By Eddie Pipkin

When I was backpacking this summer, I took along a newbie, my nephew who just graduated from high school.  This nephew had never done any backpacking before – in fact, he had never done any tent camping.  His family had camped a lot, but always with a pop-up camper in an official campground and with a car at hand.  That meant he was familiar with spending a night in the woods, but he was unfamiliar with depending for your comfort and safety on the limited number of items you can carry on your own back.  Enjoyable backpacking depends on meticulously paring down the possibilities to the practical and remembering, above all, what is essential.  So is ministry.

I was thinking about this topic because the nephew made a few mistakes:

  • He only had one pair of socks.
  • He didn’t have a sleeping pad.
  • He didn’t have enough warm clothes.

He did have a fishing pole and tackle, a pair of binoculars, and his AirPods, all of which were luxurious additions to the trip which were used and enjoyed and a welcome distraction from being cold and miserable on account of the three missing items.

The missing socks were a problem, because halfway up the trail the first day, he slipped off a rock and got his feet wet.  The missing warm clothes were a problem because, even though it was the middle of summer and he had left home where it was 94 degrees, he hadn’t taken into account the 10,000 foot elevation and the corresponding 48 degree nighttime temperature.  And the missing sleeping pad compounded the temperature issue, because even if you don’t mind sleeping on the hard ground, the cold seeps straight up out of it and into your bones.

We were able to improvise – thanks to some hard-won experience – because I had an extra pair of socks (knowing that absolutely nothing is more miserable on a hike than wet, cold feet); I and my son, who was the third party on this excursion, were able to cobble together some warmer layers for him to borrow; and we had a thermal emergency blanket that acted as limited, but valuable ground insulation.  The day was saved, but some drama could have been averted with a greater understanding of the basics that would ultimately matter more than shiny, fun things.

This scenario gets played out regularly in ministry planning and execution.

Our ministry teams have a limited “carrying” capacity, but we get overloaded, and we forget to focus on the essentials.  We can easily load our packs up with things that don’t serve the core mission well or things that are ‘extras’ that are excellent fun but take up valuable space.  Or we can have too much of a good thing, like when a hiker carries way too much food.  Food is good, but it’s also heavy, so we have to be judicious so as not to exhaust ourselves or make ourselves miserable as we go.  Sure, a watermelon would be tasty at the campsite, but c’mon!  (I’ll let you insert your own joke here about the time your leadership team got carried away with enthusiasm and tried to carry a ministry watermelon – and everybody ended up exhausted and probably dropped and splattered the watermelon, too.)

In ministry circles, one of our biggest problems is that we refuse to even admit that we have a carrying capacity – a weight limit on the load we can healthily handle!  And even if we’re strong enough to handle a crazy load, sometimes we foist too much weight on others (assuming they are the super-fit gluttons for punishment that we are) or we cram too much into an overloaded ministry infrastructure.  (I recently ripped some seams in a perfectly serviceable backpack because I crammed it so full of stuff.  It wasn’t the weight that was too much, but the sheer bulk of the things I was cramming in.  This is an excellent metaphor for how we can overtax facilities, technology, and sometimes volunteer infrastructure with our enthusiastic plans.)

The essentials for backpacking won’t surprise you:

  • Food and water, especially water (and this means a primary system and a backup system for purifying water).
  • Appropriate clothing.
  • Shelter (or the means to create shelter).

You need those things to survive.  I’ll add on a couple of other important items:

  • Navigational tools (maps, compass, GPS device, etc.
  • A light source.

Everything else is gravy.  Or rather, it would be more accurate to say, everything else that contributes to a successful expedition is built on the solid foundation of these essentials which make it all possible.

As ministry leaders, we should regularly ask ourselves what goes on the essentials list.

There are obvious answers to that question, and it is perhaps the axiomatic nature of these answers that makes them problematic.  That is, if we say, “Well, first and foremost we must have God in our backpack or Jesus in our backpack,” etc., we flounder, not because that’s not a laudable and obvious goal, but because it’s far too squishy a goal: we need something more concrete in terms of “Yeah, but what does that look like?”  I think it’s more useful to think of the Trinity as hiking buddies who accompany us on our travels.  The backpack is for the priorities and tools of ministry.  (Our hiking partners, the Trinity, are the ones who come through with the emergency dry socks and warm clothes and some refreshing extra water when we mess up and forget those things ourselves.)

