Editor's Note: The following is a report on the practical applications of Michael Todd Wilson & Brad Hoffmann's book, Preventing Ministry Failure: A ShepherdCare Guide for Pastors, Ministers and Other Caregivers, (InterVarsity Press, 2007).
You hear about falls from ministry all the time, and sometimes you wonder if burnout, ineffectiveness, or moral failure could someday cause your own ministry to fail. But the good news is, failure doesn’t just happen without warning, and you can take steps to prevent it.
Here’s how you can prevent failure in your ministry:
Approach your ministry from the right perspective. Remember that it’s ultimately God’s ministry, not yours. Instead of trying to minister in your own limited power, decide to rely on God’s unlimited power to work through you. Give yourself the freedom to be human and break free of unrealistic expectations to be perfect. Expect that you’ll make some mistakes, but when you do, embrace the grace God offers you to learn from them and move on with confidence. Rather than imposing your own agenda on your ministry, seek to discover God’s purposes for it. Then simply do your best to fulfill those purposes, trusting God for the outcome. Ask God to give you the humility you need to work to please Him alone, instead of trying to validate yourself or please other people.
Keep short accounts with God. Be aware of how much you sin on a daily basis, in both big and small ways. Realize that all sin, no matter what kind, can block your intimacy with God and drag you into bondage. Regularly thank God for the new mercy He offers you daily because of His great love for you. Don’t ignore your sins; deal with them as soon as you recognize them. Make a daily habit of seeking spiritual restoration through confession, repentance, reconciliation, restitution, accountability, and renewing your mind.
Take care of yourself. Understand that if you don’t take care of yourself, you can’t take care of the people you serve through your ministry. Don’t neglect your own physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual health. Make time every day to nurture your body (getting enough sleep, eating nutritious meals, exercising, etc.), mind (constantly learning something new, refreshing yourself through recreation, etc.), and spirit (spending prayer time in solitude and silence, reading and meditating on the Bible, etc.).
Value intimacy. Recognize that you need close relationships with God and other people just as much as any other human being. Make it a top priority to develop relationships where you can fully know others and be fully known yourself. Don’t believe lie that as a minister, you can’t safely be vulnerable with others. Realize that you can’t afford not to be open and honest with others if your ministry is to survive, much less thrive. Guard yourself against isolation that will damage your soul and ministry. Pursue God and enjoy the love you experience as you connect with Him. Pay attention to your need for support, encouragement, and accountability from other people. Invest in close friendships with a few other believers of your same gender. Nurture an intimate relationship with your spouse if you’re married, and rely on God’s strength to help you meet your needs for intimacy in pure ways if you’re single. Be willing to take the risks required to form healthy, close relationships. Learn how to identify and express your emotions and resolve conflict well. Welcome help from others when you need it, and be willing to help others when they need it. Learn how to express affection in appropriate physical ways, such as through hugs and handshakes. Don’t hesitate to laugh often. Seek out adventurous experiences with others, such as by taking a trip to a new place with them or trying out a new sport with them. Take time off work regularly to play and enjoy yourself with other people. Pray for others and allow them to pray for you.
