According to research shared from Barna Group, 29% of pastors thought about quitting during the pandemic. Our local paper, the Wilkes Journal Patriot, ran a national article reflecting on the difficulty of the pandemic year for pastors, and how some had stepped away. Anecdotally, I know of several pastors who have stepped away from ministry of their own accord or were encouraged to leave by their churches. Also anecdotally, the associate pastor at our church shared that 5 of the 7 close ministry friends he has worked with over the past 20 years are no longer in vocational ministry.

Personally, the past 15 months have been challenging and at times overwhelming. I understand the sentiment and concerns for many of these pastors who have stepped away. But I long for something more. I long to finish well.

In this post, I’m writing to pastors and church leaders. My aim is to encourage you to apply some of the strategies for finishing well. In a subsequent post, I’m going to write to churches and church members encouraging you to support and encourage your pastors and ministers on their journey.

In his book, The Making of a Leader, J. Robert Clinton reflected on several barriers to leaders finishing well. They are:

  1. Finances-their use and abuse
  2. Power-its abuse
  3. Pride-which leads to downfall
  4. Sex-illicit relationships
  5. Family-critical issues
  6. Plateauing

The strategies below will not specifically address each of these barriers. But they will help us as leaders to build habits and character traits into our lives that will help us finish well.

No leader plans not to finish well, but leaders who finish well make plans to finish well.

Leaders don’t finish well accidentally.

Strategy #1. Create spiritual habits that keep you close to Jesus. If you examine the barriers above, many of them relate to sin issues. Fame, flirtations, and finances have been the downfall of many pastors/leaders better than us. Avoiding sin issues that disqualify leaders requires spiritual habits that keep us close to Jesus. We need to read and study the Bible devotionally, to pray dependently, to preach the gospel to ourselves regularly, and to confess and repent consistently. When we drift from Jesus, we will drift into sin.

Strategy #2. Keep your family a priority. Some ministers are forced to step away from ministry because ministry itself became an idol and destroyed their families. The leader who wants to finish well must prioritize healthy family relationships and interactions. Eat meals together. Talk. Have a family devotional time. Do fun things together. Go on holidays and vacations.

Strategy #3. Stay physically active and healthy. Vocational ministry is largely sedentary. Sitting, writing, reading, counseling, and relational interactions are not physically active parts of the job. Physical activity helps me sleep better and encourages better eating habits. Physical sloth encourages poor health habits. Take walks. Go running or hiking. Play an active sport. Physical activity is a natural stress relief and longterm health benefit.

Strategy #4. Never stop learning/growing. One of my favorite verses in the Bible is 2 Timothy 4:13: “When you come, bring the cloak that I left with Carpus at Troas, also the books, and above all the parchments.” Paul was in the latter days of his ministry, but he still wanted to read, study, learn, and grow. I was convicted by the reality referenced in Clinton’s book that many ministers don’t burn out of ministry, they plateau. Develop a reading and study plan. Write. Take a course. By continuing to grow and learn, we remain pliable and teachable as pastors/leaders.

Strategy #5. Develop friendships and accountability. I need people in my life to look me in the eye and call me out for folly or sin. God has graciously given me several people who will regularly speak truth into my life and ask the hard questions. If you don’t have these people in your life, pray that God will give them to you. Finishing well means that God has protected you from foolishness and sin, and often God protects us by using friends as our accountability. Get in a discipleship group. Find an accountability partner. Open up to your spouse.

Strategy #6. Ask for help. You can’t do everything you are responsible for. You need help whether that help comes in the form of staff members, assistants, or lay leaders. Pastors (leaders) that last are pastors (leaders) who don’t try to do it all. Delegate. Train others. Disciple fellow workers and leaders. Turn over key tasks and responsibilities. During the pandemic, our church has remained strong because we have so many key leaders (staff and lay) who have taken ownership of everything from technology to cleaning to other protocols.

Plan to finish well.

Photo by Joshua Hoehne on Unsplash

I’ve been a UNC Tar Heel basketball fan ever since my family moved from Kentucky to North Carolina in 1985. My dad has always been a sports’ fan. He’s began cheering for the University of Kentucky men’s basketball team when he moved to Kentucky for Bible College. When a pastoral calling brought our family back to North Carolina when I was five, we could only watch local sports. So we watched a lot of UNC basketball. I began cheering for UNC with Coach Dean Smith and players like Rick Fox, J. R. Reid, Hubert Davis (current coach at UNC), Donald Williams, George Lynch, Eric Montross, and many others. As a kid, I pulled for UNC because I loved the color of Tar Heel Blue. But over the years, I grew to be a fan of all things Tar Heel athletics.

