I was in my stride, doing as much as I possibly could as efficiently as it could be done. There was nothing remaining on my to-do list and my inbox was empty. Sermons were prepped in advance and all was going smoothly. Then one night, when I was visiting a member in the hospital, one of my staff called to let me know that the new couple at church was waiting for our appointment in my office. I had scheduled two important things at the same time. My stomach sank and my face turned red with a mixture of disappointment and self-directed anger.
I wish I could say that was the only time something like that has happened. I wish every couple was as gracious as that one I stood up. Sadly that sort of thing has occurred often enough that it has allowed me to pinpoint something in myself. Careless mistakes are mistakes I make when I am trying to do too much. They are warnings that the way I am operating is unsustainable.
Unsustainable seems to be all the rage these days. Unsustainable fishing, forests, practices and energy are all hot topics. The issue is that humanity is depleting resources at a rate quicker than they can recover. Catching and consuming fish is a great way to feed a nation, but doing so to such a degree that the future of the fishery is in doubt, makes it unsustainable. Recently God laid a question on my heart: What if we, pastors, are unsustainable? What if I am doing this at a rate that I personally can’t recover from? What if too many of us will stop pastoring at 50 instead of 65 because we have been depleted? What if we are too busy to invest the time to raise up the next generation, and too few are left to follow in our steps? What if my family barely knows me because there isn’t much of me left to know?
In light of these haunting questions, let’s look at three key components of pastoral ministry that are often the cause of depletion. My hope is that we can each take an honest assessment and turn the tides of sustainability before it is too late.
1. THE UNSUSTAINABLE PACE
We can hear about a book and have it on a screen in front of us within a few moments. Some of us may even start listening to it on 2x speed while we are planning staff meeting and texting a member in the hospital. We get done with one meeting, grab a breakfast bar and head straight in to another meeting. We officiate a funeral and turn around to prep a wedding. I recently planned my fall schedule and felt my facial expression change as I expanded the view out to see that the next four months were almost planned down to the hour. Does God really need us to work so fast? I fear that if we do not guard our pace, there is simply no way we will be able to continue to do this work with enthusiasm. Honestly, we may come to a point where we can not do it at all.
The primary concern with our pace is that it works counterintuitively against something vitally important to this role. Think about it: Does a hurried pace really let you sit with God? Within their stillness before Him, God has often moved people to do great things. He has reminded His followers of both their insignificance and their significance. He has raised them up and lowered them.
None of us can sustain a genuine pastoral ministry if we are so efficient and busy that we can’t sit with our God. William Penn once said it this way, “In the rush and noise of life, as you have intervals, step home within yourselves and be still. Wait upon God, and feel His good presence; this will carry you evenly through your day’s business.” William Penn said that in the 1600s. I can’t even imagine what a person could be busied by in the 1600s. Multitasking churning butter and blacksmithing? Yet even in the 1600s, followers of God felt the need to still themselves before God.
Each one of us would say we deeply believe those entrusted to our leading need us to be with God more than they need anything else. Our pace has to reflect that, and our schedule has to give it the priority it deserves. Remember, our longevity is much more valuable than the next thing we could do and stillness with God ministers to our longevity.
One side note here. Sin will make even a sustainable pace feel unsustainable. As David said in Psalm 32:3: When I kept silent, my bones wasted away through my groaning all day long.” If your soul groans all day long, no pace is sustainable.
Here are some ways to help you change your pace.
- Change email retrieval to fetch at your command compared to immediate retrieval – there’s no need to chase notifications .
- Schedule the majority of your non-essential meetings at least one week out.
- Don’t give people the impression that you are busy, but that your schedule is full of good things God has for you, one of which is the time you intend to spend with them.
- Learn to recognize the difference between the many good things that could be done, and the great things that God wants you to get done. Saying no to good allows you to be healthy and flexible enough to be part of the great.
- Take an unplug day after emotionally draining meetings and events.
2. AN UNSUSTAINABLE LIFESTYLE
Our attitude towards our daily, weekly and yearly schedule produces our lifestyle. Lifestyle is not what we do as much as it is the way we do it. If we want what we do to be sustainable, our lifestyle should actually reflect that we intend to do this work of ministry as long as we can, aiming for endurance.
In order to endure, we need to maintain the attitude in which we initially entered this work. Early on, most of us probably have said or thought something like, “I would do this even if I wasn’t getting paid.” We started with a love for God, passion for His work, and saw the need to be so great that we wanted to jump on board. So we took any and every opportunity to serve Him and the pay didn’t really matter. Many of us even did things that would make us look back and laugh. I remember being asked to share my testimony at a Junior High barn party. Of course it was a costume party and I assumed they expected me to dress up, but as I pulled up to the barn, it quickly became apparent that not a single other person had gotten the memo about wearing a costume. After a few games and a snack, I stood in front of a group largely made up of Junior High girls in a ridiculous outfit and shared the story of how God brought me to salvation through faith in His Son. It was incredible to be a part of what God did that night and I would like to think that if it came down to it, I would do it again. I point this out because what is primary about our attitude and it’s impact on our lifestyle is that who we are is distinct from what we do. What we do happens to be, or at least was, a roll we love to fulfill for God. Who we are is something different.
