By Don Johnson
What does it take to stay vital in ministry after 30 years?
Whenever I hear that type of question asked, I perk up my ears for wisdom. I appreciate discovering what sustains others in ministry over the long haul, because ministry is far more of a marathon than a sprint. I fear a lot of the seminar offerings out there fuel “sprint” behavior – how to crank up and get fast results with a technique, a series, a technology, or a new, charismatic staff person.
I must admit that I’ve been there and done that. The fact that I’m writing this on my new iPad reflects my love of technology and gadgets. I’m a sucker for the flash and the new. But, here are some thoughts I have about what I find works for the long haul:
1. A consistent personal devotional life. A balanced spiritual formation portfolio works: scripture, relevant, and ancient. Reading keeps me alive and connected to the Word, these times, and the deep heritage we have in our faith.
2. Ask questions and listen. The people God has placed around me often, on the surface, are both boring and irritating. I’m tempted to stereotype and discount them. Yet they are exactly the gift God has given me to discover, and the discovering work is that of conversations (often over time) where I ask questions and then listen deeply (not competitively so I can share my stuff). The profundity of the ordinary continues to bless and delight me.
3. Show up. Make commitments and keep them. Learning to show up when I’m not the center stage (real problem for senior pastors) is another gold mine. When I hang in the back of the room and let someone else lead, something good happens to my heart.
4. Expect good from people (and don’t be surprised when they let you down). Vitality in ministry is not sustained by cynicism, sarcasm or gossip. Those approaches, over time, shallow my life. It’s so easy to be critical and tougher to be positive (and realistic at the same time).
5. Avoid gossip, but speak directly. Talking around an issue or person corrodes relationships, while going directly is tougher, but healthier. The longer I’m in leadership, the more impressed I am by the disease of gossip. If I am unwilling to go to the other person, but simply insist on gossiping about him/her, “what are my intentions?”
6. Take time to play (Sabbath rest). Always being “on” and available is debilitating. Take days off, go away from the church, leave the country, put away the list. When I play, I do not take myself quite so seriously.
7. Reverse mentoring. Someone several years ago gave me that notion, especially for technology. I always need a bright 17-year-old around to introduce me to some emergent technology and trend (even language). But now I’m finding that young people can bless me spiritually if I ask them into a conversation and listen seriously. Being near a college campus has been a gift to me. These young men and women often “get it” more than my peers. That gives me hope.
8. Tithe to the local church. Money can get a stranglehold on pastors’ lives because we are “never paid” what we are worth and we usually see those around us with more, newer and nicer. Nothing releases covetousness, greed and stinginess like tithing. Tithing continues to teach me to genuinely trust in God’s generosity.
9. Bless your local church. There is no perfect church, council, building, budget or community. We can endlessly critique and resent the flaws in our unique setting. Get over it! There will be no perfect church (or pastors) ‘til Jesus comes again. The church is Christ’s bride, and that bride has some issues! But she is still the bride.
10. Learn from the culture around you. The culture is our context, not our enemy. Learn to listen deeply to the media and music. What is the hunger? Where are the hopes? What is the story behind the tattoo?
11. Say “thank you” often and regularly.