Friday, August 25, 2017

How to Survive the “Pastors Graveyard” of New England

Ministry in New England is as hard as this region’s frozen ground, but I had no idea how hard it would be when my wife and I moved here in 2010. I think I believed my seminary-stuffed brain made me somewhat invincible.

There’s a reason they call New England “The Pastors Graveyard” just as there’s good reason The Graveyard of the Atlantic got its name among sailors—it’s rocky and it’ll sink you if you’re not prepared.

By God’s grace, though, our years in northern Maine have become the best and hardest years of our life and ministry.

If you’re thinking about ministry in this part of the world or in some other difficult soil, here’s three things God has taught me along the way.

Obedience to Jesus, not results, is your mission. 

Growing up in the church, we held many outreach events. It was often said “if only one person gets saved then it was worth it all.” If that were my standard over the past seven years of ministering at Calvary Baptist Church in Caribou, Maine, then I would have considered most of our outreach events as failures.

Obedience to Jesus, not results, must be the goal. This has become our consistent focus at Calvary. We can say with sincerity (we often do), “If no one gets saved, it will be worth it all because we were obedient to Jesus.” Ministry up here is the long game, and what it’s done for my heart, my family, and our church is draw us into deeper worship. It’s maintained our obedience to the mission of making disciples of Jesus Christ. So we worship, we obey, and we trust Jesus to accomplish His work through us.

Bi-vocational ministry is your secret weapon.

Bi-vocational ministry is a powerful and, often, essential approach to sustainable gospel work in difficult places like New England. Though serving as a bi-vocational pastor can create a challenging juggling act, it also can create gospel opportunities otherwise unavailable while ministering in hard contexts. Having a job in your community provides you with daily connections with lost people, it builds credibility and trust with community leaders, and it gives you an opportunity to invest your professional skills in the community.

So it’s missional, but it’s also practical. By reducing the financial strain of a salary from a struggling church, you open up more resources for ministry. Plus, let’s face it: a regular paycheck, insurance, paid time-off, and a daily sense of accomplishment can help strengthen your and your family’s resolve for the long haul.

Yes. I know you are a disciple of Jesus and your primary goal should be obedience to the mission, but pastoring day-after-day without spiritual results can be extremely difficult no matter how many times you remind yourself of the mission. Having an outlet outside of ministry to be successful can bring an overall sense of accomplishment that will flow into your ministry and allow for the true goal of your church to be the mission, not results.

Ministry is not a lone venture.

If Jesus never worked alone then I’m not sure why we pastors would ever feel it’s okay to be a one-man team. Your ministry does not rise and fall on you and it was never meant to be done alone. On the one hand, if you position yourself as a one-man team you will receive the praise if results come. But, in a hard context, if results don’t come, you have positioned yourself to receive the blame. Working with a team of qualified leaders will allow you to share the load of ministry and the blame if it comes.

You will flare out. And in a context like New England, if you are not sharing the load and investing in leaders then you are stunting the spiritual growth and gifts of your members and sabotaging the future growth of your ministry. Make ministry a team sport and be ready to weather the storm no matter how deep the snow gets.

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