I peeked in at the group of first appointment pastors gathered by The Office of Clergy Excellence earlier this week. This isn’t a picture of them, but the passion, enthusiasm, commitment and optimism suggested in this picture captures what I saw in their faces. Most of us began as congregational leaders (lay and clergy) like that, didn’t we? When I first joined the Conference, I saw older leaders who seemed spiritually dry and passionlessly going through the motions. I thought at the time, “No chance I will ever be like that!” And for the most part, I haven’t -- but it hasn’t been without struggle.
Passion in ministry is an invigorating elixir comprised of one part commitment, one part confidence, one part courage and, as a preservative, one part competence. Faithful and fruitful ministry is seldom sustained without a coalition of leaders who are passionate.
The Spirit spoke to the leaders of the church at Laodicea: “I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot. I wish you were either one or the other! So, because you are lukewarm—neither hot nor cold—I am about to spit you out of my mouth.” (Rev. 3:15-16) Laodicea’s water arrived in town via a lengthy aqueduct. When water left the well, it was cool and fresh tasting. But during its journey through the desert wilderness, it became nauseatingly warm and foul tasting. What was life sustaining and refreshing became neither.
Over the years, four things have particularly threatened to rob my passion. I share them in the hopes that we all might be just as passionate about our ministry in the days ahead as we were when we first began – whether that was this week or 36 years ago.
Passion Robber #1: Not staying connected to the vine
Jesus told us: “Apart from me you can do nothing.” (John 15) It doesn’t take long for most of us to discover how true this is. Unless we stay connected to the vine, we become like cut flowers soon wilting and then becoming lifeless. The demands of everyday preoccupy our time and attention. It is easy to focus on church work and forget that the foundation of life-changing ministry has more to do with our spiritual vitality than our competence. Without an ongoing renewing and reorienting infusion of the Holy Spirit, we soon find our passion wilting.
Passion Robber #2: Ministering in an environment of constant criticism
Being criticized is part of leadership. As the adage goes, “No good deed goes unpunished.” When leaders assist congregations to be effective in our changing cultural environment, they will experience criticism. It is important, as much as possible, not to take it personally. Sometimes, however, I’ve pushed what I believed was right in ways that were neither pastorally sensitivity nor politically savvy . . . and brought upon myself more criticism than was necessary. At other times, in an effort to avoid the sting of criticism, I have settled for the path of least resistance . . . and brought upon myself confrontation with my own conscience and the Holy Spirit. Overall, the criticisms that sting the most are those criticisms by others that echo my own.
Passion Robber #3: Going it alone
As many have said before, it can be lonely at the top. Still, the best leaders know that they cannot bring about change by themselves, nor can they do well in the marathon of ministry without being in community with other leaders. Being in community with other leaders allows you to learn from them, to receive their encouragement, and to gain their input about your situation. Sometimes their input comes as helpful insights or perspectives unconsidered. Sometimes their input comes in the incredulous question, “What were you thinking?” Leadership happens best when it doesn’t reside in a lone person, but in a community of well-connected leaders who support and sharpen one another. One of the tendencies I personally have to fight is the tendency to withdraw from others when the going gets toughest. It has almost always not been the best leadership strategy for me or for others. That’s exactly when I need to be reaching out.
Passion Robber #4: Doing what God hasn’t wired you up to do.
Nothing quite robs my passion like trying to do well what I know I am not very good at doing. There are parts of every leader’s job for which he or she feels less prepared or competent. As the years go by, hopefully we become more skilled. A friend of mine once gave a talk entitled: Anything worth doing well, is worth doing poorly . . . until we learn to do it well.” To be sure, if you are not a life-long learner, your leadership in the church will probably not be a fruitful one. Still, there are some things that I just don’t do particularly well and which rob my passion when I try -- even while others seem to do them naturally and with passion. These are the people I need on my team. They need to use the gifts God has given them to serve others . . . rather than me trying to do what they can do better.
So how is your passion hanging in there: your commitment, confidence, courage and competence for ministry? How is your spiritual life? How are you dealing with criticism? Are you staying in community with other leaders? Are you focusing mostly on the tasks which you do best, while empowering others to do what they do best?
The thing about a leader’s passion (or lack thereof) is that it is contagious. How is your passion affecting the passion of those around you?
Dr. Jeff Stiggins
The Center for Congregational Excellence