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The Dynamic Tension of Satisfaction and Growth in Ministry

Great leaders are always satisfied and never satisfied. They are always satisfied with their identity in Christ. They are never satisfied because more people need Christ. 

Such tension requires leaders to understand the “situation” of the ministry or team they lead. Leaders primarily affect the culture and condition of their ministry. It is simply a fact. Leaders will lead effectively when they realize their rank, status or position of power is not their primary leadership tool. Their primary leadership tool is their emotional impact, affect, and influence. 

High EQ (emotional quotient) beats high IQ and positional leadership daily. 

In Teaching Fish to Walk, Pete Steinke identifies four situations that require a leader's four different emotional responses. I thought about ministry, and I genuinely believe every ministry team almost always finds themselves in one of these situations.  

  1. Crisis demands calm. 

Ministry leadership means walking through any number of crises, including unexpected death, decline in giving or membership, or intense staff or congregational conflict. 

Healthy ministry leaders resist the urge to freak out and join the fray of doomsayers. Healthy leaders focus on self, identify their anxiety, give it to Jesus and ask for His peace. When you’re calm you can think. Emotional reactivity longs for a leadership “host.” Resist the invitation. Your calm can help your entire ministry and team think creatively to grow through the crisis. 

  1. Stuckness demands challenge. 

Let’s think about this from a physical fitness perspective. To be healthy, humans must resist the short-term pleasure of sugar-induced dopamine hits, followed by immobility around screens. You need the challenge of building healthy habits. Building healthy habits can hurt. Soreness and sweating are not enjoyable, that is, until you realize the long-term pleasure of your short-term pain. Something then clicks in your brain as you say, “I rejoice in the challenge! I’ve seen the fruits of the challenge! Bring it on!” 

This is not a natural human response to stuckness. 

The same is true in ministry. Many churches are emotionally stuck. No new ideas are tried. Small attempts at challenge are rebuffed by various risk-averse opinion leaders. Church systems that proverbially “sit still” bring injury and harm to themselves. 

Leaders who lovingly challenge the stuckness with creativity and emotional courage can, over time and with persistence, get the “couch potato” ministry moving. 

  1. Bewilderment demands focus.

There can be so much confusion in leadership. Decision fatigue can develop. Various opinion leaders have assorted opinions on how the ministry should function. Some leaders and pastors enter into ministry because they simply want to love people. We didn’t think loving people could be so hard, so complicated, so confusing. 

Welcome to the struggle of leading sinners. It takes one to know one. 

Leaders bring ministry focus to the entire ministry. This sounds easier than it is. This requires bringing together opinion leaders from multiple teams (elders, boards, staff, volunteers, etc.) to orient each ministry toward a clear and focused holistic vision. 

To be clear is to be kind. I learned this the hard way recently. 

In my pastoral ministry, I was lovingly confronted about a year ago by a young staff member in our communication’s team who asked, “Do we have a shared vision in our family of ministries?” The way I answered her was less than satisfactory to myself and the rest of our team. We then went on a multiple month exploratory journey to find the one statement that unified our family of ministries. “You Belong Here” was the outcome. I love how this phrase focuses our ministry. 

We resist bewilderment with the focus on helping as many people as possible belong to Jesus and His church. 

  1. New conditions demand change.

This is probably the hardest situation for us to grasp in the wider LCMS. New conditions are all around us. Technology. Secularism. Political polarization in the world and in our church body. 

Steinke writes extensively about what is required from leaders who notice the new conditions. 

If leaders fear change, the fear will seep into the whole system. By taking a fearful position, the leader immobilizes the system. Quite often, abdicates the role of change agent because the leader is too concerned with feelings–one’s own or that of others. The head of the system loses its head–its thinking capacity. The question must be, what is our best thinking in this situation? (Teaching Fish to Walk, p. 89)

Leaders in the LCMS, I am praying for you. Your call is to change in the midst of new conditions. How is this done? Help the varied parts and leaders unite around a shared why. This will take a lot of work. We’ll continue to argue over the what and the how until this hard work is done. Please do not take a fearful position. Imagine how amazing it would be if the LCMS united around a shared why of delivering Word and Sacrament to those within and outside of our churches!

Leaders at the highest levels of leadership (presidents, professors, bureaucrats, board members, etc.) must not fear change. All of the metrics and ministry silos and factions display change is needed. We’re immobilized to work through our challenges until faith overwhelms your fear. 

Until this happens, and I deeply pray it does, those of us working in local congregations will strive to be the change we want to see. 

Let the ULC know if we can serve you in your journey of leading change in your local congregation.


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