimes, yes. I've seen great ideas rejected because of selfishness or sin issues. But more often that not those rejections were just part of the territory. It's toxic for a leader to assume the worst in the people they're charged to shepherd and care over, because it's a recipe for resentment and calloused leadership.
So as a leader, if you're going through the season of rejection, trust that when Paul wrote "all things work together for good for those who love Him..." that he actually meant "all things." And that includes rejection.
How have you seen periods of rejection in your ministry sharpen you or show you God's hand in other ways?
Pastors as CEOs
This morning a very helpful article was put on the LifeWay blog about how pastors can be bad bosses. Identifying 10 behaviors or patterns that pastors without management skills display, Rainer points out one of the deficiencies of many in ministry leadership: shepherding people through spiritual crisis is much easier than leading and managing people. I've been on multi-staff churches and spent time around a number of other church ministry teams. Perhaps the most glaring thing that jumps out as to why those pastors were struggling as bosses was that they weren't operating as the staff CEO--the Chief Encouragement Officer.
By nature of the position, a pastor has the leverage, position, and opportunity to be the biggest cheerleader and supporter for the staff and volunteers. With that position comes a sacred trust between the volunteers/staff and the pastor. That's where this encouragement means the most. By embracing your role as the Chief Encouragement Officer, you're doing more than accomplishing a checklist on your vision statement or simply managing people, you're investing in them, you're building the Kingdom, and you're multiplying yourself as you lead others.
Chances are if you're on a multi-staff ministry team, you'll have people who will one day desire to serve as a lead pastor or in a different role. Rather than stifle that or make things uncomfortable, embrace the opportunity to develop a protege. Things as simple as going along for a shut-in visit provide ample time in the car, over lunch, and back in the office debriefing to invest. Or if you're in a church largely dependent on volunteers without the luxuries afforded by multiple staff, your role as an encourager is going to give them something to hold onto and draw on when they get beat up.
So how can you become a CEO as a pastor? Here's 6 ways:
1. Make an effort to spend time with them - You'll never be a very effective leader if your ministry is to or through a computer screen. It's time-consuming to make the effort to get together with people and encourage them, but it's worth it. A quick phone call or thoughtful text message go a long way too.
2. Talk about more than the church calendar - It can be very easy to slip into the routine of always talking with co-workers and volunteers about what's going on to be done. But make sure you're talking about your families, your dreams, your goals, and what's going on "outside the office."
3. Publicly champion your staff - This goes without saying, but the one with the microphone is the one people listen to. And on Sunday mornings, as the pastor, you have the mic. And this is your chance to brag on the volunteers renovating the foyer, the worship leader introducing great music, or the kitchen crew for knocking it out on the church-wide fellowship. Whatever it might be, people need to know what's going on, and those who work hard with you need to know their work is important.
*Side note - None of this means anything if you're not making the private, personal encouragement as well. I've seen this in churches where in public everything was portrayed as Pollyanna, but in private it was dysfunctional and toxic. Then this becomes disingenuous and counterproductive.
4. Embrace constructive feedback - Constructive feedback is where something is built as a result, destructive feedback goes by a few other names: chew-out, correction, complaining, etc. Chances are if you've got to have a feedback conversation, they already know what went wrong. It's like a parent who chides a child for spilling milk. The milk takes 5 minutes to clean up, but if handled wrong will take much longer to rebuild a child's soul. Same thing applies in ministry. Give solutions, engage in free dialogue, listen attentively, and work on problem-solving.
5. Find out their favorites - What does your secretary like from Starbucks? What's your staff's favorite candy bars? The volunteers who show up each week to set up and tear down probably like donuts. All of these little (and usually inexpensive) ways of showing appreciation go much further than you know.
6. Pray with them - Most of these are really pragmatic, but this last one is because of the uniquely spiritual nature of our leadership. If you're serving in ministry as a staff or volunteer, it can be tough. You'll get discouraged. Someone will complain. You'll feel like a dud. Pastors serve as the encouragement catalyst for the staff and volunteers. When talking with them, ask how you can pray, and then do it. I sat down with a guy a couple weeks ago who was dealing with a ton of junk, and took a couple minutes to pray for/with him. It made a difference.
A Letter from a Younger Pastor
Last year I accepted my first position as a senior pastor. When the votes were counted, I was 33 years old. Well, I was a few weeks away from being 34. But that's beside the point. I was young. And to add to it, the church I had just been called to was overwhelmingly populated with people old enough to be my (grand)parents. So the comments of "Look how young he is" were unavoidable. And they were right. In my head I could rationalize why I wasn't as young as I was perceived: I'd been in ministry nearly a decade, had gone as far as possible in seminary, and was noticing some graying in my hair.
But when Barna released their findings on the state of pastors in 2017, it showed the reality of where I'm at: There aren't a lot of guys in this spot who are my age. I knew that in my head, I'd done my doctoral thesis on the development of Millennials for pastoral ministry, and I found that the overwhelming number of senior pastors in SBC churches were Baby Boomers (born 1945-1965), and that at the time Millennials were only roughly 11% (that figure has dipped a bit, down to 10% according to the most recent Compensation Study profile).
Wow. That's all I can say. It's incredibly humbling to be trusted at a young age with the responsibility that comes with being a pastor. When I look at the data and I see how the demographics shake out, it's such a blessing to be trusted by a church to shepherd and lead them. Can I offer a few words to my fellow Millennials, to those serving as older pastors, and to the churches looking for a young pastor?
