Resilient Ministry

Resilient Ministry by Burns, Chapman, and Guthrie has remained unopened on my bookshelf for the past five years. This has been an unfortunate mistake. It is a rich resource that would have served me well in my ministries of leading churches, a denomination and, more recently, in mentoring, coaching, and pastoral supervision. Anachronistically, I wish this book had been required post-theological college reading when I began ministry in 1990.

The central thesis of Resilient Ministry is that there are five themes integral to resilient ministry. These themes emerged from analysing the data from multiple pastors’ summits, where cohorts of pastors shared together about their joys and struggles in ministry. The authors have continued to test-drive and implement these themes to build resilience among pastors and their teams. The five themes for resilience are spiritual formation, self-care, emotional and cultural intelligence, marriage and family, and leadership and management. Each of these themes is addressed in two parts that can be described loosely as diagnosis and prescription.

Spiritual formation
Theological knowledge does not automatically translate into maturity. A theological degree or ongoing Bible study can fill the head without filling the heart or shaping the hands. Pastors must remember they are always sheep first and shepherds second. Pastors are at risk of “building their identities and worth around their roles and performance rather than being beloved children of God.”[1] It is essential to be nourished by a deep interior life with God in order to be equipped to work for God.[2] Spiritual ministry should come from the overflow of a heart shaped by God.

Data from the pastors’ summits identified key practices for growing in spiritual maturity. These included building rituals and rhythms into life, especially around spiritual disciplines such as prayer, keeping Sabbath, personal and corporate worship. Pastors craved confidantes with whom they could be accountable. Intentional reflection was recognised as essential for watching your life and doctrine and can lead to ministering from a place of humility and ongoing learning.

The importance of spiritual formation resonates for me in ministry. I have learned to apply every sermon and Bible study to myself before asking how it might apply to the congregation. I need to slow down, reflect, and spend more time meditating on God’s Word, asking God to transform my heart. However, I tend not to use the language of ‘spiritual formation’, preferring to speak of being ‘transformed into the likeness of Christ’ (Romans 12:1-2). I believe this helps me to be more discerning about the range of spiritual recipes on offer by asking “will this help me to grow in Christ-likeness?”

Self-Care
Pastors must admit and appreciate that they are creatures with physical, mental, emotional, social and spiritual needs. This impacts such areas as sleep, boundaries between family and work, exercise and diet. Some pastors embrace a formula of ‘burning out, rather than rusting out’. The authors identify this as a false polarity, recommending a better approach is “burning on, not burning out.”[3] They describe many pastors as people-pleasers, struggling with the “never-ending treadmill of trying to satisfy others whose expectations cannot be met.”[4] Ministry can also become an idol, leading to people neglecting self-care in order to achieve ‘success’ in their ministries. The problem of pastors finding their identity and purpose in their work rather than in God means that a perceived ‘successful’ ministry may cover over personal failure.

Engaging in quality relationships is promoted as vital to self-care. Especially significant is the opportunity to find encouragement from cohorts of peers outside the pastor’s immediate ministry context. Creating margin in life and ministry and taking time to recharge are important for longevity in ministry.

Self-care has been an ongoing challenge for me. As I reflect on three decades of ministry, I can see how I have sacrificed self-care on the altar of ministry drive and ambition. This has led to patterns of inadequate sleep and exercise, insufficient margin in daily timetables, missing days off, and pushing on until sickness has caught up with me. Many years I would expect to crash physically and emotionally after a particularly busy period in June and July. Annual holidays became an important but insufficient ‘catchup’ for my periods of neglecting self-care.

Being diagnosed with terminal cancer confronted me with critical questions around my identity and my dispensability. No longer able to preach, lead, or pastor a church, I was painfully and yet wonderfully reminded that my true and enduring identity lies in being my Father’s adopted son. Over the years since, as my health has improved and I have returned to pastoral ministry, these bad habits have continued to haunt me and I have sought help from my mentors to keep addressing challenging matters of self-care.

Emotional and cultural intelligence
A strong theme in both these areas concerns how easy it is to “assume that our way of looking at things is the only way to look at things.”[5] Emotional intelligence involves insight into our own emotions and the ability to respond well to the emotions of others. Cultural intelligence involves awareness of the different belief systems, values, customs, assumptions, practices, and the like, that shape how people see themselves and relate to others.

Reflection is one of the key factors identified for building emotional intelligence. The authors suggest such practices as journaling, exploring family genograms, differentiating to connect with people, and welcoming feedback as strategies for growth. My experience concludes that growth in EQ is a critical characteristic of effective and safe ministry to others. It bridges the categories of character and competency and should be considered when appointing, assessing, and coaching leaders.

