Ministry as tug-of-war

Managing tensions inherent in church life can lead to stronger leadership teams.

By Terry Maples

Did you play tug-of-war as a child? I did. It was lots of fun, except when the rope burned my hands. The game was even more exciting if a mud pit or some other unpleasant obstacle separated the opposing sides. The consequences for the losers could be very messy!

At some point during the years, when I served on the pastoral staff of churches in Virginia, I purchased a copy of a print by John Morgan for my office. The picture called The Tug of War depicts children playing the game.

I was drawn to this picture because the image seemed an accurate metaphor for my life as a staff minister. While loving the churches I served, I constantly felt tugged in many directions. I suspect there are similar tensions in every pastoral role or profession.

In every size church, ministry is demanding, and a conscientious minister feels like the work is never done. When I purchased The Tug of War print I had two small children at home. I often felt the tension between doing my job well and spending time with my family. Because many church meetings happen at night, I often missed the evening routine with our young children. Constant pull in both directions bothered me greatly. I wish I could say family always “won,” but that would be a lie.

Staff ministers are naturally in a subordinate position to senior pastors who serve as their supervisors. Often a staff minister sees things differently from the pastor, and that can feel like a tug-of-war. The staff minister acknowledges the pastor is the leader who makes the final decision. If, however, the staff minister senses his/her perspective isn’t valued, relationships may become strained.

Church staff ministers can feel they are in a tug-of-war with each other. Healthy staff diversity is good for a congregation. When staff ministers bring different perspectives, they naturally advocate for what they believe is best. On an unhealthy staff, staff ministers triangle congregation members to gain support for their perspectives.

While pulling in different directions at times is natural and normal, at some point folks must “get on the same page” and pull in the same direction together. This requires teamwork, compromise, collaboration and a positive attitude from all parties.

To be a leader in the church means congregants will not always agree with you or with the direction you lead. Resistance to you or your leadership may ensue. You feel like you are in a tug-of-war when people you love and serve, consciously or unconsciously, cajole you to support what they think is right. I discovered that most of the time if I held my position loosely, finding common ground with others was more likely. Pulling in different directions for too long is harmful to relationships, the church and God’s kingdom.

Is there any other job in our society in which the leaders supervise the work of those who pay their salary? It happens in ministry. Staff ministers plan, facilitate and execute ministries of the congregation alongside lay leaders. An interesting tug-of-war occurs when the lay people you guide in their ministries are asked to evaluate you.

Living into job descriptions can contribute to a feeling of tug-of-war. Congregations prepare job descriptions because they have specific tasks they want paid staff ministers to accomplish. Staff ministers feel called to ministry in and through a local congregation.

I remember many times feeling torn between going to the hospital to visit someone I cared about (not a primary assignment on my job description) versus accomplishing an essential weekly task clearly stated in my job description. It felt like a tug-of-war.

Perhaps no other time in the life of a congregation causes staff ministers and members to feel like they are playing tug-of-war more than at budget development time. Turf protection for “me and my areas of ministry” becomes intense. Scarcity thinking says there is only so much money, and I must work as hard as I can to get the biggest slice of the pie I possibly can.

This myopic thinking fails to acknowledge the importance and significance of supporting all ministries of the congregation. Healthy functioning around budget development demands recognition of the interconnectedness of church ministries and openness to sacrifice for the good of the whole.

Finally, I experienced tug-of-war in congregations I served regarding denominational affiliations. This tug-of-war continues, especially in churches with connections to multiple mission-sending agencies. It leads to uneasiness about “fairness and balance” regarding promotion of mission offerings from the pulpit and in church newsletters.

Because I serve the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, I readily confess my personal bias. I believe congregational leaders show courage when speaking openly about ministry partners and unpacking the theology that informs their mission and ministry.

What leaders lift up as important strongly influences congregational members. Vocational ministers and congregants can engage in honest and lively conversation while cultivating capacity to respect different perspectives and loyalties.

Based on my local church experience, sensitivity to the tugs-of-war inherent in ministry contributes to joy-filled staff ministers, better staff relationships and healthier congregations.

There need not be losers in the ministry tug-of-war.

OPINION: Views expressed in Baptist News Global columns and commentaries are solely those of the authors.