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?

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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?

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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?

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6 Ways to Keep Pornography out of Your Life

Pornography is an epidemic today. It’s a temptation we must protect ourselves against. A simple acronym, PURITY, captures 6 ways we can pull out of sexual sin (porn or other sexual sins) and/or stay sexually pure. I’ve summarized it here.

THE PURITY PROCESS TO STAY SEXUALLY PURE

Purpose to change/stay pure before God.

You must start here. If you are sexually out of God’s boundaries, you must admit it (confess and repent) and purpose to change. Don’t deny it is what it is, sin. Don’t minimize its damages nor rationalize its use. Scripture tells us to flee from all sexual sin (1 Cor. 6.18). We are to view our body as God’s temple and live in such a way that reflects that truth. We are to glorify Him with our body.

And if you are within God’s boundaries, purpose to stay pure.

Understand how porn changes your brain.

You can read here my blog on what porn does to your brain. Because the brain is plastic (malleable based on what we put into our minds) porn actually changes its neural structure. Yet, it is also malleable in the other direction. If we make changes in our lives, renew our thinking, and yield to God’s transformative power, we can create new God honoring patterns on how we relate to sexual temptation. The Apostle Paul called it renewing of our minds (Romans 12.2).

Reshape your environment.

Discover what triggers your draw to porn. By doing so you can make changes to avoid those cues and lessen the opportunity for a stimulus. Therapists use the acronym, HALT, to help clients discover when they are most susceptible to temptation. It can help you discover when you are most vulnerable to porn.

We are most tempted when we are…

    • Hungry
    • Angry or anxious
    • Lonely
    • Tired

When we discover our cues, we can then make simple changes to avoid them, such as…

    • Asking your wife to not leave women’s magazines out in the open around the house (the ones with the shapely females on the front).
    • Move your computer monitor to a different place in your home or office. Better yet, put it where others will see you when you are on it.
    • Keep the lights on.
    • Don’t keep your iPad or Kindle next to your bed.
    • Turn off chats in Facebook.
    • Block some email.

 Invite involvement

This means accountability. Find an accountability partner who will lovingly hold you accountable to your thought life and what you view on the web. Put web blocking software on your computer. This is a great web site that offers such software.

Turn when tempted

Turn your eyes when tempted. The first three seconds are key when we see an image on the screen or see an attractive woman walk in front of us. Job provides a good model with his commitment,  I made a covenant with my eyes not to look lustfully at a girl. (Job 31.1)

The three A’s is a simple tool to help us turn when tempted. (from The Porn Circuit: Understand Your Brain and Break Porn Habits in 90 Days)

    • Alert: Pay attention when you see something inappropriate. It may only take a split-second to recognize a tempting situation.
    • Avert: Close your eyes or look away. These first two steps should be instantaneous.
    • Affirm: Give yourself a mental high-five to congratulate your effort. Say to yourself, “I saw that by mistake, and I quickly looked away. I’ve been clean for (enter number of days) and I’m going to stay that way.”

Yield to Christ through prayer and repentance

 God promises us that He will give us a way out, but we have to walk through it.

 2Pet. 1.3   His divine power has given us everything we need for life and godliness through our knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness. 4 Through these he has given us his very great and precious promises, so that through them you may participate in the divine nature and escape the corruption in the world caused by evil desires.

Porn is terribly damaging to our souls and our relationships, but by God’s grace we can be men (and women) who keep our thought lives and behavior pure before Him.

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5 Ways to Minimize Decision Fatigue

Decision fatigue is a term that describes how a long series of decisions can actually diminish the overall quality of future decisions. Many leaders have unwittingly diminished their leadership effectiveness by making too many decisions. This is true whether or not you are a leader. Ego depletion is a related concept that simply means the tireder you get, the less emotional self control you have. In this post I suggest 5 counter balances to decision fatigue.

First, four signs decision fatigue is affecting your decisions.

  1. You make quick, impulsive decisions you later regret you made.
  2. You needlessly delay decisions. This is the counterpoint to the impulsive decision noted above.
  3. You send thoughtless, terse emails.
  4. You get mad when someone asks you for a decision. 

Consider these 5 ways to minimize decision fatigue.

  1. Make important decisions when you feel mentally and physically rested. Many decisions don’t take much thought time. However, really important ones take our full mental and spiritual capacity. When we’re tired, we simply don’t make the wisest decisions (decision fatigue). So, when faced with an important decision, evaluate if you can give it your best at that moment. If you can’t, delaying the decision may be the wisest choice.
  2. Delegate many decisions. One tool I use with staff when they ask me for a decision is this. I ask them, “What do you think?” This encourages their own insight and often the staffer will find his own answer which motivates him even more because he owns the solution.
  3. Don’t make spur-of-the-moment decisions when it creates unnecessary work for you. Often the decisions we make add more work to our plate. When faced with a decision, ask if it will create more work for you. Sometimes the correct decision will require you give more time to the project or the person. Those we should not avoid. However, other decisions may best not be made to avoid unnecessary work for you.
  4. Sometimes you must gracefully decline when someone asks you to make a decision. If the issue doesn’t pertain to your role, ministry, vision, mission, or values, sometimes we simply need to say,”No,’ to the person asking us for that decision. You can read more about gracefully saying no here.
  5. Always seek God’s wisdom when you make decisions. James wisely counsels us in James 1.5.

If any of you lacks wisdom, he should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to him. (James 1.5, NIV)

What has helped you make the wisest decisions?

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