Is a Pastor’s Job a Calling or a Career?

My good friend Godfrey Thorogood is one of the smartest guys around when it comes to church leadership. He served as FEB Central’s Leadership Development Director in Ontario and now is pastor at Thousand Oaks Baptist Church in Ontario. He’s worked with literally hundreds of pastors and once shared with me that he noticed a disturbing trend among pastors. I asked him to write this insightful guest post.

As I ask myself if ministry is a calling or a career, my mind goes back to the day in May 1978 when God spoke to my heart and said “Godfrey, I want you to help people.” I soon discovered that the manner in which God wanted me to help people was by becoming a pastor. Throughout the past 36 years, God has reminded me many times of that specific call to help people through pastoral ministry.

Since I know I was called by God to be a pastor, that call has driven my passion to serve God and to serve His church. Even at times when my passion waned and I wrestled with staying in pastoral ministry, God would take me back to His specific call upon my life, which in turn would renew my passion.

Over the past few years, I have seen the trend of some men viewing pastoral ministry as a career rather than a call.

As I come alongside to assist pastoral search teams in our churches, I occasionally hear from those search teams that some of the men whom they talk with seem to lack passion as a pastor and preacher. These search teams pick up very quickly that some of the men whom they talk with view the pastoral opportunity at a particular church as a way to advance their career rather than fulfill God’s call upon their lives.

When I finished serving as an intern in my home church, and was called to serve as assistant pastor in another church, the pastor of my home church told me not to view my role as assistant pastor as a stepping stone to future ministry. He said, “God may choose to use it that way, but go into the role with the mindset that God has called you to serve in the church at this time for however long He wants you to serve there”. He also said “Serve with passion, joy and with loyalty to your senior pastor and fulfill God’s call upon your life as assistant pastor in the church”.

I believe the words of my pastor are good words for all of us as pastors to be reminded of today.

Let’s not forget that we have been called to serve as a pastor. Take some time to read through Paul’s words to the Ephesian elders in Acts 20. Note the passionate statements Paul makes about his own life and ministry. Make his statements your statements as you think about your current place of pastoral ministry. Ask God to continually reignite your passion for serving God and His church.

What do you think about this view that a pastor should view his role as a calling versus a career?

You can reach Godfrey here.

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8 Reasons Why Our Elder Board Works so Well

I serve as lead pastor at West Park Church in London, Ontario, having served my entire ministry in the U.S. prior to my move to Canada 5 years ago. One of my greatest joys has been working with our current elder board. I’ve never worked with a board that has accomplished so much with so much unanimity and harmony. I believe these 8 reasons explain why this board works so well together.

  1. PRAYER: We always begin our meetings with a focus on God’s Word and prayer. And our prayers are not the perfunctory prayer-ettes. We often pray for an extended time for the needs in the church. This keeps us focused on our shepherding role.
  2. PREPARATION: I meet with the chair and vice-chair a few weeks prior to plan our meetings. We prepare an agenda that we email to the entire team before the meeting. They know what to expect.
  3. NO TIE BREAKERS: Although I’m an elder, I don’t have a vote on the board. When the board has to approve some significant issue, I give my perspective, but I’m never in a position to be a deciding a vote. Most of the decisions the board has made have been unanimous or near unanimous.
  4. UNITY IN DISAGREEMENT: Our meetings are not filled with all happy talk. We’ve had serious discussions and shared different perspectives on issues. But we agree that when we leave the board room, we speak as one.
  5. LISTENING PERSPECTIVE: Every one on the board truly listens to everyone else’s perspectives. When we disagree, we do so with respect having first truly listened to each other.
  6. BLOOD, SWEAT, AND TEARS: No church is perfect and neither is ours. Before I arrived the board had invested extremely long hours dealing with significant issues the church faced. They have invested much and don’t sit in an ivory tower apart from the day in and day out tough stuff in every church. They have ‘paid their dues,’ so to speak, and want what’s best for the church.
  7. FOCUSED MEETINGS: We meet once a month and just decided last year to give each meeting a  unique slant. After a prayer time, we focus on one major strategic issue while our minds are fresh. We then deal with tactical stuff.
  8. APPRECIATION: Often I hear different board members share words of appreciation to each for a member’s unique contributions. I also often thank and appreciate the board members for their service.

It’s a joy serving on a board that works through tough stuff, but does so with grace and intention.

What keys have made your board work well?

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11 Meeting Killers and How to Kill those Killers

As leaders, it seems we spend an inordinate time in meetings. However, we can’t lead well without face time with others. And face time means we must meet with our teams in person. At the same time, an unproductive meeting wastes time and creates frustration. What are some common meeting killers? Consider these 11 and potential solutions for each (some very obvious).

