3 Lessons in Longevity from Ministry Veterans
It seems like every new book I read or podcast I listen to is talking about pastors and ministry leaders quitting church work. Recent Barna research revealed that nearly 40% of pastors are thinking about quitting.
That’s not good. But, it’s understandable. Leading churches and ministries through COVID has been brutal.
And yet, I know a number of pastors who have been in the game for multiple decades and still have gas in the tank. I’ve been paying attention to how they talk, what they do, and perhaps most importantly, what they don’t do.
In this post, I want to share some of what I’ve been learning and observing. My hope is that you might find a practice or mentality in this post that helps you to continue bringing your best to your calling.
A commonality with all the veteran pastors is a commitment to rest. Specifically, a rhythm of Sabbath. It seems to me that there is no chance at longevity in ministry without a strong Sabbath discipline.
It’s the discipline of choosing to put down work on Friday even though you preach on Saturday night. Or, it’s the commitment to resting on Monday even though the work week is right around the corner.
Almost every high caliber ministry leader I’ve talked with has stories of early seasons where they didn’t practice Sabbath and burned out. One thing that is crystal clear to me is that there is no such thing as ministry longevity without the discipline of rest.
Similarly, one of my disciplines is to take one or more two-week breaks during the year. I’m learning that longer breaks are required for me to truly unplug and rejuvenate.
Never Good Enough
In some areas of life, contentment and satisfaction are a good thing, but not if you want longevity in ministry. Here’s what I mean.
The people I know who are still bringing their best to ministry after 20-30 years are still not satisfied with their contribution. It’s still not good enough. They are still pressing. Still pushing. Still growing. They aren’t phoning it in.
I recently hired a veteran pastor as a preaching coach. The gig was that he would watch three of my sermons and give me feedback on how I could improve. During this process, he asked me to watch one of his sermons and give him feedback.
By the way, his church is three times larger than mine and he’s actually retired. But he still gets invited to preach a few times a year and he was asking for my feedback to help him improve. He still believes he might be able to improve a little as a preacher.
From what I’ve observed, great ministry leaders who are still highly engaged after decades have this thing in them that drives them toward excellence, even after most of us would say, “Good enough.”
Recently, I heard a veteran pastor put two words together into one phrase in a way that I’d never heard before. The two words were “ministry” and “concussion.”
A group of pastors were talking. One of them was describing a painful experience he went through. One of the older pastors said, “Oh! You had a ministry concussion.”
This phrase makes a whole lot of sense to me. Maybe that’s because I had a bunch of concussions back when I played football in high school. The first one happened on a kickoff play.
I made a helmet to helmet tackle, my teammates went nuts and suddenly, I was dizzy and a bit confused. But, it was the 90s and a concussion was simply, “getting your bell rung.” I kept playing and kept getting more concussions as the season progressed.
Long story short…I didn’t get to finish my high school football career because the concussions kept getting worse and eventually my doctor advised me to quit football or risk long-term damage.
What was needed was concussion protocol. These days, if a player has a concussion, they are placed in concussion protocol. Doctors supervise their healing before they are given a green light to play.
I think there is something to this idea of a ministry concussion. We get hurt in ministry—people say hurtful things, an initiative fails, a staff member quits…I could go on. You’ve been there. You get a ministry concussion and you just keep playing.
My point is that the emotional damage takes a toll and eventually we end up in a space where we are exhausted or bitter. What is needed is ministry concussion protocol—time and space to process and heal from the wounds we sustain in ministry.
In my experience, the men and women who continue to thrive in ministry after decades are people who take time to process and heal from the difficult things they experience in ministry. Personally, I find counseling to be incredibly helpful. I wonder if you need to enter ministry concussion protocol to keep your heart healthy?
Over to You
So, how do you thrive in ministry over the long haul? Three observations that I’ve made as I watch and listen to ministry leaders who are still bringing their best after decades is that they rest, continue striving for excellence and pursue healing. I hope this is helpful and encourages you to pursue healthy rhythms as you continue serving and leading.