Monday, August 30, 2010

Five Phases of Personal Ministry Failure

Why do members, active in local church ministry, suddenly seem to flame out? Sometimes almost out of the blue, somebody who seems fully engaged and fully invested, just throws up their hands and walks away. It seems to me that there are five phases to personal ministry failure. Each phase leads to the next and if the observant leader does not recognize the stage, the lay minister will eventually leave their ministry, and often their local congregation, embittered and discouraged. The five phases are:

Phase 1: Bothered by the Guilt: They knowing they should be doing something for God. Perhaps they hear an inspiring message about being “part of the body of Christ,” or study spiritual gifts during their devotional time and feel motivated that God is calling them to some form of ministry. I believe that every disciple has a divine calling, a ministry that God has uniquely gifted and called them to, but sometimes they do not know how to discover their gifts and calling. They begin searching for a way to assuage their guilt which causes them to…

Phase 2: Get Busy: They begin taking on responsibilities without prayerful discernment, filling up their calendar. The tasks and responsibilities they take on may or may not sync with their divine calling. What do they do? They do everything! They throw their hand up at every opportunity. Perhaps they take over a struggling ministry, or begin a new ministry. They accept officer positions in one or more ministries that they were previously uninvolved in. They are excited about “working for God” and throw themselves into every task. Their commitment and enthusiasm bring excitement and additional requests upon their time. Before long, they…

Phase 3: Become Burdened: They realize one day that they am feeling overwhelmed by their ministry responsibilities and start to feel negatively about them. While they still feel the desire to “work for God,” it moves from being a privilege to an obligation. Their ministry begins to shift from being a “get to” to being a “have to” set of details, lists, and jobs. They start to grumble, but not too loudly, about all the things they have to get done, the responsibilities they have, and the amount of time it is taking. While before they were the first at the meeting and the last to leave, they begin to be tardy and are not as excited as they were previously. Their mindset also starts to shift during the end of this stage from doing “work for God” to doing “work for the church.” That subtle shift in language is a sign that they are approaching…

Phase 4: Burnout: They begin to resent their responsibilities and begin to question why others aren’t as committed as they are. They begin to, intentionally or unintentionally, “drop the ball,” let things slide, not return phone calls, and sometimes even sabotage the ministries under their care. They want to prove how valuable they are and how things will fall apart without them. They start to seek recognition and praise as a way to help themselves feel like their sacrifices are “worth it.” Even if they maintain their ministry tasks, they are absent from worship and other spiritual formation activities where they can be spiritually nurtured. Their spiritual identity is based solely upon their responsibilities and no longer in their relationship with Christ. Then, one day, seemingly out of the blue they go…

Phase 5: Ballistic: in a moment of anger, frustration, exhaustion, and/or disappointment they blow up. They begin blowing everything out of proportion by making accusations only minimally grounded in the truth. Then they blow off all of their ministry responsibilities, often slamming the door behind them as they leave, walking away from the church and sometimes even the few positive relationships they have left. They experience a sense of relief at no longer having all those “church” responsibilities crowding their calendar. They express that they don’t need “church” to have a healthy spiritual life and that they are glad to be free from the “organization.”

At this stage the formally invested and engaged lay minister becomes either a silent critic (sitting, arms crossed waiting for the organization to fail); a sideline critic (always pointing out what’s wrong with the organization); or an absent critic (perhaps leaving the organization but always ready to criticize their former organization). If they remained disengaged from their spiritual journey, I have seen people stuck like this for decades after they have left the church. However, if they do eventually re-engage in their spiritual journey, maybe by having a positive spiritual experience with a friend or through a local congregation, they begin to get back involved in a local church. One day, during a particularly moving message, or in their personal devotion time they begin to feel guilty, knowing that they should be doing something for God…repeat until jaded.

What do we do to break the cycle of personal ministry failure?

Step 1: Help lay ministers discover their strengths, their gifts, and their divine calling. Sue Nilson Kibbey in her book Ultimately Responsible discusses the importance of helping people live, work, and do ministry utilizing their strengths. You do not get burned out doing what you love, only what you loathe. The first step to helping lay ministers avoid personal ministry failure is to help them prayerfully discern their gifts, strengths, and divine calling.

Step 2: Encourage lay ministers to ask for help. Creating a safe environment for lay ministers to ask for assistance is vital to avoiding personal ministry failure. So often we as pastors and paid staff operate under the “don’t ask, don’t tell” model of ministry. If nobody is loudly complaining and the tasks are being done, we don’t really want to know if our people are happy serving where they are. We are just happy that we don’t have to do it. As leaders we have to create a safe place for lay ministers to ask for help, and then to receive the help they need. Whether it is providing assistance or helping them transition to another area, or avoiding getting overloaded with too many jobs, as Kibbey writes, the leader is “ultimately responsible.”

Step 3: Put a time limit on expected lay ministry service and end the era of perpetual ministry. Allow them to opt in or opt out annually or at least bi-annually. Create a leadership covenant that allows lay ministers the chance to take a breather. So many churches I have served seem to have an “elected until death” expectation of their ministry leaders. This is a sure fire way to encourage personal ministry failure. While I understand the frustration of having effective people opt out, I’d rather them opt out today than burnout tomorrow. This is a pastoral responsibility to care for those you expect to care for others.

After nearly twenty years in vocational ministry I have observed this pattern countless times, often not even realizing it was occurring until it was too late. As leaders, paid and unpaid, we must do a better job at keeping disciples invested and engaged in our communities and quit seeing them as commodities for ministry activity. I am not great at this yet, but at least I have begun working on it and trying to recognize the signs before the explosion. I remain:

Consumed by the Call,


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