by Jimmy Adcox
Is there a secret to long term ministry? To be honest, I’m not sure. When people tell me I must have done a great job to be in one place for 40 years, I often smile and say, “They are just a patient group of people.” And they are! I certainly couldn’t have stayed without them!
Longevity can be attributed to many things. Perhaps my roots run deep and I’ve just resisted change. When I seriously considered a move, I just couldn’t pull the trigger. Perhaps I was just more comfortable with the challenges I knew than the ones I didn’t. I wish I could say my choices were always made from deep spiritual discernment, but spiritual discernment about such things has always been rather foggy to me. Sometimes I think God is much more concerned about our being faithful to him wherever we are than about dictating our location. But surely we must apply our best wisdom and discernment to sorting through such things.
And yet, right or wrong, I have developed my own thoughts about ministry. And since, at least for me, they have produced a long term ministry, I assume they have had something to do with it. Undoubtedly, there are factors outside of us that determine the length of our ministry – things often beyond our control, but here are some thoughts I believe have sustained my ministry over the years.
Healthy long term ministries are sustained by trust. When you have a relationship of mutual trust with your shepherds and the church as a whole, you have the foundation to weather most any storm. And the church has the capacity to overlook your mistakes. It all begins with your relationship with other church leaders. No hidden agendas. No surprises. No playing one against the other. It includes a sense that you are looking out for the welfare of the church as a whole above your own personal interests. It means that, while you may disagree with your leaders and are certainly free to discuss those disagreements with them, you choose never to undermine your leaders with other people. Leadership teams must commit to mutual respect and attribute the best to each other’s motives and intentions. Ministers and elder groups should always be each other’s biggest encouragers and supporters – helping to maximize each other’s effectiveness and influence. Trust brings out the best in each other. In those rare moments when someone’s behavior violates these values, they should be addressed and resolved within the group.
Ministers should see their role in a church as a stewardship – a sacred trust. The Southwest Church existed before I came and will continue long after I’m gone. I’ve tried to remind myself over the years that this is not my church. This is God’s church. And there are other people, past and present, whose investment is as important as mine.
Trust, however, coupled with a long presence in people’s lives, brings increasing influence. That influence is one of the blessings and opportunities of long term ministry. But such influence can also be a dangerous thing. The longer you serve and the more “ownership” you feel, the more important it is to keep surrendering your ministry to God and the church. This doesn’t mean you sacrifice the leadership role entrusted to you, but it means you do it as a servant leader. To help remind myself of this, I tell my shepherds that my resignation is offered at any time. I only serve by the grace of God and the wisdom of the church. I try not to assume I have special privileges because of my position or longevity. Ministry is about serving the mission of God and shepherding his people. Trust is fostered best when we remember that.
Trust means your church knows you genuinely love them – just as they are. The only place to start in ministry is in the present context – and that remains perpetually true no matter how long you’re ministry. If you can’t accept where your people are in the present moment, you will not have the relationship and influence to help them grow into a better place. This is not about capitulation to the weakest common denominator in the church – as some churches do. The call of God always trumps the weaknesses and preferences of immature people. As Max Lucado has famously written, “God loves you just the way you are, but he loves you too much to let you stay that way.” Spiritual transformation takes place in the tension between grace and truth. Healthy ministers unquestionably love their churches while simultaneously challenging and engaging them to embrace what God is calling them to become. Unfortunately, that sometimes leads people to a crossroads. And sometimes people choose another road. If they choose not to go with us, it should never be because we did not love them well.
Churches who have experienced a pattern of short term ministries must often wonder how much the minister loves their church and how much they can trust his leadership. If the church chooses to accept the hard job of embracing change (which is an inevitable result of spiritual or numerical growth), will the minister be around to see the process through? Or will he run when challenges come or greener pastures appear? Many churches are weary of ministers initiating changes in their church without knowing if the minister loves the church enough to walk with them through the hard times – to see it through successfully.
Trust grows from an honest desire to respect and honor other people, a commitment to always take the high road, an ability to remain calm when others aren’t, and faithfulness to be present in times of need. Trust is needed when people feel threatened, when something scandalous has happened, when an understanding of scripture must be questioned or reconsidered, when big decisions are being made about the future, when asking people to give to a vision, and when problems must be addressed while confidences are being honored. People may not always agree with how thing are managed or the direction being chosen, but they are less likely to make it personal when trust is intact.
Trust is built on character, competency, and chemistry. A consistent short coming in any of these areas can undermine one’s ministry. Is the leader genuine? Is his walk with God the real thing? Is his personal life consistent with his profession and his public presentation? Can he be counted on to bring a measure of competence and consistency to his work? Will people trust enough to invite their friends to hear him? Or be confident referring a friend for counsel? Can he be trusted to say appropriate things when called on in the community? Does he represent the cause of Christ and the local church well? Does he have enough emotional intelligence to know what is appropriate to the moment? It takes all of these and more to build a trust bank to draw on in ministry. This doesn’t mean a trusted minister can never fall short or have a bad day. As we have already noted, the treasure is entrusted to cracked, clay vessels – and we must be humbly honest about that. Our churches have plenty of grace to extend to trustworthy people. High levels of trust allow people to process our weaknesses in the context of a bigger picture. When the trust bank is full, people are willing to give the benefit of the doubt. They know those faux pas do not define who we are. We can still be trusted. But if we continually deplete the trust account, the effectiveness of ministry is undermined and the opportunity for long term influence can be lost.
All we have in ministry is influence – and the foundation of influence is trust.