My latest column at Christian Week:
These aren’t easy days for the Church. We need certain skills if we’re going to survive.
There are a few reasons why ministry is hard. For one thing, our context has changed. In our post-Christian society, churches and pastors are increasingly marginalized. People think they’ve heard everything the Church has to say and they’re just not listening.
Ministry is also hard when we treat it as a business. Pastors are just as likely today to read the Harvard Business Review as Christianity Today. We can learn from business, but business techniques don’t get to the heart of the issues the Church is facing. They can help, but they can also add pressure and create expectations we just can’t meet.
We’re also seeing social problems that my grandmother’s pastor never faced. On top of this, many of our churches are on the wrong side of the U-curve and need renewal. I could go on, but maybe it’s enough to admit that ministry these days is hard.
This is why so many pastors and churches are struggling. As one pastor said, it’s carnage out there. I know some really good pastors who are on the edge of burnout. I’ve never seen so many churches and organizations at key turning points or on the brink of collapse. Even strong ministries are finding it difficult.
We need survival skills. We’re kidding ourselves if we think we can face these challenges without taking extra care. I’m seeing too many pastors and churches being destroyed because they weren’t really prepared.
First, let’s just admit that it’s hard. If the first job of leadership is to define reality, then let’s start here. An honest assessment of our context would tell us that easy answers won’t work. Ministry today requires courage and grit and a willingness to suffer. Nobody wants to hear this, and we get ads for books and conferences that tell us otherwise. Don’t believe it. It’s supposed to be hard.
Second, we need to let go of the heroic leader myth. We think that if we get the right pastor or leader, that will turn things around. Leaders buy into this too. We betray the very things we say we believe about God and the Church and somehow think it’s all up to us. The myth of the solo heroic leader is bogus. Leaders are important, but systems are much more complex than one person.
Third, it’s time to revisit the fundamentals. One of my pastor friends used to be a paramedic. He says that everything paramedics do is an expansion of three fundamentals: airway, breathing and circulation (ABC). A paramedic can face thousands of situations, but the focus is always on the fundamentals. We need to think about this in ministry. There are thousands of ways to adapt our fundamentals, but there are only really a few things that we need to get right, and they are enough.
Finally, we need to shift our focus. Churches and their people are messy. Even good churches are messy. I need to remember what Robert Murray McCheyne said: “Learn much of the Lord Jesus. For every look at yourself take ten looks at Christ. He is altogether lovely…Live much in the smiles of God. Bask in his beams. Feel his all-seeing eye settled on you in love. And repose in his almighty arms.” That’s not a cliché. The more I look at myself, and the Church, the more discouraged I get. If I didn’t believe God is equal to the challenges, I’d quit tomorrow.
One book claims that only 30 per cent of leaders last. This is disturbing. We need survival skills if we’re going to beat the odds and finish well. We need to be aware of issues that threaten us, and we also need to realize that it’s challenging, but that God is enough. I’m learning how much I need survival skills if I’m going to last through the challenges of ministry.