Tri Cycle

How can you best pace yourself for most effective ministry?


An article in a recent issue of Runner’s World magazine encouraged runners to incorporate “cycles” into their training. Too many runners train at the same intensity all year long, leading to breakdown and injury. To prevent burnout and overtraining, the article suggested training based on “macro,” “meso,” and “micro” cycles. This approach is based on the theory of “periodization,” in which the year is divided into several distinct periods, with certain types of activities emphasized during each period.

For example, a runner who sets his sights on running a fall marathon will schedule his training so that he is at peak physical and emotional energy for the race. The six-month “macrocycle” of preparation would include 3- to 8-week “mesocycles” that focus on building an aerobic base, building strength, and building speed. A brief, multi-day “microcycle” of recovery would follow each mesocycle.

While the magazine article was for runners, I think the same three-cycle theory can easily be applied to ministry, which also follows annual seasons or cycles. Every year, we gear up for several major seasons of ministry: these typically include Fall Kickoff, Advent/Christmas, and Lent/Easter. Do we approach our emotional, spiritual, and physical preparation and recovery with these cycles in mind?

A ministry macrocycle might include these three mesocycles. Each mesocycle would begin with a microcycle of intentional, concentrated rest, followed by gradually increased activity and focus on the activities of the next season. By viewing the ministry year as a series of cycles, you begin to see recurring patterns to each year and each season, as well as the benefits of an intentional “training” plan. The alternative would be to run non-stop from January through December, greatly increasing your risk and odds of burnout.

How do you approach your preparation so that you can “run with endurance the race set before you?”

Pastors Need Pastoring Too

So many times, we think pastors are above the need for pastoral care. The assumption is that they’ve got it together enough to be counseling and caring for others.

But pastors need pastoring, too. They need people who will care for them regardless of their title, who can offer encouragement, support, and compassion with no return expectations attached.

I have always admired my husband for being a great pastor to other pastors and leaders. For some reason, people in ministry know they can come to him for a listening ear, a word of encouragement, or a loving exhortation for their own lives.

If you are a pastor, who is your pastor? And is your church providing pastoral care for your own leaders?

Don’t Diss the Competition

A few months ago, we were in the market for a new washer and dryer. I did some research, decided on several comparable models and headed out to visit several retailers to look at them in person and find the best deal.

I collected information from the closest home-improvement store, then went to look at the same models at a well-known department store. While I had used this chain for numerous appliance purchases in the past, their prices and delivery availability in this case weren’t as good as the first store. Still, since I had been a satisfied customer before and the employee seemed eager to make a sale, I asked if he could match the price of the other store.

Instead of cheerfully seeing what he could do to complete the deal, this employee — and his colleague, who joined him on the sales floor — proceeded to tell me how bad the other retailer was, and why I shouldn’t do business there. Moreover, they did so by telling me information (about the other store’s pricing, delivery and setup process) that I knew for a fact to be untrue, thus demonstrating not just poor taste, but misinformation at best and dishonesty at worst.

At that point, it didn’t matter if the department store could match or even beat the first store; I was so turned off by their tactic that I had no interest in doing further business with them. I went back to the first store and by noon the next day, I was happily doing laundry with a new washer and dryer.

I have heard of pastors and leaders who disparage other ministries in their town, pointing out their (real or imagined) weaknesses. As Christians, we sometimes resort to this tactic in our spiritual conversations as well — pointing out the negatives of the “enemy” and alternatives rather than the positives of following Christ. But a “centered” approach trusts that the option you are presenting is so compelling in its own right, there is no need to diss the competition.

Independent Confirmation

I never cease to be amazed at how God gives the same direction to different people who are all seeking His heart on the same issue.

Since the early days of our marriage, Dave and I have occasionally taken independent silent retreats. Sometimes we agree that we will seek the Lord about a particular issue, and sometimes we just go with open minds and hearts to whatever He has to say to each of us. But each time, we do our separate thing, whether that is a prayer walk, solitude, journaling, or a long solo drive. Afterwards, we come back together to process how God used that time to speak to our hearts. And each and every time, we have reported the same sense or conclusion or direction.

We have had several of those incidents in the last year as we have sought God’s direction for our next steps in ministry. That is cool enough on its own. But this time, we experienced God’s confirmation from other people who felt the same leading — only, these people have been from completely different churches in different states!