1. Guys, be patient. It's really hard to deal with the frustration of serving out of your gift set and desire. A lot of Millennials who are serving in second-chair positions have a desire to move into those lead roles. That's a good desire. But be patient. Learn as much as you can, even if it's what not to do. That's valuable. Develop your tough skin now. Lean on your growing faith.
2. Mentor us. The saddest thing about my doctoral thesis (and the follow-up research projects I did afterwards) was that for many younger leaders on a church staff, they were not being mentored or developed to be leaders. The overwhelming response to the question "What is your current pastor doing to develop you as a leader?" was "Nothing." If you've got a younger guy on your ministry team and he's got a desire to go into leadership, shepherd him. Mentor him. Take him along for hospital visits. Let him in vision-casting meetings. Give him regular preaching opportunities.
3. Churches, be patient with us. With age comes experience, and with experience comes wisdom. When age is working against you, experience and wisdom follow suit. If your church has a younger pastor, work with him, love him, and be patient as he navigates decisions and channels he's never had to before. Remember, the beloved predecessor was once a green 30-something too.
4. Younger guys, hang around people older than you. I see the conference lineups. I know the podcasts. We love guys who are similar to us. They're accessible, they speak our language, and they share our pop culture. But they don't have what the older pastors in your area do: wisdom and experience. One of the downfalls of modern youth ministry was the creation of the peer-culture. The same thing happens when ex youth pastors serving in lead roles constantly spend time around other ex youth pastors serving in lead roles.
5. Believe in us. Too often younger leaders in a church are serving alongside veteran leaders, and with their youth and inexperience they struggle to fully understand and buy into their calling. When God calls someone to pastoral ministry, He always does it in community. It's never in a vacuum. So when you affirm and build into and invest in a younger leader, you're doing something incredible to further the work God's doing in them. If you dismiss them, don't listen to them, or are unwilling to acknowledge their gifts, don't be surprised if they get discouraged and walk away.
6. Churches, thank you. When I did my doctoral thesis, I was working on the assumption that there would be a generational gap as Boomers move into retirement and Millennials move into lead pastor roles. What I wasn't prepared for was the data that showed Boomers are staying longer and staying older. The "talent pool" wasn't as tilted towards Millennials as I'd expected it would be. So for the churches out there who took the risk and were willing to go with a younger leader over someone who'd proven themselves with experience, thank you. I'm so grateful Emmanuel brought me in, the experience has been overwhelming. Thank you churches for embracing the radical differences Millennials have from previous generations, and in doing so show your love for "the next generation."
If you've ever taught preschool Sunday school, you know the answer you most often get to every question is either: Jesus, Bible, or God. It's funny when you think about how simplistic it is, especially given the wealth of resources available at our fingertips. But what if that simplicity is really the point? What if there's something rich and deep and complex that goes from the mouths of kids?
I've loved the work from the Gospel Project people, and was a huge fan of using their material as a youth pastor. Their comprehensive, Jesus-focused, theologically rich, and passionate heart for the Kingdom was contagious. I was thrilled to finally read Gospel-Centered Teaching by Trevin Wax, and am continually grateful for the work he and the Gospel Project team are putting out.
When we think about the high calling to teach the Word, we're gripped with a couple realities that are hard to escape:
1. We often find ourselves in a world of mission apathy
2. We are surrounded by biblical illiteracy
3. We have all been a part of uncomfortable Bible studies
The answer isn't to look for a superficial fix or a jolt of new energy. What Wax argues is that the answer is to go back to the source. The answer is to go back to the Gospel, the life-changing message that we believed when we were being sought by Christ, which continues to shape us and mold us into the image of Christ as we repent and redeem, and that one day promises this will all be made right.
If you regularly teach from God's Word, whether it's in a small group or in the pulpit, I cannot highly endorse this book enough. Wax has nothing new to offer, and that's the point. He gives us a refreshing dose of what we all too often know but overlook: the Gospel is sufficient. As you read through the book, you'll find so much to unpack. It's a quick read, but worth the time to work through, mark up, and reference often. If you're teaching teachers, consider using this as a resource. It'd be worth your time.
So if you're looking to apply what Gospel-Centered Teaching has to say, here's my suggestions:
1. Be distinctly Christian - One of the lines that jumped out to me was when he pointed out Ed Stetzer's conviction that he never preach a sermon that'd be true if Jesus didn't die and rise again. When we stand to teach the Word, we need to be distinctly Christian. Could what we teach be affirmed by an agnostic or an unbeliever? If it could, we've lost the salt of the Gospel message.
2. Focus on the Story - The Bible isn't a collection of stories to teach kids to behave, it's a grand narrative of God's work. It's about Him first. I love how the SBC statement of faith captures it: Scripture has God for its author, salvation for its end, and truth, without any mixture of error, for its matter. When we teach the Bible, share the connection to the story. When you teach the Old Testament, point to Christ. When you teach the New Testament, point to Christ. I love the Jesus Storybook Bible for this, and it's a great tool to use with kids (and adults!).
3. Apply the Gospel to Mission - Teaching without application is simply the accumulation of knowledge. It's fine, but it doesn't capture the fullness of why we have a Bible. I love this clip by Francis Chan that drives home the point.
4. Make Worship Primary - The corollary to mission is worship. Missions exist because worship doesn't. Our primary aim when we teach isn't to give more knowledge, to point out trivia or connections, or to necessary drive people to action. Our primary aim is to bring people to a greater sense of awe, wonder, and worship of their Savior. We should never lose sight of the wonder of what it means when Paul said "Christ Jesus came to save sinners" in 1 Timothy 1:15.
Scott M. Douglas
A blog about leadership and the lasting legacy of family ministry.