My 22 best practices in 22 years of pastoral ministry

When I first accepted my congregation’s call to pastoral ministry, a friend from another church said, “I don’t know whether to say congratulations or condolences.” He was familiar with the stress that can come with any ministry and knew that my congregation’s previous pastor had a difficult leave-taking. “I’m worried for you,” he said. He didn’t want me to become another church casualty.

As of this Easter, I’m happy to say that I have now been thriving in pastoral ministry for 22 years with the same congregation!–yes, that’s right, 22 years, which I realize is a lifetime for many. And yes, I’ve had my share of stress, but I’d also say that pastoral ministry has been wonderful, enriching, challenging, frustrating, stretching, heart-breaking, impossible, Spirit-filled, mundane and holy, often in the same day or even in the same moment.


“What does it take for pastors not only to survive but to thrive in fruitful ministry over the long haul?”

In Resilient Ministry (IVP Books, 2013), authors Bob Burns, Tasha D. Chapman, and Donald C. Guthrie attempt to answer this question, although unfortunately their study was based only on married male pastors and their wives. Still I was curious to reflect on the 5 themes they explore in their book:

  1. Spiritual Formation;
  2. Self-Care;
  3. Emotional and Cultural Intelligence;
  4. Marriage and Family;
  5. Leadership and Management.

More personally, I’ve also been asking myself: How have managed to thrive as a pastor? In honour of my 22 years, here are my 22 best practices–in no particular order, some more over-arching concepts and others more specific life hacks, totally unresearched and untested except in the personal crucible of my ministry.

  1. Do what you love. Long before I ever thought of being a pastor, I loved to plan worship, preach, and connect with people of all ages. What a delight then to be called to do what I love!
  2. Share ministry and leadership. Emmanuel began as a multi-voice congregation, with the pastor preaching just twice a month, and I’ve continued to follow that practice. As much as I love ministry, I also love to give it away.
  3. Journal. To reflect on Scripture, pray, write poetry, dream, rant, debrief.
  4. Have a great support system. Including but not limited to a support group designated by the church, family, friends, colleagues. One time when my husband was asked what he thought of my being a pastor, he replied, “She’s the best pastor of any church I’ve been a part of.” (and yes, he preaches on occasion, and shares the cooking and dishes at home too!)
  5. Pray. Do I really need to explain this?
  6. Read Scripture. Not just for sermon preparation or teaching a Sunday school class, but for the sheer joy of Scripture. If the Word doesn’t move and transform me, how can I possibly share it?
  7. Aim to arrive a few minutes early for any appointments. Instead of rushing to make it just in time, use the extra moments to gather your thoughts, pray, organize your schedule, take some deep breaths, or just spend some time in silence. (true confession: last time I arrived early for an appointment, I straightened up the back seat of my car which was sorely in need of attention.)
  8. Eat healthy. Last night I made sole with black bean sauce, corn, rice, and a cabbage/kale salad. The night before, supper was brown rice noodles, tofu, and sui choy.
  9. Be physically active. I’m not as consistent with this as I’d like to be, but my mostly-on-but-sometimes-off work-out includes step aerobics and/or walking, plus free weights.
  10. Track your time. In ministry, it’s easy to blur the lines so it feels like you’re always working even when you’re not. Tracking time can clarify boundaries and make room for Sabbath time, which benefits both church and family life.
  11. Apologize. Everyone makes mistakes, and it’s better to ‘fess up than cover up.
  12. Invest in on-going learning. When I began as a pastor, I had no training or experience in pastoral care, so I focused all of my professional development there. Now I put more even weight on biblical/theological learning and the more practical nuts and bolts of ministry.
  13. Experiment. Taking risks on new initiatives is a form of learning by doing. Our first attempt at planting another church in another community didn’t last long, but with our Vietnamese ministry we’re now moving ahead more strongly by planting a church within our church.
  14. Go home for lunch. I live just a few minutes from the church, so if I don’t have a lunch meeting or errands, I go home for a mental stretch break, do a small chore like unloading the dishwasher, or play the piano (badly and for therapeutic reasons, I might add).
  15. Take all of your eligible vacation time. 43% of working Canadians don’t take all of their annual vacation days.I am not one of them.
  16. Hold ministry lightly. In one of my journals, I started a list of jobs I could do other than pastoring–college teaching (which I did before being called to pastoral ministry), temporary office work (also a pre-pastorate job), real estate agent (although I’d have to study for that), working in a book store (once my dream job), and more.
  17. Don’t start your office day by responding to email. It’s too easy to get drawn into other people’s agenda instead of my own. Instead, I usually start by checking in with other staff, then organizing my day and priorities. I rarely find God’s priority for me to be email.
  18. Have a sense of humor. “Oh, so you’re a woman pastor?” said a first-time visitor. “Are there more of you in the Mennonite Church?” Well no, there’s just one of me (although I didn’t say that out loud!)
  19. Develop a thick skin. “We don’t like it when women come in and try to change everything,” said one man who apparently disapproved of women as pastors. “Well we don’t like it when men do that either!” retorted his wife. Fortunately I was only a guest speaker at their church.
  20. Have a life apart from the church. While I’m fully engaged in the life of my congregation, I also write and have a social and family life apart from the church too. That’s healthy for all of us.
  21. Discover a sense of wonder again and again. When I started pastoring, one of my biggest fears was that I might become cynical about the church. But as I’ve become more deeply involved, instead of becoming more cynical, I’ve found a deeper compassion for our woundedness and a greater wonder at God’s grace.
  22. Run to Jesus. As a variation of following Jesus, early in my ministry, I met regularly with my then conference minister, and I still remember his counsel, “When you feel like running, then run to Jesus.”

