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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3 Ways Leaders Break Unhealthy Dependencies

Good leaders help their followers grow. They keep their followers’ best interests a priority. They invest in their followers. But sometimes we unintentionally hold them back by creating an unhealthy follower-leader dependency. How do we do that? We solve their problems by giving them answers instead of fostering insight. Consider the following scenario.

Become Independent red 3d words on chains breaking to illustrate gaining freedom and becoming self reliant to control your own destiny

A staff person who reports to you comes into your office with a problem. She explains the problem. As she explains it, because you’ve had more experience than she, you quickly know the solution. She then asks, “What do you want me to do?”

What should you do in that situation? I see two choices.

Choice 1: You can save time, cut to the chase, and give her the solution. One problem solved: she got the answer she needed. Another problem created: the next time she has a problem, she will probably come to you again for your answer. You have potentially started to create a dependency.

Choice 2: You can take a bit more time and instead of solving her problem, you can coach her through a process so that she discovers the answer for herself. With this choice, the problem gets solved and you avoid creating an unhealthy dependency on you.

So, how could a leader implement such a coaching process? I suggest three guidelines.

1. Ask questions. When a staff person asks you for your solution, instead of reflexively giving an answer, respond with this question. “What do you think?” If you routinely give answers, your staff may need time to adjust to this new way of relating as you loosen the dependency.

2. Begin operating with a new mental paradigm. Solving problems is not the main issue, developing problem solving skills in your staff is. This new process will help your staff solve their own problems rather than them counting on you to solve them.

3. Realize the power of this process. This process, called insight generation, actually engages more of the brain. When someone generates her own solution (an insight) the fastest brain wave, the gamma band, sweeps over her brain. It’s called synchrony (think of how a conductor ‘synchronizes’ an orchestra’s instruments when he steps on the podium and lifts his baton). When synchrony results in an insight in your staffer’s brain (she discovers the solution) she will implement the solution with greater motivation because it is now her solution rather than yours.

So, examine how you respond to your staff when they want you to solve their problem. If you regularly solve them, try this new approach and see what happens.

Should leaders always apply this process? Or are their times we should give an answer?

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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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When You’re in the Belly of a Big Fish

Jonah, one of Scriptures most interesting characters, finds himself in the belly of a big faith after he ran from God. Sometimes crisis, pain, and difficulty can feel like we’re stuck in the same place Jonah found himself. So what do we do? I believe Jonah 2 (a prayer he prayed while in the big fish three days) gives us some insight.

jonah 2

First, what might it look like for you to be in the belly of a fish?

  • You are losing your job and there are no jobs on the horizon.
  • You hate your job but can’t get out.
  • Your marriage is on the rocks.
  • Your teens are walking down a very dark path.
  • Your church seems like it’s going nowhere and things look hopeless.
  • You never seem to have enough money to pay your bills (or pay the church bills if you’re a pastor).
  • You just got a bad doctor’s report.

Can we learn anything during those times? R. T. Kendall believes we can. He writes, “The belly of the fish is not a happy place to live, but it is a good place to learn.”[1]

So, what does Jonah teach us about what to do when we are in the belly of a fish, in a difficult situation, crisis, or pain.

1. Pray.

Verse 1 tells us that from inside the fish he prayed. Unfortunately, we often pray after we’ve tried every thing else. James counsels us to pray in James 5.13.  Are any of you suffering hardships? You should pray.

2. Don’t stuff your emotion, suppress your pain, or pretend all is ok. 

Sometimes leaders fail to admit to others or themselves that things really are bad because doing so might us look weak. So, we stuff our emotions, over spiritualize, or busy ourselves to push the pain away. Jonah didn’t do that, though. He graphically describes his situation with words like these: distress, grave, currents swirling, waves and breakers sweeping over him, banished from his sight, engulfed, seaweed wrapped around his head, barred in forever, in the pit, life ebbing away.

Instead of stuffing, one way we can actually dampen painful emotions is to label them, put a name on them. Learn more in this post about dealing with painful emotions.

At the same time we must admit our painful emotions, we must not go to the other extreme and ruminate, replay, and constantly rehearse the difficult situation. Doing so will actually amp them up.

3. Stay hopeful by redirecting your thinking.

As Jonah recounts how difficult things have been, he shifts mental gears with the phrase, “But you (God).” In fact, the Bible often describes God intervening for his people with this phrase, But God. Stories about Noah, Joseph, Joshua, David, and Paul describe But God moments in their lives when the Lord rescued them.

When you’re in the belly, don’t deny the reality of the difficulty. And instead of rehearsing and ruminating, redirect your thinking to the But God’s in Scripture and in your life.

4. Remove any God substitutes.

In verse 8 Jonah talks about worthless idols, probably referring the pagan sailors who were in the boat and who practiced idolatry. For believers today, we can get easily get attached to subtle idols and false gods in our lives. Idols and false gods look different to different people.

Some people drive in their gods.

Some people live in their gods.

Some people live with their gods.

Some people work for their gods.

Some people serve in the gods (their church or their ministry).

The problem with all these gods is what my daughter Tiffany and I discovered a couple of years ago when we took the Hollywood backstage tour in California. The tour involved riding a tram that drove by many familiar houses and buildings used in the movies and TV shows. However, the guide explained that all the sets were facades, false fronts. There was nothing behind them but junk.

Those sets parallel false gods and idols in our own lives. They promise to fill our hearts and give us life, happiness and joy, but they don’t stand up to the rigors of real life. They are all false fronts.

When in the belly of a big fish we often think about what’s truly most important. If you’re in the belly, use this time to root out and discard any God substitutes.

When you’ve been in the belly of a big fish, what life lessons did you learn?

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[1] Smith, B. K., & Page, F. S. (1995). Amos, Obadiah, Jonah (Vol. 19B, p. 241). Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers.