Very regularly, ministers ask for my help with ministerial and congregational life in very pragmatic ways. What is the best way to organize, plan, preach, administer, supervise, lead, teach, evangelize, pray, cultivate a spiritual life, raise a family, play? You name the task, someone has asked about it.
It’s no wonder, really. When you move past theory, ministry is often an issue of HOW we implement what we believe, and at that point, we are in a constant quest for good practices and methodologies. Healthy clergy are always on the lookout for best practices that breath life into their ministry and thus their place of service.
It’s important to say that there is no substitute for doing the hard work of theology, Bible Study, personal spiritual discipline, and cultivating a compelling personal sense of call and vocation for a minister. Assuming those are a constant in the life of a minister (a large and dangerous assumption), I’d like to suggest some very helpful tools or practices that have made a huge impact in my life, and in the life of many ministers.
First, the importance of a vibrant and active devotional life cannot be overstated. This is at the heart of effective ministry. No shortcuts here. Find a model or set of practices and become relentless in you pursuit of healthy piety. If you need help, consult web sites such as The Transforming Center, Renovare, or your denominational resource center. There is simply no excuse for not taking care of the inner spiritual care and feeding of a minister.
Second, find an effective and helpful tool for time management. Many clergy are undone by poor habits around the issue of time and life management. It really is about more than showing up on time for events (though it IS about that). Getting a handle on your calendar is an indication of your spiritual maturity and ability to work effectively with people. You will find that you cannot manage your calendar without also addressing your ability to manage the most important things in your life. Balance between your personal and professional life is essential to long tenure and a sense of well-being and peace in the life of ministry. If you need help, look to established groups like Franklin Covey and others for help.
Third, study and mine the work of Emotional Intelligence and Family Systems thinking for insights into you and your ministry. These two fields of research and practice have helped a multitude of ministers, from every theological persuasion, to come to grips with key issues that impact their effectiveness as leaders. Many ministers have found insights and inspiration from these ideas, and others like them. Every successful minister I know has made an intentional effort to be self-reflective and mindful about who they are, why they are in ministry, what they are uniquely suited to do, and what they struggle with. Nearly every unsuccessful and ineffective minister I meet has bypassed this important work.
Fourth, as you lead your congregation or ministry group, find a way to do so that focuses on strengths rather than weaknesses. Healthy faith communities have inherent strengths that are the source of hope for their future. Sadly, many models of planning or strategic thinking overlook this key truth and instead focus upon weaknesses and spend time shoring up shortcomings. The result is often discord and a fracturing of the fellowship. Instead, find a way to lead that is based upon calling out the strengths of individual believers and groups of believers (see Jesus for the very best example of this). I have found the work of Appreciative Inquiry (AI) indispensible in such efforts. AI is a helpful tool in leading any group to recognize the ways we have been effective in the past, and then pushing those insights into the future with a sense of divine presence and momentum.
Fifth, join a small group of clergy who will keep you honest and/or find a leadership coach to help you navigate the unique challenges and opportunities of ministry. While it will take time and money, both of these represent a critical investment in your spiritual and emotional health and in the health of your ministry setting. I cannot say strongly enough how important it is for ministers to avoid the temptation to fly solo. Thoughtful colleagues and insightful coaches bring out your very best self, help you avoid foolish mistakes, and keep you focused on the kingdom agenda. Resources for peer learning groups and coaches abound, so ask around and find out where your friends find help and follow suit.
Wise ministers and their churches are constantly looking for ways to be more like the people God has called us to be. These five practices will get you closer to that important goal.