Sustainable Ministry: Is It Possible?

Published on: February 23, 2016

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Ministry is not for the faint of heart. If you’ve been in ministry for more than a few months, you already know that. However, it is possible to engage in this work without wearing out or burning out. Here are four ways to help yourself keep going over time.


1. Take responsibility for yourself, not others.

Rabbi Edwin Friedman said, “Stress comes less from overwork than from taking responsibility for the problems of others.” Yet all too often, we think our job is to take responsibility for others, and they think so, too. Family systems thinking uses the idea of balance between those who over-function, or take too much responsibility, and those who under-function, or don’t take enough. There’s a reciprocal relationship between the two: the more we do, the less others do. The imbalance is perpetuated over time—and we get stressed.

Rev Greg Barrette of Unity Northwest Church, Des Plaines, Illinois, says that early in his ministry, “I remember being in deep prayer, and asking what more could I do for these people. I got this strong intuitive sense that was ‘you could do less.’ ” Around the same time, he found himself ill with a respiratory ailment that lasted for weeks. He was only able to function on Sundays. Finally, he got the message: stop. He had to find some new ways of being in ministry, and started trying out different ideas.

“I got a big calendar, and I started blocking out swathes of my calendar and made them down time—and then I started counting my hours.” He was horrified by how much he was working. The calendar helped him make tangible the number of hours he was working, and to be intentional about taking time off. Paying attention to your calendar can be one way to monitor yourself.

Does working hard mean you are over-functioning? Not necessarily. Over-functioning involves taking responsibility for others, especially for their problems and shortcomings. In the short term, helping others can be a good thing. But if it becomes chronic, it can block others from discovering their own potential—and will burn you out.


2. Know your own story.

We all learn how to relate to other human beings in the families where we grew up. We often default to those patterns, especially when we are anxious or under stress. For example, our sibling position contributes to our functioning in family and work life. Many clergy are oldest children (or functioned as oldest growing up). Oldest children tend to be good at taking responsibility—sometimes too much so. Clergy who are middle or youngest, on the other hand, may find it harder to take the lead or take a stand with staff or church members.

While most families have general patterns, like birth order, each family also gives a unique message. Rev Susan EngPoole (retired from long-term ministry at Unity of Louisville, Ky.) says, “In my family, the message was always, not enough, you’re not enough.” She learned to shift her perspective from what her family told her.

“I shifted to remembering who we really are—it’s not about what our parents said. If we’re really divine creators, we create all of this. When I’m facing a challenge, I remember, ‘I’ve created a challenge here; I can also create the solution.’ ” She learned to think she was enough in her ministry.

Remember, families give us strengths as well as challenges. My own father never met a stranger, and I gratefully inherited his genuine interest in others. Rabbi Friedman asked, “What gifts did your family give you for your ministry?” Claim your own story, explore the challenges and celebrate the strengths. You will find yourself with a wider repertoire for ministry—and more able to thrive over time.


3. Know your purpose.

Do you know the purpose of your ministry and your life? Finding your purpose is not something you do once and for all: it is an ongoing process of discernment. But when you have clarity about what your purpose is—and more important, what it is not—you will know what to say yes to and what to say no to.

Former American President Jimmy Carter once said, “I’d like to be judged primarily by our work at the Carter Center for the last 32 years…. In my more self-satisfied moments, I think about our unwavering promotion of peace and human rights. We never deliberately deviate from those commitments. Even though it’s sometimes not a popular thing to do.” (Parade, October 31, 2013) That kind of clarity of purpose can help sustain you through difficult times, when you may not be popular in your congregation.

You can ask the question on more than one level. What’s your big picture life purpose—why are you on this planet? And, more specifically, what’s your purpose in this place, this ministry? Where are you heading? Then each day you can discern what is the best use of your time to pursue that direction. When you are clear about your purpose, you are less likely to wear out or burn out.


4. Fill yourself up.

It’s important to fill yourself up so you have something to give to others. When you are able to let go of being responsible for everything, you will have more space in your life for the things you love most. In my own ministry, when I started letting go of my over-functioning, I suddenly found myself taking voice lessons. Over fifteen years later, I still take lessons, and singing gives me joy every day.

I sometimes ask the ministers I coach about what they do for themselves. Many of them say, “I should do more…” Rather than something you ought to do, filling yourself up is something you do as a gift to yourself, as well as for those around you. Can you find what you love to do, and do at least a little more of it? When you are satisfied and joyful in all of your life, you will be much more able to keep going over time.

Rev Doris Lewis of Unity Victoria Spiritual Community, British Columbia, says, “I love going for a walk, I love to be out in nature.” She noticed she was making a big deal out of it. Her walks became such a big production that she did less and less of it. She says, “Now, I keep it very simple. In the morning, I just change my pants, wear my comfortable shoes, put on a coat so no one can see I’m still in my pajamas.” She finds the simpler it is, the more she is likely to do it. “It’s the droplet of nourishment that fills up the cup. I don’t need to drink the whole cup, just get a droplet. That is nourishing for me.”

Here are four questions to help you discern some new ways to sustain yourself:

  • Is there one thing you are doing that you could let go of responsibility for?
  • What is one gift your family gave you for your ministry?
  • What is your purpose—just for today? (You can think about life purpose another day.)
  • What is one small thing you could do today to fill yourself up?
Margaret Marcuson
Margaret Marcuson helps clergy and churches energize their ministry and fund their vision. Author of "Money and Your Ministry," Margaret also writes on leadership and works as a consultant/coach. An American Baptist minister, she was pastor of First Baptist Church, Gardner, MA. Get the free mini-course “How to Prevent Ministry Burnout” at

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  • Pat Bell

    This is a wonderful article for those of us who volunteer in the church as well as for the ministers. Thanks!

    • You’re welcome, Pat. Yes, I think these ideas do apply to volunteers as well.