When I first accepted my congregation’s call to 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. “I’m worried for you,” he said. He didn’t want me to become another church casualty.
I have now been thriving in ministry for 23 years in this congregation. Yes, that’s right, 23 years, which I realize is a lifetime for many. And yes, I’ve had my share of stress, but I’d also say that it 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.
Not only survive but thrive in fruitful ministry over the long haul
In Resilient Ministry (IVP Books, 2013), authors Bob Burns, Tasha D. Chapman, and Donald C. Guthrie offer five themes to help those in ministry leadership:
- 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 in ministry? In honour of my 23 years, here are my 23 best practices in no particular order. Some are 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 in church leadership, I loved to plan worship, teach, and connect with people of all ages. What a delight then to be called to do what I love!
- Share ministry and leadership. As much as I love ministry, I also love to give it away to others.
- Journal. Why? 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, plus family, friends, colleagues.
- Pray. First, last, and in between everything else, prayer is essential.
- Read Scripture. Not only for teaching others, 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.
- Eat healthy. What I eat affects how I feel. 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 workout includes step aerobics and/or walking, plus free weights.
- Track your time. In ministry, it’s easy to blur the lines so it feels 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. Realize you need help and seek places to get it. Find your weak areas and get the training you need.
- 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 playing the piano (more as a joyful noise and for therapeutic reasons, I might add).
- Take all of your eligible vacation time. A whopping 43% of working Canadians don’t take all of their annual vacation days. I am not one of them.
- Take regular sabbaticals. You are not indispensable. The church depends on God, not you. The church will be the church without you.
- Hold ministry lightly. In one of my journals, I started a list of jobs I could do other than ministry: college teaching, temporary office work, real estate agent (although I’d have to study for that), working in a bookstore (once my dream job), and so on.
- Don’t start your office day by responding to email. It’s too easy to get drawn into other people’s agendas instead of focusing on what God has placed before you. 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 in ministry?” said a first-time visitor. “Are there more of you in the Mennonite Church?” Yes, there are other women in ministry, but just one of me!
- 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 in church leadership. “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 in ministry, 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. Early in my ministry, I met regularly with my conference minister, and I still remember his counsel, “When you feel like running, then run to Jesus.”