In January, Dave was one of two finalists for the permanent role at our interim church here in North Carolina. Without ever discussing a specific silent retreat or question, we each prayed independently for clarity regarding our next steps. One day while I was out for a run, I felt a clear sense that I should “let Chatham go.” My stress about the unknown of the future was immediately replaced by peace because God was in control. However, I knew Dave was still very interested in the position, so I told God, “If this is your direction, then you will need to make it clear to Dave as well, because I’m not going to tell him what to do.”

The next evening as Dave and I sat on the couch, he looked at me and cautiously said, “What would you think about me pulling out of the search process at our church?” Our eyes both widened as I told him about my prayer conversation the day before. God had once again told us the same thing, without each of us influencing the other about it. While it was scary to turn down a possible job opportunity without knowing the backup plan, we were confident that it was the right thing.

Meanwhile, the search team at the church in NC was praying for clarity as well. Considering the two worthy candidates, they prayed that God would make the decision “easy” for them. At the same time, a leader in the church who was praying for the search, and who at the time hoped Dave would fill the role, prayed that Dave would be the next pastor of the church. Instead, God gave her the clear sense that she should pray for Dave, and for the next pastor of the church. In her heart she replied, “Right. I pray for Dave, who will be the next pastor of the church.” And again, God spoke to her heart: “No, you need to pray for Dave, and for the different person who will be the next pastor of this church.”

A few days before a day-long interview, Dave pulled out of that search process. While it was not what any of us involved had originally expected or perhaps hoped, it was so clearly an answer to so many prayers. The church hired the other excellent candidate, a friend of ours, and on Sunday his family was part of the church sendoff for our family. The church will be in great hands under Alex’s leadership, and we are thrilled for him and for the church.

And while all of this was going in North Carolinaa search team in Indiana was seeking God in similar fashion for a pastoral opening at their church. Again, God gave clear direction, through a variety of human and divine conversations and circumstances, that David Ward was the right person for the new position. And that is how Dave began his new position Tuesday as the Pastor of Teaching Ministries at New Hope Church in Greenwood, IN.

Over my years in ministry, I have had many experiences and stories of someone declaring, “God told me [fill in the blank].” In those situations, I always want to know: Who else is praying about this, and what are they hearing from God? I firmly believe that God will reveal the same thing to spiritually mature people who are diligently and humbly seeking His direction about a particular issue. Independent confirmation is one of the rich joys of living and leading in true community, and I am grateful for so many examples of this grace in my own life.

Ministry Autopsy

Your church has decided to host a holiday dinner for needy families in your community. You rally the support of the church members, who eagerly sign up to provide food and help with setup, serving, and cleanup. You expect to feed as many as 150 people. Come Thanksgiving afternoon, the tables are decorated, the food is ready, and the volunteers are at their posts.

Two hours later, no one — no one — has shown up for the meal.

A failure? Only if you don’t learn from it.

Sure, in some ways the event didn’t work. But you have several questions you must consider at this point and over the next few days.

First and most immediate, Can anything be saved?  At the moment, you are surrounded by uneaten piles of mashed potatoes, mounds of turkey, and tables of stuffing and pumpkin pies. It’s Thanksgiving. Surely someone could use this food! With a few quick phone calls, you find a local soup kitchen that is happy to take everything right away. You end up feeding needy folks in the community after all, just not the ones you originally planned.

Second, Was this event poorly conceived? It could be that there were good reasons to not put on this event. Perhaps there was additional information that should have been considered about the target audience. Was this a good day, time, and location for them? I once was part of a church that decided to hand out free Blockbuster video gift cards (remember Blockbuster?!?) and microwaveable popcorn packs on a Friday night as an outreach. The problem was, that Friday happened to be the first day of the ACC men’s basketball tournament — which, in this community in this state, means that most people are at home watching the game, not driving to Blockbuster to rent a movie that night.

Third, Was this event poorly implemented? You could have had a great idea but the breakdown occurred during its implementation. Did you adequately plan every part of the event? Were roles and expectations clearly communicated? Did you publicize the event in ways that would effectively reach your target audience? Was there appropriate follow-through on delegated responsibilities?

Fourth, What was beyond our control? Sometimes unforeseen circumstances are to blame for a poor outcome. Maybe there was a freak snowstorm. Maybe the economy tanked. Maybe there was an unexpected death or illness. There are some times when even the best ideas and the most meticulous implementation are thwarted by factors beyond our control.

Finally, What can we learn going forward? Take what happened and learn from it! What did we do well? What would we do differently the next time? Should there even be a next time? Most importantly, how was I changed as a result of this process?

It is just as important to learn from our “failures” as from our “successes,” whether a one-time event or a long-term ministry. And speaking of failures, the only real failure is a failure to learn.