Church is  sometimes a painful beast of which to be a part, mainly because it’s filled with people.  Flannery O’Connor once wrote, “It seems to be a fact that you have to suffer as much from the Church as for it…”, and it’s most definitely a true statement.  Being a leader in a church, whether you’re a pastor, Sunday School teacher, worship leader, or even the groundskeeper, can be stressful even on the best days.  I sat last night talking with my wife, reflecting on my life in ministry, and frankly, if you measure by the world’s standards, I’ve experienced a great deal of failure in that realm.  Now, when I stated that last night, my wife pointed out that I am very sensitive to criticism, and that when you’re leading a ministry, you have to have a tough skin.  She’s right.  She’s always right.  The other night, I told her that there was no way she could make homemade doughnuts out of canned biscuits, and dang if she didn’t do it.  The girl is never wrong.

Because many leaders in ministry don’t have a spouse who can steer them as well as mine does me, I thought I would take a few moments to steer away from my usual favorite topics…liturgy, sacramental theology, Church history, etc…and give a few points of practical advice to those who are, or are aspiring to be leaders in ministry.  Please note that some of these are areas in which I’ve seen other leaders either excel or lack woefully; some are areas where I’ve personally  struggled; and finally, there are some points at which I think I may have achieved a passing grade.

All that being said, let’s go for a walk down the dirt road, and talk about leading in ministry…

1)  Good leaders are accessible and available leaders.

Good leaders not only return phone calls, but they have multiple means by which they can be contacted.  For all you pastors who are convinced that the world wide inter-web is the debbil, please note most of your parishioners, even the ones in my little rural church, are on Facebook.  Even several folks aged 70-80 years old spend time there.  And they check it daily.  They also send messages on Facebook, Twitter, and through other social media outlets.  They send email, and you should read it.  Don’t blame your wife for not teaching you how to text message, and stop saying you don’t have time to get on the computer. And God almighty, stop living in the myth that “I just don’t think that many people in our church use the internet.”

Don’t have your secretary read your email for you.  People may send you things that they prefer to be kept confidential.  I know that there’s a rumor you’ve heard that “Everything on the internet is public information.”  It might be easily accessible, but that doesn’t mean it’s not sensitive.  If an employee sends you an email, they do not have a reasonable expectation of privacy, under the law.  For personal matters, however, individuals do have a right to confidentiality.  If you’re going to have someone else viewing your emails for you, you must inform the potential senders of this.  Never share any personal information from an email.  Miss Myrtle might have been the church secretary for the past 42 years, but when she puts Deacon Burns on the prayer list for his hemorrhoids that he emailed the pastor about, and she read it first because the pastor can’t remember his passwords, you are gonna get yourself in a heap of trouble.

And don’t preach about the evils of Myspace.  Myspace isn’t cool anymore.  Half of your teenagers don’t even remember it.

Responding to people in their preferred modes of communication says to them that you are paying attention to what they’re saying, that it matters to you, and that they as individuals matter to you.

Do I really need to say what message you’re sending when you don’t respond?

I’m a fan of the clerical shirt and collar, along with albs, stoles, chasubles, maniples, and a lot of other things that are better left for discussion in a future post.  The clergy shirt sets the pastor/priest apart, and sends a message:  “I’m available.”  If I’m wearing my clerical collar out to my favorite Mexican restaurant, then I should not be surprised or offended if I’m approached by someone in regards to a spiritual matter.  As a spiritual leader, the expectation of your followers is that you are both available and accessible.  Your sheep shouldn’t have to fight through layers of secretaries, associates, and personal assistants to get to you.

2) Good leaders don’t let their mouth get ahead of their head.

A good leader should have a solid filter on their mouths.  Blurting out your initial thoughts on a subject can be damaging to relationships.  A while back, a pastor I served under offered some commentary on a class that I was teaching.  I had developed the teaching series, wrote it, and was teaching it to a small group.  He suggested that I should have made the series shorter, saying that “You can teach anybody everything they need to know about that in an hour.  Your group probably isn’t growing because you’re boring people.  You need to remember that this isn’t a seminary class.”  After letting loose of my own tongue a bit, and making some remark along the lines of, “If you want to keep your discipleship group in the shallow end of the Jesus pool, that’s okay with me…”,  I reminded him that he had never actually attended the class, and invited him to visit the class.  After he did, I was more willing to listen to constructive criticism.  Well, maybe not, but it sounds spiritual for me to say I was.

