By Eddie Lowen
Why are you serving on that board or with that mission? How do you decide when it’s better to say no?
Have you ever heard the wife of a construction contractor brag about all the work her husband does around the house? Neither have I.
Some churches have a similar dynamic. Here’s how it develops: a capable minister does good work and establishes a positive reputation. He is asked by parachurch ministries and community organizations to lend his talent and influence to help them. Members of the church suggest ways the pastor can gain exposure beyond the church walls via causes they lead. The meetings, e-mails, and events multiply.
Many of us pastor types have at least a touch of attention deficit disorder and a relational gene, so it’s easy to trade office time for some action. But where is the boundary between networking wisely and being lured off mission? At what point do outside activities become escapism, rather than partnership? What’s the price when a church leader’s best energy is spent elsewhere? Who pays it?
Over the last decade, I’ve stepped away from three parachurch board roles before serving the maximum number of years. In each case, I valued and enjoyed the work done by the organizations. I’m highly supportive of all three. But a time came when I sensed that either my family or church might soon be negatively impacted, if I continued.
In one instance, I’ve since returned to the leadership team to serve another term. My kids are now in college and the staff at my church is developing well, which offers me a little more flexibility. However, there are at least two things I’m declining to do right now, despite being interested in them. There is always a line and it’s important to know where it is, especially if you have the freedom to craft your own schedule and commitments.
I am not aware of a formula that matches every leader and circumstances in this category. The capacity of the pastor, the size and health of the church and its staff, and the level of trust established with other leaders are all variables. But there is one overarching value that guides me in these things: Succeed at home first.
If you’re on staff at a church, I am thinking of your church job as your “home” responsibility. I understand there are some unique work arrangements in which part-time ministry cannot be a person’s top priority, even when it’s his or her most fulfilling one. For example, during my final two years of college, I held a part-time student ministry role in a church located 90 minutes from my school. It was a weekend gig that I looked forward to all week, but finishing college well was my priority. So, this piece of advice is for people whose local church ministry is truly their primary or only role.
Like many church leaders, I am asked to assist parachurch ministries, travel to mission fields, help plan conferences, and advise other church leaders. These opportunities often provide reciprocal training and learning experiences for me. I often encounter people who are better than me at what I do, which helps me grow. However, these opportunities also require an investment of time. Because my life belongs to others in some ways, some of the time I give belongs to my wife and family, while some belongs to my church. Because my overseeing team has a generous kingdom spirit, sees the reciprocal value, and trusts me, they allow me to engage in ministry beyond the walls of our church. But I feel an obligation to monitor the impact on my church.
Below are the questions I ask when I have an opportunity to give time and energy to another ministry:
How vibrant are things “at home” right now? Is my church (or primary ministry) enjoying positive momentum, or does it need extra attention from me to recover, or to reach an important tipping point?
By asking this, I’m not suggesting that any concern at home requires the key leader to decline every invitation to become involved elsewhere. But there are some serious circumstances and dynamics that can arise at home that would make diverting my attention unwise.
Is there a relationship between my church and the outside opportunity? Can the opportunity I’m being offered help my church in some way, or is my time and energy a total giveaway?
My church loves to plant new churches, especially in major U.S. cities, so my role with the Orchard Group board and my attendance at Exponential (the leading conference for church planters) both boost the take-home value of my extra-church activity.
Do I find the people, places, and responsibilities refreshing? While this concern could become too important, an outside role should benefit the pastor in some way. Thankfully, I serve with leaders who actually say out loud that I should take my golf clubs or visit with family when I travel to fulfill an outside ministry responsibility. My elders encourage me to take my wife as often as possible. When my kids were still at home, they would sometimes make trips with me.
The Orchard Group board meets in New York City, a place I like to visit. The Exponential Conference meets in Florida, another destination I enjoy. Even though my trips to these places are often only one to two nights, getting away to them often (not always) energizes me.
People at my church often comment that I have more energy after I’ve traveled. Although the rigors of travel can be physically draining, the work and travel make me a better leader by making me a happier person.
Will my absence affect the pace or quality of ministry at home? No church should allow its ministry to lag because the leaders aren’t giving it enough time. If the weekend worship gatherings are less effective than they would otherwise be, it’s a problem. I realize my larger church environment and its larger staff make some of this easier, but I know leaders at small and medium-size churches who do this well.
Am I attempting to escape something or someone? Several months ago on an airplane, a man told me he travels at least four days a week for his job. I asked if he dreaded leaving home every Monday morning. His sarcastic and sad reply was that his children and wife cause him more stress than his job, so he really doesn’t mind being away. He said, “At home, I’m the guy who says ‘we can’t afford that’ and ‘you can’t go to that party.’ But on the road, people pay for my advice and willingly do what I say.” His work world was an escape from his family.
Church leaders can favor outside ministry opportunities over staying at home because the former offers an escape from the latter. A pastor far from home can describe his church as he wishes it to be, rather than as it actually is. He can create a persona that isn’t diminished by reality. He can ignore an unhealthy person or situation by leaving town for 48 hours.
But a church needs its leader engaged in the grind. Construction contractor husbands must tear out walls, pour foundations, and erect framing in order to move life forward at home. Church leaders have our own versions of these inglorious activities. There is only one place where they can be done: at home.
Eddie Lowen serves as lead minister with West Side Christian Church in Springfield, Illinois, and on Standard Publishing’s Publishing Committee.