Principle Centered Ministry — Guiding Principles for Challenging Times

By Eddie Pipkin

I’m at the beach with the family this week, and one of my favorite things to do there is boogie board with the kids (the closest this middle-aged guy is getting to surfing).  It’s fun and invigorating, especially when four or five of us catch the same wave and ride its power, laughing together, towards the beach.  A big part of this process is reading the incoming waves – we are at a beach where the really good waves are intermittent, so it’s important to choose the right one.  You can pick the wrong wave, and disappointment ensues.  You can pick a good wave and fail to catch it . . . and once again disappointment ensues.  You can pick a perfect wave and fail to tell anybody else you are catching it (or they might treat you in a similar fashion), so you get a great ride (or they get a great ride), but it’s a lonely outing, one person whooping it up while the others stand wistfully in their (literal) wake . . . and once again disappointment ensues.  But when you all work together, and you patiently wait for just the right wave . . . euphoria!

So it goes with ministry, especially in this wacky world of 2020.  We read that the only certainty is change, change, change, and we have the challenge of reading that change as it threatens to knock us over suck us away with a nasty undertow.  But instead you continue adapting with boldness and ingenuity so as to thrive despite the odds. You reinvent and reimagine your ministries, and it feels awkward and sometimes uncomfortable, and yet unexpected blessings are revealed and new appreciations emerge.  (It’s like the boogie boarding session in which we were one boogie board short, so I body surfed instead, so there I was, submerged below the above-the-wave laughter, but still part of the wave, a little waterlogged and scuffed up from the sandy bottom, but still part of the fun.)

[And ALLOW ME TO INTERRUPT THE BLOG right here and say something important: The news this week has been disappointing. Make a special point of stopping, taking a deep breath, and expressing gratitude for the many ways you have successfully adapted to the ongoing crises your ministry has faced. Do this with your entire leadership and volunteer team.]

As we continue to look at guiding principles for effective ministry, there are at least two that are evoked by this wave riding metaphor:

  • Change continues to come at us at a fast and furious pace – it’s no longer a season of change: it’s an era of change. It’s important to adapt, and it’s a team effort. It’s also very important to know where to set your anchor in times of unsettling change.
  • In navigating the first bullet point, we must remember that conversation and dialogue are key. Talk to people.  Make it a goal – not just those “in the moment” conversations, but time set aside for long, freeform sharing.

We’ve been reading non-stop about change for the past four months, and there is no let-up in sight.  It seemed for a brief, shining moment that we might get to a let-up, a pause, a reset, a “new normal.” But the news this week has had a disturbing “here we go again quality,” and as the pandemic has resurged, the national progress needle seems to be moving in a backwards direction.  Don’t get discouraged! You’ve been adapting and adapting and adapting, experimenting, and finding your way despite the challenges.  Therefore, the result has been, not some sort of final solution to the impending crisis (a crisis which refuses to be pinned down; a crisis which is proving maddeningly impervious to solutions). The result has been the development of stronger “adaptability muscles,” more highly developed “change flexibility systems.” Celebrate that growth and put those new muscles and new systems to work.  Change and flexibility are the new norms, my friends.

Here are two things to think about (as we “dive back into” our wave analogy):

  • Are you embracing the ride as you are engulfed by wave after wave? Sure, sometimes you and your team have timed some moments just right and experienced the euphoria.  Sometimes you have had “near misses.”  Sometimes you have wiped out completely.  Have you acknowledged the reality of these experiences, celebrating the golden moments and treating the wounds from the wipeouts?  Take time and do this, thoughtfully and collectively.  The disciples, of course, navigated a constant pounding of change waves.  We don’t necessarily read the Gospels in that way, because we are so familiar with the story, but if you stop and think about it, in chapter after chapter they were confronted with unanticipated scenarios with no script for dealing with how to get from point A to point B.
  • Have you selected a few standout waves and ridden them to a new and unanticipated kind of success? At this point in the one-third-of-an-entire-year that continues to unfold unpredictably, you should be able to identify at least one or two junctures at which you have followed the Spirit’s leading to an unexpectedly wonderful place. Celebrate those waves. Then consider the wave that you may ride next, the perfect wave you may ride given your newly developed flexibility muscles and the hard-won experience of these past months. Don’t settle into a mode of “at least we’re not drowning.”

One of the other things I have been reminded of in my week at the beach with family I don’t spend a lot of time with is the opportunity for long, uninterrupted conversations.  It’s the way we catch up, find out what’s changed (and what definitely hasn’t), what dreams have been deferred and new goals established, what wounds have healed and what new heartbreaks are at hand.  Under the stars, late into the night, with the soundtrack of the surf, we are reconnected to one another’s stories.

This is a fine summertime goal for ministry, now more than ever.  There is a different pace to summer (even in a time of chaos and confusion), and it is a perfect moment to isolate time for extended conversations with ministry partners, mentors, and the people who help you process your problems and dream new dreams.  Take advantage of the longer days and outside possibilities to indulge those long, meandering conversations.

Make a list of the people with whom such a conversation would be healing or inspirational, comforting or comfortably challenging right now.  Pick a person from the list.  Call that person.  Make that conversation happen.  Go for a long walk in a pretty place.  Head out for a day in the kayak.  Go fishing together.  Spend the evening on a nice patio with a good meal.  Hike through nature till the fireflies light your way.  Pick another friend/mentor/team member and repeat.  Make this a regular goal for the rest of this summer.

This is meaningful ministry, too.

How are you feeling about change right now?  Are you getting discouraged?  Are you staying strong by practicing the discipline of long, thoughtful conversations with people who help you rise to your best?  Keep praying and carry on!  The world needs you and your ministry.