A Dead-Reckoning View of Ministry Challenges

In ocean navigation, dead reckoning is used determine a ship’s position by referencing a previous fixed point, then allowing for changes in speed and direction over time. Of course, GPS gives today’s sailors a much more accurate result than dead reckoning. But GPS is no help for those of us navigating the choppy waters of ministry. So let’s use the metaphor of dead reckoning to draw some conclusions about where we are, and where we’re going, as we steam ahead into the future…

We’ll take three separate “fixed points” from three different Barna Research projects, then calculate our “position and heading” from them…

Fixed Point #1 – Just before the pandemic swept through the culture like a tsunami, permanently changing our social, political, and spiritual landscape, pastors and ministry leaders said these were their top concerns:

1. Reaching a younger audience (51%)

2. Declining or inconsistent outreach and evangelism (50%)

3. Declining or inconsistent volunteering (36%)

4. Stagnating spiritual growth (34%)

5. Declining attendance (33%)

6. Biblical illiteracy (29%)

7. Declining or unpredictable giving patterns (28%)
8. Lack of leadership training and development (23%)
9. Not reflecting the demographic of the community (21%)

Fixed Point #2 – Today, these are the ministry expectations that pastors and ministry leaders say they wish they’d been better-prepared to handle:
1. Handling conflict (40% – up from 27% in 2015)
2. Importance of delegation/training people (37% – up from 20% in 2015)
3. Balancing ministry and administration (35% – up from 21% in 2015)
4. Administrative burden (33% – up from 29% in 2015)
5. Church politics (29% – up from 16% in 2015)
6. Effect of job demands on family (25% – up from 13% in 2015)
7. Being all things to all people (24% – up from 11% in 2015)
8. Challenges in leadership (23% – up from 19% in 2015)
9. Integrating technology into ministry (22% – not asked in 2015)

Fixed Point #3 – And finally, in this post-pandemic transition, pastors and ministry leaders say these are the most enjoyable aspects of their ministry:
1. Preaching and teaching (60%)
2. Discipling believers (8%)
3. Practical pastoral care, such as visiting the sick or elderly (7%)
4. Developing other leaders (7%)
5. Emotional or spiritual pastoral care, such as counseling (6%)
6. Organizing church events, meetings, or ministries (4%)
7. Evangelizing or sharing the gospel (3%)

And now for a little ministry dead-reckoning…

Post-pandemic ministry leaders have been forced into relationally challenging situations that we feel ill-prepared to handle and, previously, weren’t even on our radar. If we’re going to enter into the uncertainty of conflict with wisdom and impact, we’ll be required to redirect our energy and attention away from what we say we love (preaching and teaching) and toward the relational quagmire that we say is one of the least enjoyable aspects of our job (emotional or spiritual pastoral care).

So, something to think about: In Eugene Peterson’s prophetic little “field manual” for pastors, Working the Angles, he lobs this grenade:

“American pastors are abandoning their posts, left and right, and at an alarming rate. They are not leaving their churches and getting other jobs. Congregations still pay their salaries. Their names remain on the church stationery and they continue to appear in pulpits on Sundays. But they are abandoning their posts, their calling. They have gone whoring after other gods. What they do with their time under the guise of pastoral ministry hasn’t the remotest connection with what the church’s pastors have done for most of twenty centuries… The pastors of America have metamorphosed into a company of shopkeepers, and the shops they keep are churches. They are preoccupied with shopkeeper’s concerns [“reaching a younger audience” and “declining volunteering” and “declining attendance,” for example]—how to keep the customers happy, how to lure customers away from competitors down the street, how to package the goods so that the customers will lay out more money… [But instead] the pastor’s responsibility is to keep the community attentive to God. It is this responsibility that is being abandoned in spades.”

Peterson goes on to spotlight the three pastoral acts that shape this calling: 1) Prayer, 2) Reading Scripture, and 3) Spiritual Direction. These three, he says, form the sides of a triangle, and ministry leadership is all about “working the angles” of that triangle. To do that, we have to enter into the relational quagmires of our people with our own foundation of “attending to God” as our primary tool of influence.

Pastoral ministry has far less to do with our public performance and far more to do with our private influence in the lives of those who make up our community. In contrast with preaching and teaching, these disciplines of the pastor require high levels of engagement with the messy, broken people who are fueling unprecedented levels of conflict in the church. This is our “high calling,” and the courageous way we give what meager resources we have with the abandon of the widow who offers her “two mites” into the Temple collection, attracting the delight and awe of Jesus.

In our silent, private, and sacrificial offering of ourselves, thrown into the breach of broken lives yearning for hope, Someone is watching—He’s paying attention with the affection of a Messiah who well understands sacrifice. And He wants us to know we’re not alone—His presence inhabits our hope.

If you would like help as you commit yourself to working the angles, reach to connect with a Vibrant Faith Ministry Leadership Coach. Just CLICK HERE for more information. Coaching is an intentional process that moves you forward into the future you long for.

Rick Lawrence is Executive Director of Vibrant Faith—he created the new curriculum Following JesusHe’s editor of the Jesus-Centered Bible and author of 40 books, including The Suicide Solution, The Jesus-Centered Life and Jesus-Centered Daily. In the Spring of 2024 his new book Editing Jesus: Confronting the Distorted Faith of the American Church will be published. He hosts the podcast Paying Ridiculous Attention to Jesus.


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