We both spoke without thinking.  Shame on both of us.  Having control of your mouth is a spiritual discipline, backed by Biblical reason…

Whoever keeps his mouth and his tongue keeps himself out of trouble.  (Proverbs 21:23)

For we all stumble in many ways. And if anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is a perfect man, able also to bridle his whole body. If we put bits into the mouths of horses so that they obey us, we guide their whole bodies as well. Look at the ships also: though they are so large and are driven by strong winds, they are guided by a very small rudder wherever the will of the pilot directs. So also the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great things. How great a forest is set ablaze by such a small fire! And the tongue is a fire, a world of unrighteousness. The tongue is set among our members, staining the whole body, setting on fire the entire course of life, and set on fire by hell. … (James 3:2-10)

Even a fool who keeps silent is considered wise; when he closes his lips, he is deemed intelligent. (Proverbs 17:28)

When words are many, transgression is not lacking, but whoever restrains his lips is prudent. (Proverbs 10:19)

(There is ) a time to keep silence, and a time to speak… (Ecclesiastes 3:7)

So, to sum up, learning to keep quiet will keep you out of trouble; draw you toward perfection; make you seem wise and prudent even if you’re not overly bright; and shows you have discernment.

Now here’s the opposite end of the spectrum…

If anyone thinks he is religious and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, this person’s religion is worthless. (James 1:26)


If one has the ability to control what comes out of their mouths, they can discipline themselves in any aspect of life.  This I know, for the Bible told me so.

3) Good leaders don’t pretend to be spiritual super-heroes.

I’ve always thought it would be a interesting exercise to color code different levels of spirituality, and each Sunday, have individuals pick up a card designating where they feel they are spiritually.  On the high end, they could be purple, for “Super Spiritual:  “I read the New Testament in Greek, my house is in order, and my Bishop called to ask for my thoughts on total depravity last Thursday.”

At the lower end, I think the cards could be red, signifying, or course, “This week I got drunk,  ran over the Ten Commandments sign in my neighbor’s yard, got a tattoo that didn’t include my life verse, cussed because I couldn’t get a Chik-fil-A cookies and cream shake on Sunday, voted for Obama, chewed tobacco, and then I made out with a girl who chewed tobacco, too.”

In the middle, there’s kind of blue shade.  Purple for royalty, red for hell-fire, and blue for humanity.

Riding the center line is me.  I do love Jesus, but don’t have good Bible reading habits.  I quit on accountability partners a long time ago.  I don’t pray as often as I should, but I am trying to teach my baby girls the importance of the practice.  I get angry over stupid things, like whose turn it is to wash the dishes.  I watch movies with swear words.  I like a good cold Mike’s Hard Lemonade.   In the words of Brennan Manning,   fake id“When I get honest, I admit I am a bundle of paradoxes. I believe and I doubt, I hope and get discouraged, I love and I hate, I feel bad about feeling good, I feel guilty about not feeling guilty. I am trusting and suspicious. I am honest and I still play games. Aristotle said I am a rational animal; I say I am an angel with an incredible capacity for beer.”

There was a time when I was serving as a youth/college pastor that I was given the opportunity to speak on a Sunday morning.  During the sermon, I talked about all of us Christians admit to being sinners, but if you ask folks to identify what sins they committed over the past week, many honestly can’t think of anything they’ve done wrong.  These are purple card people.  Truth is, though, the purple card is most often a fake ID.  It’s a mask they’re wearing to cover up the truth about who they really are.

During the sermon, I proceeded to confess some of my own sins.  Nothing too bad, no gory details.  I just let folks know that I’m a sinner, just like they are, and if not for the goodness and grace of God, I would be lost.  Good sermon fodder, right?

Not according to the senior pastor.  Monday morning rolled around, and he advised me that I should never, ever let the congregation know that I struggle with sin, because, “As pastors, we’re kind of up on a pedestal.  People like to think that they can look up to us, because we’ve overcome those struggles that everyone else has.  We have to project the image that we’re on a higher level.”

I have to call bull stuff on that one.  Leaders in ministry must be transparent about their own struggles.  If you try to appear to be super-spiritual, then those following you will feel guilty about the sins they struggle with.  They’ll be eaten up with their shame, wondering, “Why am I the only person in this group who does/feels/experiences this?”  Folks don’t need to know you’re perfect…They need to know they’re not alone.

We are a part of a community of people who have experienced life.  Christians get divorced and remarried.  Some are alone and waiting and hoping for love.  Some are addicted.  Some have kids who get in trouble at school and with the law.  Some are struggling with chronic illness.  Some have cancer.  Some are facing old age, and not aging gracefully.  Some of us are struggling with the sins of youth.  Some of us are still trying to shake those sins, well into our 40’s and 50’s.  We fight over what to have for dinner, and about whose turn it is to clean the toilets.  Some of us even fight right in the middle of the church building over the way we prefer things to be done.

