What Effective Pastors Must Prioritize

I’ve been a pastor almost 39 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 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?

Related posts:

When We Run from God: 7 Insights from One who Did

The book of Jonah is quite revealing. The book describes the prophet Jonah’s call by God to preach to the city of Nineveh (a quintessential sin city of antiquity). Jonah initially ran from His call. As a result he spent three days in a big fish before God got his attention and Jonah decided to obey Him. Jonah 1 reveals these 7 interesting life lessons when we run from God.

1. Running from God may indicate bitterness or unforgiveness toward another. 

Jonah ran from God because he hated Israel’s archenemy, the Assyrians where Nineveh was located. He couldn’t stomach their receiving forgiveness from God.

2. You can run from God but you can’t hide from him.

Jonah thought he’d get as far away from Israel as possible by taking a boat and fleeing 2500 miles in the opposite direction to Spain. But, even though Jonah knew that God was all knowing, he still tried to hide on a trip in a boat.

3. God never gives up on you.

When Jonah bought a one way ticket to Spain, God could have written him off and chosen someone else to preach to the Ninevites. He didn’t. He pursed Jonah.

4. God allows the storms of life for our benefit.

God sent the storm not to punish Jonah, but as an intervention. Jonah needed to be saved from himself and the storm (and the fish that swallowed him) were God’s tools for Jonah’s benefit.

5. When you run, others often get hurt.

When Jonah was on the boat, the boat and every innocent sailor was in danger of losing his own life because of Jonah’s disobedience. Although we may think we can sin and nobody else get hurt, inevitably somebody else gets hurt. We never truly disobey God in isolation.

6. The longer you run from God, the worse the storm will get.

As the storm arose, the men cast lots, an ancient way to divine God’s will, to determine who was causing the ‘gods’ to get angry and cause the storm. The lots fell to Jonah as the source. He could have repented then but didn’t. The storm got worse and worse. Often when we run from God, we dig a deeper and deeper hole.

7. Your sin can never outstrip God’s grace.

Although not every time we sin does God still offer us the same opportunities, in this case God kept pursuing Jonah. He sent the storm and a big fish. And Jonah survived them both. The rest of the book describes many other examples when God extended grace to Jonah. We can never sin, disobey, and run from God so far that his grace can’t forgive and restore, if we are willing.

What other lessons have you seen in yourself or others who run from God?

Related posts:

Are these a Pastor’s 5 Greatest Fears?

If you are human, you have secret fears. I don’t mean ones like fear of snakes or fear of heights, but deeper ones. You may have never verbalized them to anyone. Perhaps they have burrowed themselves deep into your subconscious. Perhaps they’ve become like a shadow that dogs your every step. Perhaps they’re no big deal. However you’d classify yours, I believe we all carry them. And pastors deal with them as well. Although I’ve not based my list below on science or surveys, I believe they capture several fears pastors often face.

A pastor’s 5 greatest fears (not in any special order):

1. What if my ministry is insignificant? In writing my second book (Five Ministry Killers and How to Defeat Them, IVP, 2010, ), I included a quote by David Goetz that captures this fear well.

I often sat in the studies of both small-church pastors and mega-church pastors, listening to their stories, their hopes, their plans for significance. I deduced, albeit unscientifically, that often clergymen in midlife had worse crises of limits than did other professionals. Religious professionals went into the ministry for the significance, to make an impact, called by God to make a difference with their lives. But when you re fifty-three and serving a congregation of 250, you know, finally, you’ll never achieve the large-church immortality symbol, the glory that was promised to you. That can be a dark moment-or a dark couple of years. (Kindle e-book loc 1919).

2. What if I really mess up?

One of the rising stars in the Baptist world in the 80’s and 90’s in the US, Joel Gregory, rose to what was then the pinnacle of the Baptist world to pastor First Baptist Church of Dallas, TX and succeed W. A. Criswell. However, two years later he resigned, his marriage failed, and he sold cemetery plots to make a living. His remarkable journey (nicely chronicled here), however, led him to a place of redemption and he is now a respected preaching professor at Baylor.

3. When if people leave my church because they are upset?

I know of no pastor who has every led a church where 100% of the people stayed. Some leave for good reasons. Some don’t. And often the pastor is the last one to hear they left. When that happens, it hurts, notwithstanding the good feelings that come from ‘blessed subtractions.’

4. What if I can’t make the people happy?

In my third book (People Pleasing Pastors: Avoiding the Pitfalls of Approval Motivated Leadership), I surveyed over 2000 pastors and discovered that from 79%-91% of pastors self admitted that people pleasing affected their ministry to some extent. This common temptation is even wired into our brains. Social rejection lights up the same regions of the brain that physical pain does so when we know someone is not pleased with our performance, it actually hurts.

