Christian Living

Public Ministry Prerequisites

A friend recently expressed a frustration that anyone who works in a church feels all the time. He said, “We just get the leftovers of people’s time, energy, and heart.”

He said it in a negative way. I affirmed him in a positive way. “That’s the way it’s supposed to be.

I get the same dirty look every time I say that.

Here is what most believers in your church really want to know— but you won’t give them a straight answer.

In your opinion, what does an “all-in” lifestyle look like?

When am I doing enough for the Kingdom so that I have the right & responsibility to say no?

This is the elephant in the room in every church. This is what people in the pews long to know. They all want to hear a simple answer to that simple question.

They need a checkbox and you give them an essay. They ask for a cheeseburger and you bring them a Power Bar. And you wonder why they just tip instead of tithe? That disappointed look as people meander out of your sanctuary Sunday mornings? Yup, that’s it. They don’t know if they are doing enough. And you won’t tell them.

Why? Because, as church leaders, we don’t like the answer.

Mark 12:28-34 deals with this exact question. See what happens when a religious leader asks Jesus, “What am I supposed to be doing with my day-to-day life?

One of the teachers of the law came and heard them debating. Noticing that Jesus had given them a good answer, he asked him, “Of all the commandments, which is the most important?”

“The most important one,” answered Jesus, “is this: ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.”

“Well said, teacher,” the man replied. “You are right in saying that God is one and there is no other but him. To love him with all your heart, with all your understanding and with all your strength, and to love your neighbor as yourself is more important than all burnt offerings and sacrifices.”

When Jesus saw that he had answered wisely, he said to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” And from then on no one dared ask him any more questions.

I love that last line– ZING!

You didn’t see religious leaders lining up to ask the Messiah another question, did you? Nope. They didn’t like Jesus’ answer back then and church leaders don’t like it today.

You can hear the groan of every single church staff member. Why didn’t Jesus implore people to give more time to the church? Why? Why?! WHY?!?!?!

The frustrated staff

Every staff member I talk to has the same 2-3 problems. (Youth pastors, worship pastors, senior pastors, children’s pastors, small groups pastors… all of ’em.)

They have vision for great programs. Great ideas. But they struggle to find the resources and people to implement them.

They all deal with the same pressure: In order to be judged as having done a good job, a noble ambition, they need the resources to implement their programs.

The frustrated parishioner

[Confession: I never saw this on church staff! Like literally… it was there, but I never saw it and no one ever articulated it to me. I didn’t see it until I transitioned from being on staff to becoming a parishioner.]

Each week, sermons implore them to live out the Gospel in their daily life. At work, at home, with their friends, seek justice, etc. Then they are told they need to keep their relationship with God first and their ministry to their family second. But each week they are also asked to help with the programs of the church.

They all deal with the same pressure: They have a 40-50 hour per week job to pay the bills, they have kids that need help with homework and other stuff in their lives, they need to keep their relationship with God growing, their relationship with their spouse and kids second… there isn’t much time or energy available after that. And the church gives them 30 hours worth of things they could be doing with the 4 hours they have available each week.

Frustration by design?

It’s not supposed to be like that. Jesus, our Groom, never intended a life in His church to be frustrating for the bride.

Worse yet. Everyone is frustrated and it isn’t working. The church, as a whole, is reaching less people. Our population is exploding and our churches are happy to hold steady. That’s a net loss.

We need to get back on course with what the Bible teaches us about our daily lives.

Prerequisites to public ministry

(These are the things you need to take care of BEFORE you consider anything at church. Otherwise, take a ticket and head to the end of the frustration line. You’ll be there a while.)

  1. Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength. Are you putting your relationship with Jesus on hold so you can serve? If so, you are being disobedient. No wonder you are frustrated.
  2. Love your neighbor as yourself. Jesus didn’t mean this metaphorically. He meant it literally. If you don’t know your neighbors names and are not actively loving them… then you aren’t qualified to help out at church. Define neighbors: If their property touches or is adjacent to yours, those are your neighbors. God placed you on your block because He is smarter than you are. He wants you to love and serve them. It’s not something you do when you have time. It’s something you make time to do. And it’s more important than helping at youth group or singing in the choir. That’s why it’s a prerequisite.
  3. Love your family. When Megan was 6 she said to me, “Daddy, I wish you spent as much time with me as you spend with the kids at church.”  Six. Years. Old. That’s when I knew I needed an extended break from public ministry. It wasn’t that I was unqualified. And it certainly wasn’t that I was unsuccessful. It’s that things had gotten out-of-order. Never again. If your family is groaning because you are spending too much time at church… it’s time to readjust.

If you have those things in order than you can consider helping a program at church. And if you don’t have these three things covered, not just in your opinion, but in the opinion of the people in your life, than you need to stop doing public ministry.

Trust me, the church will endure and prevail. She will be fine!

To my frustrated church staff friends:

Here are two things I learned the hard way.

  • You are not exempt. Being a pastor at the church does not mean you can be so busy you don’t spend time with God, don’t love your neighbors, and don’t love your family. In fact, having your house in order is a biblical requirement (1 Timothy 3:4) for leadership because it validates everything you do and say. #1 & #3 are usually OK with church staff… it’s #2 we forget to invest in.
  • It won’t get better until you change your behavior. I think I made the mistake of thinking that I could circumvent this if I created a good enough program or if I just invested in developing leaders more. It didn’t. It only spun more out of control as time went on. The reality was that it didn’t get better until I took care of those 3 prerequisites.

“Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship.” Romans 12:1

youth ministry

Longitudinal Youth Ministry

Photo by Ben Lawson via Flickr (creative commons)
Photo by Ben Lawson via Flickr (creative commons)

There is something so cheap about a program that graduates students.

Maybe it’s just that I don’t like to let go? Or maybe it’s just that I can’t reconcile the theological ramifications of shoving a copy of My Utmost for His Highest in a kids hands and saying, “Thanks for the memories. Have a nice life!

In reality, I’ve not let go of them. I just can’t. It wouldn’t seem right. And I am pretty sure they don’t want to either. Why else would I be maintaining these relationships with them into adulthood? Why are we still sharing life?

The way my youth ministry career has gone, in many ways that relationship is just getting started when they walk across the stage to accept their high school diploma. It’s not over, we’re just changing gears!

And yet, the programmatic approach to youth ministry depends on me pushing kids through the system. Freshmen take steps 1-2, sophomores steps 3-4, juniors do step 5, seniors do step 6. We’re always working kids through a system. We say we love them… but that’s a short-term love that lasts as long as they are in high school. Sayonara, sucker! I’ve got a whole slew of incoming freshmen to look after!

The way I see it, that type of program is a cheap Wal*Mart edition of discipleship. Real discipleship is taxing. It’s tough. It’s costly. It’s complicated. It requires more commitment than getting assigned to 8 kids for a small group year or running a program at work.

When I think of the way Jesus discipled I think of a process that was open-ended. They ground it out over time. It wasn’t a wheel or bases that he ran those young men through. It was life shared. Three steps forward, two steps back. But together they got there.

From my own ministry experience, you just know when you have a few kids who get it and want to be discipled long-term. You don’t get assigned these kids. A pastor doesn’t have to bestow anything on you. It’s just natural, you pick it up, and you see where the relationship goes. You recognize it in them when they are 14 when they won’t leave your house because they just have to talk to you about something. You see it when they are 17 and they just drop by to watch a movie or something. You see it when they are 19 and they are just back for the weekend and want to grab a cup of coffee to catch up on life. You see it when they are 23 and you are chatting about life on Facebook.

Maybe I’m just an abnomaly but my ministry to those kids continues long after I hand them a book and a graduation card. To do anything less would seem cheap. Like I didn’t even mean it.

“Programs are short-term. Discipleship is long-term.”

Maybe instead of trying to force discipleship into a 4 or 6 year box we need to re-shape youth ministry so that it starts with kids who want to be discipled and it ends… like at a later date when its over? Why are we trying to redefine discipleship instead of trying to redefine youth ministry?

There’s always room for a couple newbies in my life. As we get rolling with this new youth ministry venture in San Diego I can see the cycle starting over again. I’m getting to know 14-15 year olds who are looking for someone to walk with for the long-haul. I’ve got room in my life because the reality is that the ones I’ve been mentoring/discipling for the last 5-6 years don’t need much attention. That’s exciting for me to see it starting all over again. I’m hard-wired for it. But that’s how you would hope the process works, right?

Am I alone in this? Should we start looking at youth ministry as a long-term investment instead of a program?

Church Leadership

The Main Thing


Could you help me out? What’s the BIGGEST issue you are dealing with in your church right now? What’s keeping you up at night? DM or @ me.

Todd Rhodes tweeted this today. And his question perfectly emphasized what I’ve been thinking about the last few days. This Fall, I’ve had the beautiful opportunity to run around the country  for work and in the course of doing so sit down and chat with people from all walks of ministry life. Big churches. Little churches. Senior pastors. Volunteers. On fire. Burnt out. Rookies. Seasoned veterans. It seems like I’ve had a chance to get the pulse of a pretty good sample of people doing ministry today.

At some point in most of those conversations a single theme rang true: We need to spend less time on stuff that doesn’t really matter and focus more time on things that really change lives.

More specifically, ministry-people want/need/long to focus more intently on presenting Christ than anything else! They want to focus more on the “main thing” and less on stuff like building an amazing program.

It seems like the last 20-25 years of church ministry we elevated a ministry leaders value to “what else can you do?” as opposed to “are you a minister?” You’d hear things like “That person is a powerful leader of his staff.” “That woman runs the most efficient youth program in the world!” “He is an amazing worship leader.” On and on.

Those are all value statements about ministry program skills and not the “main thing.”

And people in full time ministry are pretty frustrated by it. We didn’t go into ministry to be valued by our skill set, did we?

I experience this all the time. People seek me out to talk about “how I can help their ministry” all the time. It’s because I have a skill and not because of who I am in Christ.

Certainly, it is nice to have skills that people seek out. (Don’t get me wrong!) But I’m often left wondering… “Do these people really think I’m all about social media, internet utilities, strategy, design?” I hope not. I hope they recognize that these are the means to an end. The reason I work so hard on these skills is to convey the most important message in human history! At the core of who I am is not a tech nerd. I want to be a nerd who passionately loves Jesus and wants to reach the lost. My skills are not my “main thing” and I shudder to think of others looking at me and thinking it’s my main thing.

To answer Todd’s question: I hope people lay in bed at night thinking about their ministry. I hope the Holy Spirit stirs them at 2:00 AM to innovate powerful things. But I also hope they aren’t wasting their time and sleep on stuff that isn’t the “main thing”.