Three Lessons for Sustainable Ministry Under Strenuous Church Leadership
There are no perfect churches, no perfect church leaders, and no perfect church leadership bodies. I guess I knew that on some level, over 30 years ago, when Christ’s vocational ministry through me began. Nonetheless my excitement for ministry and lack of experience allowed me to begin the wonderful journey of ministry blissfully ignorant of what that truth looked like covered in human flesh. Many young ministers, myself included, find themselves disheartened when they experience the realization that church leadership is not perfect, is not always on the same page, is not always focused on Christ, and does not always behave in a Christ-like manner. My prayer is that I can provide encouragement to those of you who find yourselves disheartened because of church leadership.
Strenuous church leadership comes in many forms. It may be embodied in fellow staff members, in elders, deacons, church boards or other forms of governance. It may even be your own leadership that is difficult. Strenuous church leadership may stem from differences in personality, understandings of ministry, levels of spiritual maturity, life and work experiences, and a host of other differences. Strenuous church leadership might be working under the distrusting thumb of another minister, dealing with the expectations of a workaholic, or knowing there will be a written list of complaints about each minister at the next elders’ meeting. It might be petty and subtle, or blatant and public. Regardless of the form and source, there is little that is more discouraging and frustrating, especially early in ministry.
I offer you three lessons that the Holy Spirit has taught me about sustainable ministry under strenuous leadership. I do not offer these as an authority, but as a fellow minister and brother in Christ who has been given the undeserved privilege of being a branch through whom The Vine has borne fruit. I have learned these lessons through serving for more than twenty years in vocational student ministry and for more than a decade with churches and church leaders on behalf of Milligan University. I acknowledge that there are more than three lessons to be learned, but these three played a significant role in sustaining me and are practical for most scenarios you may face. As such, I pray the Holy Spirit will use something in these words to strengthen you, and I pray that you will continue to seek guidance from others.
Honor God Over People
The Holy Spirit taught me that no matter how imperfect, difficult, and strenuous church leadership might be or seem, it is infinitesimal compared to the perfect leadership of Christ whose yoke is easy and whose burden is light. I was convinced through the example and guidance of the two seasoned ministers with whom I served when I first entered vocational ministry, that trying to please people will leave you weary, burdened, and in need of rest. Conversely, there was nothing more freeing and energizing for me than accepting the truth that I need only concern myself with honoring God. It remains a struggle for me to remember that and an even greater struggle to live that out, but each decision I have made that has been based on honoring God has been met with reciprocity in the form of peace and joy. Be aware, however, that you may also receive, as I have many times, reciprocity in the form of conviction exposing you as the difficult, strenuous leader.
Choose to Love Difficult Leaders
Lesson one does not necessarily mean that the difficult, strenuous leadership you face will disappear. Often the joy and peace that are gifted when we concern ourselves with honoring God arrive antithetically amid difficulty. The Holy Spirit again used the maturity of the aforementioned ministers to teach me the importance of genuinely loving those whose leadership is difficult. While they stood firmly against decisions and actions that were divisive, they were also quick to acknowledge good decisions. They were both unafraid of tension or confrontation and quick to love and forgive. I learned much by seeing them put aside disagreements with leadership in favor of genuinely loving and ministering to those same leaders in times of need. I saw them exhibit the love of Christ in hospitals, funeral homes, and within the church body, as if there had never been a disagreement. In my time at that church, I saw relationships restored and leadership transform from a pattern of tension to one of unity, largely because two ministers had demonstrated the importance of both truth and grace.
Lean on Friends in Ministry
Thirdly, the Holy Spirit taught me the importance of not facing strenuous leadership alone. I was blessed with two godly, veteran ministers who encouraged me, supported me, and guided me. Sometimes, however, the difficult leader may be a fellow minister. While I had support from the ministry staff, I also found support in other places. My wife played a crucial role in helping to sustain and support me. I found a supportive and encouraging friendship with a deacon who worked directly with our student ministry. I was blessed with a great network of youth ministers in the area that met regularly. They became my best friends, and did much to support and sustain me in ministry. My encouragement to you is that you intentionally seek supportive relationships both within your church and outside your church. If there is not a network of ministers in place in your area, start one. Friendships with those who understand the joys and the stresses of ministry will sustain you like little else.
Vocational ministry is a wonderful journey, but one that will not always be easy. Even so, ministry is important enough for us to continually seek sustenance in Christ and the relationships around us. This way fruit will continue to be borne through us for the sake of those who need to hear the gospel, for the praise and glory of God’s name.
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