Finding a sustainable pace

One of the challenges in ministry is finding a sustainable pace. Ours is a culture prone to excess. (Our church culture often mirrors the broader culture in this respect too). In our work life this manifests itself in excessive labor (in the sense of working too long) and in excessive leisure (we have become addicted to entertainment because we’re so tired from our overwork). This is certainly the case more broadly than in ministry, but since I’m a minister I’ll stick with what I know best.

One of the challenges of working as a campus missionary is that staff are tied to two calendars that often conflict.

On the one hand, there’s the campus calendar (school starts in August and ends in May). There are regular breaks along the way and periods of intense activities too (like the beginning of each semester).

On the other, there’s InterVarsity’s organizational calendar. Since when school’s in session, our missionaries are expected to be giving themselves to their ministry with students and faculty, we often schedule our conferences, meetings, and other required events during school vacations. There are natural periods for reporting on the health of the chapters we work with (at the end of each semester) and for reflecting on personal and ministry goals (at the beginning of the year with period check-ins along the way). There are also periods of more intentional activity around raising support to fund the ministry. Summer is a prime time to engage in this work since there are limited numbers of students on campus. December 31 marks the end of the calendar year and it’s the deadline for making tax-deductible gifts to ministries like InterVarsity. June 30 is the last day of InterVarsity’s fiscal year and staff are required to have balanced their ministry budgets by that date.

Do you see the problem? If you think of a sustainable pace as a series of peaks (intense labor) and troughs (reflection, planning, evaluation) it’s entirely possible, looking at the scenario above, to never have any troughs. 

That’s a recipe for burnout. Unlike all other types of work, the effectiveness of a minister is rooted in his connection with God in Christ. Where the peaks of life and ministry cause the troughs of reflection and devotion to be leveled out, there is a decline in the effectiveness of the minister.

So what’s the solution? Here are some suggestions for avoiding the pitfall of over scheduling. These are things I practice myself and which I have suggested to some of the staff I supervise. They’re pretty obvious, but often the simplest things are the most easily forgotten or overlooked. [Note: much of this stuff isn’t original to me, where I remember the source I’ve attributed it.]

  • Plan on planning. According to MaryKate Morse (Making Room for Leadership: Power, Space, and Influence, 158 – HT: Anna Gissing) excellent leaders spend 40% of their time in self-leadership functions. This includes professional reading, character development, continuing education, prayer, reflection, etc. It also include planning. It may seem like 40% is a huge chunk of time to spend this, but I guarantee it will make the other 60% of your time more effective.
  • Plan a year ahead. We’re almost to January so now is a good time to pull out the calendar and get down the date for every “big rock” you have in your work and family life. Make notes of congregational meetings, presbytery meetings, session meetings, conferences, travel for work or pleasure, etc. These are the “hard edges” to your calendar. Take a look at Mike Hyatt’s annual time block for one way to do this. I do this over the summer since our ministry year run July to June.
  • Plan on multiple levels. By the day. By the week. By the month. By the quarter. Don’t fall into the habit of planning simply by the year and by the day. You need to get your mind around each of these levels of planning. If there’s going to be a stretch of time that is especially busy (it could be a month, a week, or a year) make sure that you make intentional plans to dial it back a bit when that time is passed. David Allen refers to this as planning on the levels of the runway, 10,000ft, 20,oooft etc.
  • Learn to say “no.” You probably don’t want to say yes to everything or no to everything. Those who do the former burn out, those who do the latter are never asked again. You need healthy criteria for saying yes. Ask yourself: what do I really care about? What enlivens me? What am I good at? Say yes to projects that intersect with those questions in an affirmative way.


What have you learned about finding a sustainable pace for your profession and stage of life?

You might want to check out:

MaryKate Morse. Making Room for Leadership: Power, Space, and Influence.

Wayne Cordeiro. Leading on Empty: Refilling Your Tank and Renewing Your Passion.

The beauty of the Gospel – from The Pilgrim’s Progress

Thus far did I come loaden with my sin,/ Nor could aught ease the grief that I was in,/ till I came hither. What a place is this?/ Must here be the beginning of my bliss?/ Must here the strings that bound it to to me, crack?/ Blessed cross! Blessed sepulchre! Blessed rather be/ the man that there was put to shame for me.

Christian, The Pilgrim’s Progress

On my reading list for 2011

As we get closer to 2011, here are some books I’m reading through at present and some more that I plan to read in 2011:

Currently reading:

  • John Bunyan, Pilgrim’s Progress.
  • Derek Prime and Alistair Begg, On Pastoring.

To read in 2011:

  • Wesley Willmer, ed. Revolution in Generosity.
  • Everts and Schaupp, I Once was Lost (re-reading)
  • Etienne Wegner, et al., Cultivating Communities of Practice.
  • David Platt, Radical.
  • Hunter, The Celtic Way of Evangelism.

On friday’s we’ll be digging into this list (as it grows) to review and recommend books that you might find helpful for life and ministry.



Why do you raise support?

