A Cure for the “Where’d It Go?” Pastor

Dangerous though it may be, it can be entertaining—and sometimes, even educational—to make sweeping generalizations.  So with only my experience and energetic imagination to back me up, here’s how I would describe the career path of many an Adventist pastor in North America:

The “Green-But-Golden” Years (when a pastor is roughly 24 to 30 years old).   This group is relatively small among Adventist clergy.  But what they lack in numbers, they make up for in energy.  The ministry gig to them is new, fresh, and engaging.  Even Nominating Committee is exciting!  Each visit with a church member is a dramatic experience, each Sabbath School class taught is an adventure, and each sermon preached is a holy missile fired squarely into the devil’s territory.  Ministry rocks, and it's a hoot to spend time with this young crowd.

The “Get ‘Er Done” Years (about 30 to 40 years old).  This group has been around long enough now to know a fair amount about how ministry works best.  Maybe they’ve cracked the code about how to survive and even thrive in a multi-church district, or perhaps they’re reasonably successful senior pastors of a single church.  They’ve probably been commissioned or ordained by now, and feel a sense of ownership and command of ministry skills that was not yet formed in their younger years.  Good things can happen in these churches—things that are innovative, many of them fruitful, and nearly all of them personally meaningful.

The “Where’d It Go?” Years (40 to… ?).  Numerical success in pastoral ministry (such as increasing tithe figures, baptismal numbers, etc.) is a curious thing:  it’s great when it first comes.  But in my experience, it seems to hold most pastor’s attention for a limited time.  It’s almost as if they started 15 years ago in a system that in many ways valued numerical success, only to find that once they’d learned to generate those numbers on a consistent basis, the party seemed to gradually be over.  They feel that ministry is still good, yes… but there’s no denying that it has also become a routine.  The thrill that once helped spur them on is now elusive.  The spiritual adrenaline of doing and daring for God seems to have quietly slipped away, and in its place there has settled a mind-numbing predictability.  Pastors in this phase of ministry know what certain church members will say at the next board meeting.  They know what issues will be raised at the school constituency session.  They can predict with somnolent accuracy what their congregations will expect of them in the next 12 months of ministry.  All of which can quietly drive them inward…

…And here lurks both great opportunity and great danger.  If properly dealt with, this turning inward can be the beginning of a growth process that will not merely reinvigorate a pastor professionally, but most importantly, spiritually, socially, and mentally. The exuberant dreams of ministry past can become the mature, sustainable, and transformative reality of the pastoral present.

Conversely, if handled wrongly, this turning inward can be destructive.  A stale pastoral vision at best leads to stale pastoral ministry, potentially inhibiting the growth of those the pastor ministers to and with.  At worst, unrectified boredom with ministry can lead pastors to profoundly question their calling, themselves, and the love and power of God Himself.  (I’ve even seen it drive some pastors into making moral decisions they later deeply regretted.)

So if you’re reading this, and you’re a “Where’d It Go?” pastor—or if you want to avoid becoming one—what can you do to avoid the dangers of boredom and instead embrace the opportunities boredom represents?

Why Not Move?

It’s tempting to say that when substantial boredom sets in, the proper pastoral response is simply to move:  take a call to another church, move into administration, move to another conference, etc.  And true, this can help alleviate pastoral boredom.  (It is interesting to note that the New Testament church as well as early Adventism insisted on keeping their full-time clergy—aka, apostles—regularly on the move.  While this is foreign to the culture of North American Christianity today, the growth and vibrancy of the early apostolic and Adventist churches would suggest that our forebears were on to something.  They were courageous, fruitful, mobile—and rarely bored.)

But many times, a move is simply not the answer. Instead, in my experience, pastors have often moved on to another assignment to (among other things) alleviate their boredom, only to discover that the change of scenery didn’t equate to a change either of method or of heart.  It turned out that the boredom was a result of stagnancy in them and not in their surroundings.

The source of that stagnancy?  For many, it came because they had ceased to learn what God had called them to learn—a cessation that I believe has led countless pastors, teachers, and administrators to become unmotivated and ultimately ineffective in their spheres of influence.

And please note:  This stagnancy is not merely about ceasing to learn new methods for doing ministry, though such learning is crucial to ministry success.  It is also about something more important:  our hearts.  We are not merely ministry machines; we are instead God’s sons, God’s daughters!  He is more concerned about the shaping of our hearts than merely accomplishing important, but ultimately secondary, ministry tasks more efficiently.  Instead, God uses the lessons about ministry methodology to shape our hearts and minds.  We grow in Christ as we help others to grow in Christ, and thus a cessation of learning about how to better minister to others inevitably leads to a cessation of growth in ourselves.

All of this means that there is a single mandate that pastors in every phase of ministry would benefit immensely from fulfilling: never stop intentionally learning.

