How do church leaders make ministry harder than it needs to be? Carey Nieuwhof identifies five ways that many pressures faced in ministry are more solvable than we think.
Being a church leader is a tough assignment (very worth it but still tough). The real question is, do you make it harder than it needs to be? Unfortunately, for many leaders (including myself), the answer is yes.
Ministry Is Hard for So Many
When we live in an era where as many as 42% of pastors have indicated they are seriously thinking of quitting ministry, it’s a good idea to ask whether the pressure is harder than it needs to be. Many of the pressures we face in ministry are more solvable than we think.
Here are five ways pastors make ministry harder than it needs to be. I’ve personally struggled with all five at different points in my leadership.
1. Putting far too much pressure on yourself to preach perfectly
The task of preparing a weekly sermon has simultaneously never been easier and never more difficult. It’s never been easier because, thanks to the internet, pastors now have access to resources that, even 20 years ago, church leaders could only dream of (or acquire if they had a massive budget). The ability to research and explore scripture and topics is unprecedented, as is access to colleagues, peers, and mentors who can make you better. But, of course, unprecedented access cuts both ways. Because your congregation also has access to everything — from random information on whatever subject the pastor is addressing to famous preachers Christians follow and admire — it’s easy to put incredible pressure on yourself to preach as well as any influential pastor you (or the people you serve) follow.
The hype around preaching has put pressure on the weekend service that neither preachers nor their sermons were ever designed to bear. I have a phrase I use all the time to help alleviate the pressure I put on myself. I remind myself (and my team) that they can’t all be gems. While there’s no substitute for great preparation, you can’t control the outcome or the impact of every message. Some messages that you think will be incredible don’t land. And others you’re ready to give up on end up changing more lives than you could imagine. Sometimes you get a gem. Other times you get a rock. Your job is to prepare as well as you can, preach from an open and ready heart, and trust God for the outcome.
One fantastic way to take the pressure off yourself is to book an adequate time to prepare, not just for the message, but to prepare your heart to preach. Then get up and do your best. That’s it. That’s all you can do. The fact that God would use flawed humans to deliver a sermon is shocking and inspiring. It also relieves a tremendous amount of pressure.
2. Making the church too personality-driven and not mission-driven
In the culture we live in, if you’re gifted, the drift of ministry will naturally migrate to a personality-driven ministry. It’s your job as a leader to ensure your church stays mission-driven, not personality-driven. It’s so easy for churches (and leaders) to become personality-driven, not mission-driven. It’s easy to focus on narcissistic leaders who attempt to build a church around themselves. But the problem is actually far more innocent and widespread than that.
Here’s the challenge: Many pastors have great communication skills, and even more have great people skills. The result? They end up being charismatic leaders people love to follow.
In the culture we live in, if you’re gifted, the drift of ministry will naturally migrate to a personality-driven ministry. It’s your job as a leader to ensure your church stays mission-driven, not personality-driven. It’s easy to think of personality-driven ministry as the problem of growing churches or mega-churches, but it’s much more widespread. It’s easy at this point to say something like, “… and that’s exactly why all churches should stay small.”
Not so fast. Don’t just blame megachurch pastors for falling victim to personality-driven ministries. In many cases, the ultimate personality-driven church is the small church — the congregation in which the pastor does everything from preaching to leading all teams to pastoral visitation to counseling. Many (if not most) small churches become completely dependent on their pastor for, well, everything. And when he or she leaves, the congregation is helpless to do any ministry.
Ironically, many megachurches are much better at releasing the gifts of their members than small churches. That’s why most don’t collapse when a charismatic but healthy leader leaves. Small churches often don’t flourish nearly as well. All the gifts of ministry don’t reside in a single pastor. Mission-driven churches thrive. Personality-driven churches don’t.
3. Convincing yourself that everything is riding on every decision
It’s easy to convince yourself that everything is riding on every decision in ministry. Guess what? It’s not. The trap here is that you feel the weight of leading a church, and, like many other pastors, I took that responsibility very seriously. In my less-healthy seasons, though, that often led me to think that every decision was an everything’s-riding-on-this decision.
There are a handful of those decisions you’ll have to make as a church leader. But not every day. If you fall into that trap, you’ll do everything from failing to take risks to stressing out everyone around you to compromising your health. A better way to look at it is to imagine a scale of 1–10 when you’re making a decision, 1 being very low risk and 10 being “everything actually is riding on this.” Even this short mental exercise will help you see that perhaps what you’re looking at is a 3 out of 10. And if that’s the case, failure isn’t fatal. And it’s worth the risk. Every once in a while, you might have an everything’s-riding-on-it 10/10 decision. That’s why you have prayer, a board, trusted advisors, and faith. Prayerfully make the decision, and know you’ve done your best.
4. Waiting until you’re exhausted to take a break
Exhaustion isn’t faithfulness. Burnout isn’t noble. And fatigue isn’t a spiritual gift. Ultimately, leaders who never take a break end up breaking. Let’s call this what it is. Far too often, church leaders never take a break, or they wait until they’re exhausted to head out on vacation or sabbatical. The even sadder version of this is taking an involuntary break. By involuntary, I mean everything from board-imposed sabbaticals and vacations to leaders who blow the whistle for time off minutes before they careen off a cliff. Why do pastors run themselves into the ground? Often, it’s because they’re trying to be faithful. But exhaustion isn’t faithfulness. Burnout isn’t noble. And fatigue isn’t a spiritual gift. Ultimately, leaders who never take a break end up breaking.
5. Not building a life outside of work and ministry
For too many pastors, their ministry becomes their identity. It’s an easy occupational hazard because, unlike most other jobs, who you are is so similar to what you do. When I was in law, law was something I did during the day, but a Christian is who I was. Once I began in ministry, those lines got blurred all too quickly.
It’s all too easy to make ministry your life, which for pastors means you have no life. Your family suffers, you suffer, and most surprisingly of all, so does your congregation because they don’t have a healthy leader. What makes this particularly difficult is that it’s hard to turn ministry off.
For example: You try to take a day off on Saturday, but the moment you touch your phone, you start seeing messages from members. Or, in the quiet of some downtime, you start ruminating about Sunday’s message or picking up a leadership or theological book to read. I suffered from this for far too long. The best antidote I know is not just to take time off but set up hobbies, activities, and projects that occupy your downtime. That can be as simple as reading a novel, watching a movie, socializing with good friends, or playing with your kids. Of course, it could mean getting an actual hobby (which is a mark of most healthy leaders, by the way). A hobby can be anything from mountain biking, running, photography, BBQ (a personal fave), woodworking, hiking … you name it. The point is to engage your mind with something that requires focus. When your mind is fully engaged in something else, you can’t focus on work. Leaders who lack an off-time activity that require their focus rarely refuel when they’re off.
Before you feel guilty, here’s the surprise: Having a life outside of ministry makes you better at ministry. You return refreshed, and thus you have way more to give. And when you have something to look forward to on your time off, it motivates you to work harder to accomplish everything before your day off.
Ministry is hard, but ….
Sure, ministry is hard. But not all the difficulty is out of your control. Taking the pressure off in these five areas within your control can — and will — make a big difference.
This article originally appeared on CareyNieuwhof.com and is reposted here by permission.
- Getting Beyond Ministry Burnout and Tiredness by Jaye Johnson
- 5 Lessons for Better Preaching by Charley Reeb
- How to Stay Focused on Your Mission by Barry Winders
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