I’ve lost my passion for ministry.” Many pastors have heard this ominous statement uttered by a colleague or maybe even said it themselves. The statement is always taken seriously. Why? Because in ministry, passion is considered an essential ingredient. A passionless pastor is depressing (and often depressed). So, here’s the question: How does a pastor find and sustain a passion for ministry?
“Passion” is a slippery word. True passion is not an adrenaline-fueled burst of emotion. It’s also not the unbridled enthusiasm that initially allows us to pour ourselves into a really good business idea or topic for a book. If that’s passion, we’ll all eventually lose it. Emotional highs wear off. Enthusiasm dissipates, especially when we begin to realize how much work that business or book will require.
What we’re after is sustainable passion. Sustainable passion is that long-term zeal that reminds us month after month, year after year, that despite the sometimes-crummy aspects of our occupation we love our work and don’t want to do anything else.
Attempts to sustain passion for ministry often rest on the assumption that the issue is spiritual—the pastor must increase his personal time in Scripture and revitalize his prayer life. If spiritual focus fails, the next possibility usually considered is burnout.
Certainly, a lackluster relationship with God points to spiritual problems. Yet not every pastor is in this boat. Many pastors I know devote conscientious time and effort to their walk with God, yet over time still see their passion for ministry subside. They assume the problem is spiritual, when in fact their waning enthusiasm may have less to do with spiritual stagnation and more to do with how they approach their work.
What about burnout? Again, this is possible. There are pastors—particularly solo pastors—who are terribly overworked. But I don’t readily buy the burnout excuse. An exhausted pastor might be spending beaucoup hours at the office; however, a little time-tracking will reveal how many of those “working” hours are wasted on web surfing, social media, podcasts, YouTube, or obsessively checking texts and email. Burnout is often alleviated by using the time available to do the work that matters. In fact, within this idea of focusing energy on work that matters, we find the solution to the passion problem.
In his book So Good They Can’t Ignore You: Why Skills Trump Passion in the Quest for Work You Love, Georgetown University computer science professor Cal Newport described his own career journey and search to answer this question: “How do people end up loving what they do?”
The answer Newport discovered is surprisingly simple and applicable to any field: Find a job that people value and get really good at it. If you do this, then in your work you will enjoy the freedom, creativity, and impact granted to people who possess an in-demand skillset. It follows that anyone who finds freedom, creativity, and impact in their work will love what they do (sustainable passion). Or, as Scott Galloway puts it,
Your job is to find something you’re good at, and after ten thousand hours of practice, get great at it. The emotional and economic rewards that accompany being great at something will make you passionate about whatever that something is.
Newport and Galloway are highlighting an often-overlooked piece of the passion puzzle. Simply put, loving one’s work has less to do with finding the perfect job and more to do with getting really good at one’s job.
Proverbs 22:29 communicates something similar: “Do you see someone skilled in their work? They will serve before kings.” Proverbs doesn’t directly state it, but I think it’s safe to assume that a person with that level of skill and opportunity thoroughly enjoys his or her work.
Now as pastors, we have an advantage. We already have a vocation that adds immense value to people’s lives. Now we must ask: How do we not just “do ministry,” but instead get good at ministry, and thus obtain the kind of long-term, sustainable passion described by Newport and Galloway? The answer requires us to quit worrying about passion for a while and instead embrace what Newport calls the craftsman mindset. The craftsman mindset means that we choose to approach our work like an aspiring master craftsman, regardless of how we feel towards our work on any particular day.
If you’ve ever had your home remodeled, you know that all contractors are not created equal. Some just work construction. They do a good enough job to get paid. But others make you look at that flawless tile job in the shower and wonder at its beauty. These contractors are craftsmen. Everyone wants to hire a craftsman. In the same way, not all pastors are equally good at their jobs. Some pastors preach powerfully. Others could use another preaching class. Some pastors set organizational vision and mission and successfully execute both. Other pastors seem to barely see beyond next Sunday. Some pastors are excellent leaders. Others don’t have terms like “delegate” and “timing” in their vocabulary.
Nobody is good at everything. But are we as pastors approaching our work like aspiring master craftsmen? Are we continually doing the hard work necessary to improve and refine our ministerial skills? Or, are we allowing our skill level to plateau because we don’t feel passionate enough to get better? As Cal Newport says, craftsmanship precedes passion: “You adopt the craftsman mindset first and then the passion follows.”
Some would disagree and argue that passion always comes first. In other words, a pre-existing passion for ministry is what drives the pastor to get better at doing ministry. However, this idea has little support. Scripture is clear that passion is not required to enter ministry. It is important to remember that we are called. For example, consider Moses. God appeared to Moses via the burning bush and told him to lead Israel out of Egypt. Could anyone ask for a clearer calling than that? And how did Moses respond? “Pardon your servant, Lord. Please send someone else” (Ex. 4:13). Nevertheless, Moses obeyed—not because he felt passionate about leading Israel, but because God told him to do it. Look at the calling of Gideon (Judges 6) and Jonah (Jonah 1). Gideon questioned God’s call and needed signs. Jonah got on a boat and fled. Neither of them had a drop of passion! But that didn’t matter. What did matter was their obedience to God’s call.
Realistically, even though a pre-existing passion isn’t required for ministry, as pastors we still want to love what we do. That’s where the craftsman mindset comes in. Attempting to become a master ministry craftsman, however, requires answering the logistical and practical question of, how do we get better at our work? Because for pastors, improvement isn’t always quantifiable. It’s not like we’re athletes and can look at our stats. Still, we must strive to improve our craft.
Here are three steps to hone your ministry skills.
Make a list.
Ministry craftsmanship begins by identifying your most important ministry responsibilities. Don’t list random areas of ministry you’d like to improve in or only list things you feel passionate about. At this stage of the game, passion or lack thereof is irrelevant. (Remember, first comes craftsman then comes passion.) For example, one of my major responsibilities is being the second member of a two-man preaching team. Preaching is without a doubt the most visible part of my job. Preaching is also when I can publicly cast vision for discipleship, small groups, and leadership development (my other areas of responsibility). Therefore, preaching is at the top of my list. Your list might look different than mine depending upon your ministerial role.
Pursue professional development.
Nothing tricky about this step—look at the items on your list and write down specific ways you will improve at each item. But stick to the listed items. A worship leader, for example, probably shouldn’t spend energy improving her counseling skills if counseling isn’t one of her major responsibilities. The worship leader should devote energy instead to improving singing, musical arrangement, or whatever is necessary to become an outstanding worship leader. In my ministry, I decided to hone the skills on my list by enrolling in a Doctor of Ministry program. The DMin training will help improve my preaching, firstly, as well as other items on my list, like leadership development.
Prioritize work that matters.
As my dad would always say, “You never have time for what’s important. You have to make it.” Man, was Pops right. As a husband, father of three kids and full-time pastor, I feel like there is never enough time. So, I have to carve out room for what matters.
Making time for what matters is straightforward. First, spend a couple of weeks tracking how you spend every hour of your workday. Second, get rid of all the unproductive junk eating up those hours. Third, devote your newly discovered free time to items on your list.
Now before you start accusing me of being overly simplistic, give it a try. Track your time and you will be amazed how much of it is wasted on non-essential tasks. Sermon preparation is essential. Reading Twitter feeds, checking the news, looking at your phone for the umpteenth time, listening to another podcast, or surfing the web, is not. Choose instead to approach your work as an aspiring master craftsman and devote time to becoming an exceptionally skilled minister. In time, sustainable passion will follow.
Seth Gheen is pastor of discipleship at Community Bible Church in Omaha, NE. You can follow him at clergycraftsman.com.