A Multitude of Ways

How can we as pastors continue to intentionally learn?  How can we continually find fresh grist for the ministry mill that will keep ourselves challenged, growing in Christ, and engaged in the work God has called us to?

There are a multitude of ways.  In addition to the obvious discipline of a daily devotional life, here are a few more:

Read, read, read.  Read widely and regularly (including in disciplines outside of pastoral ministry—astronomy and physics are two of my favorites).  The point is to regularly expose yourself to topics that will stimulate critical thinking skills and feed your ability to see situations in your life and ministry from new, fresh perspectives.  (In my opinion, this ability to “reframe” is an excellent defense against pastoral burnout.)  The North American Division Ministerial Department’s homepage (http://www.nadministerial.org/) contains links to a vast array of clergy-specific reading material.  And by the way:  As enjoyable as it may be, your favorite sports website probably won’t fill the reading bill, here.  You need material that will engage your brain rather than merely distract it.

Get a mentor.  You’ve heard this one before, haven’t you?  But if you’re like most pastors I know, you still don’t have one!  Yet a good mentor can keep you and your ministry fresh and growing in ways unachievable on your own.  Prayerfully search for someone whose ministry and life you genuinely admire.  Ask he or she to be your mentor (in my experience, most are honored to be asked!).  Clearly convey what you’re looking for and why, specifying whether you’re looking for a general mentor or one to help you with a particular facet of your life and/or ministry.  A once-a-month meeting (face-to-face is great, but video conferencing or even just by phone works, too) for 30 minutes is a standard arrangement that’s worked well for many.  You bring the questions; your mentor will supply the answers—answers that in my experience provide excellent opportunities for growth.

Start a peer-mentoring group.  Some local conferences already have this in place.  If so, make full use of it by coming to meetings prepared with good questions and enthusiastically engaging in the group’s conversations and activities.  If you don’t have a peer-mentoring group, start one.  I recommend you do this with other Adventist pastors in your area, or start a video conferencing group online.  For content, the group can choose various books to read and discuss; assign different members to present on topics pertinent to their ministry; determine as a group a list of issues relevant to pastoral ministry and discus them each month; or something else that fits their needs.  When these groups work as they should, iron really does sharpen iron, and boredom is regularly busted.

Write an article for publication.  “But I’m not a writer!” you might say.  And true, writing an article does not guarantee its publication.  But whether it is published or not, there are few things that will help you clarify your thoughts on a particular challenge in your life or ministry than writing about it for someone else’s consumption.  Other forms of writing (such as keeping a personal journal), while potentially good practices, lack the accountability that writing for publication does.  Consequently, your thoughts are much more likely to be refined and (hopefully) accurate when you write for a professional journal, online blog, your local union magazine, etc.  Such writing is also potentially a double win:  the process will help you learn valuable lessons about the issues you face, and your potential readers may also learn from your experience.

Intentionally engage in new learning experiences.  Most areas of the United States have continuing education classes for clergy that are within reasonable driving distance.  For others, online courses are available, and a brief web search should reveal a host of possibilities. Again, the NAD Ministerial Department website is helpful here, as it includes a number of archived webinars they most pastors will find helpful (see http://www.nadministerial.org/article/524/media/webinars/past-webinars).

Get your Doctorate of Ministry (DMin) degree.  Sounds counterintuitive, doesn’t it?  After all, everyone knows that if you’re bored in ministry, the LAST place you should go for inspiration is to a doctoral class—the ultimate spiritual Nyquil, right?  But if you feel this way, my guess is that you are not familiar with some of the astonishingly rich experiences such a degree can offer.  The days of stultifying lectures that drone on for hours are thankfully shrinking in the rearview mirror, as DMin providers have begun to realize that post-graduate degrees really ought to be the most relevant and qualifying degree a minister can achieve.  In fact, allow me a shameless plug:  The DMin program at Andrews University is a cohort-based doctoral program that has transformed my life and my ministry.  It really is that good.  I have grown more in the last four years and successfully navigated more key issues in my life and ministry than the previous 16 years of pastoral work combined.  The experience has been life-changing.  You owe it to yourself, your family, and your church to revisit the possibility of obtaining your doctorate.

Leave the “Where’d It Go?” Phase Behind

Too often, the uncorrected natural course of a pastor’s life can lead to stagnancy.  But a consistent pursuit of genuine learning can keep the boredom blues at bay.  Will it take time out of your daily schedule?  Absolutely!  In fact, my guess is that the time factor is one of the top reasons so many pastors don’t pursue a life of intentional learning.  But for those who are brutal with their calendars and insist on making time to engage in ongoing and challenging learning practices, they are the ones who are most likely to stay fresh, relevant, and engaged in ministry for and with Christ—and what price can a pastor put on that?      

What is your next learning step?

Shane Anderson is the senior pastor for the New Market Church in Virginia

Reprinted from the third quarter issue of CALLED