Original photo by Wolfgang Staudt.
There is a difference between striving to have a sustainable ministry and fighting to stay alive. When you act out of self-preservation you ask the wrong set of questions. At best, these are questions that are inwardly focused and shortsighted. Although longevity is not bad, your main goal should not be to help your church stay alive. Your main goal should be to be faithful to the Gospel and to join God as God ushers in God's kingdom.
What does this mean? Here are a few possibilities:
- This may mean that you build a new church building. This may mean that you sell your church building.
- This may mean that you hire more staff. This may mean that you cut staff.
- This may mean that you stop pouring money into expanding your empire and start sending funds to an under-resourced church.
- This may mean that you give away all of your resources to an emerging church so that a new ministry can flourish.*
Are you following me? Being faithful to the Gospel and joining God's mission does not mean that you last forever. It simply means you go where God calls you to go.
While we shouldn't focus on self-preservation, we SHOULD focus on sustainability and health. Sustainable ministries don't drain the energy and resources out of our organizations and our people. I think sustainable ministries are simply good stewards of the gifts that God has given the church.
Here are a few ways to help you start thinking about building healthy ministries and not ministries that are fighting for self-preservation. This is not an exhaustive list. Comment below if you have more ideas.
Sustainable ministries emphasize health. Self-preservation ministries emphasize numbers.
Sustainable ministries regularly evaluate the relational, spiritual, and emotional health of their group. Ministry leaders are regularly gauging the health of the congregation. Health and numbers are not mutually exclusive. I am a part of a healthy church that is bursting at the seams. Yet, our pastors, deacons, elders, and small group leaders are engaged with almost everybody who attends the church. We spend most of our time in staff meetings either doing spiritual check-ins with one another or praying for congregants by name. It's been a blessing to spend so much time focusing on spiritual formation and health. This doesn't mean we neglect our daily tasks. We simply don't let our daily tasks consume our focus.
Sustainable ministries look to empower others. Self-preservation ministries try to hold on to power.
Believe it or not, you and I are not big deals. Sure, we can do some things well. But our ministries will be better if we find what is unique to our calling, do that well, and empower people to do the rest. I was recently talking with a successful lead pastor who is in his 40's. He said 10 years ago he wasn't comfortable enough in his skin to hire people who were better than him at things. Now, he proudly admits that he isn't the best speaker or administrator on staff. Not only is that good leadership, it creates space for new ideas and fresh approaches.
The reality is, none of us got to where we are because of our own power. We all stand on the backs of others who sacrificed, poured into us, loved us, mentored us, and created space for us. Now, go and do likewise.
Sustainable ministries emphasize how volunteers are doing. Self-preservation ministries emphasize what volunteers are doing.
Today I interviewed a high quality candidate for a youth ministry intern position. Like all people that I supervise, I told him that I am more concerned with how he is doing as a follower of Jesus, a friend, and a son than what he can do for me and “my” church. People aren't tools for you to use to build your kingdom. They are gifts that God entrusts to you to love, serve, build up, and empower. When they leave, you want them to leave better people than when they arrived.
One side effect of this kind of support and care for your employees is that they tend to feel more at ease in their position which enables them to function out of their strengths. It gives them courage to dream big and take risks. And when they fail, they know that you have their back.
Sustainable ministries think about the entire organization. Self-preservation ministries tend to only think about those with power.
I once served at an upper income church that was surrounded by neighborhoods that were very poor. On separate occasions I had two elders tell me that I wasn't hired to minister to “those kind of kids.” They hired me to minister to “our kids.” Wow! Too often I see pastors that only pursue deep relationships with people who have power and money in the church. Pastors let the bottom line sway them away from making decisions with Biblical integrity. It is wrong and unjust.
If you spend more time talking about getting better attendance to events than thinking about the needs of your community, you are fighting for self-preservation.
Coby Cagle lives with his wife and two kids in Seattle, WA. He is the Youth Pastor at Quest Church and is the Co-founder of The College Consensus. You can follow his meanderings on faith, family, and life at caglejourney.blogspot.com/.