What Effective Pastors Must Prioritize

I’ve been a pastor almost 35 years and I’ve made lots of mistakes. But as I’ve grown wiser, I’ve learned that if I prioritize a few key choices, my life and leadership dramatically improve and my ministry becomes more effective. Here are three key choices I encourage every pastor to prioritize.

priorities

Priorities for every pastor

1. Place sermon prep time at the top of your list.

Whether you preach or teach regularly, unless you calendar when you prep your messages, you will likely shortchange adequate prep time. I’ve been doing it for decades now, but I still need 15 plus hours each week to craft a message. I calendar my study time in the mornings when my mind is freshest. In this post I delve more deeply into sermon prep time. 

2. Craft messages that included three essential components.

  • Build them around a strong Biblical basis. Make sure your messages are rooted in God’s Word.
  • Always include clear application. This is where you connect the then and there to the here and now. People will remember your teaching better when they can apply to their lives what you say. It’s called self-referential learning. Stuff sticks in our brains when it’s self-referential.
  • Keep in mind techniques to help your listener pay attention. Only what gets paid attention to gets learned. And if the church people don’t pay attention to your messages, they won’t make much of a difference in their lives. In this post I suggest 5 brain-savvy ways to help people pay attention to your sermons. 

3. Keep yourself healthy.

Ministry leaders who prevail prioritize their health. And the arenas of health include your body, your relationships, your mind, your emotions, and your soul. To keep healthy in these areas requires we make these choices.

  • Eat healthy.
  • Exercise at least 3 times a week.
  • Get enough sleep.
  • Keep short relational accounts with others. Deal with conflict sooner than later.
  • Challenge and stretch your mind by learning new things, even outside your ministry role.
  • Process your emotional pain.
  • Spend time with God every day, excluding sermon prep time.

As I’ve prioritized these three areas, ministry has become much more fulfilling.

What other areas do you believe pastors should prioritize so they stay sharp and effective?

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When a Leader Spirals Downward

An aviation term called a death spiral describes what can happen to a plane in nighttime or poor flying conditions when a pilot loses his sense of the plane’s horizontal orientation. The plane can begin to spin uncontrollable. Unless the pilot pulls out, he can spiral out of control and crash. In ministry, leaders can often get caught in a similar downward spiral mentally, physically, emotionally, or relationally. When that happens, what can we do to pull out of it? The prophet Jonah illustrates what contributes to a downward spiral and what we must do to pull out of one.

spiral downward

In Jonah 4, Jonah finally relented and obeyed God’s call on his life to preach to the ancient city of Nineveh. The city then repented and turned to God. And yet, Jonah wasn’t happy. He spiraled downward. His response gives us clues to what can cause a downward spiral in ourselves.

What can cause a downward spiral?

1. Prolonged stress. Jonah had almost drowned, was stuck in the belly of a big fish for three days, traveled over a month to Nineveh, and had just finished a stressful and extended time of preaching. He was tired and near burnout. The same can happen to a leader after prolonged and intense ministry. Such stress can set the stage for the beginning of a downward spiral.

2. Self focus. In the original language in Jonah 4 he used ‘I’ and ‘my’ 9 times. After the people repented, which Jonah didn’t really want, he turned inward and felt justified for his intense anger at God. Turning inward facilities a downward spiral. When we turn deeply inward and ruminate and rehearse what we don’t like that is happening to us, it exacerbates a spiral.

3. Cutting off from others. After Jonah’s preaching, his anger drove him to cut himself off from the Ninevites and from God. He left the city in a huff instead of staying there to help the people understand more about God. Often when in a downward spiral, we pull away from the very people we need to be around.

4. Disproportionate emotions. Jonah got angry at God for not destroying the Ninevites yet was deliriously happy about a plant that provided him shade. Emotional responses that are out of proportion to what precipitated them often signal we are in a downward spiral, whether it’s being overly glad or overly angry about something insignificant.

5. Distorted thinking. Jonah was not thinking clearly based on his unhealthy response to God’s work in Nineveh. When in a downward spiral our negative emotions get amplified and clear thinking gets skewed.

6. Justifying bad behavior. When God questioned Jonah about his behavior, he justified it with a defensive attitude. When we’re well into a downward spiral, it’s easy to justify poor decisions.

So, when a leader finds himself in a downward spiral, what can he or she do? Consider these six choices that can help us pull out of a downward spiral.

