Is it just a bad week?

Is this caution flag on your next church?

Joe:  OK, so it is Monday after “one of those weeks.”  During the past seven days you have (1) conducted two funerals, (2) been informed by the chair of your Trustees that the church’s air-conditioning system is dying and the Fellowship Hall’s roof still leaks, (3) are facing the need to exit a long-time staff member because of ongoing performance issues, and (4) have verified that the church’s worship attendance was lower this quarter than any time during the past three years. Plus, giving is down and an anonymous parishioner has sent you another message complaining about your sermons. You are at the end of your rope. Is it time to move?


Bill’s response: It is important to view these experiences in the context of what is “normal” for ministry today. The average pastor ministers to an aging membership. Meanwhile, religious participation is way down in our country. While two funerals in the same week may be bad news for your calendar and the church’s membership role, these gatherings tend to be cross generational and an opportune time for effective evangelism. Every funeral gives you a chance to share deep spiritual truths with dozens of people, many of whom rarely attend church. Further, if the service or the funeral dinner occurs in the church, your people have a chance to demonstrate hospitality. Consider this a “give back to the community” situation and rejoice.

    Every pastor is plagued by facility issues. Our task is to remind ourselves and others of two truths; first, that church buildings aren’t meant to be cheap, perfect, or lovable, they are meant to be functional.

    Second, all church structures are tools for ministry and caring for them is a spiritual task. Ministry tools, whether they be buildings, church staff, or organizational structures, need to be constantly upgraded with an eye to their performance. They should be replaced when they no longer serve the church’s mission. 

    The bad news is that staying on target is expensive and progressive pastors are bound to be unpopular. The worse news is, offering real leadership requires intelligence, honesty, objectivity, and a commitment to constantly upgrade your own skills. Whether you move or remain in your current situation, you will need to lead others by; posting transparent budgets, seeking professional assessments of structural issues, displaying honest usage and attendance figures, and communicating how each facility, staff member, and program, supports, or fails to support, the church’s overall mission. These tasks separate the okay clergy, from the great ones. They should cause us to raise the bar on our own plans for professional growth.

    It’s hard not to take it personally when people criticize your preaching, administration, or pastoral care. Often there are underlying issues relating to the pastoral role. A misdeed or overreach of authority committed by a previous pastor may be prejudicing your ministry. Or there may be latent issues in the congregation that were bound to erupt in conflict. Today you stepped on a land mine. Are you willing to dig further and identify the root causes? How does this incident relate to the congregation’s history and self identity? Was this criticism an outlier or does it reflect an earnest yearning on their parts to make the church a better place? Your job is to educate and gently lead your people through today’s theological and cultural shifts. This task will be quickly derailed if you adopt a defensive or authoritarian attitude.

    The individual components of a bad week are indicative of the complex problems ministers face everywhere. What you run away from in one situation, is likely to haunt you in the next.


Joe: We all go through rough stretches. The patient approach you outline above requires time. Sometimes there just aren’t enough hours in the day. Burnout is rampant among clergy persons.


Bill:  I think it is important that we reflect upon why we feel burned out. Is it related to our failure to manage our time well? Are we constantly running behind? A simple change in ministry locations is unlikely to fix this. Time management is a skill that needs to be acquired, irrespective of where we are doing our ministry.


Joe: Is it just a bad week or have we stumbled a battle that can’t be won? Is there a light at the end of the tunnel? If we can find just a few reasons for hope, and pull ourselves away for just a second to glimpse some greater purpose, then our positive attitude will bring others around and shape our response to conflict and criticism.

    But, it may have been months since you caught a break. You feel tired, fed-up, and discouraged. The thought creeps into your mind, “Is it really worth it for me to keep grinding it out here?”


Bill: I use the mouse in the maze seeking for cheese analogy to describe burnout. We who have a vocation, that is, a job we feel called into, are like the mice that learn to run a particular pattern in a maze to be rewarded with cheese. Our cheese is whatever first excited us about ministry. Researchers test the mice by moving their cheese. The mice get frantic and expend extra energy seeking the cheese. Similarly, today’s post-religious culture is moving everybody’s cheese. Pastors often find themselves working harder and harder to experience the same level of rewards that marked our early years in ministry. 