Understand and follow your calling. Discern honestly whether you’re serving in ministry because of your own desires, or because God invited you to do so and you can’t be at peace doing anything else. Recognize the common characteristics of a divine calling: It’s not about you; it’s about God’s desire to use you in ministry to others. The calling is bigger than you are, so it requires you to depend on God to fulfill it. It represents your heart’s greatest passion. The calling will make use of the experience you’ve already gained in life to accomplish ministry that’s unique to your journey. And, once God calls you, it’s to a lifetime of ministry service in some way. Even though you may try to resign the call, the call won’t leave you. Understand that you may experience discouragement, struggling with sin, and being removed from a particular place of ministry and yet still be pursuing a true calling. But if you view ministry as simply a job, if you lack passion for it, if your ministry expresses self-centered desire, or if you find satisfaction doing something besides full-time ministry, God may not have called you to ministry, and you should seek His will in the matter. If you have been called to ministry work, ask God to give you clarity about what He’s calling you to do, and the confidence you need to follow that calling despite the challenges you encounter along the way. Pray for perseverance and the ability to stay focused on your calling, so the difficult circumstances that are bound to come your way in ministry won’t knock you off course. Live out your ministry role according to the natural talents and spiritual gifts God has given you – rather than just according to your expectations and assumptions. Invite God to show you exactly how He has designed you for ministry. Devote yourself to pursuing God with a passion, making your relationship with Him – not your work – your top priority. Trust that, in the process, God will plant the desires He has for you in your heart. Create a personal purpose statement to guide your life and ministry. Once you’ve identified your calling, avoid wasting your time and energy on activities that distract you from pursuing it well. Every day, build your decisions around your priorities, while keeping your purpose in mind. Help other people who work alongside you in ministry to find and fulfill their callings, too. Encourage them and give them opportunities to expand their ministry work. Whenever God’s calling for your own ministry work conflicts with other people’s expectations, choose to follow God, no matter what others may think. Wait until a crisis or conflict is over before deciding whether you should stay or leave a particular ministry place, so you won’t be just reacting to feeling tired, angry, frustrated, or overwhelmed. Spend a significant amount of time praying about whether or not to move on before actually making the decision. If God is calling you to stay, ask Him to give you the wisdom you’ll need to solve the problems facing you and create positive change. If you think God may be calling you to pursue new ministry work, ask: “Am I spiritually discontent?”, “What has God been speaking to me about?”, “Do I possess a consuming new passion?”, and “Is there an open door?”. Make sure you won’t be moving from a bad situation to a worse one, but from a good situation to a better one.
Manage stress wisely. Acknowledge how stressful serving in ministry truly is, and do your best to manage the stress you face well. Let go of an unhealthy need for accomplishment, an unhealthy desire for other people’s approval, perfectionism, and hard-charging ambition. Resolve anger that’s causing you stress. Surrender your ministry situation to God and ask Him to give you the peace you need. Rely on His power working through you instead of trying to do your ministry work through just your own efforts. Connect with God through spiritual disciplines, such as: meditation, prayer, fasting, simplicity, solitude, submission, and worship. Create margins in the pages of your life by eliminating activities that aren’t truly important so you’ll be free to spend time and energy on what matters most. Schedule enough downtime and rest for yourself. Make time regularly to get away from your ministry demands to spend time in quiet reflection. Plug into nurturing relationships with other people who care about you. Build short breaks into various points of your workday to refresh yourself, and take longer breaks for retreats, days off, vacations, sabbaticals, etc. If your thinking about the challenges you face is in a rut, confide in some people you trust and invite them to give you a fresh perspective on your situation. Pray for the Holy Spirit to bring Scripture to your mind that applies to your situation. Improve your work habits so you’ll be more organized and efficient, which will decrease your stress level. Make sure you get enough sleep every night, eat a healthy diet, and exercise regularly. Know that even simple practices like deep breathing, affectionate touch (like a hug or handshake), therapeutic massage, and giving yourself small rewards (like a walk or a nap) for jobs done well can reduce stress. If you need help from a health care professional, don’t hesitate to consult one, since stress can significantly damage your health when left unchecked.
Set boundaries. Establish and maintain clear personal boundaries so you can focus on what matters most, both professionally and personally. Whenever someone asks you to use your time, energy, and ministry resources to help them, ask: “Is this person typically responsible or irresponsible?”, “Does this person own up to the problem, or is he or she blaming others for the lack of follow-through?”, “What are my motives for and against helping this person?”, and “How might God be glorified in this situation?”. Recognize that the mere presence of a need doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re the one God has called to meet it. But also be willing to help if God is calling you, despite the inconvenience. Don’t live from crisis to crisis; instead, try as much as possible to align your daily and weekly tasks with what’s important (rather than just what’s urgent). Protect the time you need to invest regularly in your relationships with God, your spouse, and close friends. Make time regularly to clarify your ministry vision through prayer, fasting, and reflection. Set boundaries around who can access you and when. Take the phone off the hook during family meals, don’t call into the office on vacations, check e-mail only at predetermined times, assign another minister or a lay leader to be on call for hospital visitation on your days off, etc. When something urgent demands you attention during family time, don’t be afraid to say that you have an appointment you can’t break. Decide carefully who you will and won’t let in as friends. Set boundaries that will help you resist sexual temptation and maintain purity if you’re single or a healthy marriage if you’re married. Place boundaries around the way you spend your time and money so you’ll be a good steward of it. Think before you speak and before reacting to what others say to you, setting appropriate boundaries so you don’t regret your conversations. Maintain strong boundaries around your inner life so you can resist attacks from evil spiritual forces and stay close to God through the Holy Spirit.