1. Practice gratefulness. Jonah showed no gratefulness for God’s delivering him from death nor from God’s bringing repentance to the Ninevites. Gratefulness could have benefitted him in many ways as science is now revealing.

Gratefulnes can…

  • help you become more other-centered.
  • give you more energy.
  • help you sleep better.
  • make you physically feel better (it increases several ‘feel good’ brain chemicals).
  • help you become less materialistic. Jesus said, “‘It is more blessed to give than to receive.’” (Acts 20.35)
  • help combat negativity and the negative emotions that follow.

2. Become other focused. It would have behooved Jonah to be joyful over what God did in Nineveh rather than turning his eyes on his anger and disappointment.

3. Ask yourself well-placed questions. God asked Jonah three questions, not because God didn’t know the answers. Rather, He asked Jonah the questions to prompt him toward healthy introspection. Unfortunately, Jonah never looked inside but simply reacted and fed his downward spiral.

4. Get into community. When we pull away from others, it contributes to a downward spiral because we can lose perspective in our own negative thought stream. However, when we are with others who care about us, they can give us fresh perspective and help us when we really need it. In fact, when we associate with others who care about us, our brain releases oxytocin which bonds us to them and makes us feel better.

5. Do something constructive. For Jonah, the best thing for him would have been to go back into the city to minister to these newly changed people. To pull out of a downward spiral, brain studies show that simply making a decision can dampen our negative emotional centers and help us think more clearly.

6. Rest. One of the best ways to pull of out a spiral is to simply slow down, rest, and take care of ourselves. Jesus reminded us of this in Mark 6.31. Then, because so many people were coming and going that they did not even have a chance to eat, he said to them, “Come with me by yourselves to a quiet place and get some rest.”

Have you ever been in a downward spiral? What has helped you pull out?

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How Leaders Defeat Discouragement

Somebody once said there are two things in life we can’t avoid, taxes and death. I’d like to add a third, discouragement. Church leader or not, you will face it. It’s an inevitable part of life. Here’s how I’ve learned to defeat discouragement.

Man crying tears of frustration

Some time back discouragement hit me like a ton of bricks one week. It all began on a Monday evening after a good day at church the day prior. We had baptized a dozen people, another half dozen indicated they had trusted Christ, and we began Alpha with a bang.

But when I got the stats back from Sunday’s service, I got bummed out. A not-so-good attendance and a very poor offering pushed me into discouragement. I’d been doing well to not allow low Sunday statistics affect me. This time, however, I didn’t do so well.

During this time of discouragement I learned three small choices that have helped me dig out of my funk. Often we must take the initiative as did King David when lifted himself out of a serious bout of discouragement when he did this. He, “encouraged himself in the Lord his God.” (1 Samuel 30.6)

I believe small choices that may not seem overtly spiritual can become ways we can encourage ourselves in the Lord.

Here are the three.

Break up your routine.

That week my wife and my daughter were going to make a run to our local super Wal-Mart and they asked if I wanted to go. My first inclination was, ‘No.’ But after a moment’s reflection, I said, “Sure.”

Usually I’d just sit at the man bench at the check-out line (those benches where guys sit while their wives shop).

This time, however, I decided I’d go to the books’ area and browse. When I did, I picked up a Guinness Book of World Records and had few laughs. I saw, among other records, a picture of a guy who held the world record in piercings (yuk) and a picture of another guy in India with the world’s longest ear hairs at 7 inches (gross). This little break, albeit odd, helped get my mind off my discouragement.

Pamper yourself.

For a guy, this may sound feminine. But I don’t mean you have to get a pedicure. Here’s how I pampered myself.

At the time I swam at a local indoor pool three times a week and usually went back home to grab some breakfast. I was on a tight budget (as many pastors are) so I seldom ate out. But that morning I decided I’d go through the drive-thru and get some breakfast at McDonalds to treat myself.

I spent a few dollars on a sausage biscuit and an egg McMuffin. After I slathered each with grape jelly, I enjoyed the small treat. This small ‘self-care’ gesture encouraged me. Self-care gestures can help us defeat discouragement. 

Do something outrageously fun.

