It's surreal sitting in a Starbucks after my third week as a pastor. I'm so grateful to the wonderful folks at Emmanuel Baptist for their kindness, hospitality, and genuine enthusiasm for charting a new course in our journey of being faithful to Christ's call to make disciples. It's been exhausting, busy, challenging, and when you throw in being 14 hours away from Carrie and the boys, it's been somewhat lonely too.
I'd say there's 7 big lessons I've learned about ministry in such a short time.
1. Listening > Talking - So many times we assume our ministry activity happens when we're preaching, teaching, praying, and discipling. In essence, the times our mouth is moving. And those are all extremely important things to do, but sometimes the best thing we can do is keep our trap shut and hear someone share their story.
2. Trust and Delegate - It's really hard to have hands-on leadership in every little detail, and pastors who do that tend to err on being micromanagers or control freaks. Because there are so many issues that need to be addressed, I've learned how important it is to delegate responsibilities and not be involved in every minute detail. With that delegation comes trust, when I have to let go of my authority to handle something, but still bear responsibility for it. That's tough. But if we don't do that, we're not living out Ephesians 4 to equip the saints for the work of ministry.
3. Proactive Scheduling - Time is a leader's most valuable, and nonrenewable, resource. Taking control of time and proactively scheduling is the only way to manage the numerous responsibilities (see #2) while maintaining priority. My iCal looks like a coloring book, but it's the only way to be in control of time, and not let time control me.
4. Sunday Sneaks Up - It's felt like once I had the week under control, I wake up and it's Sunday and back around we go! I know every pastor has a different style and practice, but I love working ahead on sermon preparation, and I've found that's been a great way to be ready for when Sunday (inevitably) rolls around. Everyone has a different time frame, but if you can stay 4-6 weeks ahead on message preparation you'll find a cushion for when Sunday gets there much quicker!
5. People Aren't Projects or Interruptions - Speaking of #3... I was leaving in a hurry to go to a meeting across town when someone met me in the parking lot with "Hey pastor, do you have a minute?" One of the hardest lessons I've learned in ministry is that people aren't problems to be fixed or interruptions to be managed, they're people who God loves and who you love too. Seeing those as "God Moments" rather than interruptions changes everything. John Maxwell talked about it as "walking slowly down the halls" in 360 Leader, and there's so much truth to that imagery.
6. Time Away is Essential - God created a work/rest rhythm in Genesis 1 not because He needed it, but because we do. If you're a ministry leader and you're hitting the grind without any time off in a long while, you need to stop what you're doing and get some rest before it kills you or your ministry. I love being 25 minutes from the beach, and taking some time away to rest and hear the ocean waves has been exactly what my soul and body have needed.
7. Family is Priority #1 - I love our new church. I'm so excited about what God could be doing in our midst in the next few years and beyond. But the reality is they can find another pastor if I leave. The other reality is that Carrie cannot have another husband, and Sam & Gray cannot have another daddy. One thing I think that contributes to pastoral burnout is the imbalance between work and home, either they spend too much time at work and flame out at home, or they spend too much time at home and not enough at work and they fail to meet expectations. Have trusted people around you who can hold you accountable to keeping that balance strong.
And boys, when you and mommy get here in a few days, we're gonna have fun at the beach!
One of the biggest complaints from leaders is that they don't have time to get everything done they wanted to, that they're "too busy." It's true there's way more expected of leaders today, especially in ministry, than a generation ago. But the problem isn't because of greater expectations and longer to-do lists, it's a problem of priorities. That's why I don't think we have a busy problem in leadership, we have a mixed-up priority problem.
Think about it for a minute, you can always find a couple hours to watch football on a fall afternoon, or a morning on the lake, or to interact on Facebook. We make time for what we think is most important. That's priorities. Aligning your productivity with your priorities won't take away the stress level of leadership, but it will free you up to focus on what's most important and devote less time to what's not (You can read more about Urgent & Important through the Eisenhower Decision Matrix).
1. Schedule Interruptions - We're surrounded by the interruptions of text messages, emails, and other instant correspondence. So build blocks into your schedule to account for these interruptions. Close your email application on your computer or change the settings on your phone so you don't have the constant ding. If you check and respond to this on scheduled intervals, it provides you uninterrupted focus time.
