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Rethinking the chess board in pastoral ministry

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Reflecting on past moves and next steps

It came as a complete shock to almost everyone. In 2005, a relatively obscure Asian technology company named Lenovo bought North American computing giant IBM’s PC division and the ThinkPad brand to become the second largest maker of personal computers in the world. The Chinese media hailed it as a coup, celebrating that “a snake had swallowed an elephant.”

But Lenovo’s rise to a global technology company shouldn’t have surprised anyone. A look inside their corporate culture reveals a clear philosophy and approach to leadership health that we, in the church, could learn from as we survey the state of the pastorate in our nation.

The world of technology, not unlike much of vocational ministry, happens at a frenetic pace. Development and growth cycles become ever shorter. Leadership development challenges abound. There’s pressure from above, questions from beneath, and emotional and relational tensions that inevitably bubble to the surface of our lives as we move forward in mission fulfillment.

For those charged with spiritual leadership, health and vitality can grow only as we root our lives in the disciplines of evaluation, reflection, and rest.

Replaying the chess board 

One of the elements of corporate culture that makes Lenovo so lithe is its commitment not only to quick adaptation, but also to a practice known as fu pan. In English, it means “replaying the chess board.” The idea is to step back and assess your last move with the hope of improving next time.

In ministry, many organizations and personality types move so quickly or non-reflectively that we don’t apply rigorous evaluation to anything. Volunteer or staff assessments? Who has time for that! Evaluation of the weekend gatherings? Where would I fit that into my calendar? The idea behind assessment in our ministry isn’t necessarily to critique it, but to evaluate carefully and intelligently how our actions and reactions as leaders fit into the bigger picture of pastoral and organizational health.

The leaders at Lenovo rigorously practice fu pan because they understand that sometimes “the most dangerous thing is to be successful. You then think every decision is the right one. That’s why you have to review what you do.”

When was the last time your church conducted a thorough and edifying pastoral review process? When was the last time you as a pastoral leader slowed down enough to ask yourself how other people experience your leadership? If it’s been a while, perhaps it’s time to step back for a season and have a look again at the chess board.

Is your bucket full?

Part of the purpose of stepping back from the fray is to develop rhythms that replenish your soul as a leader. I’m oriented toward activism, so disciplines like solitude and silence are difficult for me. But knowing how to appropriately and regularly step out of the day-to-day flow of ministry in order to be refreshed and recharged has been a life-giving experiment for me.

Beyond the weekly Sabbath, our associate pastor and I take a day out of the office each month to pray and spend time outdoors in creation. The heart of these times is the practice of disciplined reflection. The fourth-century bishop of Milan, Ambrose, poignantly asked in his Duties of the Clergy, “Am I to suppose that he is fit to give me advice who never takes it for himself, or am I to believe that he has time to give to me when he has none for himself?…  How can a person have time for giving counsel who has none for quiet?”

As a leader or ministry team, when was the last time you got away from the noise of ministry to be with Jesus? Put another way, does your life look like that of a person who wants to hear from God?

Extended sabbaticals

More lengthy times of sabbatical give pastors an opportunity to recharge and reflect in profound and holistic ways. For me, I found the three months I took last summer helped me focus my passion and actions, and to graciously say “no” to things that didn’t fit with my gifts or calling in this season of life.

In his helpful book The Emotionally Healthy Church, pastor Peter Scazzero argues that “embracing our God-given limits is at the core of our calling…as spiritual leaders. When we don’t respect God’s limits in our lives, we will often find ourselves overextended, stressed, and exhausted.”

Perhaps that’s why Paul reminds church leaders in Ephesus of this very thing during his final visit with them: “Keep watch over yourselves” (Acts 20:28). Twinned with doctrinal purity, the integrity and health of their lives is at the heart of their job description as spiritual leaders. The state of their moral, emotional, and spiritual lives is so important that Paul repeats this instruction to Timothy as he invites him to “watch your life…closely” (1 Timothy 4:16).

In order to diligently ask these questions, however, we must step away from both the successes and frustrations of our week-to-week responsibilities and enjoy time of reflection, rest, and reconnection with our Heavenly Father (see, for example, Jesus’ practice in Mark 1:35 and many other places).

Who knows, if we step back from the chess board, we may just begin to see clearly enough to make our next move.

—Brad Sumner is lead pastor at Jericho Ridge Community Church, Langley, B.C.

Suggested resources

• Strengthening the Soul of Your Leadership: Seeking God in the Crucible of Ministry by Ruth Haley Barton

• The Spirit-Led Leader: Nine Leadership Practices and Soul Principles by Timothy C. Geoffrion
Pause, Recharge, Refresh: Devotions to Energize a Pastor’s Day-to-Day Ministry by H.B. London, Jr.

• Oasis Ministries – Ministry health check workshops & retreats (oasisretreatscanada.com)

• Regent College (Vancouver) Pastors’ Conference, “Overflow: Spiritual Rhythms and Practices that Draw from Christ’s Fullness,” May 1–4, 2012 (conferences.regent-college.edu/pastors)

Clergy Renewal: The Alban Guide to Sabbatical Planning by Richard Bullock and Richard J. Bruesehoff

The Rest of God: Restoring Your Soul by Restoring Sabbath by Mark Buchanan

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