Using my list of survival essentials for comparison, it would be a helpful creative leadership exercise to formulate a corresponding list for your own church.  For instance, church members need healthy and sustaining food and water, just like hikers.  What will that food and water look like for the people with whom you have been entrusted?  Most of us answer that question with a major focus on a well-crafted weekly sermon – sermon preparation takes up a lot of space in most clergy backpacks – but there are still an astonishing number of local churches that have no clear pathway for people who want to seriously grow in their discipleship journey.  You can’t grow a church without a discipleship path.

If you’re hiking, you can have an excellent pair of boots, but, having forgotten a good pair of socks, you’re not going to get very far.  Boots are expensive – they can come with a lot of technological upgrades and fancy features.  Socks are not.  Socks are simple by comparison, but the fancy boots are nearly useless without the foundation of the comfortable and functional socks.  Here are two ministry parallels:

  • I tell churches all the time: “Relationship-building is your biblical priority.” Relationship-building should take up a priority pocket in your backpack.  Slickly designed programs and fancy facilities mean nothing unless relationship-building is at the core of what you’re doing.
  • Shiny worship technology (lights and screens and audio systems) are swell – in fact, they’re just a basic cultural expectation at this point – but they are not an end goal. They’re a delivery system for authentic worship (and did I mention relationship-building?).

We’ve spent a lot of time here at Excellence in Ministry Coaching (EMC3) breaking down the essentials for healthy churches.  It was Phil’s original impetus for this ministry, an organizing principle, that healthy churches concentrate on these areas:

  • Worship.
  • Hospitality.
  • Spiritual growth in the Word.
  • Prayer / Openness to the leading of the Spirit.
  • Service.
  • Generosity.

Each is an essential backpack component.  Many local churches excel at one or two, but they may be weak and undeveloped in others.  Their backpack is unbalanced!  It tilts dramatically to one side, or it’s top-heavy!  Any hiker will tell you this is an uncomfortable and unsustainable way to travel.  It limits your ability to make progress.  It’s miserable.  Balance is the key.  A balanced pack (and a balanced ministry) is a joy on the journey.  The key to balanced ministry, of course, is making balance a prioritized part of our planning, a disciplined part of our daily routine, and an embedded part of our leadership team development.

The earnest pursuit of balance is one of the best ways to broaden our leadership and volunteers and widen the talent pool of those who play key roles in ministry.  A bigger team can carry more weight and different kinds of weight.  A team with a wider range of life experience can use the same supplies and tools in uniquely different ways.

And then there is the power of One Important Job.  Earlier, I wrote about my nephew the newbie’s failure to pack with the needed imagination, but how could he?  It was a new experience for him.  That’s why I assigned my son to be his mentor, and I issued these instructions: “Look, I’ll take care of all the trip planning logistics.  You have One Job.  Your One Job is to coach your cousin on what to pack and be sure he has what he needs.”  Obviously, my son failed in this assignment (a fact that he humbly conceded and about which he expressed remorse).  Such failures have given rise to some hysterical memes with the title, “You had ONE job!”

As ministry leaders, we sometimes find ourselves surveying the scene and lamenting, “We had ONE job! How did we mess this up so grandly?”  Usually because we forgot we had one job – one outstanding priority – and usually because we forgot to assign somebody to make sure that we didn’t lose sight of that fact.  We tend to load people up with so many responsibilities that they can lose track of what is truly important, but it would be a great strategy to have more moments when say to people, “This is your one job – to make sure that you keep us focused on the stated priority.”

  • This is your one job, to make sure that people experience welcome and hospitality when they come through our doors.
  • This is your one job, to make sure that the audio system works the way it’s supposed to this week.
  • This is your one job, to answer any email queries or social media comments in a timely manner.
  • This is your one job, to remind me that I need to start and end meetings on time.
  • This is your one job, to make sure that prayer is part of everything we do.

Some one jobs are big.  Some one jobs are small.  Everybody in our organization can be given a “one job,” something for them to own which distributes the weight that gets us farther down the trail happily together.  Right now, too many of us are assigning too many jobs to too few, and we are muddled in our priorities and confused about what’s essential.  Take a deep breath, consult the trail map, re-pack the backpack with a fresh set of eyes and set out refreshed and renewed, enjoying the journey with your companionable partners, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.  The view at the vista is amazing, and the conversation along the way is life-changing.

What are the essentials in your ministry backpack?  What are your challenges in balancing the load?  How are you at helping people define their ONE job?  Comments welcome.