3 New Year’s Resolutions for Pastors in 2020

Having been a pastor for 24 years, and having befriended and coached pastors for forty years, I know how hard the job is. Really, there’s nothing I’ve ever done that comes close to the difficulty, complexity, demands, dangers, temptations, and drains (or the joys, rewards, value, impact, and intensity) of being a good pastor in these times.

I remember drifting towards discouragement whenever I defined success as meeting everyone’s expectations, and I remember feeling I was in my zone when I accepted my calling to set wholesome expectations … inspiring people to become more Christ-like, to join God in the healing of the world, starting with yourself.

I remember the constant pressure to keep everyone happy … even though happy people normally don’t change. (In other words, the better job I did keeping everyone happy or comfortable, the worse job I did in leading them into growth.)

When the job is this tough, it’s tempting to give up “playing to win” and settle for “playing not to lose.”

It’s also tempting to lose your grip on your original calling and vision, and settle for trying to get through another year (or week, or day) without too many angry emails.

But here’s the thing: 2020 will probably be the most significant year in your whole ministry.

If you play it safe this year, if you avoid all risks, if you keep your head down (and your neck “in”), if you’re focused on saving your skin over anything else … think of the moment you’ll miss: the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to speak up, show up, and stand up tall in a time of global danger and opportunity.

But if you seize this critical moment, this could be the most important and fruitful year of your ministry, and perhaps your life. (I didn’t say easiest and most comfortable; I said most important and fruitful.)

That’s why I’d like to propose these 3 resolutions or goals for 2020.

  1. Smoke What You’re Selling. In other words, be sure that you actually enjoy the abundant life you are proclaiming to others. Enjoy God. Enjoy life. Enjoy your family. Enjoy the simple things. Enjoy human things. If you work so hard at helping others experience abundant life that you don’t … neither will they. This means building your schedule around – not what’s most urgent, not who complains loudest, not who is most demanding, but rather, around what matters. Time to be alone, time for silence and contemplation, time for prayer and meditation, time with mentors and friends who encourage you, time reading or listening to podcasts or going to seminars and conferences for your own personal development, time with your hobbies (if you don’t have them – start this year, because they are your unique way of enjoying the gift of life). Don’t leave your leftovers for your spouse and children and siblings and other family members (as I too often have done). Block out time for them, which will require planning and forethought. If you and they don’t have fun this year … if you as a family don’t plan some adventures and celebrative experiences … it will be because you don’t start the year setting aside some time. Do that now, right at the year’s start — please!
  2. Clarify your job description. If you don’t have a written job description, change that, and if you do, see if it needs updating and improvement. Look at problems you’re having, and see if they can be improved by clarifying your roles in your congregation. If you need a coach to help you with this, find one. (Center for Progressive Renewal is a great place to look.) For you to lead well in 2020, you need to have a clear mandate to lead, and clarity among your fellow leaders about what that looks like.
  3. Get political. This is an inescapably political year. It’s a year we as individuals, neighbors, parties, states, and a nation have a massive discussion (often in the form of arguments) about how we will use our wealth and power. If you opt out, you’re missing a chance to add a voice of moral insight, pastoral wisdom, biblical understanding, theological depth, and spiritual discernment to the national and local debate, and you’re leaving your flock to the influence of cable news pundits and radio talk shows … and THAT would be spiritual malpractice. Remember, to avoid political subjects is itself a political act. It means that you’re choosing silence in the face of injustice, which is another word for complicity.

I know that third one is challenging for many pastors. You may be wondering, “How do I get political in a constructive way as opposed to a destructive way?” I’d recommend you speak frequently about the biggest problems we face as a species – the 5 P’s if you will:

The Planet. God told us to care for it as good stewards. We’re trashing it as greedy, heartless dictators. Climate change is the most urgent of our problems, but it’s the tip of the melting iceberg. Look at the extinction and loss of insects (including pollinators, who are essential for 30% of our calories), birds, mammals, fish … Think about loss of soil, fresh water, coral reefs, fisheries … Think about how many paradises are being paved for parking lots or fossil fuel extraction.

Poverty. In 2015, 80 rich individuals owned as much wealth as half of the earth’s people. In 2016, the number went down to 61. In 2017, it was 42. In 2018, it was 26 (And some people think it was 8, because we’re undercounting how poor the poorest people are.) Think about that for a while, not just in terms of money, but also in terms of power. Think of how much power those 26 people have over the lives of the rest of humanity. That’s a problem.

Peace. When the planet is being exploited, and so are the poor, the results are predictable: drought, flood, famine, hunger, mass migration, petty crime, organized crime, political corruption, civil war, world war, nuclear war. Dr. King was right: our choice is no longer between violence and nonviolence: it is between nonviolence and nonexistence. In times of stress, we are more likely to lash out at others, to blame others, to choose fight and flight over love and curiosity, to put winning battles over winning friends.

Political corruption. We’re in the midst of a constitutional crisis and what some call a cold civil war. At the root of our political problems are racism (America’s original sin) and greed (its other original sin), both of which fuel abuses of power at all levels of government. And sadly, many religious leaders are chaplains to the corruption, for which they are handsomely rewarded, if not in terms of money, then in terms of access, status, prestige, and power. Behind the scenes, national governments are becoming puppets of a global oligarchy … what has been called an iron triangle in which corrupt presidents, congressmen, and other officials make deals with organized criminals and oligarchs. If you haven’t seen this unfolding, I don’t know what to say …

All People, no exceptions. This past week, we’ve seen another wave of vile antisemitic attacks. Whether it’s Jews, Muslims, LGBTQ persons, refugees, immigrants, Mexicans, Sikhs, Hindus, liberals, conservatives, the media, or whoever … we have a growing number of religious and political demagogues who build their base by scapegoating some vulnerable group and blaming them for all of our problems. Suddenly, Jesus’ teachings about loving our neighbor as ourselves (no exceptions, including our Jewish, Buddhist, Christian, atheist, Mexican, or any other kind of neighbor) seems positively revolutionary, and the same goes for Paul’s words about how when we’re in Christ, we no longer see people in terms of ethnicity, gender, religion, socioeconomic status, etc.

Almost every Bible story addresses these issues. Once you start noticing these themes in the biblical text, you’ll wonder how so many people miss them, or avoid them. I’m recommending that you join the growing number of leaders who are seeing the political dimension of genuine spirituality and the revolutionary nature of divine love … and who are speaking up about it.

You could take those five words and put them on a 3 X 5 card and paste them on your desk or mirror or dashboard … just to remind you to preach about them, pray about them, sing about them, make plans to act to address them, etc.

You could set up a meeting with your worship team and ask them to find songs about them every single week (Convergence Music Project is a great place to start.) You could ask your kids and youth ministry leaders to include them in your work with the rising generation.

You could plan one or more conferences or retreats or book study groups to address them.

But one thing is for sure: if you care about them enough to speak and pray about them, you’ll inspire others to do so too … and if you don’t, you won’t.

If you’d like some other ways to get involved constructively in this political year, Vote Common Good is a great place to start. I’m working part time with VCG this year, and we’re developing lots of additional resources to help you. Stay tuned.

A year from now, when 2021 begins, I hope you can look back on 2020 and feel that you “smoked what you were selling,” that you got clarity on your job description, and that you were political in the best possible way.

(If you know a pastor who would benefit from this post, please share it.)