Five keys to sustainable ministry

Do not be slothful in zeal, be fervent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer.” – Romans 12:11-12 (ESV)

I’m writing this blog on my annual study retreat. I usually try to find a place at the beach or in the mountains the last week of the year, where I can eliminate distractions and focus on hearing from God. I’m thankful for an understanding wife and an understanding church that allows me this time to rest, reflect and recharge. I’ve found such times to be one of the keys to a sustainable ministry, so that I don’t become “slothful in zeal,” especially as I get older. I don’t want to burnout, nor become lukewarm. I want to stay red hot for Jesus until He calls me home!

I think there are at least five keys to sustainable ministry:

1. Take time to refuel spiritually. The apostle Paul wrote, “Be fervent in spirit.” The word “fervent”means “to burn, to be hot, to be zealous.” He wrote to Timothy, who was apparently struggling with a season of timidity in his ministry, that he should, “Fan into flame the gift of God which is in you” (2 Tim. 1:6). We must take responsibility for our own spiritual zeal. Retreat to advance. Take time to refuel your spirit.

2. Remember that you’re not their savior. There’s only one Savior. That’s Jesus. He’s God and you’re not. Stop trying to save everyone. Only Jesus saves. As Paul said, “Serve the Lord.” You’re a servant, not the savior. The real motive underneath our desire to “save” everyone is probably suspect anyway. Isn’t it that we are people-pleasers? We want people to like us. So, we rush around answering every email, text message and phone call, not wanting to disappoint anyone. Be the Lord’s servant. Let Him be the Savior.

3. Anchor your joy in gospel hope. Hope is like a rope. It is not some flimsy wish that prompts us to say things like, “I hope it doesn’t rain.” No, gospel hope is substantial. It is like a rope anchored on one end to the resurrection of Christ and passing through the veil of heaven where Christ sits at the right hand of the Father until His soon return. If we set our hopes on temporal things, we will nearly always be disappointed.  Even when we focus on ministry success (whatever that means), then our joy is attached to whether we achieve that success. This leads to a driven, joyless, roller coaster life of ups and downs. As Paul said, “Rejoice in hope.” Anchor your joy in gospel hope, not temporal things!

4. Persevere through times of pain. There will be times of tribulation. They come without warning. We are tempted to feel that such times will never end. Yet, every season has a beginning, middle and end. Don’t give up! Paul wrote, “Be patient in tribulation.” The other temptation when faced with pain is avoidance. How can we avoid the pain? What if we quit or turn back? Will that stop the pain?

I’m reading a book during this study break entitled, Leadership Pain, by Samuel Chand. His thesis is that effective leaders produce growth, which causes change, which causes loss, which causes pain. Therefore, growth = pain. Or as others have said, “No pain, no gain.” So, don’t become impatient in pain, nor try to avoid it. Instead, as Chand quotes Kenji Miyazawa saying, “We must embrace pain and burn it as fuel for our journey.”

5. Pray more, strive less. Ministry seems to attract “Type A” people, those who are driven to succeed in everything. Yet, ministry also seems custom designed to break those same people. As one older pastor counseled a younger church planter who was just starting out, “You will suffer.” But this suffering shouldn’t drive us to quit, it should drive us to our knees. Praying is especially hard for those same Type A people. Sure, they pray, but then they feel that it’s up to them to accomplish the results through hard work. But what if the most effective way to work is by being “constant in prayer?” This is the hard lesson that those who would have a sustainable ministry must learn. Pray more and strive less.

Sustainable ministry is a marathon, not a sprint. May those that follow the above five keys continue to burn with zeal until the end of life’s race.

4 Responses to “Five keys to sustainable ministry”

  1. Mark Brantley

    Thanks Gary for sharing these thoughts with us. Praying for you as you continue to run the race. You have blessed myself and countless others over the years. Thank you for your faithfulness. MB

  2. Lynette Miller

    This was a hard-learned lesson for this Type A servant. These 5 keys are on point and affirming for those of us who continue to fight the good fight of the faith. (1 Timothy 6:11-12) May He continue to sustain us all, as we continue to abide in Him.


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