Does a 55-year-old guy have much to say to cool-dressing, iPod-listening, 20-something student leaders who Twitter, text and watch “Heroes”? Perhaps.
Although, I Twitter and listen to music on iTunes (classical), I definitely don’t dress very cool…just ask the 26-year-old creative arts director at our church where I serve as senior pastor.
Thirty years of ministry taught me, though, that I have something in common with youth ministers: I’ve battled ministry killers. I’ve served in churches from the land of both kinds of fruit and nuts (California) to the Windy City (Chicago) to the place where bigger is better (Texas) to the home of the country’s best grits and fried okra (Atlanta). The churches have ranged in size from four-and-a-half attendees (the one I started with my pregnant wife and our two toddlers) to the one I now serve with more than 1,100. Has it been the satisfying experience I expected? Yes and no. To paraphrase Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities, “It has been the best of times, it has been the worst of times.” Most pastors would agree with Dickens. Many church people would, as well.
Here’s what I’ve learned: Ministry killers lurk in every church, waiting to ambush unsuspecting leaders. Unrealized pinholes in your soul will siphon the passion from you and potentially kill your ministry unless you set your trajectory in the right direction. Bill Hybels captured how many of us feel at times when at a conference he quoted the platinum song by the Canadian group Prozzäk (of Simon and Milo fame): Sucks to be you!
That phrase matched my friend who faced many ministry killers, yet still faithfully serves Christ. Read what he told me.
When I attended seminary for the first time in the early ’80s, John Bisagno, former pastor of First Baptist Houston, spoke in chapel and told us to look around and take a good look at who was sitting next to us. He told an incredible statistic of how few people who start out in ministry will be left after many years. I contacted him to ask exactly what he said. The statistic he told us was told to him in 1953 by his future father-in-law, who was also a pastor. “One out of 10 who enter the ministry at the age of 21 still will be serving at age 65.”
My friend continued to tell me that for 30 years, he followed 105 of his friends who had committed their lives to full-time ministry. To date, almost half no longer serve due to divorce, infidelity, drug use, imprisonment or simply losing their passion and quitting. Other statistics point to rising stress, depression and burnout for pastoral leaders. One leader of an organization that assists ministry leaders in crisis told me that he fields 14,000 calls a year from leaders facing personal and church crises.
I decided to hunt for the reasons behind these statistics. If I could find the birthplace of a ministry’s death, maybe I also could develop effective weapons for that area. In short, I went in search of a killer. I found five.
Although every minister faces unique challenges, the research that I commissioned with The Barna Research Group, Lifeway Research and Christianity Today‘s NationalChristianPoll.com revealed five significant “ministry killers” many in church ministry face:
1. Head-in-the-sand mentality
2. Misdirected emotional investment
3. Unhealthy response to ministry killers
4. An attitude that “me and God can handle this”
5. Lonely, hurting wives
They polled more than 1,900 pastors and 1,000 non-pastors — of which 650 attend Christian churches — to get that information. The surveys revealed profound insights into what frustrates leaders, how we respond to those frustrations and what we’d like church people to do differently to help make ministry more fulfilling. I’d identified the killers, now it was time to orchestrate their demise.
None of us begins ministry so we eventually can drop out. We all begin with big dreams that we’ll make a difference for the Kingdom. Unfortunately for many, the dreams end up in a heap of emotional and relational rubble.
However, when we make the appropriate changes, I believe God will maximize our joy, help us lead at our best and give us the stamina to stay in the game for the long haul. He’ll renew the dream, the passion.
If frustrations are wearing you down or if you feel you’re in a ministry crosshair, the simple, organic process in Five Ministry Killers and How to Defeat Them could breathe new life into your ministry. It may help you avoid becoming another dropout casualty. It might even bring back some of your joy, if ministry now seems more burden than joy. If you’re new to ministry and you’ve not yet faced significant frustrations, you will. Ministry minefields fill every church, waiting to blow up when naïve leaders step on a mine. I wrote this book to prepare you for what inevitably will come and help you navigate turbulent waters when they do.
One of the greatest lessons I’m learning that has helped me to persevere for 30 years in ministry is this: Ultimately we serve the people; they don’t serve us.
F.B. Meyer, a Baptist contemporary and friend of D.L. Moody, authored more than 40 books. He understood that when God gives gifts to pastors, we are to humbly use them in service to Him and others. He wrote these wise words: “I used to think God’s gifts were on shelves one above the other and that the taller we grew in Christian character the more easily we could reach them. I now find that God’s gifts are on shelves one beneath the other and that it is not a question of growing taller but of stooping lower.”
The opportunities and gifts God gives us are not to build us up; rather, as we humble ourselves, God will use them to build others up.
Ultimately, I hope everyone who reads this book will be encouraged to focus his or her ministry and effort on the issues that matter most to God: loving Him and others and helping those we serve do the same.
Charles Stone is Senior Pastor at Ginger Creek Community Church, Chicago, Illinois. He holds degrees from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and Trinity Evangelical Divinity School and is the coauthor (with daughter Heather) of Daughters Gone Wild—Dads Gone Crazy. This article is adapted with permission from Five Ministry Killers and How to Defeat Them (Bethany House Publishers).