The question that forms the title of this post, or permutations of it, has been asked to me in a variety of ways and in a variety of contexts over the six years I have served with InterVarsity. Sometimes it has an accusatory flavor (either against me or InterVarsity for making me do it). Sometimes there’s an undercurrent of pity (poor fool, out begging for your dinner). At other times it’s asked in bewilderment (are you crazy?) or in awe (you must be very holy indeed).

[Note: for those of you not familiar with InterVarsity, you can read a little about us here. Like many evangelical mission agencies our staff raise financial support to the cost of providing ministry to the campuses we serve].

It’s a fair question when asked honestly. And I want to answer it personally (why I raise support). Here ten reasons I raise financial support:

  • Raising support has deep roots in Scripture. Philippians is a prayer letter, let’s be honest. Paul partnered with congregations he had started or ones he had served, to provide the financial resources to send him to new parts of the Empire.
  • Raising support has deep roots in the evangelical movement. The first foreign missions societies raised support to send men like William Carey and Hudson Taylor to parts of the world where the Gospel had not yet been preached.
  • Raising support reminds me that I am missionary. The emerging generations of college and graduate students are largely post-Christian, even in the Southern United States. This is missionary work.
  • Raising support creates a community of Christians who are invested (both in terms of financial investment but also in other ways) in the ministry God has entrusted to Anna and I. I need others to help me, guide me, and hold me accountable to do good work that is faithful to the Gospel. Donors are one way that I am able to remain rooted and centered. They help remind me that I am not the center of what God is doing on campus.
  • Raising support enables me to be free and faithful in expressing the ministry God has entrusted to me. I work on a university, but I don’t work for the university. This is critical. While I love and care deeply for the Wake Forest, I am not an employee of Wake Forest University. My ends (purposes) and the university’s ends are not the same. To be sure, there are many points of overlap and where these exist I am eager to help advance the university’s mission. However, at the end of the day I am about the work of building witnessing communities that will purposively influence the culture of the university.
  • Raising support enables donors to find joy in giving of the resources God has entrusted to them to advance the kingdom on campus, both at Wake Forest and across Virginia and the Carolinas. Giving to support ministries, missionaries, and churches ought to bring joy. If it doesn’t, ask why.
  • Raising support enables me to work with a mission agency that advances mere Christianity. Don’t get me wrong. I take theology quite seriously and, as a Presbyterian minister, I’m committed to the Reformed tradition as expressed in our Presbyterian confessions. However, Jesus emphasized in John 17 the unity of the Church. That unity isn’t a cheap or minimalist one. It is a unity based on the historic, Catholic creeds of the church: the essentials. Such a Christian expression can be quite compelling to people outside the faith who often see Christianity as marked by innumerable squabbles.
  • Raising support means that I get paid to do the work that God has called me to. Scripture says that the worker is “worthy of his hire.” Anna and I have been called and equipped to serve graduate students and faculty. We’ve followed God’s summons by getting a graduate theological education and entering service with InterVarsity. I have been ordained as a minister in the Presbyterian Church. I could work in a church if God so called me. As yet, he hasn’t. And since we need food to eat, clothes to wear, a house to live in, and to finish paying for my portion of those two graduate theological degrees, I don’t feel bad about the modest salaries we’re making.
  • Raising support is soul-altering work. There are a number of experiences that God often uses to make us more like Jesus (to sanctify us). Being a husband for seven years has been one of those experiences as has being a father. Raising support as a missionary can be a profoundly sanctifying task. It can be. It can also ruin your life if you lack the pastoral support or wander far from God’s gracious care. It will expose your deepest insecurities and force you to your knees in prayer. It is a severe mercy in many ways.
  • Raising support brings great joy to me.

So. There it is. What are your thoughts about missionary support-raising? I’d love your feedback.


Do you lead in the crisis, or manage?

Great leadership exists in presenting that vision and using appropriate levels of management (process) to steer team members toward embracing and achieving the goal.

When a crisis comes, there are two ways to respond: you can lead or you can manage. The choice you make will probably be pretty significant to the outcome.

Most organizations respond to a critical problem or a crisis by attempting to tighten control of employees. It’s a natural response. A problem is often caused or made more acute by poor decisions. It stands to reason that exercising greater control over daily decisions could avoid worsening the problem. This is a managerial response. It involves increasing reports, rationales for decisions, and generally adds work for employees that actually draws time and attention away from solving the problem. It centers on accountability.

Don’t get me wrong, management of a problem is critical to recovering from it. However, if it is the only response it is doomed to fail. Employees solve problems because they are presented with and come to believe in a vision of a better future that is presented to them by their leaders and by their co-workers not because they’re told that this is what they need to do.

If this is absent in the midst of a crisis, the results will be mediocre. You can only get so far with reporting, which is often seen as punitive by creative professionals. The vision of a better future can give energy and vigor to a struggling team by helping to refocus attention from the crisis itself to its resolution.

Great leadership exists in presenting that vision and using appropriate levels of management (process) to steer team members toward embracing and achieving the goal.