Surviving and Thriving for the Long Haul
Dr. Kevin Shrum
The need for long tenured pastors and Christian leaders is significant and necessary. While there will always be a great need for church planters and itinerant ministers and while there are times for the Christian leader to move from one ministry to another, the long-term damage done by short-term ministry in the kingdom of God is incalculable. The blessings and the benefits produced by long-term ministry both to the minister and the ministry are multi-faceted. Yet, I have found that there are certain challenges that come with remaining in one ministry setting for an extended period of time.
The first challenge to long-term ministry is staying fresh and current in one’s approach to ministry. It is so easy to get stuck in a rut. Lack of study and a failure to remain spiritually and culturally engaged can produce a ministry void of spiritual vitality. While the gospel never changes, the culture in which we minister does as do the ministries we lead. Cultural aptitude is not a requirement for ministry. Cultural and ministry fads come and go. Yet, awareness of trends both within the ministry we lead and the culture can help clarify the context in which we minister and apply the life-changing gospel of Jesus Christ.
Staying fresh is hard work, but possible. The Apostle Paul wrote of his own spiritual disciplines in 1 Corinthians 9:24-27 that kept him fresh. Consistent time in the Word and prayer is irreplaceable. Reading both old and new books on various subjects is essential. Digesting a few good ministry- appropriate journals is helpful, as well. Development of new messages and ministry presentations rather than depending on worn out sermons is imperative. Finally, simply being aware of the need to stay fresh produces a good pressure to remain engaged and current. Staying personally fresh makes ministry fresh.
Staying focused is a challenge, as well. If not handled properly, long-term ministry can produce a lack of focus and, as a result, a lack of priorities. Here’s how this plays out. In a long-term ministry there is a tendency to get bored with the daily machinations of the job. We think we know the job all too well. Mundane ministry is a killer. The inability to stay fresh can lead to a lack of focus that sends us on a wild goose chase into all kinds of extracurricular activities to fill the excitement void we experience when ministry is languishing. The end result is that our schedule fills up with many things but not the necessary things that make ministry thrive.
Extracurricular activities are good to the degree that they augment and not mitigate ministry. Again, the Apostle Paul addressed this much-needed focus with such metaphors as soldiering, farming, and running (2 Tim. 2:1-7). It may be time to ask some serious questions: ‘Do I need to be a part of this club? Is this activity a part of my ministry or something that keeps me from my ministry? Is this event a result of my lack of ministry focus or is this activity a part of that focus?’ Keeping a laser focus on the main part of our ministry will help us filter through the numerous opportunities that will come our way as a ministry leader. As Jim Collins as noted in his recent book, How the Mighty Fall, our ministry focus is our ‘flywheel’ that we must not neglect to spin as ministry opportunities come and go. The leader who makes himself available for everything may not be good for anything.
Dealing with the friction that comes in long-term ministry is inevitable and difficult. No matter how likeable we may be, there are some who will not care for who we are and what we do – no matter what we do. Leadership plus time can equal adversaries. If this kind of friction is not properly handled, ministry will become miserable and unproductive. Friction can wear on us personally, on our family relationships, and on the nature of our ministry. A good resource in dealing with conflict is Jeff Iorg’s new book, The Painful Side of Leadership: Moving Forward Even When it Hurts.
A good way to deal with ministry friction is to make a study of what scripture teaches concerning conflict and conflict resolution (Mt. 18:15-20 and most of the Pastoral Epistles). We must check our motives, as well. We must make sure we’re seeking what is right and true and not a personal agenda. We must seek reconciliation as soon as possible without compromising biblical principles. In addition, we must seek the council of trusted friends who will be truthful with us, yet supportive. Knowing that it may not be as bad as we think it is just as it is never as good as we think it is is key. I believe realism is the word. Finally, move forward. Some friction will remain. Learning to live with those who oppose us will teach us as much as what we learn from those who support us. Living with friction reminds us to live with humility and to depend on God’s sufficient grace (2 Cor. 12:9).
Long-term ministry can wear on our family, as well, especially if friction is constant. Pastors are notorious for being married to the ministry, while neglecting spouse and children. Do not do this! I repeat, do not do this! While taking care of the families in our ministry we must not lose our own family. Your spouse will resent it, your children will be embittered, and you will come to envy the normal family life that you lack, which is one of the reasons some ministers leave the ministry.
Make your family a part of your ministry and not an incidental part of your ministry. Continue to date your spouse and make her a priority. Set aside the ministry persona and be dad. Be authentic wherever you are, both at home, in the community, and in the church. Don’t bad-mouth the church, particularly in front of your children. They’re smart enough to know when times are tough without you running down the church. Besides, it disparages the church in their minds, which does not foster long-term commitment on their part. Make sure to take time off, especially extended times in the summer to refresh your spiritual batteries and have fun with your family. And pray. Pray that God will place a sweet taste in the mouth of your family when it comes to ministry.
Long-term ministry requires fortitude and grit. There’s just no way around it. Those who lack intestinal fortitude will end up moving from ministry to ministry. The slightest bit of friction sends the faint of heart on to the next ministry until friction arises again – and the cycle continues. Facing the fact that there are dry seasons in ministry is essential. Sometimes you just have to show up and then keep showing up. In fact, I recently told a young minister that he hasn’t really learned how to preach until he learns how to preach through the desert where words fall flat and things are spiritually dry.
This is why a good dose of hard-nosed determination, coupled with a realization that there are seasons in ministry that come and go, will produce a relentless faithfulness in us that enables us to weather the storms, endure the dry seasons, and relish in the seasons of harvest and fruitfulness. A God-produced fortitude is birthed in us not by our own power, but by a passionate trust in the hope we have in Jesus Christ. It is this kind of hope that enables us to get up when we’ve been knocked down (2 Cor. 4:7-18).
Finally, living by faith in a long-term ministry is the ultimate challenge. This seems like an obvious assertion, especially for the Christian leader. But it may not be as obvious as one thinks. It is easy and lethally dangerous to ‘minister through the machine.’ That is, we work the system, make sure all the committee positions are filled, check off the special events that click by from year to year, and measure progress by statistical categories, none of which requires faith. The kind of faith that we must continue to kindle is an absolute belief that all things depend on God and not on a finely tuned ministry machine. Order and measured progress are important. However, unless the Lord builds a ministry those who labor to build it labor in vain (Ps. 127:1).
It is my prayer that God will grant to the church a new generation of faithful pastors, leaders, educators, and workers willing to deal with friction, live by faith, and serve both family and church with graceful grit. Further, it is my prayer that God will grant an extra portion of grace to all those nameless, yet faithful, pastors and leaders who have given their lives long-term to places of ministry that are challenging and difficult. Great is your reward!