Tim Stevens offers encouragement and practical advice to pastors going through a tough ministry funk.
Have you ever been in a funk? Where it feels like you are walking through mud with every footstep just to get to the next place? Sometimes a personal funk is attributed to recovery from a traumatic incident, the loss of friends, a chemical imbalance, or a lack of purpose. Sometimes you can’t even figure out the reason: You just know that every step is hard, every conversation is laced with multiple agendas, and when you try to get even the simplest thing accomplished, there are roadblocks at every turn.
This type of funk can also happen in an organization. Or even at a church.
We didn’t know it at the time, but I believe we entered a funk in 2005 that lasted until the end of 2009. Looking back, I would describe those years as a season of malaise. About six years prior, we had set out with an ambitious vision that made everyone suck air. It provided wind in our sails. But by 2006, we had seen most of it accomplished and we began wondering, “What is next?” People were taking steps to follow Jesus and get baptized by the hundreds–and we celebrated that. But it didn’t have the sense of “movement” and “revolution” as in the early days. The response was more often thought (if not said), “Of course. That’s what happens here. Been there, done that. I don’t even think I’ll go watch 400 people get baptized—I’ll just wait for the recap video next weekend…”
Even thought it was a season of funk, good things continued to happen. We launched an additional multi-site location, we continued to train pastors and start churches in southern India, we made tremendous strides in our community center in downtown South Bend, and we saw marriages healed and hundreds give their lives to Jesus. But we just weren’t hitting on all cylinders. We had a growing sense that something wasn’t right.
Of course, we could never admit out loud that we had lost our passion or energy. I’m not even sure we knew it at the time. We kept trying stuff that would have some degree of success, but things were so unclear. It was like running toward a finish line through a dense fog and trying to course-correct without being able to see past your nose. We’d launch an initiative that we were sure would get us back on track—and it would start with a bang but then fizzle out after awhile. So we’d try something else. And then something else. We weren’t being driven toward a new vision. We were being driven away from failure.
During the season of funk, some of our relationships got sideways. We spent more and more time in our senior team meetings arguing over what was broken and how to fix it, and we let it damage some of our friendships. When things are great, you don’t have to spend much time evaluating (“it must be working, right?”). But when you are in the season of funk and the numbers are decreasing and you can’t figure out how to get out of it–you tend to blame people and cancel programs. And sometimes we blamed the wrong people and canceled the wrong programs.
In a season of funk, you can lose good people. Sometimes they will physically leave—taking their bat and ball and going to play on someone else’s team…a team that is winning more games and looks like they have some momentum. Others will check-out mentally. They are wired by God with a purpose and for a purpose—so they will find their fulfillment doing something else., outside the organization, until your passion returns and your vision grows big enough to be worthy of their focus.
Sometimes, in a season of funk, you will think about leaving. I know I did. In February 2009, I was experiencing the most difficult days of my professional life—having just laid off eight of my friends whom we could no longer pay. Additionally, I was struggling to work through daily tension with one of my closest friends and ministry partners. And neither one of us could fix it. I wasn’t sure he wanted to work with me anymore. On top of all that, it was ten degrees below zero with more than two feet of snow on the ground. And the call I received was from a church I love in Phoenix, Arizona. I’ll be honest—I thought about leaving.
I will be including more of this story in my next book, but for now let me just tell you some of the things that got us out of the funk. These are in no particular order, and I’m not sure they are universal, but I know they contributed to our journey out of the valley:
We were too stubborn to give up.
We kept getting out of bed, every day, and showing up to work on the problem.
We kept our focus on having the right people on the team and developing them into leaders.
We brought some professionals in to help us with our relational junk.
We purposed not to do anything to hurt the Church or cause of Christ even though sometimes we felt like it.
We began talking less about methods and fixes, and more about our underlying vision.
We became open to rethinking the very essence of what we had done for 20 years.
We brought new “blood” onto our senior team to give us a broader diversity of thought.
We prayed and begged God to show us the way out.
We argued tenaciously in private, but regardless how much we disagreed or how hurt we were, we supported each other publicly.
I’m guessing there are a few people reading my words who are currently in a ministry funk. Anyone want to admit it? Others have been through it and could add more insight as to how you emerged on the other side. I’d love your comments.
Tim Stevens serves as executive pastor of Granger Community Church in Granger, IN. Tim has a passion for the local church and equipping leaders with practical advice and tools to add value to them. He has co-authored three books with Tony Morgan, including Simply Strategic Stuff, Simply Strategic Volunteers, and Simply Strategic Growth, and most recently published his own book, Pop Goes the Church: Should the Church Engage Pop Culture?.