Energize your ministry through recreation. Recognize that God has designed life to operate in a rhythm that includes regular time for recreation. Understand that disrupting that balance by working too much will actually make you less effective in your ministry. Figure out how much time you really spend on ministry work – both onsite and off – by charting the number of hours you do anything that relates to your ministry during a typical week. Then figure out how to increase the number of hours you spend on recreation each week. Counter your excuses: If you don’t think you have enough time, work on better stewardship. If you think you have other more important things to do, work on prioritizing better. If you think you have too many responsibilities to deal with, work on delegating. If you think that people expect you to be available, stop seeking approval through people and focus on pleasing God alone. If you don’t feel like you need a break, stop denying the reality that you do. Get enough rest so your body and mind can recuperate. Take an afternoon nap or do something refreshing during your time off work. Make time to play through fun activities on a regular basis. Renew yourself spiritually through activities that help you grow closer to God. Set some goals for how you’d like to use recreation to improve your life physically (such as increasing your stamina), mentally (like learning about a new ministry area), emotionally (such as getting in touch with why you’ve been feeling sad or angry lately), and spiritually (drawing closer to God in a way He’s leading you to do so). Make sure your goals are specific, achievable, and measurable. Be patient, making changes gradually so you can best incorporate them into your life. Evaluate your progress regularly and make whatever adjustments are necessary.
Develop people skills. Get to know your own personality well, and be aware that when you experience conflict with others, it may simply be because of how their personalities differ from yours. Learn how to work with different types of people so you can tailor your ministry efforts most successfully toward the various people you encounter. Resolve conflicts wisely, either by overlooking the offense or engaging those who have offended you in prayerful and loving dialogue aimed at solving the problem. Be willing to forgive as God forgives you. Listen to others well by eliminating distractions; giving your full attention to the people speaking; remembering your reason for listening (because the people to whom you minister are important); suspending judgment about the topic until you understand the other person’s perspective on it; listening for themes in the person’s story; reflecting the person’s message back in your own words to clarify it; asking thoughtful questions; and responding to the content, feelings, and meaning of what the person tells you. Be assertive when others make requests of you, or when you make requests of others: Identify who owns the problem, describe the problem, state the consequences, describe your feelings, pause, and make a direct assertion. Negotiate “win-win” solutions to problems so both parties are satisfied. Respond to critics by either agreeing with the kernel of truth in their statements or by agreeing with their right to have an opinion, even though you disagree with it. Stand by your convictions while still respecting the people who criticize you.
Learn leadership skills. Invite the Holy Spirit to transform you from the inside out so you can become the leader God wants you to be. Practice integrity in every part of your life, relying on God’s strength to live out a walk that aligns with your internal desire for holiness. Ask God to show you how you can maximize your strengths and overcome your weaknesses to be most effective in ministry. Keep up with changes in your ministry work due to technology shifts, changing needs and desires of people in your community, ethnic and age diversity in your congregation, and other factors. Get to know the people to whom you minister, learning their dreams, passions, and what makes them discontent. Whenever you must go through a change together, communicate clearly and regularly with them during the process. Lead as you are rather than trying to lead like someone else. Discover your unique leadership style and use it. Don’t compare your ministry to other ministries; ask God to give you the confidence to do your work the way He has uniquely designed you to do it. Pray for God to constantly renew your love for the people you serve and help you stay focused on His vision for your ministry. Learn how to resolve conflict well. View yourself as part of a team of people whose ministry efforts are just as valuable as yours; do all you can to encourage and support them as you work toward common goals together.
Adapted from Preventing Ministry Failure: A ShepherdCare Guide for Pastors, Ministers and Other Caregivers, copyright 2007 by Michael Todd Wilson and Brad Hoffmann. Published by IVP Books, an imprint of InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, Ill., www.ivpress.com.
Michael Todd Wilson is a licensed professional counselor and cofounder of ShepherdCare. He is the coauthor of Soul Virgins: Redefining Single Sexuality (Baker Books).
Brad Hoffmann is senior pastor of Memorial Baptist Church in Baytown, Texas, and cofounder of ShepherdCare.