When Try Harder is Not the Answer

Research shows that 9 out of 10 pastors feel worn out and overworked. 75% would describe themselves as “highly or extremely stressed out.”

In my conversations with pastors, I hear many of the same themes. They feel overworked and trapped by the busyness of ministry. They would like the church to grow but feel stuck in a resource gap that keeps them from growing. They often have some idea of what they need to do but struggle to do it – constraints on time, energy, and resources keep them from turning their intentions into execution. The answer in this situation is probably not “just try harder.”

What’s interesting about this is the similarities to small business owners in the same boat. I have spent years helping small business owners grow their businesses, and the same dynamics are at work. They want to grow their business but are stuck in a scalability gap trapped by the busyness of business.

In my experience, the way you get out of the scalability gap is by:

  1. Having a clear vision of the win: what success is and what will produce it
  2. Having clear priorities regarding the steps to get there, and
  3. Carving out enough time, energy, and resources to build the systems and people to accomplish those priorities.

For most churches, the scalability gap is between 50 and 100 members because that is the number at which the demands of pastoral care for a single pastor become overwhelming. Many of us have been taught models of pastoral ministry which simply don’t scale beyond this. Unless the pastor shifts from doing the work to equipping others to do the work, both the pastor’s health and the congregation’s health will suffer.

How do you know what to prioritize? Think of church health and church growth as a kind of root-and-fruit relationship. Generally speaking, healthy churches grow. Now think of church health along five dimensions that we can picture using a hand model.

  1. Intimacy with the Lord. Pictured as the thumb here because it can touch all the others and all the others are dependent on this. Rev 2:4
  2. Ministry to the Lord: This is expressed in prayer, worship, and giving. Note this includes Sunday and Monday worship since biblically work is an expression of worship. Mt 6:1-8,16-19, Col 3:22-24
  3. Outreach: Evangelism, missions and community transformation. Easy to remember here since it’s longer than the other fingers. Mt 6:13,14
  4. Koinonia: healthy community and fellowship. The ring finger here. (the one another passages, e.g. 1Pt 1:22
  5. Growth in Truth: the faithful preaching of and study of the Word. Jn 8:31,32

And very importantly, a crucial 6th health dimension!

6. Leadership development for each of the quality dimensions listed above. The pastor needs a robust pipeline of leadership in each of these areas. 2 Tim 2:2

You might say, “Well, that’s all fine and good, but you started by pointing out that pastors are overwhelmed.” As I mentioned before, this is a common leadership dilemma. What you have to do is prayerfully identify the next priority, the one thing that will move the needle the most – make the biggest difference in creating margin for you and moving from a model where you do all the work to a model where you are equipping others.

Make room for the one thing when you finish that priority. And then repeat the process!