By Eddie Pipkin

I have a dilemma: I got stuck with a dog.  He’s a nice dog, a Corgi (just like the queen’s dogs), full of personality and smart, but willful.  He belongs to my son and his fiancée – wonderful young people who moved to Boston for graduate school, and they love this dog, but the available housing options in their new location didn’t allow for them to include their adorable doggy friend; meanwhile, my wife and I were available with a perfect dog backyard and me at home most of the time.  Doggy grandparents!  We’re people who have owned lots of dogs – we’re definitely dog people!  Only . . . finding myself at the empty nest stage of life and ready to fully enjoy its freedoms, I have to confess that I am not really into my new caregiving role.  Yet here I am, for the next 22 months, stuck with a dog whose schedule and needs insist on my attention and whose barks, shenanigans, and compulsion to be petted are mine to enjoy.  Sigh.

It got me thinking about the ministry “dogs” with which we all get stuck from time to time.  Every leader in every local congregation has found themselves saddled with a ministry that’s sapping their energy and distracting them from their true passions.  Sometimes a leader has inherited a long-cherished event, program, or outreach and can’t figure out how to give it a loving farewell.  Sometimes we have, ourselves, started a ministry with enthusiasm, only to see it morph into something totally different from our original vision.  Sometimes we start something that spins out of control, or – here’s a dreaded experience we have all shared — somebody else has a fantastic, wonderful, amazing idea that they foist on us to be in charge of!

Ministry dogs may seem harmless, but they can be dangerous:

  • They deplete our energy. We only have so much gas in the tank, and every ounce we devote to a project that we don’t really want t be dealing with is an ounce we can’t use for other purposes.  Even worse, working on a project with which we are not soul-engaged is far more exhausting than regular exhaustion (having no sense of accomplishment associated with it).
  • They distract us from what’s really important. We’re grumpy from our forced endeavors, tired from begrudged exertions, and thus totally diverted from more worthwhile pursuits.  This is a version of one of the primary maladies plaguing struggling congregations: an inability to identify what serves the core mission and what distracts from that core mission.
  • They burn out volunteers. If you’re not feeling it, you can bet you are passing on your ennui to the volunteers who are helping you.  Low energy and lack of enthusiasm are contagious.  A few such experiences will infect volunteers with an aversion to serving.
  • They send the wrong message to the community. The events and programs you present to the community send a clear message about your identity (for good or bad).  First, they send a message about your priorities, and secondly, they send a message about your sincerity – a haphazard, unenthusiastic event communicates a direct message about how much you care about the people you are serving.
  • They suck up valuable resources. If you’re spending money on a ‘blah’ event, you can’t spend it on a ‘boffo’ event.  And most congregations can only handle a few events a year.  Once you’ve committed precious calendar space to a “dog,” you lose those valuable weeks to a potential showhorse.

So, what do you do with a “dog” who’s outlived his usefulness?  Don’t come after me animal lovers!  We are dealing strictly in metaphors here.  Everyone knows that in the case of beloved pets, you have a limited number of viable options:

  • If it’s a healthy animal who has behavioral issues that make him an unmanageable challenge, get him some obedience training and change up your routine so he’s more healthy, happy and behaving appropriately in ways that bring you joy.
  • If it’s a healthy animal who’s not a good fit for your family any longer, find him a nice, new home.
  • If it’s a beloved pet whose health has declined to the point of diminished quality of life, either make him as comfortable as you can to ease his passage to doggy heaven or enlist a veterinary professional to provide an end to the pain through merciful euthanasia (a tough choice that many of us have faced).

Here are the MINISTRY PARALLELS for the preceding bullet points:

  • Sometimes a recurring event or ongoing ministry has lost its focus and simply needs a serious retooling. Do a heartfelt reimagining, keeping the event or ministry but fearlessly shaking things up and changing things around.  Congregational leadership should have a regular practice of evaluating the effectiveness of every ministry and event.  Here’s such a process is an article entitled “6 gut check questions when your ministry seems stuck.”
  • Sometimes a ministry is serving a worthwhile purpose, but it’s no longer working as a passionate endeavor for the people who are currently in charge of running it. Find it a new home!  This can mean new leadership within the body of your congregation.  (People are loath to let go of a project that has long been their baby – they stick around long after they have burned out.)  Give someone else a turn at the helm.  Find the people whose passion aligns with the mission of this ministry.  Partner with other churches in your community.  Partner with outside community organizations.  This process can actually do more than revitalize a ministry or event – it can be the catalyst for healthy new partnerships.
  • Sometimes, it’s time to just let a ministry go. Congregations are notoriously terrible at this, but it should be embraced as a natural process, an innate part of the life cycle.  We can gracefully wind a ministry down over a period of time, or we can clearly communicate the need to shut it down more quickly (and communication is critical for all involved).  Many resources have been devoted to this scenario. Sometimes a recurring event or ongoing ministry has lost its focus and simply needs a serious retooling.   Here’s an article with “6 indicators when it’s time to end a ministry” and, if you find yourself identifying a critical number of those indicators, here are some straight-up suggestions on winding a ministry down.

To summarize and expand on some of the wisdom from the above-linked articles, is your struggling ministry or event suffering from any of these issues:

  • Too much competition. This can be competition for time, energy, and resources either within a congregation or within the greater community.  Individual ministry areas within a congregation should be complementing one another and working together, not scheduling on top of one another and wrestling for resources and volunteers.  Likewise, we should be complementing the events already going on in our surrounding communities, not competing directly against them.
  • If you weren’t in leadership, would you be fired up? This is both a question of mission and a question of communication.  If you have a solid mission that a ministry serves, do people clearly understand its purpose and how they can participate?  If you were just a “civilian,” would you be intrigued and motivated by an upcoming event?
  • Can you answer the “why”? Leadership should always be able to clearly articulate the purpose behind any event or ministry and how it serves the vision of the congregation.  This should always be crystal clear (and a fundamental part in the decision to pursue any ministry, as well as a fundamental part of the planning process for the form that ministry will take).

People and organizations never drift toward mission, we drift away from mission and our job as leaders is to direct our people back to the mission.

  • Is there a better way? Even if we are able to establish a valuable core purpose behind a ministry or event, is there a better way to accomplish the same goal?  Sometimes there is a disconnect between a worthy objective and the tactic we devised to achieve it.  Should we rethink that tactic, thus engaging more participants and using resources more effectively?  (Warning: Good listening skills and an abundance of humility required in that rethinking process.)
  • Are we demanding more than is reasonable? We must engage the people in our congregation.  Is our vision for a given ministry or event within the scope of what committed disciples can contribute – we want to challenge them, always, but we don’t want to break their spirits.
  • Are we keeping something on life support only because we are avoiding conflict or trying to keep from hurting someone’s feelings? Everybody knows that never works out.  To quote the ol’ ball coach, Steve Spurrier, “What must be done eventually is best done immediately.”  Plenty of congregations find themselves negotiating this kind of drama.  Clarity, communication, and compassion are the tools that make this process bearable for all.

It is, despite common wisdom, possible to teach an old dog new tricks.  But it’s not easy.  It’s crucial to have a regular process in place for taking a look at your ongoing ministries and events.  It’s equally critical to have a process in place for evaluating any proposed ministries or events – they should be able to anticipate the issues that lead to mission drift.

What are your stories of dealing with ministry “dogs”?  We’re particularly interested in hearing about “dogs” you were able to retrain successfully.  Share your stories.

Meanwhile, here’s a bonus link about an event that serves a community in Tyler, Texas.  It’s a pumpkin patch – a pretty old-school ministry idea – that successfully addresses some of the potential pitfalls noted above and demonstrates the kind of community destination use of church property that we wrote about last week.  Enjoy!