*Note: Emergencies are a different story
2. Delegate - There's a big difference between delegate and dump. When you delegate, you're giving away leadership which helps spread your influence. Delegation involves giving both responsibility and authority. If you give someone an area to oversee, they need the freedom to lead and decide without getting your approval. Delegate as much as you can. It might hurt, but there's not much that only you have to do. When you delegate you're multiplying leadership, which helps build a healthy ministry climate. People not only do ministry but they have ownership of it.
3. Keep Your Places In Order - When I worked at Starbucks I was introduced to this, that our "First Place" is home, "Second Place" is work, and "Third Place" is our recreation. If you're going to be an effective leader, especially in ministry, it starts at home. How are you leading your family? How are you loving and serving your spouse? What about your kids? Are you an engaged parent or are you constantly distracted? Are you staying healthy and balanced with recreation? Or has your hobby and interest crossed the line into one of the other places?
4. Develop Accountability - Do you have someone or a group you are accountable to? Not just surface "how's it going?" accountability, but real accountability. The kind where you have to be honest because they have your best interest in mind. Having accountability lets you have a structure in place to keep balance, and to have a forum to share how you're doing professionally and personally. This group helps you to balance priorities, focus on what's most important, and protect you, your marriage, and your family. Leaders without accountability are doomed, because they will continue to spin plates until it all comes crashing down.
5. Use An Effective System - Some people do time blocks, some do day planners, some use Covey's Seven Habits, or a dry erase board. Whatever system you use to schedule your time and emphasize your priorities, use it. I love time blocks because they can always shift around based on emergencies, crises, and drop-ins. Using a system helps keep the rhythms of ministry leadership in front of you (Sunday will be here quick, have you built time for sermon prep; Hospital visits planned throughout the week show you when you have time for deacon lunches, etc.).
6. Focus on Your Calling - As a ministry leader, you need to do this as a reminder for why you are where you are. You're there as a shepherd, leader, servant, teacher, counselor, and more. You're there because God has placed you there. And you're there because God has gifted you to handle what's before you. You're there because He is going to finish the work He started (Philippians 1:6). So when things get crazy around you, that's where we have to come back to our calling.
What would you add to this about priorities, busyness, and ways to manage time?
A few months ago I met with my student leadership team where we talked about one of the most important words a leader can learn: no. They were shocked when I told them "I say no to anywhere between 80%-90% of the ideas people give me. It's not that they're always bad ideas, sometimes they are, but it's because I don't want to stuff our ministry with things that don't advance the goal." Every leader needs to learn to say no, but I think it's especially important for student ministers. We consume ourselves with the false impression that busy = effective, so we program ourselves to death chasing after every event, mission trip, concert, and retreat. The reality is that in the end, we're exhausting ourselves, straining our church resources, placing an extra burden on our families, asking parents to over-extended their finances, and often spending way too much time doing stuff that doesn't matter.
You're not Superman. Most student ministries are small and often find the student minister (and spouse) as the main volunteers. When we say yes to everything, we put ourselves and our spouses on a pace that we weren't meant to keep. One person can't manage all that's often asked of student ministers. That's why it's so important to develop a team of volunteers, and empower them to lead ministries. Here's the reality guys, you're not that important. Some things can happen without you. You don't have to be at every ball game, every class fellowship, every birthday party, etc. Empower and equip your volunteers and cheer for them when they do those things. It multiplies your ministry and allows you to focus on the priorities God has for you in ministry.
You can't let everyone be a guest speaker. "God's given me a message to share with your students" is a phrase that sends a chill up my spine. I'm not saying every guest speaker is wacky, but there are plenty out there. And as the primary teacher/communicator, you have the responsibility to make sure that what's being taught and presented is biblical and edifying. You can't let anyone and everyone have your teaching spot. I use a rotation of a handful of guys I know and trust when I have to be away from our regular student ministry gatherings. I typically go over the plan with them and get feedback on what they're planning to do, but since there's a high level of trust it's never an issue. It's not always so rosy though, two of the better examples I've had to say no to are:
You can't do every activity that gets suggested. One thing we can never do in student ministry is let things get stale, where we keep doing the same things over and over again. Everything has a shelf life, and even good ideas can become golden calves if we're not careful. Soliciting ideas from others is a great way to generate new ministries and activities. But just because it's a good idea doesn't mean that it's something to incorporate into your ministry. Ask yourself four questions:
In the end, that's ok. You're not called to be everything. If you're serving in a small church with a small student ministry, you can't do all the things the megachurch across town can do. That's ok. Focus on the students God has given you and invest your life in them. And if you're in the megachurch, your time will be spent investing in leaders and volunteers more than in students. That's ok. Empower them to multiply the ministry. The point of this article is simple: be who God has called you to be, and do what God has called you to do. Learning to say no helps you keep your eyes on what's most important.