A key component to sustainability in ministry is the ability to distinguish our identity from our professional position. My professional position is a pastor; my identity is a child of God. I recognize that from a career perspective God may not lead me to do this forever, but that doesn’t interrupt my identity and it does not mean that I would stop following God or stop being His child if I stopped being a pastor. Each one of us is much more than a professional minister of God. There will come a day when what we have done professionally will no longer be what we do for a job. And after our last paid sermon, we will not become something less. We will be what we are more than anything else, a dearly and deeply loved child of God.
This mentality offers tremendous context to my lifestyle. I believe this mentality will one day let me encourage someone to take over what God had entrusted to me. It is this mentality that lets me go home and be home, without half of me being left at church. It reminds me that potential successes are not the drivers of my ministry The driver is obedience to my Father. This mentality leads me to a sustainable lifestyle because ministry is something I do for a season of life, while throughout my life I will always be a child of God.
Here are some ways you can work on developing a sustainable lifestyle.
- Find a rhythm that supports a lifestyle of ministry.
- Check out Eugene Peterson’s book “Working the Angles.”
- Stop shortening your vacations. No one else in your church does.
- Cast the anxiety over your work performance onto God’s capable shoulders.
3. UNSUSTAINABLE PREACHING
In John 4:32, Jesus said He had food the disciples didn’t know about. He clearly wasn’t talking about Door Dash. His food was to do the will of the Father. That statement is pertinent for us as we consider the subject of sustainability in preaching. The very thing that so often tires us is also a thing that feeds us.
We have all felt tired from preaching. Our mind was numb, we needed a nap and we didn’t have a clue what to preach next. While I am by no means advocating that we should be able to preach without fatigue, I mean that what we preach, and really how we approach preaching, can be a thing that sustains us even if it does tire us. The key is to approach preaching in a way that feeds us, which to Jesus meant that we approach it to do the will of the Father.
While there is wisdom in preaching strategically (there are numerous New Testament sermons that are crafted well enough to demonstrate this), and I am all for our preaching being culturally accessible, too many of us put the pressure on ourselves as preachers, and that is unsustainable. Above all else, a preacher must be consumed with doing the will of the Father. Jesus intended that whatever we do for God, preaching for instance, we approach it as if it were a meal provided for our sustenance. It is to be nourishing and satisfying and fulfilling and I am better off for having had it. When we preach this way, it is in one sense a pouring out, but in a greater sense a filling up.
Preaching that is of the will of the Father, and therefore preaching that helps to sustain us, happens as the result of allowing God to preach to us before we even begin to consider preaching to others. It should stem from a personal encounter with God in His Word where we sit under His authority, listen to His commands, find comfort in His promises, and reorient our lives from His perspective. Our preaching team just wrapped up a series on Job. Studying the final chapters and God’s response felt very much as though God preached a sermon to Job.
Each of us needs that experience as the foundational element of our sermon preparation.
If our preaching is the result of letting God speak to us through His word, that means our sermons are carrying forward what God has already preached to us. As He preaches it to me, I live out His sermon in my life. I naturally come to an understanding of a particular message’s rewards, challenges, and practical applications. As I begin to write my own sermon, these things come to life on their own. If God preaches the message to us first, we approach each Sunday with the mentality that we are simply relaying what He has first said to us.
Here are some ways to have sustainable preaching.
- Rely on others – The EFCA East leadership team is happy to send help your way, even, and especially in, the form of filling the pulpit to get you a break.
- Focus on knowing the plan of what you intend to communicate more than the exact words you want to say – your personality will show up more and the flow of the sermon will be much more natural.
- Keep talking to your Spiritual Dad about what He wants you to say.
- I believe there is a tempo paradox with preaching. The more methodically and calmly I study the word of God, the more quickly and creatively preaching ideas come to me. You can’t rush it.
KNOW YOUR OWN SUSTAINABILITY
Proverbs says that the wise man knows the depth of his soul. We are wise to know when we are operating in a way that is unsustainable. Several years back there was a trend in App games. You were a character of some sort and you were running. Your job was to swipe in a direction to dodge or duck obstacles. The challenge was that the further you made it without stumbling, the faster the obstacles came your way. If you made it far enough, the game would advance to dizzying speeds that required an incredible reaction time. If you played it long enough, you felt tired. My fear is that too many of us are tired, and if you’re like me, you may even be afraid to say that you’re tired, or even to stop and let yourself think that you are tired.
Be honest. We are tired and we are making decisions, accomplishing tasks, moving from meeting to meeting, dodging obstacles at a pace that is unsustainable. This is why we go home and we feel bored, because life doesn’t happen at the same pace as it does in the office. No, it isn’t sustainable, and yes, it has to change. God’s heart isn’t for those we lead to get a less spiritual version of us. Even though we are pressed and persecuted, being given over to death, He wants the version of us where His life is at work in us, and that alone is sustainable.
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