    Burnout begins when the cheese just isn’t there, and we respond by running harder. Burnout blossoms, when we are aware that the cheese may never be there again, but we run the same patterns anyway. Some label this as “work addiction.” From time to time, we just need to stop and ask ourselves why we are doing what we are doing.


Joe: Those evaluation times can lead us to the conclusion that our current situation is no longer the right fit for us. There is no shame in realizing that what we had to give to this church has already been given. Now it is time for someone else to lead them the next step.


Bill: Yes. Sometimes pastors who love small churches and intimate pastoral counseling, find themselves lost, when appointed as the lead pastor of a congregation with a high standard for preaching and an expectation of flawless administration. Conversely, those who love administration and having everything detailed in their day planners may find themselves frustrated by the consensus-orientated/relationship-driven ministry of smaller congregations. We should each train our ears to hear our inner concerns about fit and develop a sober appraisal of where we need to serve in order to feel fruitful. 


Joe: But, the opposite is also true. Sometimes we have to set our doubts aside and keep at it. Years ago I assumed the senior pastorate of a very large suburban congregation. The first few years there were very challenging.  My previous experiences in the ministry had not quite prepared me for the demands I was to encounter in this new appointment setting.  Much of my stress related to assuming oversight of a staff of about fifteen full-time and numerous other part-time persons.  The second year there was especially draining and hard.  I found myself questioning whether this church was a good “fit” for me personally.  I wondered seriously if life was too short to keep trudging through all of these deep valleys.


Bill: I think its good for clergy to hear this, especially younger pastors. Too often we fall into the trap of thinking that moving to a larger church will solve everything. In your case you found the extra responsibilities of the more prestigious situation to be a problem. But, I take it you stayed on and grew into it? Sometimes the bishop and cabinet sees potential in us that we don’t see in ourselves.


Joe:    Early in my ministry, I made a personal commitment not to run away during the middle of a storm.  The heart shouldn't overrule the head. Over the years, I have dealt with a number of very tough situations. In each case, I remembered my commitment to stick things out. I wound up serving the above congregation for twelve years. In retrospect, my last several years were the most productive and positive for the congregation. If I had succumbed to my temptation to flee, that fruitful period wouldn’t have happened.


Bill: Fruitfulness often requires learning new skills and “eating our vegetables.” I often say that Bradford was my favorite church to serve, because when I arrived, it was ready for the skills that I already had in my tool box. My next appointment was more of a challenge. The rural congregations that I had served before this were more relaxed and relational. The administrative and staffing challenges of the next church combined with family health issues to make this a very uncomfortable appointment for me. Over all, I felt less productive in the new situation, but I learned more. God seems to believe in on the job training. 


Joe: So, the opposite of the knee-jerk, get me out of Dodge impulse, is an intentional period of discernment. We all can benefit from prayerfully looking at where we have come in our ministry. We need to find healing, first. Our spiritual goal is to see our current reality clearly, and accept it without blame or shame. Where we have failed, we need to hear God’s forgiveness. We need to offer our own forgiveness to those who have blocked us, or who continue to be a thorn in our sides. Note how the Apostle Paul puts a positive spin on God’s failure to move him out of his bad appointment in II Corinthians 12:7-10.


Bill: A number of studies have shown that longer pastorates tend to be more fruitful. It takes time earn the trust of parishioners needing pastoral care. I’ve noted this as I have compared my recent short-term, intentional interim, assignments with the normal length tenures that I had earlier in my ministry. Whether you are teaching, preaching, or counseling, it is easier to bring healing into people’s lives when you’ve known them for a few years. Helping a local church become a better organization also involves overcoming intractable obstacles and deep seated issues. It is rare for a church leader effect lasting change in less than seven years. One attitudinal key that correlates highly with effectiveness, is your ability to state that you are in it for the long haul. Unfortunately, many United Methodist clergy move every three to five years. 


Joe:  Sadly, the “DNA” of short term pastorates is deeply embedded within the United Methodist Church. Unless the circumstances merit an intentional interim, short tenures are not healthy for the Church. It takes time to develop trusting relationships and a shared appreciation of  this congregation’s unique mission and identity. Some pastors take an organic, sowing comes before harvesting, approach. They build relationships, develop small groups, train leaders, refine the organizational process, and then with patient hearts look forward to fruitful ministry arriving after the third or fourth year. Would that this maturity was the norm!