  1. You do more than 25% of the talking.
    • Solution: monitor how much you talk and ask others off-line if they feel like you jabber too much.
  2. Team members regularly jump to conclusions and make pre-mature judgments about what others say.
    • Solution: train your team that great listeners seek understanding first before being understood (a famous Covey quote)
  3. Some people seldom speak up.
    • Solution: specifically ask the quiet ones what they think about an issue.
  4. Team members get easily hurt and offended when their ideas aren’t received well.
    • Solution: if a staffer consistently does this, talk off-line and find out what root issues are causing the touchiness.
  5. There is too much happy talk. Seldom do you discuss emotional and/or difficult issues.
    • Solution: don’t fear difficult conversations. Encourage them. Those can provide some of your greatest leadership learnings.
  6. Someone interrupts to complete somebody else’s sentences when he or she is having a difficult time formulating ideas.
    • Solution: if that happens, ask the person who was cut off if she felt she was able to fully share her thoughts.
  7. Personal stuff comes up that should have been addressed off-line and 1-1.
    • Solution: set expectations annually about how you expect meetings to go. Include the importance of discussing personal issues off-line.
  8. Too many rabbits get chased that have nothing to do with the agenda items.
    • Solution: if you lead the meeting, again, set the expectation that as the meeting leader you have the prerogative to shoot the rabbit.
  9. You try to accomplish too much in a meeting and as a result feel rushed.
    • Solution: schedule different kinds of meetings…perhaps some need to focus on weekly tactical items while others should focus on just one or two strategic items.
  10. Your meetings are waaaaay too long.
    • Solution: Shorten your meetings. Meetings beyond 2-2 1/2 hours are seldom productive unless you break them up with lunch, dinner, or something that isn’t mentally draining.
  11. You don’t start or end your meetings on time.
    • Solution: start and end on time.

What meeting killers have you seen in your experience? How have you killed those killers?

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What You Don’t Know about your Church May Kill You

Many pastors begin a new assignment and get blindsided from issues they never expected. When that happens, it can be deadly. I’ve found that creating a genogram of your church, called a family diagram in psychology, can yield much insight into how people may have perpetuated unhealthy patterns in a church. It’s simply taking a bird’s eye view of your church’s past, looking for connections, and drawing them out. I excerpted below a section from one of my books, People Pleasing Pastors: Avoiding the Pitfalls of Approval Motivated Leadership that illustrates the process.

I wish I had known about family diagrams before I began to pastor. If I had seen how dysfunctional batons pass from one leader or significant stakeholder to the next, I could have avoided a lot of grief— or least prepared myself to handle those issues better.

I recall one church I served where the founding pastor had been a father figure to many of the early members. He was “larger than life” from both the stage and in one-on-one relationships. Because many of the old-timers had come to faith through his ministry, most had never seen any other pastor lead. He had become close friends with many of the stakeholders, making himself available to them 24-7. The father figure he played loomed large.

When I arrived as senior pastor, my leadership style was not to give people 24-7 availability, except in emergencies, because I’d soon burn out if I did. I was also a ready-aim-fire leader, whereas he was known as a fire-fire-fire leader.

After about a year, I began to sense a weird vibe from some of the stakeholder leaders. It seemed that I couldn’t please them, no matter what I did. I felt befuddled. But as a clearer picture of the previous pastor emerged, I began to understand what fueled this tension. I realized that some leaders wanted the best parts of him— in me. They wanted a father figure who was available 24-7. One leader even confessed to me that he expected me to be a father to him.

They also loved his larger-than-life dreams that seemed to come “straight from the Holy Spirit.” It excited them, and many felt that church should be perpetually exciting. My vision, however, came more slowly through a more deliberate and thoughtful process, definitely not eliciting as much initial excitement as his did.

They had transferred the idealized former pastor’s strengths onto me, and I had failed to meet those expectations. Edwin Friedman captured this transference when he noted, “Institutions . . . tend to institutionalize the pathology, or the genius, of the founding families.” [Edwin H. Friedman, A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix (Bethesda, MD: Friedman Estate, 1999), p. 199]

This founding pastor had left under difficult circumstances. As a result I also bumped into another unspoken script: a fear and distrust of strong pastoral leadership among some stakeholder leaders. Had I known how churches, like families, pass down dysfunctions, I could have better navigated those bumps.

If you’re a senior pastor, I encourage you to probe your church’s past to learn the hidden scripts against which you may be bumping. Take some key leaders and long-term members out to lunch and ask about the church’s history. Listen especially to the stories from the old-timers. The more you learn about your church’s past, the better you’ll respond to its dysfunctions. I’ve listed some questions below that you might ask these leaders to help you create a diagram.

