Occasionally, someone asks the question: “What is the best advice you’ve received?” I’m not sure if I could narrow it down to just one thing, but here are some wise words for pastoral ministry, from mentors and colleagues along the way. In no particular order, these are pieces of advice that I’ve taken to heart, and may help you along the way too.
1. Learn to lead meetings well. It’s amazing how frequently the same conversations can be repeated in local church committees! Parishioners who work in the corporate world taught me to curtail the repetition by ending each meeting with a review of action items, identifying a responsible party for each item, and establishing a deadline for its completion. I mark a follow-up date on my calendar, to remind me to check in with responsible parties as the deadline approaches. The next meeting opens with a brief review of the accomplished items, and we’re ready to move on to new business. I also end meetings with a brief refocusing question: “Where did we sense God at work during our time together?”
2. Give yourself space to grieve after a funeral. Accompanying families and friends through illness, death, and funeral preparations is one of the most sacred responsibilities of pastoral ministry. I am deeply grateful for the privilege of ministering to persons in the midst of grief. I’m also glad that a mentor warned me early in my ministry of the toll that such work can take on my own emotional well-being. Even when the deceased is completely unknown to me, holding others’ grief is draining. The advice I received was to take a half-day off following a funeral. Sometimes my schedule does not allow that to happen, but my secretary and staff know that is my goal, and help to make it happen as often as possible. The time to rest renews my energy for ministry. Working with a counselor to understand your own grief cycle is also immensely helpful.
3. Sleep while the baby sleeps. Okay, that advice was given to me when my kids were born, not when I entered into pastoral ministry. But the same concept applies. Low-energy seasons in the church can be enormously frustrating to the pastor. I hate summers without Sunday School, or the ways that ministry can slow to snails-pace around the holidays. For the first couple years out of seminary, I tried my best to spur the congregation on to greater engagement during those low seasons. In time I realized that it rarely worked – the pull of vacations and family traditions was just too strong, and my energy was too quickly depleted trying to pull folks along. At the same time, those slower seasons provided great opportunities for my own recreation and renewal. As it turns out, slowing my pace when the church schedule naturally slows is a good way to practice Sabbath rest!
4. Fill the gaps. Churches that are seeking new ways of connecting with their neighbors often try to duplicate popular programs. The thinking seems to be, “Look how many kids show up for the YMCA after-school program! We should offer one too.” Rarely, though, will a start-up program draw the same crowds as an established one. Instead, a clergy mentor taught me, look for the gaps in community life. What isn’t being offered in your town? For example, after-school care may be readily available, but what about days when the local schools are closed for staff training or holidays? A congregation might offer all-day childcare on teacher in-service days or other school holidays when many parents have to work. They’ve filled a gap for many families, and have opportunity to connect with children and their parents in meaningful ways.