Level of Difficulty

Does your skill level match the level of difficulty in your ministry?

I’ll admit it. I’m a recovering video game junky. Up until Madden 2005 I used to incessantly play anything football EA Sports produced.

One of the fun things about the Madden games is that you can adjust the level of difficulty to match your skill level in the game. So, if you were new, you could set it to easy and still have a good time. Then, theoretically, as your skills improved you could turn the game up so that it remained challenging.

One of the great injustices in the ministry world is that there is often a disconnect between the skill level of a staff member and the level of difficulty in a ministry setting.

In general, those who have a low skill level (new to ministry) are only able to get jobs in ministry locations labeled difficult or expert. Meanwhile, veteran church workers tend to flow towards jobs on larger teams in healthier ministries where the level of difficulty is significantly better matched to their skill level. (Not easy, per se. But ministries which match their skill level.)

In the past few years I’ve had countless conversations with pastors in way, way over their head. They’ve been in ministry a short amount of time and are in situations with no support, politics leaning hard against them, and socially isolated from people who think like them. They slump their shoulders as we sit down for breakfast, “Adam, am I crazy? Why does serving Jesus hurt this bad?

Why are these people hurting?

Because they are in ministry settings where the level of difficulty is a miss-match.

The Way it Works

We have a Darwinian approach to ministry jobs. Our church culture dictates that the newest, greenest, and least capable among us serve at the gnarliest of ministry sites. A youth pastor takes her first time job, replacing a youth pastor fired for sleeping with a student. A worship pastor hired from a larger church to lead a ministry from traditional worship to contemporary. A senior pastor right out of seminary replaces a long-tenured wise owl who retired after 40 years of successful ministry. A children’s worker will accept a calling to a church plant where they have to go out and raise their support while somehow trying to create a children’s program from scratch.

All expert level ministry jobs performed by newbie staff members. They don’t stand a chance.

A large majority of these newbies will get washed out of their first jobs in the first 2-3 years. Battered and bruised, about half will lick their wounds and find non-ministry vocations before they’ve even paid off their seminary loans.

Yet, a small minority will learn their lessons from these impossible ministry situations and move to more healthy levels of difficulty. Eventually, through survival of the fittest, a small minority manage to work their way into roles that are matched with their skill level… or maybe a little mismatched so that they are in jobs significantly easy compared to their skill level. (You know who you are.)

In other words, those of us with high levels of expertise gravitate to the easier jobs while our success in roles made to look easy encourages countless others into the flames of despair at the hard jobs.

The Way it Ought to Work

Ministry experts should flow to the expert level jobs. Jobs in healthy ministries should hire more newbies for shorter periods of time in order to increase their skill level and help match them with jobs that best suit their long-term skill level and interest.

This would perpetrate a mantra of healthy churches helping unhealthy ones instead of visa versa.

But that would be too much like right.


4 responses to “Level of Difficulty”

  1. Mike Lyons Avatar

    In my denomination, a lot of healthy churches hire their associate staff right out of college. The problem is that people in good situations don’t leave. The tough jobs turn over more quickly, and the “experts” don’t want to do something that hard, so only the “newbies” even apply. Your theory could work because you said newbies should be hired for “a short time,” but the data I’ve seen suggests that longevity is important to growth. I guess you can’t win for losing.

    On the other hand, Jesus never said it would be easy. He said “pick up your cross and follow me.” Maybe we shouldn’t try to make things easier…maybe we should just put on our big girl panties and do the hard work we’ve been called to do and quit crying about it.

    1. Matt C. Avatar
      Matt C.

      Actually, Adam recently wrote a great post on “taking up your cross” and suggested that we are NOT called to live a life of comfort. And I think this article supports that idea. Seasoned and skilled ministry leaders should take joy in the trials of a more difficult post because they are specifically skilled at doing it, rather than just shy away and float on the easy post they’ve had for a while. I’ve seen a few examples of these brave souls out in the mission field. They excel and learn the hard lessons of life and then teach us all about it — really blessed people.

      And, young ministry folks are always willing to take a risk, so it’s a given that they’ll end up taking riskier positions. Nevertheless, if churches were more attuned to Adam’s suggestion then maybe it could be a bit different and we’d see more leaders being raised up in a healthy environment, because we all know we need more leaders, after all!

      1. Mike Lyons Avatar

        I don’t disagree, really. But what about the longevity factor? Longevity tends to help. Turnover at the top usually becomes destructive, especially in youth ministries.

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