By Eddie Pipkin

I was at a local botanical garden last weekend with my wife.  It was a gorgeous day, and I was obsessed in the moment with my attempt to capture a perfect photo.  I was looking at my phone, adjusting settings, snapping shots, editing the results.  Meanwhile, she noticed some interesting looking chairs under a shade structure and said, “Hey, let’s go sit over there and take a break.”  “Of course,” I said, following obediently.  Only, so intently was I focusing on my device that I failed to notice the sign on the low hanging roof edge, the one that said, “WATCH YOUR HEAD.”  I didn’t see the all-caps warning until I had picked myself up from the ground.  Sometimes, that’s how it goes in life and in ministry.  We think we’re devoting our attention to the thing that matters most, but we miss a critical detail, and an avoidable calamity ensues.

(By the way, I am just fine, thanks for asking.   There was a big foam pad encasing the fascia into which I crashed.  Apparently, I was not the first distracted pedestrian to wander that way.  So, other than a heavy dose of embarrassment, I suffered no damage.)

But our misdirected ministry focus can do lasting damage.  It can harm relationships.  It can launch us on detours that can take years to unwind.  It can cause us to miss obvious opportunities.

Here are three ways that we can get mis-focused:

  • The Tyranny of the Calendar.
  • The Pull of the Obsessive Idea.
  • The Cult of Celebrity Cool.

The tyranny of the clock or calendar is a byproduct of our fixation with seasonal schedules.  In ministry we are governed by our fidelity to the ecclesiastical calendar and the liturgical year.  This is appropriate, since the time-honored rhythms of church life give us a meaningful structure that not only theologically honors our heritage and brings structure to the Gospel message, but also delivers to people seasonal celebrations that they are expecting.  However, there is a thin line between the joys of freshly interpreted ritual and the tediousness of uninspired routine.  Letting the calendar drive everything can also rob us of perspectives that focus on the needs of our local context.  Stewardship campaigns must fall when they must fall (by calendar fixation), but maybe that’s not the right season for our local context.  Maybe a Lenten focus for 2022 is less a time for dour contemplation and more of a time for an unlikely celebration as we roll out of the darkest days of the pandemic.

If the calendar doesn’t have us tied up in knots, sometimes it’s the clock.  We institute deadlines (and deadlines are good), but a compulsion to honor those deadlines no matter what can lead to all manner of trainwrecks.  Sometimes our self-imposed deadlines turn out to have been unrealistic.  Sometimes circumstances change, and the deadline needs to adjust in response.  If we push people beyond their capacities and available resources to meet a deadline, we run a great risk of delivering inferior work, and we run an even greater risk of damaging the people who make it all possible.

Step back, take a deep breath, and recalibrate.  Communicate clearly to everyone what you are doing and why.  Such communication is part of what makes a strong community strong – the knowledge that we are not perfect, and adjustments will need to be made from time to time.

The hypnotic pull of the obsessive idea can lead to all manner of chaos.  We can become fixated on a notion – most often a noble idea – and become so obsessed with bringing it to fruition that we trample other great ideas in the process, or we sabotage other things that were working perfectly well before they got in the way of our newest obsession.

This can, and often does, take the form of a new program we want to start but don’t have time to lead.  We end up foisting it onto someone else who is not feeling the same passion about it and may not even fully understand the concept.  Such a trajectory never ends well.

An unhealthy obsession can, and often does, take the form of tinkering with the details of worship or a long-running ministry (both of which can and should be regularly tinkered with – I am a hearty advocate of creative reimagining).  The problem develops when the revision or addition slides into the territory of something that is being painfully shoehorned into a program or event.  The signals are there that a potentially good idea has turned out to be an awkward fit, but we refuse to acknowledge the reality and, in fact, often double-down on our obsession in the face of contrary evidence.  (It’s weird but true that something feels oddly heroic and biblical about carrying on against the odds.)

The unhealthy obsession with an idea can even take the form of a new practice or habit that we are so excited about that we then force on our not-so-interested team.  We’re so passionate about the new thing – maybe pre-dawn yoga prayer, for instance – that we proselytize for its adoption by every person in leadership, even though such a suggestion will not be a good fit for everyone in that diverse group.

The cult of celebrity cool can crop up either when we become fixated on an idea proposed by someone who has outsized power in our close circle or by something we have read or seen in person or in the media (maybe an engaging blog with an exciting new idea!).

Just because we experience an amazing neon-animated-cyberconnected-worship-altar at that hip church we visited on vacation, that does not mean the same idea is going to work at our local community church.  There is a lot of pressure to adopt the latest and greatest worship or ministry idea, and while these ideas can sometimes be revelatory and can often offer a guideline as to tweaking our own events and programs, it’s worth remembering that the best ideas are usually the homegrown ones.  Context is everything.

If we’ve become enamored of a person who has our ear for a season, either because they show up with a fresh, untarnished perspective, or they project power that seems necessary to honor, or they are so cool we want to impress them, we can give an unnatural priority to an idea they may be promoting.  I want to reiterate my oft-stated reminder that we should be actively seeking out new ideas and perspectives, but when one person’s voice is drowning out the others – and especially if that one voice is leading us in combative directions at odds with the vision of the rest of the team with which we serve – we should be wary.

The timing of new initiatives and the balance with which they are implemented makes the difference.  Let’s take a common worship related technical issue, such as sound quality.  Maybe the sound quality in your worship space and the amplification of the music and spoken components during worship are not of sufficient quality.  Maybe this is something that bugs you personally, or maybe it’s something that is diminishing people’s engagement with meaningful worship.  If you prioritize this fix (at the expense of other priorities) how much chaos will it cause your ministry?  Is this the right time to take the fix on?  Ministry leaders constantly deal with these issues.  It’s a matter of nuance and balance.

As a helpful guide, I am reminded of one of the fundamental rules of single-track mountain biking: keep your eyes focused on where you want to go.  The bike always follows your eyes, and if you look at the obstacles you’d rather avoid, you will plow right into them.  If you, instead,  keep your eyes on the trail, you are much more likely to stay safely on that trail.  By the way, I am terrible at following this rule.  I am terrified of riding off the trail and down an embankment or off a ledge and into the creek, so I am notorious for focusing fearfully on those very things and thereby careening straight into them.

Ministry leaders should keep their focus on what matters:

  • Relationships: Relationships matter above technical fixes and program adjustments and even shiny new ways of doing things.  Relationships matter above all, and the health of relationships should be the filter through which all else is viewed.
  • Core Values: Does our obsession of the moment serve our stated core values?  Does the thing we are pushing for match our vision?
  • Long-term Goals and Legacy: Does our current focus and obsession serve the goals we have established for a year from now, five years from now?  Do they lead to where we want our ministry to be in ten years?  When we look back a generation from now and assess the legacy we have left, will our current fixations have provided a framework on which to build that legacy?

How’s your focus?  How’s the focus of your expanded leadership team?  Is everyone paying attention to the right things, or are there pockets of unhealthy obsessions?   Do you regularly assess where everyone’s focus is directed?  What metrics do you use to evaluate focus and where priorities are being placed (really placed, not just being verbalized)?