As I reflect back on my 35 years of ministry, the thing that stands out most to me as far as having a successful ministry, is the building of relationships; taking the time to really get to know people, to become a part of their lives and to truly love them. When people know that you love them, most will give you grace when the time comes (as it will) when you say or do something they do not agree with.
Another key to successful ministry for me has been what I call ‘bringing people along’. I may have the greatest idea in the world, but I learned early on, you have to help people come on board with you so they take ownership of it. One example was moving a congregation I served to every Sunday communion from communion twice a month. First, I began by asking the question at a Worship Committee meeting about why they don’t have communion every Sunday, and then I let the question sit. For a year or more, I would raise the question every few months, until at one meeting our worship chair who had only recently come on the committee took up my question and made it his own. From there, the committee began to explore why we might want to move to every Sunday communion, and I laid out the theological reasons for it. To be honest, some of them were not persuaded by my theological rationale, but when someone else mentioned that because they worked a job that required them to be on call every other weekend and those weekends tended to fall on the same Sundays we had communion so they often went several months without receiving communion; the conversation really began to shift. Eventually, the Worship Committee voted to recommend to the Council that we move to every Sunday communion, and the process of teaching and educating why the committee was making that recommendation began again. When the Council voted to approve the Worship Committee’s recommendation, then the educating process moved to the rest of the congregation through articles in the newsletter, sermons on Holy Communion and conversations with those it would more directly impact, like the Altar Guild—which resulted in some compromises, i.e. only using individual cups every other Sunday and Intinction on the opposite Sundays (instead of individual cups every Sunday).
Obviously, not everything I have proposed in my years of ministry has been as successful as that example. At those times, it is important to focus not on what didn’t work or when the congregation didn’t follow your lead but rather when they did.
Recently, like many churches these last couple of years, we had a couple leave the congregation as the husband spent more and more time online and began to become angry and anxious about the state of affairs in our country. When I wouldn’t go down that rabbit hole with him, he got disgruntled and left the church. Although he wanted to just drift away, Chris and I reached out to both him and his wife, even though it felt quite awkward. It didn’t change the result, but it allowed us to feel like we had done what we could and allow us to send them on their way with our blessing.
Which brings me to my next point, it has been important for me to remind myself on a regular basis to see others (especially those I sometimes struggle with) as children of God, loved by God just as I am. And also not letting conflict change how I interact with people. It’s not always comfortable—but if there is an issue, going to that person and talking with them directly and being willing to apologize when I have been in the wrong, but also giving myself grace when I have tried to listen and deal with them in a loving way, and they refuse to respond in kind.
One of the things that has been most important for me in surviving and thriving in parish ministry has been to keep myself grounded in God and in my family. I regularly keep my Sabbath day, take all of my vacation days and only cancel for an emergency. If people ask if they can schedule something on my day off, I tell them I already have something scheduled; they don’t need to know that what is scheduled is time for yourself or with your family. Regular exercise, a consistent prayer and devotional life, doing things that feed my soul, finding a safe space to vent and share honestly with at least one other person about the struggles of ministry, have all been key for me throughout my 35 years of ministry.