“When it stops being fun, find another sport.” That was the advice my wife and I gave our two sons when they played hockey. They looked at us with incredulity when we first gave them this advice. They couldn’t fathom not enjoying hockey. In fact, our words of caution were almost offensive to them.
But as time went on, we could see their interest in playing hockey begin to wane. For one of our sons, this transition was more dramatic than for the other – he incurred injuries and became disillusioned with the coaching staff. When hockey tryouts came around, it was clear in his mind that it was time to hang up the skates and focus on another sport.
I wonder if our words of advice could be applied to pastors, too: when it stops being fun, find another ministry. I am not suggesting that pastoral ministry is all about fun. It involves hardships and sacrifices, and we all knew that going into the ministry. But from time to time it may be helpful for us to give ourselves permission to do some assessment. And if we are not “having fun” in our ministry context, perhaps it is a sign that it is time to evaluate whether or not our heart still in the game?
Hopefully our hearts will never lose the thrill of ministry, but it is often the context that makes the difference. I am not suggesting we leave our ministry just because the going gets tough. That would be wrong. But it could be that our lack of enjoyment is an indicator that we have outgrown our current setting and need another challenge. Or, it could be that our congregation has outgrown us and they need another kind of pastor.
Timing for your self-assessment is important. I conducted a “heart” test twice this ministry year, once in January and another in July. If I did this assessment in the middle of December or at Easter, the fatigue of those ministry seasons would not have brought me the objectivity I needed. Although you may be tempted to do an assessment after a tough board meeting, remember the words of my father – who was also a pastor – who said, “Never quit on a Monday.”
In my 31 years of vocational ministry, there were four times when I sensed it was time to go because either my heart wasn’t in it or because the people I was shepherding needed a change. For 27 years, the answer I received from God was to stay put, dig in and keep working hard. When I sensed God wanted me to stay, I stopped looking at greener grass (i.e., job postings) and enthusiastically invested my heart into the ministry. When I sensed God wanted me to minister elsewhere, I slowed down the pace, sought godly counsel and carved out time to prayerfully consider the next steps God had for me.
Knowing whether to stay or go may be more of an art than a science. I remember asking a seasoned minister, “When is the best time to leave church?” He wisely answered, “Sooner, rather than later.” We have all watched ministers overstay their welcome and do damage to both themselves and their congregations.
If you’re wondering whether God’s calling you to stay or go, 10 self-assessment questions can help you determine whether or not your heart is still in the ministry:
- Has this ministry assignment helped me grow closer to God or is it draining the life out of my spiritual vitality?
- In this context, am I able to steward the gifts and abilities God has given me? Am I serving in joy?
- Are there two changes I could make that would dramatically affect my attitude in staying? Can I navigate those changes?
- Am I the best kind of pastor for the congregation at this juncture in their history, or would they be better served by a pastor with different gifts and abilities?
- Am I done, or just weary and need an extended break?
- Is this a healthy faith environment for my family?
- What does my spouse think?
- Has God opened up other doors of opportunity for me?
- Am I running from something or running to something?
- Do I discern a sense of release from this assignment?
It brings me comfort to know that even Jesus went through this process. In Mark 1, we read of a very busy day of ministry in the life of Jesus. From dawn to dusk and into the night, Jesus ministered to people. And then afterward come these words: “Very early in the morning while it was still dark, Jesus went off to a solitary place to pray.”
Jesus was keenly aware of how He needed to know the next steps the Father wanted Him to take. The disciples found Him and insisted that He come back to town to continue the ministry there. Jesus replied, “Let us go somewhere else — to the nearby villages — so I can preach there also. That is why I have come.”
Jesus sought the counsel of the Father regarding the next steps of His ministry and determined it was time to leave one ministry context for another.
So, how is your heart these days as it relates to your ministry? Are you still passionate about serving God in that context? Do you sense God wants you to serve in another context? Why not follow Jesus’ example at the beginning of this new year and ask the Father what steps He wants you to take.
Laird Crump was a pastor for 25 years prior to coming on staff with Focus on the Family Canada.
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