If I had it to do all over again…
I used to be a pastor. For nearly two decades, I enjoyed the thrills, spills, chills and can’t-quite-pay-the-bills of local church ministry. Now, five years after packing up my office for the final time (including two boxes of Leadership back issues), I still think about those years in the pastorate every single day. No exceptions. It’s as though the word pastor is branded on my heart. And as I reflect on those 1,000 weeks in the world’s most glorious, dangerous profession, I often think about what I would do differently if I had another shot at it. If I was given a ministry mulligan, here is what I’d do with it.
More collaboration, less competition
The pastoral scoreboard was always clear to me: pastors of large, growing churches were the winners. They got nicer parsonages and bigger paychecks. Instead of attending conferences, they got to speak at them. Pastors of small, struggling churches—well, God bless ’em, at least they’re trying. I hope we can keep this just between you and me, but I am coming to grips with the extent to which my desire to be a “winner” in this pastoral competition motivated my ministry.
In the first church I served, everyone was talking about “breaking the 200 barrier.” I thought, If we could break the 200 barrier, I’d be a winner. I could die in peace. Who could ever want more than that? Well, it turns out, I could, because by the time we broke the 200 barrier, some of my friends had churches of 300 and 400.
So my goal became to see our church become the largest church in our district. Then in the top ten in our denomination. I tracked how we were stacking up against other churches and gleefully marked our progress up the ecclesial food chain. I did imaginary trash talking with the pastors whose churches we had left in our wake: “You call yourself a pastor? Don’t bring that weak stuff in here.” I wanted to be a winner.
Now I realize this is sin. I don’t think it’s wrong to set goals, reach people, or desire growth. But for me, even though I was giving lip service to reaching the lost and extending the kingdom of God, in the deepest places of my heart, my ministry was an awful lot about me. About winning. About ego. It was about competition.
Recently I had a brief conversation with a pastor who served a wonderful church in the same community I did. He said: “It’s funny, Jack. I felt like I knew all the other pastors in town. We were all friends. But I never really knew you.” It was an innocent matter-of-fact comment, but his words pricked my soul. I hadn’t been a friend because I viewed him as more of a competitor than a colleague, and today I grieve at the warm friendship and shared ministry that might have been. If I had a ministry mulligan, I wouldn’t waste one minute trying to win some mythical ministry race. Instead, I’d look for every opportunity to do ministry together with my brothers and sisters in other sections of the Lord’s vineyard.
More pastor, less CEO
The latest version of the church’s five-year strategic plan, I thought, was quite impressive. As I rolled it out to the church board one night, it was complete with objectives, benchmarks, action steps, timelines, and dashboard indicators. With just a glance, red, green, and yellow indicators revealed whether or not we were meeting key goals.
The document practically sizzled. I was in strategic planning heaven. At least one board member was not impressed. His face turned red (not a positive dashboard indicator) and he blurted out: “But we don’t need a CEO. We need a pastor!”
His comment was definitely not in the plan. At the time, I thought his words were well-intended but reflective of naiveté about the complexities of contemporary ministry.
Now I look back at that comment as a prophetic moment that I missed. The truth is that I had become so enamored with leadership literature, business best practices, and management technique that I had begun to lose sight of the heart and soul of pastoral ministry.
I continue to believe strongly that the church can learn a great deal from business principles that are evaluated thoughtfully and applied sensitively. I affirm the spiritual gifts of leadership and administration and regularly teach our seminarians the importance of leadership tasks like vision development, team-building, and resource allocation. Yet I also believe that the greatest commandments are to love God and love people. I believe that the primary New Testament metaphor for the pastoral role is that of shepherd. And I believe that it is possible to get so caught up in leading an organization that we lose sight of pastoring a people.
When I was conducting the exit interview for a beloved staff member who was relocating to another part of the country, I asked her what one suggestion she had for me. She said: “Jack, everyone in this church knows you’re competent. What they need to know more is that you care.” If I had a mulligan, I’d make sure they did.
More rest, less rush
I remember with crystal clarity the day I realized I wasn’t going to be able to continue in pastoral ministry. It was a Saturday afternoon in March, and it was time to head to the office to make final tweaks on the message for the Saturday evening service. I did not have it in me to go.
