4 Ways to Persevere in Ministry

lightstock_146024_medium_user_2298620Last week I read a quote that surprised me.  It said “80% of people graduating college with a ministry degree and professing a ministry calling are out of ministry within five years.”  (Miles Welch, Pastor of Leadership Expansion, 12Stone Church)

Wow.

I still remember something that was said in the orientation sessions I had to take as a first year seminary student.  They told us to look to our right and to our left; 2 out of 3 people who start seminary studies don’t graduate.

So 2/3 don’t finish seminary, and of the ones that do, 80% have quit serving in ministry positions within five years??

Why is this?  And what can be done about it?

To answer the first question, I think there are a myriad of reasons.  From toxic church environments to misunderstood and miscommunicated expectations (on both the church’s and the employee’s side), there are many reasons why this stat doesn’t really surprise me.  But I don’t think it has to be so.

One of the reasons we launched the Chrysalis program of residents and interns at Southview a few years ago was to bridge the gap between the academic learning that is a part of seminary education and the “real world” experience of working in a church.  I’ve heard many times how different working in a church environment is – it’s not what people expect!  We wanted to be a part of the solution by providing an environment for young men and women who were pursuing education and an eventual position in a local church where they could experiment, try new things, even fail, but above all learn what working in a church environment is like.  By doing this, we hoped to invest in these young men and women, but also to provide a way for them to determine if working in a local church was REALLY what they were called to do.

I believe that the stat I referenced above can be improved by four actions.

1)  Pray.

This seems like SUCH a church-y thing to say.  But truly, without prayer, we are operating solely in our own strength.  That’s not good enough – by myself, I can only accomplish what I can do, but when I pray, God moves and does what only He can do.  That’s what I want.  And in order to persevere, I have to make prayer a non-negotiable priority.  Every morning, as I’m getting dressed, I pray.  Every morning, when I get to the office, I spend time in prayer.  Sometimes I’ll go over to a kneeling bench in my office that my wife’s uncle made for us for our wedding and pray there.  Sometimes I’ll stand and walk around.  But prayer is a non-negotiable way that my day has to start.  That’s critical to persevering.

2) Understand what working in ministry is and what it is not.

When I talk with a couple before they get married, I always talk about expectations. Expectations can be right on track – or they can be incredibly skewed. Just like in marriage counseling, there can be (and too often is) a HUGE gap between expectations of what ministry will be like and the reality.  Contrary to what many people might think, you’re not just sitting, praying and reading the Bible all day while worship music plays in the background.  It is, in fact, a job, and there are expectations and responsibilities. You have goals, objectives, projects, timelines, calendars, and all the rest. Working in ministry is not the easiest job I’ve ever had – after leaving the marketplace, I’ve found ministry to be one of the most difficult!  But it can also be incredibly rewarding if you are gifted for it and called to it.  But you have to right size your expectations, especially coming into it for the first time.

3) Remember Who you serve.

When we talk about serving in a local church, I think it’s important to remember Who we serve.  Yes, I’m talking about God.

How many times have I talked with pastors and church leaders who are trying to meet every need, invest in every relationship, solve every problem, and be there for every “emergency” (whether it’s truly one or not)?  And that’s just when I look in the mirror!

I am a recovering people-pleaser.  And if I’m not primarily focused on serving God, listening to His voice, doing what He tells me – then I’m going to get so busy and overwhelmed serving the whims and desires of other people that I will look for ANY escape valve to get out of that.  It’s simply not sustainable, for me or for you.  Remember Who you serve.

4) Never stop learning.

I know, I know, I talk about this a lot.  But I really do believe this is a key to persevering.  If we are not learning from men and women who are farther down the road than we are – if we’re not reading and challenging ourselves to grow intellectually and spiritually – then how can we possibly persevere, and even prevail?  I want to lead with all diligence (Romans 12:8). I want to prevail and persevere in ministry, not just for a decade or two, but for a lifetime.  And that means I have to continue to be a learner – forever.

What advice would you give a new church staff member, or one who’s thinking of calling it quits?