Resilient Ministry (Book Review)

resilient-ministryBeing a pastor is hard work.  Not that having any other job is easier.  White-collar professionals, blue-collar laborers, and everyone in between all have to toil in their vocation.  Work is not called “work” because it is not laborious.  But being a pastor is also hard work, and in some ways vocational ministry presents a unique challenge to those who are called to pursue it.

Being a pastor requires hard study.  Most people when they get out of school only read for personal enrichment.  Books, magazines, newspapers, your favorite website or blog.  Pastors must spends significant chunks of their day exegeting biblical texts and studying what commentators and theologians conclude about those texts.  Thinking and reading can be hard, and it’s sometimes the last thing a pastor wants to do when he gets a little personal time for R&R.

Being a pastor requires time spent with all different kinds of people.  Spouse, kids, church leaders and staff, congregational visitation, small group fellowship, and of course counseling.  Some pastors are energized being around people.  Other pastors are drained by the emotional energy expended.  All pastors are burdened by wounded or angry people who demand much of their time.

Being a pastor requires an active devotional and prayer life.  When pastors don’t pursue their own relationship with God, first they suffer and ultimately their congregations suffer.

Being a pastor requires being a leader.  All leaders are either revered and respected, or criticized and disrespected.  No leader is immune.  When they are honored and praised, they are in danger of pride.  When they are maligned, they are in danger of fear.

Being a pastor requires being a cultural architect.  Every community of people is purposefully or unintentionally shaped into a particular culture.  Pastors are responsible for shepherding their congregations into healthy cultural patterns—a task made all the more difficult due to people’s fallibility, limitations, and disparate cultural values.  The pastor included.

Being a pastor often requires justifying your job.  A pastor is in the unusual position of being the spiritual leader, mentor, and authority over those who pay his salary.  Many people wonder what pastors do all week, since a sermon ought to take no more than 4-5 hours to prepare.  At least that’s the common belief.  “Must be nice, pastor, being able to pray and read the Bible all week, sleep in and go home early, and get paid to come to church when the rest of Christians do it for free!”  Pastors feel like they must defend their work schedule.  This can be stressful and humiliating.

On top of all this, being a pastor can be profoundly lonely.  People who would normally be friends with a particular person keep an emotional distance from the particular person when he is a pastor.  It’s the same reason most people are not friends with management in general and their boss in particular.  And pastors can sense they are being perpetually evaluated in their role instead of being trusted as friends.  Pastors are to blame too since it is hard to trust and build friendship with people they shepherd.

Many pastors burn out because the job is harder than they thought it would be.  They feel betrayed by the God they love to serve and the church for not preparing them for what the job of pastor would really be like.  In some ways, they feel no thanks for their sacrifice.

For these reasons, Bob Burns, Tasha Chapman, and Donald Guthrie set out to ask successful pastors about how to survive and thrive in ministry.  The book Resilient Ministry: What Pastors Told Us About Surviving and Thriving is the result of their research.  In it, the authors relay how they discovered the key areas that prove most important for continued ministry health and success.  These five themes are:

  1. Spiritual Formation.  The ongoing process of maturing in Christ.
  2. Self-Care.  The ongoing development as a whole person, including calling, relationships, physical condition, and intellectual growth.
  3. Emotional and Cultural Intelligence.  EQ being the ability to proactively manage your own emotions and appropriately respond to the emotions of others.  CQ being the ability to successfully adapt to new cultural settings.
  4. Marriage and Family.  The commitment of maintaining spiritual and relational health with one’s spouse, children, and extended family.
  5. Leadership and Management.  Leadership is the process of seeking adaptive and constructive change.  Management provides order and consistency to organization.

The authors gathered their data on ministers by means of a sociological longitudinal study.  Pastors and their wives were selected based on their number of years in pastoral ministry, and recruited from diverse ethnic and sociological backgrounds.  Most of the pastors were recruited from evangelical Presbyterian congregations.  The authors created a Pastor’s Summit that each of the pastors and their wives committed to attend for the purpose of the study.  Numerous summits were held over the span of a few years.

Throughout their study, the authors follow a pattern of unpacking these five themes.  First, they explain why a theme is necessary and important for attaining resilient ministry.  Second, they give tools for personally evaluating one’s health in a theme.  The authors provide plenty of extended quotations from pastors explaining how they feel about a particular theme, what they have done to pursue ministry and personal health in that area, and why it has proved challenging as a pastor.  For me, these quotes were the most immediately helpful feature of the book.  Some pastors and their wives sounded like my wife and I as we experience the life of pastoral ministry.  Other pastors spoke of experiences I can definitely see coming down the road.

Resilient Ministry serves as an honest and eye-opening window into the life of a pastor and his wife.  For this reason, this book should be in the hands of every elder and deacon to foster greater understanding why pastoral ministry is quite difficult despite its easygoing appearance.  The book should probably be required reading at some point in seminary so that students pursue pastoral ministry with a clear notion of what it looks like from the inside.  But Resilient Ministry is not the last word on the subject, nor does it attempt to be the last word on any of the five key themes for healthy, sustainable ministry.  It does function as an excellent resource for pursuing any of the themes in more depth, and provides many lists of suggested resources (books and media) at chapter’s end.  The book’s endnotes are especially helpful for discovering more recommended resources.

Resilient Ministry is not a pastor’s or ministry leader’s handbook.  But it makes a convincing case there are vital tools and values every pastor needs to have a resilient ministry.  And it does an excellent job of defining and explaining those most important themes for the pastor, pointing to good equipping resources.

As a bit of a sneak peak (or spoiler, depending on your perspective), here are some of the book’s recommended resources to pursue for each key theme.

  1. Spiritual Formation.  Adele Ahlberg Calhoun.  Spiritual Disciplines Handbook.
  2. Self-Care.  Kent and Barbara Hughes.  Liberating Ministry from the Success Syndrome.
  3. Emotional and Cultural Intelligence.  EQ: Peter Scazzero.  The Emotionally Healthy Church.  CQ: James Plueddemann.  Leading Across Cultures.
  4. Marriage and Family.  Christopher Ash.  Marriage: Sex in the Service of God.
  5. Leadership and Management.  Leadership: Dan Allender.  Leading with a Limp.  Management: Kouzes and Posner.  The Leadership Challenge.

Read what others are saying about Resilient Ministry and its sister book The Challenge of Sustaining Fruitful Ministry.  Co-author Bob Burns talks about Resilient Ministry here and below.

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