I was so drained and depleted from the relentless pace of ministry that the thought of preaching three times and engaging with all the people who would “need” me was more than I could bear. I needed a rock to crawl under, not a pulpit to stand behind. So I gave serious consideration to just not showing up. Pastoral hooky.
“The wheels were coming off, and you didn’t let anyone know. … We all need true friends, even you.” This was when the worship song “I could sing of your love forever” was real popular, and I toyed with the idea of letting the congregation put their money where their mouth was and sing that song for the entire service. They’d be fine without a sermon. And if the board fired me, at least I’d have some white space on my calendar.
The only thing that got me out the door that day was not being able to identify any other marketable skills I had. So as I willed my tired body toward my equally tired Subaru, I turned around and said to my wife Wendy four words that scared us both: “I hate my job.” I’d never said (or even thought) anything like that before.
As those words hung in the front porch air on that bleak March afternoon, I knew I was in a dangerous place. Nearly 20 years of late night meetings, skipped vacations, non-existent boundaries, and “Sure, I can do that” had taken their toll. My tank was empty. If I had to do it over again, I’d make the kind of decisions that would allow me to do ministry in a way that didn’t leave me chronically tired, overly busy, and emotionally depleted.
How would I do that? I’d preach less frequently. (It’s good for the congregation to hear different voices anyway.) I’d simplify church programming. I’d get religious about taking my day off and using up all my vacation time. I’d disclose to the board if I felt I was drowning. I’d take naps. I’d get over myself and not feel so indispensable. And I’d encourage our staff and ministry leaders to do the same. If I had a mulligan, I’d set a pace that I could sustain through a marathon instead of trying to set a world record in the 100 meters every week.
More friendship, less isolation
At some point in our final month of pastoral ministry, Wendy suggested that I cancel a golf game with some buddies so that she and I could take a long walk at a nearby lake and talk about a few things. Uh-oh. The look in her eyes told me this was more of a command than a suggestion.
So I reluctantly cancelled my game and readied myself for a trip behind the marriage woodshed. After we chatted about some of the logistics related to our upcoming move, she said, “Jack, there is one more thing.” I braced myself. “Jack, you’re wrapping up the first half of your life. You’re at half-time. And my hope for you is that in the second half of your life, you’ll do the friendship thing a whole lot better.”
Of course, I got all defensive. “What do you mean? I have lots of friends! I preached a sermon on friendship once! I could be playing golf with three friends right now!”
What she said next found its way into my journal that night: “But you keep all of your friendships in the safe zone. You don’t take off your pastor-mask and let people have access to the deep parts of your soul. The wheels were coming off in the last year and you didn’t let anybody know. And you can’t go on like that, Jack. We all need true friends—even you.” So I pushed her into the lake.
Henri Nouwen said that “too many of us are lonely ministers practicing a lonely ministry.” I was one of them. I had a thousand acquaintances, and not one real close friend. If I could do it over again, I’d make an all-out assault on my pastoral isolation and make room in my life for authentic, transparent, life-giving friendships. I’d seek friendships with other pastors. I’d spend more time with my neighbors. I’d be more vulnerable with people I could trust in the congregation. Maybe I’d buy a dog. But I know I would follow more closely the example of Jesus, who lived with his disciples in such a way that he could call them his friends.
One day Jesus said, “No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for service in the kingdom of God” (Luke 9:62). I don’t think I’m living in the past. I’m excited about the new expression of ministry God has given me, and I’m looking forward to many fruitful years ahead. But I do still wonder about what I’d do with that ministry mulligan … and these are my musings. I hope they encourage you to make some adjustments to your ministry swing.
Jack Connell is vice president and professor of pastoral ministry at Northeastern Seminary at Roberts Wesleyan College in Rochester, New York.
This article “Ministry Mulligans” by Jack Connell was excerpted from: www.leadershipmag.com web site. October 2010. It may be used for study & research purposes only.
This article may not be written by an Apostolic author, but it contains many excellent principles and concepts that can be adapted to most churches. As the old saying goes “Eat the meat. Throw away the bones.”