Your Turn: Which of these resonate with you? What best practice can you share from your own experience?

23 thoughts on “My 22 best practices in 22 years of pastoral ministry

    1. Thank you for your kind words. One of my early books was actually translated informally into Japanese! I’d love to see one of my more recent publications in Spanish or other language–it’s my publisher, Herald Press, that would handle any requests if you’d want to follow up with that.

  1. Thanks for this, April. Wise words. I was especially brought up short by #17:

    ” I rarely find God’s priority for me to be email.”


    1. There are times when I’m waiting on a reply about funeral arrangements for example, or other times when some emails can become more of a priority, but in general I find the types of emails that I get don’t need my attention first thing in the morning. I need to work at this one though, since for me it’s all too easy to tend to email simply because it’s there, when what I really need to do is prepare for my small group or work on my sermon or do some big picture thinking etc.. Since I’m more of a morning person, it’s best for me to do some of those other things first.

    1. Thanks for stopping by Chris – it’s great to work and serve with you 🙂 I have a strong sense of calling to pastoral ministry, but I also know that I don’t NEED to be a pastor. Instead of holding on too tightly, I can “let go and let God,” which allows for a greater freedom in ministry and “non-anxious presence.” That at least is what I try to practice and hope for.

  2. #9 & #17 resonated for me. As a pastor who works half time from home one of my practices is to try to shut the door of the office. I bought an iPad so I could shut the door and still have a computer to use out of office hours. I live in a new house now with no door on the office which makes it a bit harder. Another practice which I am starting to see as important is cleaning/sorting/tidying the office. All the books I took from the bookshelf for the sermon need to be put back, etc. Instead of seeing this as outside my office hours I am starting to see this as part of my work and not feel guilty about taking time out of my day to set the office in order. Thanks April! I found your list a helpful reminder, and challenge.

    1. I love the flexibility of being able to work at home, but that can also make it more challenging to “shut the door”–being able to do that physically helps, if not shutting an actual door, at least switching from computer to iPad as you do (or in my case, to my Nexus 7 which I got for my own writing). And oh! yes, putting those books back is part ministry time too. I like to put things away at the end of my work day and start fresh–in Myers Briggs lingo, that would be my J personality wanting some closure, and I think it also helps me mentally shut the door. Thanks for sharing your ideas – keep on thriving!

  3. A great support system is also difficult in a rural context with lack of resources and other pastors. The internet has been a great help in this regard.

    1. Yes, I also find that technology can be a great tool for community-building and support. I can only imagine what that might mean for those at a distance–do you deliberately set aside time to connect with specific people online, or is it more informal through Facebook or other ways? In any case, I’m glad to be part of your on- and off-line community.

  4. Wonderful. At the fulcrum of a (beautiful but exhausting) Holy Week and a (fun but demanding) Spring Break VBS, this made me smile, breathe, relax – and remember the “run to Jesus” line, which is just perfect.

  5. Never finding God’s will via email, nor especially Facebook, I appreciate your faithful example, and your excellent (and on certain points annoyingly convicting) list. At times in the past thirteen years I have felt like I was barely hanging on; and currently feel exhilarated by so much that still is fresh, new, and challenging. Thank you for this post.

    1. Thank you for sharing–and for hanging on! Your words remind me of Lamentations 3:22-23 which come the closest to being life verses for me: “It is of the Lord’s mercies that we are not consumed, because his compassions fail not. They are new every morning; great is his faithfulness.”

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