When I lived in Chicago, each Tuesday night I’d attended a musical improv class. I’ve never had as much fun as I did in these classes. At the time it was my fourth round of classes. As a pastor I was a bit of a novelty to my classmates. Comedy turns blue so often but when I put my clean twist on things, my classmates got a humorous kick. When I drove home afterwards I felt like I’d made a huge deposit into my soul by simply doing something fun. When you feel discouraged, do something fun. 

So, the next time you face discouragement, give these ideas a try.

  • Break your routine.
  • Pamper yourself.
  • Maybe even join an improv class.

What has helped you defeat discouragement as a leader?

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7 Thinking Errors that Hinder Church Growth

My first degree, industrial engineering, taught me to think systematically which has in turn benefited my pastoral leadership. Since then I’ve read many books on church planning and been certified through Ministry Advantage and Auxano, two strategic planning/pastoral coaching organizations. I’ve also led two churches where I’ve served through a year-long strategic planning process. So, I’m well-versed and trained in the church visioning/planning process. Yet, of all the books I’ve read on strategic planning, Will Mancini’s book, Church Unique is the best. In his chapter called “Lost on the Way to Your Own DNA,” he lists subtle thinking patterns that can hinder church growth. He calls these patterns ‘thinkholes.’ I’ve listed them here with brief definitions.

Choices of a businessman concept

Ministry “thinkholes.”

  1. The ministry treadmill: busyness eliminates time for reflection. 
    • leads to just adding more programs
  2. The competency trap: presumption that past methods will continue to work decreases appetite for learning.
    • leads to just working harder
  3. The needs based slippery slope: consumerism removes the need for discernment.
    • leads to trying to make people happy
  4. The cultural whirlpool 1: BuzzChurch-innovation short circuits self-awareness.
    • leads to just trying to be cutting edge
  5. The cultural whirlpool 2: StuckChurch-change outpaces the discipline for learning.
    • leads to glorifying the past
  6. The conference maze: success increases the temptation to copycat. 
    • leads to simply modeling best practices
  7. The denominational rut: resources disregard local uniqueness.
    • leads to just protecting theology

At times I’ve been caught up in these thinkholes. How about you?

What other thinkholes would you add to this list?

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The Controversy Behind ‘Top 10 Reasons People Don’t Tithe’

Recently I posted a blog titled “Top 10 Reasons People Don’t Tithe.” I took it from a recent sermon I preached at my church, West Park Church in London, Ontario. I didn’t expect it to go viral and certainly didn’t anticipate the controversy it generated.  Here’s the reader interaction stats on it (from my website, Google analytics, and Churchleaders.com that posted it twice) and what I learned.

CONTROVERSY red Rubber Stamp over a white background.
  • Re-tweets: almost 100
  • Facebook shares: 1124
  • Comments on Churchleaders.com: 253 at last count
  • Facebook ‘Likes’ on Churchleaders.com: 3,400 at last count
  • Pageviews on my website: 12,000 plus at last count

To put this into context, I’m not a big league blogger like some you probably read. I post twice a week primarily on church leadership. I average around 7,000 unique page views per month and I have an email list of followers of around 2,400. So, I don’t rank very high in the blogosphere.

So, when I began to see these trends, I knew something was up. Here are the insights I’ve learned from this post.

  • The concept of tithing remains very controversial. From my 35 years in ministry I knew people had differing views. However, I never knew those views would create such emotion.
  • Some people get incendiary when pastors talk about money. I was quite surprised at some of the emotion laden darts commenters threw out at pastors. The comments revealed lots of angst people carry toward pastors and money.
  • Some people can disagree agreeably. Although I didn’t read all 250 plus comments, I read enough to see that several thoughtfully shared their differing viewpoints. They made good points without SHOUTING!
  • Social media is reinforcing unhealthy ‘filterless’ communication.

    I was shocked at how mean some of the comments were. In contrast to those who agreeably disagreed with me, some commenters threw multiple verbal grenades. In our social networking world when we don’t have to talk to a real live person standing a few feet away from us, we tend to thoughtlessly speak our mind with no love to temper us. Social networking is giving people a forum to say what they want with no filters. This is not a healthy trend.

  • I support everyone’s right to dissent, even if they lack filters. Although filterless communication is not the healthiest kind, I still support everyone’s right to dissent. Unfortunately, especially in today’s politically correct world, those of us who take biblical stances on issues (i.e., on biblical marriage) are being marginalized more and more.

Why do you think this post generated so much controversy?

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