Bill: Besides that, in most conferences the ladder is gone. If you want to advance your career as a clergy person, don’t put your hope in moving steadily upward to larger and more prestigious appointments throughout your ministry. Across the country, mid-sized “First Churches” and county seat locations are financially struggling. These used to be dependable stepping stones for cabinets to provide a substantial raise to a pastor in his or her second or third appointment. Some of these former plums are dropping back to near minimum salary. Others are asking for younger pastors and/or shifting their salary dollars into non-ordained or part-time leadership, valuing energy and the potential growth of their contemporary worship over having an experienced lead pastor. Unless you have proven gifts for church growth, your next move is likely to be a lateral one.


Joe: Historically, career minded United Methodist pastors have thought of itineracy as the primary way to “move up” to a bigger church. Denominational leaders have catered to this myth by implying that being effective in a smaller church entitles one to be rewarded with a more responsible appointment.


Bill: Any one who has ever served a small membership church or a multi-church charge knows that it requires special skills. These skills don’t always translate over to larger, staff-oriented, church settings. Effective pastors deserve to be rewarded within the ministry context where they excel.


Joe: Further, the goal of our connection is to enhance ministry in every place. Every pastor should want to see their congregation grow, with the possible exception of hospital chaplains. Simply moving up the ladder, which as you said no longer exists, doesn’t bring job satisfaction. Nor should we join that faction who long to serve a more prestigious church. If we see a strong church out there that we want to serve, chances are, it used to be like our current church. What made that church exciting, was an effective pastor that stuck with it through a long period of transformation. 


Bill: This circles us back to the time management issue. Often our motivation for wanting a move is the fact that our current situation has overwhelmed us. We don’t know if we can face another week of the time sucking obligations, most of which we accepted in our first year. Rather than retooling our time use, and discovering how to say the word ‘No,’ we bail, hoping to rediscover a more relaxed and joyful ministry in the next situation.


Joe: Someone has moved our cheese and we don’t have time to look for it.


Bill: Today, every clergy person needs to be a life long learner. As parish appointments become more and more diverse, experimenting with new mission combinations, cross-racial appointments, group ministries, satellite campuses, etc., clergy must be willing to radically change their style of ministry from time to time. To remain in the same situation for long enough to be fruitful, they will need to spiritually reboot their ministry on the fly. These things require a form of time management that intentionally incorporates personal renewal. 

    This brings us to the one constant, whether we move or stay in our current situation, planning for our continuing education is critical. We need to enlist the support of our clergy peers and our Pastor-Parish Relations Committee to push us to devote more time to appropriate educational experiences and work-related reading. We shouldn’t be left to our own devices when it comes to professional growth.

    Family and sabbath time are also sacred. I came to realize this too late. After much personal pain, I developed the following form for talking about my need for renewal:

    I have considered the needs of this congregation and what I know of my own personal and spiritual needs. I think the following balance will help us to have a long and fruitful ministry together. The following guidelines will be observed, unless there is a pastoral emergency (parishioner in crisis, funeral, local flood, etc.):

    1) My weekly day off is ______. This day will publicized and I will inform the church secretary whenever it is changed, so that church leaders will know when not to call. If you have a regular dinner time, you may wish to list that as well. 

    2) I will seldom schedule myself  to attend more than four evening functions per week. (This number should be reduced to three if you have school-aged children at home or a similar family obligation). This includes premarital counseling sessions and individual meetings.

    3) I tend to structure my personal study, retreat, and continuing ed time as follows…  I have also committed x days per year to conference work, camp leadership, mission trips, etc. These offsite periods are not to be considered vacation.

    4) I will utilize the vacation time allotted each year by the PPRC and the Conference rules. This will mean ___ weekends out of the pulpit. These weeks will be publicized a month ahead so that church leaders can plan not to interrupt these recreational periods.