As UNC fan, I was saddened by Dean Smith’s retirement in 1997, but happy for Coach Gutheridge to get a chance at leading the UNC men’s basketball program. I was a fan through the Matt Doherty years which were difficult. And then with other UNC fans, I was thrilled that native son Roy Williams would be returning to coach UNC, the program where he began his coaching career as an assistant under Dean Smith.

Three national championships later and Coach Roy Williams is one of the greatest coaches in college basketball. Known for his work ethic and straight talk, he’s always been one of my favorite personalities to watch. He cares deeply about winning and has kept the same Carolina Family atmosphere that fans have grown to love. On April 1 of this year, news came out that Roy Williams was going to retire. I thought it was an April fool’s joke.

Later that day I listened to Roy William’s press conference where he detailed his decision process for stepping away from the UNC program. As a Tar Heel fan, I can admit that I had a tear or two listening to Coach Roy comment on stepping down.

You may be reading this and not care a thing about basketball or you may pull for a different team. That’s ok. This post is not an apologetic for UNC basketball. But I do want to highlight three leadership lessons that stood out at Roy William’s retirement press conference.

Leaders don’t make excuses. The last couple of years for UNC basketball have not been typically as successful as previous years. There are many reasons for these struggles: injuries, players leaving for the NBA early, the pandemic, etc. There are also extenuating circumstances like the coming “NIL: Name, Image, Likeness” issues that are about to affect college athletes, programs, and schools. When media gave Coach Williams a chance to place blame on some of these issues, he simply didn’t. Leaders are effective because they don’t make excuses.

Leaders take responsibility. Taking responsibility is a corollary to the previous lesson. Coach Williams could have blamed the environment, players, or the coming changes in college athletics. Instead he said something like this, “I’m not the right man for the job anymore. I just couldn’t get through to the players.” As a fan it was obvious that part of UNC’s problem in the last couple of years was a talent deficiency. But as a leader, Coach Williams would not blame the players. He owned the record, the struggles, and the team. Leaders take responsibility when things go poorly. They look inside first. They self-examine and refuse to blame others.

Leaders give away credit. Coach Williams credited his players, Coach Smith, his assistants, and others who supported him for the program’s success under his leadership. One of the values Coach Smith emphasized for his players was pointing to the person who gave you the assist. It is a way of sharing credit and saying “Thank you.” To be a successful leader means that there are plenty of people in your circle of influence who have helped you to be successful.

These three leadership lessons can help any leader of any organization of any size be more effective with the people they are leading. Before concluding this post, let me offer an observation and a warning.

Here’s the observation.

Coach Williams’ retirement press conference felt more like a funeral, than a recognition of a hall of fame coach retiring from a successful career. As a UNC fan, the press conference was obviously sad. But it felt sadder than it should have. Why? I think that’s partly due to Coach Williams’ approach to life and coaching. Known for his work ethic, Coach Williams obsessively values hard work and effort. He poured his life into his work as he details in his book entitled Hard Work: A Life on and off the Court.

Here’s the warning.

Leaders must be careful not to find their identity in their work or the success of their leadership. After listening to the press conference, it was not difficult to connect the challenges of the past few seasons at UNC with Williams’ self-evaluation. Rather than celebrate what had been, Williams questioned what could have been. I don’t have any insights into Coach Williams’ faith or lack thereof. But Coach Williams’ retirement press conference serves as a warning to leaders. As a follower of Jesus, I cannot find my identity in my work, my level of effort, my success, or my leadership. Jesus followers must find their identity in their relationship with Jesus Christ. Nothing else will satisfy. Leadership success will ebb and flow. Quality work will satisfy only until one is unable to work. If we identify ourselves with our labors, then, when our labors are through, we will have a hard time discovering who we are and what really matters in life.

The Bible teaches us in Romans 12:8 that the one who leads must lead with zeal or diligence. Jesus modeled servant leadership. Paul modeled leadership through a team. And I can tell you that leading a church or organization is hard work. It is part of that labor and work that God created his followers for (see Ephesians 2:10).

But we need to balance this effort and labor of leadership against the truth of the gospel. In the gospel Christ worked for our salvation. In the gospel, Christ led where we could not follow. Only Jesus could be the sacrifice and substitute for our sins. We do not labor in leadership and works in order to earn our salvation. Rather, we labor and work from the salvation we’ve received through Christ. Our identity is bound up in grace, not personal success. Our identity is found in Christ, not in our labors and leadership.

So, let’s learn these lessons well. Don’t make excuses. Take responsibility. Give credit to others. But remember that your identity is in Jesus, not the success or failure of your leadership. And Jesus cannot fail. That is good news for the follower of Christ. When our labors are done and we retire from this earthly life into heaven, we can celebrate. For our hope is not in our success, but it is found in the victory of Christ.