All of us need the grace of God.  And we’re all eligible to receive it.  If there’s anything that binds us together, that’s it.  If you can’t think of a sin you’ve committed recently, then it’s very likely that you don’t understand grace at all.  You’re artificially flavored.  Sweet to the taste, but what’s in you is poison.  It kills people who need the real medicine.  Your idea of religion is a elixir labeled with smiles and warm greetings, when the reality is, it should have a skull and crossbones on the bottle.

Bishop Panteleimon Shatov of the Russian Orthodox Church wrote, “The only place where modern man does not like to visit – is himself. He cannot hear the silence, he does not want to hear the voice of his conscience. But without knowing yourself you can not know God. ”  It’s difficult to face one’s own depravity and lack of commitment, but it’s vital; vital for one’s own salvation, and vital if one hopes to reach others with the Gospel.

The clerical collar I talked about before not only indicates that you’re accessible and available, but that you’re humble, as well.  Be transparent.  Don’t be fake.  You’re not Moses or David or Job.  You’re just you.   If you pretend to be something else, people will eventually figure out your game.

4) Good leaders avoid shallow trends, and favor depth and substance.

A huge topic of discussion in Christian circles these days has to do with how millenials aren’t looking to be entertained when they go to church.  What this means is that you aren’t necessarily going to attract young people by having a great worship band, scrolling announcements on XXL flat screens in the narthex, or by using the word “dude” during your sermon.

I’ve observed that many denominations are looking to the SBC for cues on how to grow their churches, because it seems, at least in our part of the world, that they are the most aggressive denomination in terms of church planting and evangelism.  Please, before you build a building without knowing what it will be used for;  rename your church something that begins with “The” and ends with something that sounds dangerous, like “Edge”, “Flame”, or “Rock”;  or throw out your old liturgies, keep in mind that Pew Research Center reports that the SBC has been losing membership consistently for the past ten years.  Why are we looking to denominations that aren’t growing for ideas on how to grow our churches?  No offense to our brethren in the SBC…I pray that they would grow, and wish them luck in doing so.  I’m just stating facts.

If you chase trends, your relevance will die with whatever trend it is you’re grabbing onto.  Rachel Held Evans has written some compelling thoughts about what young adults are looking for in churches today, and it ain’t entertainment value.  She wrote the following…

“Time and again, the assumption among Christian leaders, and evangelical leaders in particular, is that the key to drawing twenty-somethings back to church is simply to make a few style updates – edgier music, more casual services, a coffee shop in the fellowship hall, a pastor who wears skinny jeans, an updated Web site that includes online giving.

But here’s the thing: Having been advertised to our whole lives, we millennials have highly sensitive BS meters, and we’re not easily impressed with consumerism or performances.

In fact, I would argue that church-as-performance is just one more thing driving us away from the church, and evangelicalism in particular.

Many of us, myself included, are finding ourselves increasingly drawn to high church traditions – Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, the Episcopal Church, etc. –precisely because the ancient forms of liturgy seem so unpretentious, so unconcerned with being “cool,” and we find that refreshingly authentic.

What millennials really want from the church is not a change in style but a change in substance.”

In regard to the type of thing young adults are drawn to, she wrote a great piece here on the traditional seven sacraments of the Church.  Her thoughts on Holy Communion were particularly interesting to me…

“One of the few things the modern church has in common with the ancient one is its celebration of the sacred meal— the Eucharist.

There is simply not the space here, nor in many volumes of theology for that matter, to unpack the significance of remembering Jesus through eating bread and drinking wine. But when I left the church, it was Communion I craved the most.

Churches may disagree on exactly how Christ is present in these sacred meals, but we agree that Christ is present. And millennials, too, long for that presence.

There are some days when the promise of Communion is the only thing that rouses me from bed on Sunday morning. I want a taste of that mystery.”

And finally, in regard to our efforts to copy the greater culture in hopes of entertaining young people, she recently wrote…

“God is father, Church is mother, but she ain’t your babysitter.”

In other words, young adults aren’t looking for another concert to attend or just another escape from the grind of daily life.   They’re looking for for something with depth, mystery, and substance.  They want Church to engage their senses, and to motivate them toward new life.  Throwing away your alb and stoles in favor of deep v-neck tees just isn’t cutting it anymore, in terms of being palatable to the generation that will soon be the foundation of your congregation.  They’re looking for something relational and sacramental, a faith that transcends time and culture.

So, there’s my random thoughts for today.  Perhaps there will be more to come soon!

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.


Read more from Rachel Held Evans here

And read more of my thoughts on church trends here and here...

Finally, to see lots of interesting stats from Pew Research Center, check out their site here