Cultural intelligence is also a critical factor for effective ministry. Empathy is required to understand where people are coming from, what has influenced them, and why they hold certain values or worldviews. One of the reasons that ministries fail to embrace changes in society around them, and subsequently die, is that ministry leaders lack cultural intelligence. Again, the authors highlight reflection as one of the necessary means to building CQ.

Marriage and family
The summits identified marriage and family as playing a critical role in sustaining pastors. Thus, spouses were invited to participate in aspects of the program. The challenges lay in the areas of navigating boundaries between marriage and family life on the one hand and the job of ministry on the other. There are significant stressors for pastors who often work from home, don’t clock off, and don’t tune out. Damage can easily be done to marriages and families when the pastor is unable to manage the complexity of dual or multiple relationships.

I have especially felt these challenges and pains. There have been many times when I have been overly busy to the neglect of my family. While I have sought to be present with my wife and family, I know there have been times when they have been left with the dregs. This has been compounded over the years of juggling cancer treatment and trying to maximise ministry in the good periods. Loving my wife, children, and now grandchildren, is a matter of importance where I want to keep improving. 

Leadership and management
The authors embrace the images of poetry and plumbing to describe the differences between leadership and management.[6] They identify reflecting as an important and real leadership work. This is the picture of working on the ministry, not just in the ministry. In my experience, and as I have observed and coached other pastors, this is a neglected discipline. Efficiency often trumps effectiveness. Leaders, operating without margin, keep getting more and more busy without seriously evaluating what they are doing. 

Resilient Ministry highlights the treasures to be gained through systems analysis, especially through deliberately building maturity into our church systems. Understanding church systems opens new doors of EQ and CQ that can lead to a growing calm among leaders. This has been a watershed resilience area for me, as it has led to growing awareness of what I can and cannot do, and to trust God more and more.

The authors identify “modelling, shepherding, managing expectations, supervising conflict, and planning”[7] as essential plumbing tasks. I am aware that not all these are adequately explored in theological training, which means that many pastors are ill-prepared for the pressures of leadership. There is a need for specialised professional development throughout ministry. My early experiences of conflict in ministry, grappling with leading organisations, learning to train, supervise and mentor leaders, quickly highlighted the gaps in my college education and set me on a continual life-long learning trajectory.

Further reflections

Firstly, the integration of features contributing to resilience in ministry is a big strength of this work. There is no silver bullet for resilience, but rather a complex interaction of many factors.

Secondly, personal reflection is a valuable practice that helps builds resilience in all five themes. Busy ministers must set aside time to slow down and reflect on themselves and their ministries. Without such reflection pastors will burn out, while repeating the mistakes of the past over and over.

Thirdly, Resilient Ministry leads pastors to recognise the vital impact that can be made from reflective practice in conversation with a confidante. As a ministry mentor, coach, and pastoral supervisor, I will draw on this book in shaping my work in helping pastors and ministry leaders to grow more resilient. This book contains excellent questions for reflection, modelling what it preaches. I intend to ask these questions of myself and others.

Lastly, one weakness of this book is its limited engagement with the Bible. Being primarily the analysis of data gleaned from summit participants, it requires further analysis to determine how well the diagnoses and prescriptions fit with the Scriptures. I know that many of them will fit well, and I plan to explore these themes with my Bible open.


[1] Bob Burns, Tasha Chapman, and Donald Guthrie. Resilient Ministry: What Pastors Told Us About Surviving and Thriving. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Books, 2013. P32.

[2] Peter Scazzaro in Emotionally Healthy Spirituality, quoted in Burns, Chapman, and Guthrie. P37.

[3] Dave Gibbons in The Monkey and the Fish, quoted in Burns, Chapman, and Guthrie. P61.

[4] Burns, Chapman, and Guthrie. P62.

[5] Burns, Chapman, and Guthrie. P250.

[6] Burns, Chapman, and Guthrie. P199.

[7] Burns, Chapman, and Guthrie. P223.

2 thoughts on “Resilient Ministry”

  1. Thanks Dave. I loved reading this. While its a great review of the core contents of the book, it was your own pastor’s heart beating through the whole post that kept me reading. Thank you for sharing so openly and honestly your own personal reflection in each of the areas.

    Tim

    Sent from my iPhone

  2. Hi Dave
    Most of the themes also apply to the common man. The points relate, not only to religious leaders but to how a good man should live his life. Your review of the book was Interesting and well worth a read. Cheers Michael Lucas

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