Like most of us, I was naive when I started the path of being in vocational ministry. I didn’t know what to expect, but I had that deep desire to see the world and my community be transformed by God that is familiar to so many of us that respond to the call of ministry. I began as a part-time youth director in my church while I was starting my post-secondary education, and thought that we would see rapid growth both numerically and spiritually as we lived out our “Deep & Wide” strategy. I had a great team of leaders, a youth group that was friendly and outgoing, and our church had just moved into its own building after 19 years of being a portable church. The excitement was so thick in the air you couldn’t help but feel excited too.
But of course, there were things happening that were both unforeseen and out of my control. After just 9 months of being on the staff of the church I had started attending in high-school, a major conflict broke open in the church. The reasons for this conflict and the lessons we learned from it are for another post, but the impact on our youth group was huge. Over one summer, around 60-70% of the teens in our youth group left the church. The fall youth kick-off that was supposed to be one of the biggest events of the year for us, turned out to be one of the smallest.
I remember feeling upset and angry at God that this was happening. I kept swinging back and forth from being grateful for the teens that had remained and that they were pushing forward in their spiritual growth and feeling sorrow and anger about the youth that were caught up in the conflict and had walked away from the church.
But through all of this, there were a few relationships that kept me going. Well before this conflict broke open, my Lead Pastor had been intentional about getting me to connect with other youth pastors in our city. One in particular, became a close friend who I constantly talked to. He became one of my biggest supporters and a confidant through that time frame. Shortly after the conflict started, my Lead Pastor started taking me with him on his trips to visit his mentor, where I would meet with a youth pastor in another city that had been through similar experiences in her ministry.
There were many things that I learned from this conflict, but I want to focus on just one of them right now. I learned how vital it is to have support systems in place that were outside of my direct ministry context. During this time period, I was fortunate to have an incredible level of support and mentoring from my Lead Pastor who I served with, but it was the combination of people both inside and outside my ministry area that taught me so much and helped me remain faithful to the call God had put on my life.
It’s been almost 7 years now since that conflict started, and since that time I’ve consistently sought out support systems that are outside of my immediate ministry context. These supports have created some of the deepest friendships and most encouraging conversations that I am absolutely convinced have made me a better husband, father, pastor, and friend.
Right now I’m part of a group of three pastors that meet every Wednesday for lunch. All of us are in different denominations, and I’m fortunate to be the young guy at the table, able to learn and share from these two experienced pastors. This lunch meeting is one of the first things I put on my calendar each week, and even when I’m on vacation, if I’m at home, I still meet with these guys because of how life-giving and refreshing the conversations we have are.
Secondly, I head into a nearby city once a month to meet with a group of pastors from the same denomination as me. We call this our “Strategic Peer Network,” and it’s one of the best ways to hear about what’s happening in our larger family of churches. Going to this meeting is an all-day commitment for me, it’s a choice to spend four hours driving for a two-hour meeting.
And lastly, I have a close friend in my city who doesn’t attend my church. He has experience as a pastor and has become a very close friend to me. We don’t have a set schedule for when we meet, but whenever we do it is like a breath of fresh air. Often just getting together and talking about what’s going on helps me to find clarity about decisions that I have to make.
How To Find Support Systems Outside Of Your Ministry
Maybe you’ve read this far in the article and you’re thinking to yourself “Well, that’s nice for you… but what about me? I don’t have anyone like that in my life.” Maybe you’re serving in a context where you feel isolated, or maybe you’ve realized that everyone you’re in contact with on a regular basis, is already within the circle of your church or ministry.
One of the first places you can look is within your own networks. Maybe your church or ministry is part of a larger family of churches. Maybe you’ve got a denomination with leaders who can help you make a connection to people serving elsewhere in similar contexts or ministries. Try calling some of them and ask who they know that might be in a similar context or setting as you. These relationships will not happen on their own, it takes initiative and a willful choice to connect with others. Please don’t think I’m suggesting you fill your calendar with one more meeting, instead, carve out time for creating a relationship that will be nurturing to you.
The next place to look is within your city or region, but outside your normal circles. It takes a bit more effort to build a relationship with someone who may not have the same background, but it’s an incredible way to be connected to the wider kingdom of God in your city or geographical area. Being connected with pastors and leaders in other ministry contexts helps us to see how others have faced similar issues, and can often reassure us that God is bigger than just our own family of churches and experiences.
Another option for ways to find a larger network of people to connect with is to go even further than your city and find ways to take in conferences or other leadership development opportunities. Getting away to spend time learning from other leaders can have a huge impact, and it’s also a way to network with like-minded leaders that could turn into a deeper relationship.
How To Be An Outside Support For Someone Else’s Ministry
Maybe you’re on the other side of the fence and you’ve had another pastor, minister, or someone in a leadership role reach out to you and ask to meet. I know we all have busy schedules, but I want to encourage you to respond with a yes to those requests. It could be that the person contacting you is trying to reach out and form a friendship, and maybe they’ve already been turned down a few times.
When you meet with someone else in a support role, make your first priority to listen to what they have to say without giving advice immediately. Maybe you’ve been in a similar situation—and maybe you know what they need to do—but jumping right to giving advice and telling them what to do is one of the fastest ways to ensure you never meet with them again. By all means, give advice and suggestions, but use discretion to know when the right time to give this advice is.
Lastly, make a choice to follow up with them. If someone meets with you a couple times and then seems to go dark and disappear, try to check in on them. Even the simple act of letting them know that you noticed it’s been awhile since you last spoke can be a huge source of support. It’s easy to be an isolated silo in ministry, especially for those of us who are solo pastors or part of a small staff team. Just letting someone know that they are not alone in this is a big way we can encourage sustainable pastors and leaders.
Ministry can be difficult and isolating at times, but it doesn’t have to be.
One of my mentors and closest friends once talked to me about how it seems that being in ministry (and being a pastor) has become a blood sport where pastors and leaders are treated like commodities to be used up and tossed aside when they’re used up. I’m sure each of us don’t have to think very long to remember a colleague or friend who made the choice to walk away from their ministry context or were forced out of where they were serving for any number of possible reasons.
The truth is, ministry, doesn’t have to be this way. We can choose to take some of our time and give it to others, to invest our energy into the spiritual health of other leaders. We can make the choice to be a support for others and to find supports that go beyond our immediate contexts. If you’re reading this article and feel that some of this applies to you, will you choose to take action and build a support network for yourself and other people in ministry?
I hope you will.