Church, you’re probably playing the wrong game

Dr. Bruce Hopler

Vice President of Church Strengthening

  • Church strengthening

With my wiring, I play to win. I didn’t get into ministry because I wanted to coast for 30 to 40 years. Trust me; it’s the wrong role for that. In my calling into ministry, I have been driven to advance the kingdom by seeing more people become followers of Christ and for disciples to live in greater alignment with him. I knew it would be hard; in fact, Scripture promised it would be. (Although at times it has been way harder than I imagined it would be.) In short, I want to make a difference in the world for the cause of Christ.

From my experience working with churches across the U.S. and the world, I think that most healthy pastors and church leaders would say the same thing. Quite frankly, if any of us didn’t believe that, the challenges of ministry simply would not be worth it. 

The apostle Paul would agree. In Philippians 2:16, he expressed his longing to not labor in vain.  Earlier in the letter, Paul assured us that he who began a good work in us will see it to completion. No one sacrificed more than Paul, yet he kept his eye on the prize and never wavered in the belief that God always shows himself victorious. 

Wouldn’t you agree that it would be pretty exhausting if your framework of understanding of how to live out your calling day to day were wrong? Allow me to illustrate. I became intrigued about my home city winning the 2019 World Series. The Washington Nationals’ road to the championship was very different than that of the 2019 college football national champion Clemson Tigers.

For example, college football only has 12 regular-season games, and you have to be almost perfect to even qualify for the College Football Playoff. Most teams go into the playoffs with zero or maybe one loss in the regular season (both Clemson and Alabama entered the 2019 championship game with a 14-0 record after winning their respective conference championship game and a playoff semifinal). You must play hard, and even the thought of an off day could dash your hopes and dreams of rising above in the end. Unless they are injured, every first-string player is expected to pull out all of the stops in every game.

In contrast, Major League Baseball has 162 regular-season games, starting pitchers only pitch one out of five days to ensure enough rest, getting on base one-third of the time is considered impressive and having a bad game does not determine the rest of the season. The Nationals were doing so bad at the beginning of the season that they only had a 1.5% chance of even making the playoffs. No one believed they would make it; I doubt even the players were that optimistic. The fans were so mad that they wanted the manager fired. Yet the Nationals, in the end, won the World Series.

Too many pastors and church leaders have a football framework when they should be thinking in terms of baseball. Any Sunday that is not a resounding victory, pastors are writing their resignation letter Monday morning, and church leaders are just plain discouraged. The problem is, they are playing the wrong game. Ministry is not like football; it is like baseball. There will be highs and lows, winning streaks and slumps, good games and bad. Both football and baseball are very competitive, but the day-to-day perspective is very different. 

I have three suggestions for the slow seasons and three for the winning seasons.

For the slow seasons

  • Remember your identity: You are a child of God; your identity is in Christ, not in your results. After all, there are many results you cannot control. The evil one wants nothing more than for you to go into a downward spiral. Be countercultural, as Jesus would have you be, and just enjoy who you are in Christ. This is a perfect time to sharpen your personal spiritual formation.
  • Become strategically intentional: If things are not going the way you believe they should, you should ask the tough questions. This is not a time to play the victim or go into denial. While there are things you can’t control, there are areas of obedience you can pursue. Gather your team around you and work a plan to get out of the slump.
  • Rest: If it is a slow season, you are probably emotionally exhausted. That is not a good time to make major decisions. Take this time and do something that you enjoy, something that energizes you. Make sure you are taking care of your first ministry: your family. It is not fair to project your stress and discouragement on them.

For the winning seasons

  • Remember your identity: Pride is easy at a time like this, which will soon steer you off course. If you shouldn’t over self-identify with the bad seasons, then you probably shouldn’t take full credit for the good seasons. By all means, enjoy this season! Just separate yourself enough from it that your value and self-worth come from Christ himself.
  • Become strategically intentional: When you are on top of a roller coaster, you feel like you are on top of the world. The downside (pun intended) is that you literally have nowhere to go but down. Take time to celebrate, but also take time to ask, “What steps do we need to take to keep being faithful to what God has given us?”
  • Rest: If it an exciting season, then you are probably physically exhausted. Rest is an expression of faith that God is in control and you are not superhuman. Make sure you are taking time with your family, doing what is fun for you and don’t forget to take a nap.

We are entering the Christmas season. For many churches, this is a highlight of the year. Enjoy the celebration of the Savior’s birth. Also, perhaps take time to think through your “baseball” season of 2020. Don’t plan that you will get on base every time and win every game. Instead, take a cue from the Nationals: Every day is a new day. You don’t build your identity in the times you strike out, or even in the times you hit a home run. Instead, you gather your team and continuously ask, “What would Jesus have us do?”

Senior pastors, do you and your spouse need time to pull away and reassess where you are at personally, relationally and in ministry so you can reengage for greater fruitfulness? Learn how.

Dr. Bruce Hopler, Vice President of Church Strengthening

Dr. Bruce Hopler has been coaching pastors and church planters for over 20 years. He now serves as the executive director of Church Strengthening at Converge. Bruce started a church in Maryland against all odds with no core group and no upfront funding, but it has grown for 18 years. He then moved to Las Vegas, where he was the Spiritual Formation pastor for the eighth-fastest growing church in America. During his time in Vegas Bruce completed his doctorate in spiritual formation and leadership from Fuller Theological Seminary. After four years there, he moved to Orlando to join Converge. Bruce loves planters and pastors. He has been certified in StratOps, Church Unique and SOULeader coaching. He strives to help pastors discover what healthy means, within their unique calling and context.

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