5. What if the people really knew my deepest struggles?

Acceptable struggles like overwork or eating too much usually don’t affect how church people see you. But, what about pastors who struggle with secret jealousies of more successful pastors, lust, or feeling that they often ‘fake it’ on Sundays. If the people knew their deepest struggles, what would they think? What would their boards think? What would those who hold them in high regard think?

The Bible says we are broken people. That’s what makes grace so good. God extends his unmerited love and mercy to us to restore, remake, and remold us. Salvation freed us from the penalty of sin. His Spirit is freeing us from the power of sin. Yet, it won’t be until heaven until we are freed from the very presence of sins, including our deepest fears.

Perhaps we should admit our deepest fears to the Lord and to a close, safe friend who can help us face them and conquer them with the Spirit’s power. In this post you can learn what to look for in a safe friend.

What would you add to this list?

Related posts:

6 Reasons Pastors and Leaders Need Adequate Sleep

For many years scientists and philosophers have pondered why we need sleep besides to not be sleepy. Of course we all intuitively know how important sleep is to our bodies, relationships, and walk with God. But as neuroscientists are learning more about the brain, they are discovering many positive brain benefits from sleep. This list below includes some of those benefits.

  1. Sleep improves mood. And people catch a leader’s mood. It’s called emotional contagion. If we regularly don’t get enough sleep, it can make us grumpy and negative. If we carry a bad mood to church, it rubs off on others. The reverse holds true as well. A good mood rubs off on others.
  2. Sleep enhances memory. When we sleep our brain turns short term memory into long-term memory. It’s called memory consolidation. Without adequate sleep, consolidation suffers.
  3. Sleep improves decision making. When we don’t get adequate sleep we can become more rigid in our thinking and less adaptable. Rigid thinking impairs good decision making.
  4. Sleep improves creativity. Studies have shown that sleep facilitates insight because the brain is still active while we sleep. Among other things, it uncovers novel connections between seemingly disparate ideas. The old adage “sleep on it” really is true.
  5. Sleep improves our ability to pay attention. Great leaders listen well to others and have the ability to maintain attention to important tasks. Lack of sleep degrades our brain’s ability to pay attention.
  6. Sleep clears out the brain’s ‘trash’ to make it more effective. Neuroscientists have discovered that during waking hours toxins collect in our brains while sleep literally cleans them out.

If you regularly don’t get enough sleep, your leadership may be suffering. The writer of Ecclesiates writes, The sleep of a laborer is sweet. (Ecc 5.12, NIV)

Related posts:

Cut your Losses and Do Something Different?…the Sunk Cost Bias

Leadership demands our time, energy, and often our financial resources. Hopefully the projects and people we invest ourselves in are worthwhile and fulfilling. Often we invest so much of ‘us’ into a project that we can’t imagine not finishing the project. When we’ve already invested considerable time and energy into something, stopping it may seem foolish. Unfortunately, we seldom ask ourselves if we really should continue investing in a project. A subtle mental trap comes into play called the sunk cost bias. Sunk cost bias simply means that because you’ve invested so much emotionally into a project, you feel that by quitting you’d waste what you’ve already invested and be a failure, even though you actually should cut your losses and re-direct your efforts. Consider these 5 signs that the sunk cost bias might be driving some of your leadership decisions.

  1. You have a nagging sense that you probably need to go another direction. Perhaps you’ve gotten new information or the landscape has changed and you have begun to doubt if you should continue in the current direction. And, you can’t seem to shake those doubts.
  2. You want things to change in your ministry or church, but you keep doing the same things over and over again, expecting to get different results. Einstein defined this as insanity.
  3. You know you should stop the project but fear having to explain yourself to others.
  4. You’ve poured so much into this project that that your emotional attachment has made you lose sight of your greater goals and vision.
  5. The project drains your energy rather than boosting it.

If any of these 5 signs are true of you, the sunk cost bias may be distorting your judgment. Consider taking these steps to evaluate whether or not you should cut your losses on some project and go a different direction.

  1. Talk to someone about your struggle who will maintain their objectivity and be honest with you.
  2. Play out the scenario if you did stop. What benefits would you gain? What new costs would you incur? What more productive project could you then invest your time and energy into?
  3. Were you to stop, who would you need to explain your decision to? How would you explain your decision? Might they actually respect you for making such a decision?
  4. Re-visit your values. Does the project align with your personal and ministry values and God’s call on your life?

How have you seen the sunk cost bias play out in your life or other people’s lives?

Related posts: