How does a pastor know if he’s lost his bearings or if he’s off to a slow start on the day? Is that sense of being overwhelmed with the ministry a healthy dose of humility or a voice warning that she’s off course?

This is one of the most important questions you’ll ever face as a vocational minister.

Wandering in the hot desert

It has been my sad lot in life to step in behind ministry colleagues who came up with the wrong answer to the question. From personal conversations with them, from looking at church records and from interviews with the congregants I’ve discovered seven consequences they all suffer in varying degrees.

  1. Doubt about the call
  2. Depression or (at least) despondency
  3. Going through the motions rather than grabbing the work with gusto
  4. Objectifying congregants in ways that break trust
  5. Loss of joy in Christ, the congregation and the family
  6. Resigning under duress
  7. Bitterness in the soul

My concern for my colleagues in settled positions is that they get this one right. So let me suggest 10 warning signs that you’ve lost your bearings. (I didn’t purposely strive for 10; it just worked out that way)

1. Your passion in the pulpit is an act

Great danger lurks in being proficient in the pulpit. After you’ve been at it for years, you can put on the mask, deliver the goods and no one will ever know you’ve been faking it. But you know the passion is a pretense.

We all have bad days in the pulpit (I doubt the discernment or the candor of anyone who denies this) but if this is your “new normal” it may be a sign you’ve lost your bearings. If you don’t get this right you’ll be doing ministry in the energy of the flesh, and we all know what that’s worth.

2. You don’t know what to preach next

Ministers who follow the Lectionary enjoy a distinct advantage. They have a ready made preaching plan. Many other pastors plan their preaching in advance, especially in churches where many others are involved in service planning.

When you begin to doubt the Lectionary’s “fit”, when you begin to question the preaching plan or when you just don’t know what to preach next there’s a chance that you’ve lost your bearings. If you know how God is leading you and leading the congregation you’ve usually got more preaching texts and preaching ideas than you can handle.

But when that source of energy, ideas and enthusiasm for direction in your preaching evaporates, beware that you’ve lost your bearings.

3. You’ve become a “paycheck pastor”

This one pains me, but I have to say it. Some of my colleagues are “pay check pastors.” Their vision – if you could call it that – are to tread water until it’s time to retire or until a better assignment comes along.

Everybody needs to earn a living. Clergy with children and a spouse to support have the same responsibility as the guy nailing boards together or the gal driving a delivery truck. But if that’s the main motive for remaining in the ministry you’ve lost your bearings.

4. You don’t know the direction your church is headed

In some churches your job is to lead. In others your job is to lead a leadership team.

But if you don’t know where you’re leading them, if you don’t know the direction to which God is calling you then you have by definition lost your bearings.

Others may help discern the direction (I believe that “vision discovery” is a group process rather than a top down process) but the pastor (or lead pastor) before all others must know the direction and must take the lead.

If you can’t tell me in one to three declarative sentences where the church is headed then you have lost your bearings.

5. Church members don’t know where the church is headed

Not every pastor is a great vision communicator. Not ever successful turnaround pastor or church-growing pastor does a good job of communication vision or direction to the church. But their churches “get the drift” as my friend Gordon Penfold has discovered in his research.

On a side note, Rick Warren’s advice that you should restate your vision to the church every thirty days is wise counsel. It’s probably not essential – make or break – but it’s a good idea for most pastors.

So try this: hand out a 3×5 card to 10 people at random on a Sunday morning. Ask them to write down the direction they see or hear in the church and to give it to your secretary before they leave. Then read them on Monday morning. If most folks miss the mark, you’ve lost your bearings.

6. You’ve started seeing church members as problems rather than opportunities

This often happens when pastors counts on a program or an activity to guid momentum in the right direction, but the church members don’t buy in. When you’ve focused on making a program succeed you have, by definition (see Ephesians 4) lost your bearings. Joe McKeever puts it this way:

The people are not the problem, pastor; they are your opportunity. You are your biggest problem, pastor. If you want your people to minister in the community, go minister in the community yourself. If you want your people to visit in homes, go visit in homes yourself. If you want them to take door-to-door surveys or prayer-walk blocks, go do it yourself.

7. You can’t state the “big idea” of the Bible

There are a few – only a few – ideas that every minister should have nailed. Nailed down solid. Among them are “What are the distinctive characteristics of a disciple?”, “What is the biblical description of the ekklesia?” and (this one is huge) “What is the metanarrative of the Bible from Genesis to Revelation?”

Every pastor should be able to write out a clear, concise declarative sentence – use two or at most three if you must – that adequately encapsulates your understanding of the arc of the biblical narrative from beginning to end.

If you can’t state this then how can you possibly even have bearings to lose? In this case you haven’t lost your way because you never had a path to follow!

8. You look to church growth instead of the Lord

Do I need to explain this one?

Don’t get me wrong; the Church Growth movement has done wonders for the renewal of American churches – when it’s applied properly. You should stay abreast of the literature because the research (when it’s done well) serves as a set of guard rails to keep you from plunging off the highway.

But it is limited in its ability to tell you what to do next to lead this church forward in its mission to this community. Wisdom resides at the intersection of knowledge (which comes from general and special revelation) and action. In other words, wisdom is knowing what to do next based on the facts at hand – and that comes from the Lord.

9. Conferencitis

I see this a lot in my client churches. The departing pastor spent the last several years of tenure lurching from one seminar or conference to the next. Then, when he returns from conference, the church is all about the latest fad for about six months. That soon runs out of gas and then she’s off to the next conference, which will propel her ministry for another six months.

I can’t begin to tell you how often I’ve heard or seen this. In the assessment interviews people often recount that the last several years of the departed pastor’s ministry was spent wandering in various directions in search of a compelling vision.

This drains vigor and joy from the pastor and the church.

If you’re big on the conference circuit because it’s a place to catch up with colleagues, that’s great. But if you’re always going with the hopes of finding out how someone else does it so you can copy the strategy, you’ve lost your bearings.

10. You’re thinking another seminary degree is just the tonic you need

I understand this one. In fact, I’ve done it myself. There’s good reason why the D. Min. industry is flourishing right now. Paul Borden sticks his finger in the sore spot.

Most pastors are not natural-born leaders. They lack either the gift or the talent of leadership. Pastors are like most people since the majority of the population lacks the gift or the talent for leadership. Pastors, however, whether they desire it or not, are in a position of leadership.

Of all the professions, pastors are probably least trained to be competent for the tasks of leadership for which they are responsible. This is not their fault, since seminaries or Bible colleges are not doing it (and let me say, seminaries can’t do it or be expected to do it). However, it is the pastors’ problem. Paul Borden, Make or Break Your Church in 365 Days: A Daily Guide to Leading Effective Change. (affiliate link)

A D. Min. program can help you acquire some leadership and management skills. But it can’t give you your bearings. Only God can do that, through the Word, by the Spirit and in answer to prayer.

So if you’re looking to a few initials after your name, you’ve lost your bearings and you’re definitely headed in the wrong direction.

Action Steps

If you’re wondering whether you’ve lost your bearings or are merely in need of some rest, try these steps:

  • Read the resources below
  • Seek the counsel of others in the fraternity of the ministry
  • Ask church members to describe the direction of the church
  • Give your spouse permission to speak honestly about your calling
  • Spend a day away from the office in prayer and meditation. Be honest with yourself and with God.

Additional Resources