I remember walking through the halls of the first church I served and thinking, “I have no idea what I’m doing.” Even now, after more than 30 years of working in churches and now with ministers, I have moments when I think, “Ministry is simply an impossible job!” Most of the time, I know it’s not impossible, but it is not easy. However, there are some skills that can help make it easier. These are not techniques that you can learn and check off on a list; rather, they are essential human leadership skills you can work on over a lifetime. The good news: anyone can get better if they practice, and these skills will help you better sustain yourself in the complex role of leading a faith community.
First is what I call thinking skills. This is the ability to step back and reflect, to get the bigger picture. You need to think about your own vision for this ministry, where you are headed. That takes time on the clock and time on the calendar. You can’t develop a vision for a ministry the first week you are there—you need some deep, reflective understanding of your context. In addition, you need to reflect on what happens day by day and week by week. If you don’t think but simply react, you won’t last long in ministry. (For example: Don’t answer an upsetting email or text right away. Stop and think about it. Wait at least an hour, or even better a day, before responding.)
Finally, you need to be able to think about yourself. What are your triggers and hot buttons? What did you learn from your family that helps you and hinders you in your current role? In my own case, my mother was conflict-averse, and I inherited that tendency. In order to lead a congregation, I had to increase my tolerance for conflict and for people being upset with me. That wasn’t easy, and I still have to work on it in my current role assisting other ministers in their leadership.
Second are relationship skills. You have to be able to connect with others. Ministry is about relationships: no connection, no ministry. To learn the context so you can develop the vision over time, you need those relationships. Make sure you spend time with key leaders, with long-term members, with people in the wider community. Early on, cultivating these connections is far more important than vision. The vision will never happen if people don’t trust you.
Of course, ministry also means navigating disagreement and conflict. So often ministers think if they share their good idea, the board and the people will say, “Sure, sounds great!” And they are shocked when people don’t follow right along. I’ve been there myself. However, now I know to be strategic about enrolling key leaders, and to always expect pushback. Nothing happens in a congregation without someone opposing it. That’s simply reality. It’s not personal, even if people sometime frame it personally. Rev Karen Lindvig of Seattle Unity Church, Wash., says, “You have to get a thick skin.”
In addition, ministry means dealing with people who are truly challenging. New Thought ministry consultant Rev Martha Creek says, “In Unity they speak in the positive and the affirming: I am good, I am perfect, I am whole, I am complete, I am a child of God, and I am the love. That is true in the absolute, but back here at the ranch I’m a blamer, an accuser, a nit-picker, a whiner, a manipulator.” She adds, “It has not served them as individuals, not served Unity as a movement, to attempt to deny the full spectrum of a human being.” We do need to be honest about these challenges, and to be able to take a stand, along with key allies, to set limits with those who don’t respect boundaries, and, sometimes, to let people go.
Remember that the church is not the only context for relationships. Connect with colleagues and friends who are not in ministry, especially those who are positive and encouraging. You also need professionals such as therapists, spiritual directors and ministry coaches who can give you support and a more objective view of your challenges. In my own ministry, I’ve had both friends and professionals I talked with regularly and others I could call on for special support at times of stress or confusion.
Third is what I’m calling the skill of persistence. Nothing happens quickly in ministry. Can you keep going in the face of discouragement, resistance and criticism? This doesn’t mean you rigidly insist on your own way—you have to discern when to push a little and when to pull back. It all takes time. Once on a panel at a seminary, a student asked, “Do you have any advice for us?” I said, “Everything takes five years.” Afterwards, my colleague Israel Galindo said, “I think you’re too optimistic.”
Karen Lindvig has been in one congregation for 27 years. Reflecting on her leadership over time, she says that one of the most important skills is patience. “Things just take time, and when you are working with a lot of people, and not everybody is on board, you have to wait it out or be willing to shift gears. Just showing up is so much of the work, being there and being consistent.” This means you keep articulating the vision, and letting go of whether and when they follow. You keep setting limits with difficult people. You persist in teaching your leaders. You persist in practicing what you preach, over and over again. And then, over time eyes light up and people begin to get it, little by little.
Finally, persistently cultivate your thinking and your learning about ministry, about your people, about yourself. Martha Creek says, “Post-seminary is a beginning, not an end to something.” She suggests that leaders “continue their own deep inner work, their own spiritual practices.” Remember, people will not go any further with their own growth than you are willing to do yourself.
On good days and bad ones, through the years of ministry, you can always keep thinking, keep connecting, and keep on keeping on. There is always more to learn.