Editors’ note: 

The call came from a friend. As a senior pastor in a very demanding context, he needed help. He was searching for some advice. I took time to pause and pray…

The call came from a friend. As a senior pastor of a church in a very demanding context, he needed help. Crises abound, resources are scarce, and he was searching for some advice on how to manage the pace of life and ministry. I listened for a long while. I then took time to pause and pray.

I could have nagged him to take his day off, slow down, remember that there’s only one Messiah and it wasn’t him, remember the Sabbath day, not be too busy to pray, and so on. However, pausing and praying helped me to gather my own thoughts in God’s presence. Neither my friend nor I are unschooled in matters pastoral or theological. We’ve both read all the right books on the topic of busyness and stress in ministry. We’ve both seen the dire consequences surrounding those we knew and admired who had failed in this area. But where was wisdom to be found for us, for our lives and ministry today? I paused. I prayed. When I finally spoke, this is what I had to say.

1. Culture Trumps Vision and Strategy

1. Culture Trumps Vision and Strategy

Culture is critically important. Christian leaders are first and foremost followers of Jesus. Therefore they ought to be leading the way in growing in holiness and Christ-likeness. Our godliness and prayerfulness are the things that our people need most from us. If we genuinely believed this then we would slow down to pray, to consider our sins daily and repent daily, to rest in God and obey the Sabbath.

I found myself saying to my friend that when I’m 85, I want to be that godly, patient, prayerful, gentle, good, kind, wise, joyful, self-controlled, peaceful, grace-filled old guy that all the young pastors want to grow up to be — because I’m the most Christ-like person they know apart from Christ himself. I don’t want to be the superstar leader who is primarily thought of as the person who ‘achieved so much’ in his time and generation. Ministry legacy matters less than ministerial character.
My Christ-likeness matters, and the culture of Christlike leadership that I create and sustain through my actions and leadership matters. 

Creating a culture in my church or organisation formed by intimacy with and transformation into the likeness of Jesus Christ matters, and matters very much. It is much more important than Vision and Strategy.
Vision and Strategy are words that we can sometimes use to describe what are ultimately our own aims and agendas. No matter how nobly they might have been formed, they are still our’s and not necessarily our Lord’s. 

To say that Culture trumps Vision and Strategy is to say that following Jesus closely keeps giving him permission to be the Lord in our lives and ministries. The Lord may say, ‘Die to self and to worldly ambition, serve and do not seek to be the most shiny and prominent ministry here.’ ‘Do the dirty, unclean, hidden but most needful work here amongst the lost, outcast, prostitutes and tax collectors.’ ‘Go to Africa/Asia/20–20 Window and be ready to die there.’ ‘Go do this seemingly crazy, wasteful, un-strategic, but ultimately faithful thing.’ He might just lead us in another direction that ends up in a glass-lined corner office high in a modern city skyscraper. 

Culture trumping Vision and Strategy means guarding our godliness and keeping the Sabbath to help us do this and as I spoke to my friend, I found myself saying that keeping the Sabbath is not the same as having a day off. Days off can look like crash days, when I’m so tired and carrying so much residual stress that the day is not about attention to God, prayerfulness or rejoicing in Christ my Saviour, Lord and Friend. Instead it becomes a day when I crash, indulge my preferences, do other needful tasks to keep my life and household going. A crash day is not keeping the Sabbath.
I ought to be ordering each day so that by the time I get to the seventh day, I am able to have enough energy to stay away from work, and attend to God through His general and special revelation; through creation theology and biblical theology. I ought to be able to have a refreshing, joy-filled Sabbath with others, in corporate worship in the Body of Christ. I ought to end the Sabbath more centred on Christ and more filled with a sense of the Holy Spirit’s indwelling nearness.

2. Vision and Strategy trumps Programs

2. Vision and Strategy trumps Programs

I then found myself saying to my friend that living and creating a culture of intimacy with Jesus, closeness to the Lord’s direction and will through prayer and the Word, should inevitably — for the able leader — lead nevertheless to vision and strategy formed out of that culture.

It should lead to big aims for Jesus is King of Kings and Lord of Lords. It should lead to a big vision and strategy for what the Lord might have us achieve for that part of His Kingdom which we inhabit and have some small influence over.
That sort of vision and strategy trumps programmes, processes, the urgent, the immediate, and the critical. We know that too often in ministry, we are driven to respond to the immediate, critical needs that are constantly brought before us. Pastoral crises occur regularly, people need help and a listening ear. Moreover, the problem with every great Sunday service is that it’s only six days till the next one. Longterm, significant and important but not urgent priorities often get pushed off the agenda and get too little focussed prayer and energy.
A prayerful, godly, Sabbath-keeping culture ought to result in time, space, energy, and attention given to vision and strategy. This often means saying a firm ‘No’ or ‘Enough’ to a large variety of extremely good things to do and be involved in.
John Stott kept a day a month for retreat into prayer, planning and study. He gave a week a year to going away to write. Bill Hybels puts it something like this: ‘Divert daily, wander weekly and be away annually.’

I commended these rhythms to my friend, even while being painfully aware that I don’t practice these particularly well myself. These times away from the press of the urgent ought to help us keep Culture central and let the Lord lead our vision and strategy. If we get to that hour in the day, or day in the week, or week in the year too tired to think, pray and plan effectively then something is not right with our rhythms — and we will never get the right vision and strategy in place. The devil of busyness has an interest in making sure that we never get it right. So we must fight him.

3. Programs support Outcomes for People

3. Programs support Outcomes for People

The right, holy, prayed through, Christ-led, God-centred, Spirit-inspired vision and strategy will support good Gospel outcomes for people in the long run. This is not the same as addressing short-term felt needs or the visible, immediate issues. Effective pastoral care is often an exercise in patient and prayerful endurance; and simultaneously an exercise in trusting that love for people will indeed cover a multitude of sins. I am not more loving than my persistence in prayer for my people.

If the Programs that I oversee in my ministry are a result of a God-led vision and strategy, then I can be confident that God will be at work through them to shepherd his sheep. 

Otherwise, it’s all just some fool’s reasonably plausible idea. Some of the most kingdom-effective programs ever seen have been utter foolishness to the world. ‘Do we really need another Bible study group?’, asked no Pharisee ever.

I found myself saying to my oppressed friend that he ought to focus his energies on those programs in his church that actually gave his people bang for buck. People need quick wins on the board more often than we think. Structure engagements with church that help them where they need help right now. If they are hungry, feed them. If they need the Gospel, share it with them. If they need wise counsel, provide it with love. If they aspire to evangelise their neighbours, give them the tools and start an attractive course to which they will actually ask their friends. The list is endless, but most ministers — myself included — find it hard to think beyond our personal experience of what worked to bring us out of our own spiritual funk.

I ended the conversation like this: ‘I’m sorry if none of this makes sense.’ He seemed really grateful. We prayed. And we’re trusting that somehow, God has provided wisdom to help us in our time of need. He’s done so every other time, and so we don’t feel that it’s all that much of a gamble really.