As a kid I loved playing Nintendo. I was addicted to it, had a couple shoeboxes worth of games, a subscription to a magazine devoted to new games, and tried to find every secret world and "extra man" I could. Except when I was losing. If I was getting clobbered in a game of Tecmo Bowl or Zelda, I'd hit the one button that could make it all go away: the reset button. In an instant I had a fresh game to start over with.
Leaders find themselves getting clobbered too. Business Insider points out that CEO burnout is an alarming problem, and Harvard Medical School in a study showed that 96% of executive leaders felt some level of burnout, with up to 1/3 describing it as "severe." Ministry is no exception, which was pointed out in a 2010 article in the New York Times: "Members of the clergy now suffer from obesity, hypertension and depression at rates higher than most Americans. In the last decade, their use of antidepressants has risen, while their life expectancy has fallen. Many would change jobs if they could." The website PastorBurnout.com has some pretty alarming figures, which are in the infograph. Leadership Journal found that less than 10% of ministry leaders surveyed had not experienced some level of burnout or major ministry stress. A recent survey by LifeWay President Thom Rainer showed that pastors and ministry leaders are under tremendous expectations for their work, many of whom feel unable to meet the constant demands.
Where am I going with all this? I really believe ministry leaders need a reset button in their lives. If only it worked out that way to have one under your desk to make the bad days or painful experiences go away. Sign me up if any of you reading this make that discovery! But a reset button in our lives is important for us in leadership: we constantly give of ourselves, our time, our energy and it rarely feels like there's much time to breathe. Here are some ways to regularly put reset buttons into your life:
1. Have a reset button every day - Whether it's a hobby, taking the long way home, hitting the gym, or calling a friend, make sure you take time every day to put the day's activity and stress behind you. Too many families struggle in ministry because the problems at church or the stress of life becomes dinner table problems.
2. Take a day off periodically - If your church has in their procedures a weekly day off for a ministry leader, take it. Don't let those unused days pile up. And when you take the day off, take it off. Don't spend your day answering texts or emails. If they're emergencies that's one thing, but we do our families a disservice when we are spending our off time dealing with things that can wait. In our house we call this "Game Off" where we spend time together, we don't talk about church things, and my wife & I work to be intentional about talking to each other (or not talking at all--we have two small children, silence really is golden).
3. Use your vacation time - Too many pastors comment how long it's been since they took a vacation. And the compounding stress of that ultimately leads to unhealthy work-home balance and to the stress level you already face. Vacation doesn't have to mean Disney. It can mean a week at home, a few days visiting relatives, or time spent traveling to a nearby city. Oh, and don't be scared to use a Sunday. Let someone else fill in for you, let your church know you love them but you love your family first.
The first three are regular practices and rhythms that a ministry leader should follow. The next two are for those in ministry leadership who are beyond the point of benefiting from those. If you're in that spot and reading this, take heart, many before you have experienced the same thing. Lean on older ministers, your friends, and take advantage of the resources out there your denomination might have.
4. Take a lengthy sabbatical - Some churches provide for this and they are dear treasures for those in ministry who need time every few years to hit the reset button. A colleague of mine just started his month-long sabbatical, and he is looking forward to using it to refresh, travel, read, study and pray. If your church doesn't offer sabbatical, talk to your leadership about the possibility of doing that. It really does benefit everyone in the church to have a refreshed and recharged ministry leader. Some may not believe that, but every backyard warrior knows sometimes you have to stop and sharpen your mower blade.
5. Walk away from ministry for a season - I remember sitting down with a good friend who was leading a large, growing, and encouraging church. But that process of getting there had taken a toll on him and his family. And then he said something that struck me: "You know, I think I'd love Jesus more and be a better husband and dad if I wasn't a pastor." He had hit the wall and would not be able to recover without some drastic steps. This isn't for everyone. And it may not be a lengthy season. But sometimes the only way to recover from the stress and exhaustion of leadership is to step away. The length of that season may vary, but it's important if you find yourself at that point to remember that your church can find another pastor, but your family can never replace you.
Scott M. Douglas
A blog about leadership and the lasting legacy of family ministry.