  • What significant events, both successes and traumas, have marked your church’s history?
  • How has your church responded to traumas and crises?
  • What problems seem to recur in your church?
  • Does your church have any deep, dark secrets?
  • How did the church begin?
  • Was it from a church split?
  • Was it a plant from another church?
  • Are relatives of the founding families still in the church?
  • Are some of the founding members still in places of influence?
  • How long have pastors stayed?
  • What were the circumstances behind their departures?
  • How were their departures handled? How do people talk about the prior pastors?
  •  Is there an ongoing pattern of firing staff?
  • Have any recurring sins persisted in staff or key leaders (sexual immorality, financial malfeasance, gossip and so on)?

You’re likely to find some repeating patterns. Simply knowing what you’re up against and paying attention to these multigenerational dynamics can give you a head start in dealing with the patterns. While acknowledging the past, you can more wisely lead your church into the future, knowing that these past patterns still play a part in the present. As Pete Scazzero has often said, “To go forward, you must go back.”

Here’s a fictional example of how someone might loosely diagram a church’s dynamics going back several years or several pastors. (People Pleasing Pastors by Charles Stone, permission granted, InterVarsity Press, 2014). Click on the image so you can see it clearly.

genogram of a church

What impact have you seen that your church’s past has had on your ministry?

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5 Leadership Insights I Wish I Knew 25 Years Ago

I’ve been in vocational ministry over 38 and my leadership roles have included my role as singles pastor, discipleship pastor, associate pastor, teaching pastor, church planter, and lead pastor. Although I’ve earned two seminary degrees and I appreciate what I learned in seminary, I’ve learned many key lessons that seminary never taught me. I wish I had known these 5 key lessons when I began  ministry.

  1. Silence from your team does not mean they agree with you.
    • Early on when I’d lead either staff, board, or volunteer meetings I tried very hard to sell ideas I was excited about. I would often present the idea in such a way that hindered honest input from the team. I’d enthusiastically share the idea, ask if there were any questions, and when none came I assumed everybody agreed. I learned the hard way that silence often did not mean they agreed with my idea. Rather, the team was simply reluctant to share their concerns. Only later would I find out that the idea was not a good one and lacked support. My overbearing “sell job” actually stifled feedback I needed to hear.
  2. Collaboration will get you further down the road.
    • This insight stands as a close cousin to number 1. I once thought that to prove my leadership mettle, I had to originate all major ministry initiatives and ideas. If someone suggested an idea, although I may have appeared to listen to them, mentally I would often dismiss their idea if it didn’t jibe with mine. Why? Because it didn’t originate with me. I’ve since learned that if I use a collaborative process to determine vision and major objectives, I got more buy-in and in the long run make greater progress.
  3. You probably can’t over-communicate.
    • Most people in our churches don’t spend the hours we do in thinking about church ministry. Because we spend so much more time thinking on these issues, I often fell into a subconscious trap assuming that if I felt I was over communicating about something, others must feel the same way. I’ve learned since that it’s almost impossible to over-communicate issues like vision, values, and core strategies. Although we created banners, book marks, and cool graphics to communicate our church’s current theme (Unified yet Unique), when I asked our church this past Sunday to quote that simple phrase, few could repeat it. That experience reminded me that although I thought I had communicated it effectively, I still needed to communicate it even more.
  4. Others mirror a leader’s emotional temperature.
    • The term for mirroring another’s response is called emotional contagion. Teams actually ‘catch’ the emotional state of their leaders. Early in ministry I felt that I had the leadership right to get angry, pout, or emotionally cut myself off from others if things didn’t go well. It was being authentic, or so I thought. While not discounting the importance of authenticity, I’ve learned that I must bring a positive and hopeful tone into the office each day. When I experience something painful and it’s appropriate to share it, say in a staff meeting, that sharing builds trust. But if I regularly bring negative emotions into the office, I set up a tone that others often catch and mirror, even though that emotion may have nothing to do with their circumstances. Such negative emotions can hinder a team’s effectiveness.
  5. Less is more.
    • I’ll never forget my first elder’s meeting almost 30 years ago. I had started a church in the Atlanta, GA area and we had just elected our first slate of elders. I planned the agenda for the first meeting. It was three pages long. I am not kidding. I actually still have memory traces of me racing through the agenda at a breakneck speed so we could check off all the items. The meeting was a flop. I’ve learned that less is more applies not only to meeting agendas but also to sermon prep as well. People in general absorb a few key ideas (or idea) much better than when we use the proverbial firehose approach.

What key lessons in your ministry do you wish you had known when you started?

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