Even before COVID-19, every rector was aware of the growing pressure of the role: the demands of compliance, managing expectations and criticisms from the congregation, tensions within parish council, the demands of meeting the budget, keeping the staff aligned with a common vision, and the challenges to see both church and gospel growth. COVID-19 has simply escalated that stress by requiring so many decisions on an ever-changing treadmill. The result is that we can be left feeling tired and uninspired with a gnawing sense of failure as we count the days to our resignation or retirement.
At different stages of my ministry I found refreshment in the following:
1. The wonder of the gospel of grace refreshes our soul (Acts 3:19).
I learnt early on in church planting that it’s easy to focus on the care of everyone else’s soul except my own. I was delighting in their salvation and forgetting that before I am a shepherd I am a sheep; before I am a pastor, I am a child of God. As we plan, strategise, and set goals, we must not lose sight of our Lord Jesus “… who loved me and gave himself for me” (Gal 2:20b). We never outgrow the need to intentionally meditate on God’s word, reflect on his majestic character and joyfully praise him for every spiritual blessing in Christ. Each day of the week I try to focus on a different blessing found in Ephesians 1:3-14.
2. Staying fresh involves remembering why we first came into ministry.
As a twenty-something I prayed that God would give me the privilege to teach God’s word and pastor his people. It was a noble task (1 Tim 3:1) that I had permission to aspire to. In recent times, I have felt the temptation to resign. Not long ago I put into my prayer notes a question to myself: “Ray, why do you want to retire so much?”. Next to it I placed a little gem of a verse in Colossians where Paul writes, “Tell Archippus: ‘See to it that you complete the ministry you have received in the Lord’.” (Col 4:17)
Now is not the time to prematurely end my ministry or lose my zeal. There may be good reasons for some to finish but I did not have one. It was time to recall afresh the privilege we have as under-shepherds to the Lord Jesus, the great shepherd of the sheep.
3. Staying fresh involves considering my quota of hardship as discipline.
“Endure hardship as discipline; God is treating you as his children”(Heb 12:7). It is clear that the Father’s love for us is found in his sovereign hand during hard times. These last few years have been a season of discipline for me as God chips away at my pride, and I am learning yet again to depend on him. Like many Australian men, I’m forever battling with the ‘god of comfort’ that keeps wanting me to retreat to that place where I want to be left alone and avoid pressure, criticism and responsibility. Staying fresh means choosing to practise reflection and repentance as a lifelong activity. Now is not the time to postpone or defer godliness. To that end, I recently attended an anger management course with some of the men from my church.
4. Staying fresh does not happen alone.
I was surprised to find how often the idea of refreshment came up in the New Testament in connection with the ministry of others. The Roman church (Rom 15:32), Stephanas, Fortunatus and Achaicus (1 Cor 16:18), Onesiphorus (2 Tim 1:16) and Philemon (Phil 1:20) were all identified as sources of refreshment for Paul. We are better together!
I have been thankful to God for a group of men who have journeyed with me throughout my life and ministry. Just being in their company, having them ask direct questions, praying together and creating a safe place to share struggles for nearly 30 years has been a constant blessing. Another way of doing this is joining a Formation of Ministry group, prayer partners, accountability partner or some other type of support network.
5. Staying fresh means being intentional about a work-rest rhythm.
I remember six months into MBM, my wife Sandy sat me down and gently said, “If it keeps on going like this it’s not going work.” To this day, I don’t know what exactly was not going to work, marriage… ministry… but she had my attention. It was a shot over the bow I needed to hear. I was working too hard and not taking my day off and when I did I was not emotionally present. I had no work-rest rhythm. I was harming myself, my family, my church and my relationship with God. ‘Dropping tools’ each week and ceasing from my normal pastoral labours became an act of faith that I am built for heaven, that it is God’s church not mine, and he is the one who gives the increase not I. Taking time to rest, to renew, and to celebrate was also how I glorify God. It involves practising daily, weekly, monthly, seasonal, annual and life- phase ‘work-rest’ rhythms. You have to plan to rest well.
6. Staying fresh by seeking the right professional help.
I’m grateful for the provision by our diocese of the clergy assistance program. During the last few years I’ve lost my confidence in a number of areas due to some major pastoral mistakes on my part. What was helpful for both my wife and myself was seeing our own psychologists to process the constant pressure, wounds, and struggles we find ourselves in. There are good reasons to retire and to resign but it is important to first explore those reasons that are causing those desires. Often they can be addressed. Counselling, professional supervision and mentoring on a regular basis are a key way keep going in a healthy way.
7. Staying fresh involves having a clear vision and mission.
After 30 years of pastoring the same church I have had to reinvent myself every seven to ten years. I’m obviously not referring to modifying the gospel and the biblical principles of gospel ministry. I’m particularly thinking of the need to recast the vision and mission of the church afresh. By vision and mission, I mean contextualizing the timeless great commission as it pertains to our particular time, place and specific context.
By my mid 50s I noticed I was wandering again, and feeling aimless. I knew I had another 15 years to go and it was time to recalibrate again. The rector must face the question, ‘What is the next step for me and the church God entrusted to my stewardship?’ This is where making time to work on the ministry and not just in it is crucial. I set aside some time to think, read, pray and share with others what the next 10 years (2015-2025) might look like. The process resulted in 10-year smart goals which we now prefer to call ‘God desired outcomes’ (GDO). The process energized me and still does. We are half way into our 10-year plans and even before COVID-19 we were behind where we hoped to be but I have no regrets, for these GDO’s drive us forward and stop us from being content with the status quo.
8. Staying fresh means never stop learning.
So often we hit a brick wall in ministry and lack clarity amid confusion. Ministry is complex and developing a healthy and mature church to present to Christ on the last day takes great wisdom and skill. For that to happen we need to seek help from a mentor, coach or supervisor. Personally, I think it was pride that took me so long before I put my hand up to ask for help. The first of my many mentors/coaches was Rod Irvine 12 years ago and he was a game changer. It was scary at first, but I quickly grew to learn so much in the hands of a wise and experienced pastor and brother. The process refreshed me. I am so thankful to God that today we have such excellent resources with REACH Australia and Moore Theological College’s Centre for Ministry Development (CMD).
Let’s also not forget to laugh, get the right kinds of sleep, nutrition, exercise and recreation. Don’t forget to stay on top of your health issues especially for us men who are the least likely to see a doctor.
This article is from the ACR’s 2020 Winter Journal