Latest posts by Fr. Lee Nelson (see all)
- On Publishing the Banns of Marriage - March 23, 2017
- The Stranger is to be Welcomed as Christ Himself: Benedictine Wisdom on Welcoming and Pastoring Strangers, Visitors, and Newcomers - September 13, 2016
- When You Hate Ministry: Don’t Quit It, Fix It. - September 6, 2016
It’s time for a little honesty. Just you and me talking. There are parts of pastoral ministry you hate, hate, hate. You’d rather clean toilets. You’d rather go to the dentist. For a root canal. You drive by garbage collectors and think: that’s appealing!
Sometimes, our lofty ideals, our devotion to Jesus just isn’t enough to keep us going in ministry. It can be unexciting. At times, it can become routine. And so, we just “tune out.” Ministry becomes like a song stuck in our heads, and frankly, we don’t even like the music. Friends, I get it. I’ve been there. The temptation to quit is real.
The status quo can be a total drain. In the early days, we could feel like we were taking risks for the Kingdom, living on the edge, but as ministry gets established, as we get financially more stable, all that excitement fades away. Not only that, but ministry can become extremely conventional. There’s safety, for ourselves and for our families, in conventionality. You get into the office at the same time every day, you write, you do administrative tasks, you make a few visits, lead a bible study, and you go home. Maybe there will be a few more meetings on any given day. What you find is that all the things which excited you about a life of ministry are just gone, gone, gone. Some get energy from those daily routines. Some of us just plain don’t.
You’re Toughing it Out, but It Ain’t Working
What often happens in this scenario is that we, good, faithful pastors that we are, say, “I just need to suck it up.” I just need to have a better attitude, get an outlet, pray more, work out, whatever it takes to feel better about the people I serve, and the way I’m doing it. I’ve done that many times. But, there’s always this voice saying “Nope. Not enough. You’re still bored.” Worse, you’re not just bored, you’re feeling lackluster and disobedient. There’s something horribly sinful about the status quo. It’s burying talents in the ground, believing our Lord and God to be some kind of cosmic meanie, who wants us to take risks, but will beat us up if we fail.
Make a good start at repentance. Get some time for confession. Get some time to truly take stock of your own failures, and take them to the foot of the Cross.
Big changes feed our darkest pride. They make us say “Look at me! I’m brave!” Small changes can be imperceptible to everyone but ourselves. Clean up your office. Throw stuff away. Organize your car. Make a trip to IKEA and get that cool desk lamp you’ve been wanting. Try out a new configuration of furniture. This has the benefit of rewiring our brains away from routine, leading us to think creatively about bigger projects at hand.
You might think about a renovation of your schedule. Here are a few ideas:
- Take one day a week as a study day for reading and writing. Take a break for lunch and invite a parishioner to join you.
- Change your day off. Oh, and take it.
- Set office hours and keep them. Otherwise, get out of the office. Work in a coffeeshop or a park. You’ll be surprised at how efficient you can be and how many opportunities for ministry open up. This is also a great way to take parish ministry from being a closed system to an open system.
- If you’re not in the habit, take up the Daily Office, and invite people to join you. Praying the office with others creates accountability, and it’s a great way to pray for your people.
Delegate the Tasks You Hate
The Body of Christ is vast and varied. Not everyone is an accountant, and not everyone is an expert in bulletin creation. Ministry roles are as varied as the gifts of the Holy Spirit. One of the markers of a capable pastor is that they delegate tasks that they are neither called to nor gifted for in an effective manner. In other words, for us as Anglicans, this means delegating most tasks that aren’t explicitly priestly.
We need to spend our time visiting, giving communion to, and laying hands on the sick, absolving sinners, teaching, preaching, and celebrating the Eucharist. We need to have an active ministry of spiritual direction.
Here are some things we often do that can be delegated:
- Writing newsletter or email articles.
- Managing membership lists.
- Chairing vestry meetings (This can be delegated to a warden. Be at the meeting, but let someone else chair it and produce the agenda.)
- Producing bulletins.
- Signing checks (Seriously, you need to get out of this! It’s dangerous territory.)
- Setting up initial meetings with newcomers. Get a newcomer coordinator.
- Giving the announcements on Sundays.
When I was preparing to go to seminary, I spent the summer in a parish and for a week, I served as the receptionist. I came in one Monday morning in the Texas heat to find that the air conditioner had gone out. The Rector, who was in his mid-sixties at the time, simply had me call the Junior Warden. After two full days of with no repair, he said, exasperated, “If Joe doesn’t get the repair guy out here, we’re going to burn in hell!”
I tell that story because there was a wisdom in his actions. He knew that everyone has a role, and calling the AC repair guy wasn’t his. That allowed him free time, to be sure, but above all else, it provided him with focus, the ability to say no to things. In fact, he never locked or unlocked doors on Sundays. Even that was delegated to a vestry member of the month.
The Hard Part
Great leaders always look at themselves first. When they have employees who underperform, they ask “What am I not doing? How can I motivate them?” It’s a moment of honesty, however, when you realize that the problem is not primarily with you.
You might come to know that you are surrounded by negativity. Get to the root of it. Are there people in leadership who are continually pessimistic and difficult? Ask them to step out of leadership, but first thank them for their service. Some people serve in tasks and ministries for so long, and believing that they are necessary, the continue, but in misery. To have someone say “you don’t have to continue in this” can be a great relief. Worse, negative people can command the attention of other leaders, and most of all, the parish priest. They dominate the landscape. Ask them to trim back their involvement. At some point you might have to have a very difficult conversation. It can go something like this:
“Joe, I’ve been thinking about you and your family, and I’ve been praying for you. You seem miserable here at X Church.”
“Well, we are. I’m mad about…”
“Let me stop you for just a second. I think you need to find a new church.”
Every church has a front door, and every church needs a back door. A “back door” is a way to allow people to move on to arenas of Christian service and worship where they can truly flourish.
Another realization you might have is that you have never voiced your concerns to leadership, a coach or colleague, or your bishop. Your workload is too much. You work 80 hours a week. You do things that you don’t really need to be doing. Expectations of you are unrealistic. Get time with a small group of trusted leadership and express this with them. Let your bishop know what is going on. If you voice it as a serious concern, they will take it seriously. Again, take responsibility for how and why things have gone off the rails, and ask for help in making things right.
Is it time to move on?
Through this rather simple process, you might discern that it’s time to move on. If even the small changes are unwelcome to the people you serve, it’s a clear sign that instead of being interested in a ministry partnership, you’re a hired hand. That kind of ministry will be miserable and boring because it’s not biblical ministry. It’s definitely not apostolic leadership, and it’s certainly not reflective of the kind of authority that a pastor should have.
Some situations are well beyond our ability to lead a change. We’ve done what we can, and we need to have to courage to admit that and move on to another assignment.
If, in clearly and soberly recognizing this, and taking the lead in altering the culture, the congregation persists, you probably need to move on. Consult with your bishop and trusted advisors, and pray about the future with them. But, as you do this, make firm plan to avoid the same trap again!