    Verbalize your time management guidelines early and often. Don’t present them as an authoritarian fiat or pawn them off as a Conference requirement. Work to bring people on board. Admit that you did a lousy job at this before and need their help so that a year or two from now you’re not running around like a chicken with your head cut off. Enlist the support of your staff and spouse in wording your time usage guidelines and communicating them.


Joe: Honoring our need for sabbath and recreational time is vital. When we are stressed and exhausted, the grass quickly begins to look greener on the other side of the fence. Even if we are faithful to the above guidelines, there will still be times of conflict in our ministry and personal turmoil in our lives.

     I think it is a wise policy not to make big, life-changing decisions during a period of personal vulnerability. Pain avoidance is a great motivator, but a poor teacher, and an even worse career counselor.


Bill: Well said! I don’t know if this has any statistical basis, but I heard that most pastors experience a parish conflict about every eighteen months. Every church has one or two instigators who love to stir the pot. Times of conflict and transition are meant to force us to develop healthy policies and flexible organizations. These leadership skills are never learned by those who run from their problems.


Joe: So how do we know if this is the year to throw our hat in the ring and ask for a move?


Bill: First, those of us with families need to enter into dialogue with our loved ones. We need to tune our ears to hear what God may be saying to us through others. Plan some time apart with someone that you trust. In your prayers, seek for distance and perspective. 

    Often stress and dissatisfaction in ministry is related to the role we take on for ourselves. We may think that our role as pastor is to fix the church. No, it is to guide the spiritual process. Our work isn’t to improve metrics, but to help the church to be healthy and fruitful. We often think that our role as preachers, teachers, and counselors is to fix people. No, our role is to be compassionate, share the word with relevance and integrity, and to uphold the mystery and joy of worship and the sacraments. Word, Sacrament, Order — focus on these three.

    Also, refrain from framing your situation in passive terms. Instead lamenting how this church is driving you crazy, not paying you enough, failing to advance your career, etc., take an active an honest look at your spiritual formation and professional growth. If the wisdom of the Holy Spirit and the cabinet, keeps you in this situation for another year, how will you use that time to become a better leader and a more sane human being? If the next step for you in life’s journey is to move on, how will you change so that the next situation receives a better you?


Joe: Changing churches is not the way to fix flaws in our style of ministry. For many readers, though, that decision has already been made. They have asked for a new appointment and some have already been announced at their new church. I hope the dialogue above has expressed our concern about pastors moving too frequently without making them feel guilty for asking for a move.


Bill:  The critical question that I hope everyone is asking during this time is, “Am I seeking to solve certain problems by making this move?”

    I am reminded of a wedding I was asked to do on a date just a few months ahead. It turned out that one of the bride, who was from another country, had a work visa that was expiring. The marriage solved the problem of an imminent deportation. Moving to a new church, like marriage, should never be entered into as a way to fix a problem.

    After a lengthly counseling session, I was able to discern that they really did love each other and were ready for marriage. This eased my conscience and in the end I felt good about officiating at the ceremony. Discernment is often helpful, even after a decision has been made. We often do the right thing for the wrong reasons, and spending time in prayerful reflection can ameliorate the common phenomena known as “buyer’s remorse.” Sometimes we do the wrong thing for all the right reasons. Coming to the place where we can be honest about this, allows us to have a teachable moment. We accept our mistake and seek forgiveness. The grace of God, then, helps us to live with our mistake and be fruitful in it.


Joe: The truth is that when we change ministry locations, we simply swap one set of challenges for another.  Family systems theory suggests that we will find the same personalities in our next congregation, they just will have different names and faces. We will face similar conflicts, just with different contexts and narratives. Understanding this should help us to dig in, whether we stay or move, and commit to doing Kingdom work where we are.


Bill: Yes, and I think it helps if we learn something as we are traveling between churches. Still, there is a deep need for discernment and inner searching to understand our role in each new location of ministry. 

    You may have come to think of the upcoming move as the best idea since sliced bread, but what about your family? What about your current parishioners? What about the people in the next church who don’t know if they particularly need you? Doing your spiritual homework and having role clarity will help you to help them. Remember, it isn’t a matter of winning an argument or being proved right, transition instead presents us with opportunities to do process well and to grow together in the fellowship of the larger church.

additional author: 
Joe Fort