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:
- Spiritual Formation;
- Emotional and Cultural Intelligence;
- Marriage and Family;
- Leadership and Management.
More personally, I’ve also been asking myself: How have I 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.
- 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!
- 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.
- Journal. To reflect on Scripture, pray, write poetry, dream, rant, debrief.
- 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!)
- Pray. Do I really need to explain this?
- 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?
- 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.)
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- Apologize. Everyone makes mistakes, and it’s better to ‘fess up than cover up.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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).
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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!)
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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?