Which side of Christian ministry are you on?

I was over earlier this week in England for a Bible College/ theological institutions in the UK and Ireland shindig / get together / discussion / time of fellowship sort of thing in the lovely campus of All Nations Christian College. An excellent time.

At a meeting like this I’m reminded of the continual tension between what I’ll call SIDE A and SIDE B of Christian ministry.

SIDE A reflects an emphasis on ‘ministry’, ‘relationships’, ‘theological ideas’, ‘spiritual transformation’, ‘prayer’ and so on.

SIDE B, on the other hand, is associated with words like ‘management’, ‘buildings’, ‘funding’, ‘budgets’, ‘strategy’, ‘student-staff ratios’ and ‘efficiency’.

Here’s a proposal: most people in Christian ministry are there out of a passion and desire to do SIDE A sort of stuff: to love God and love others; to share and demonstrate the gospel, to care for those in need, to see lives turned around, to work for justice and so on. This is a kingdom of God sort of ministry vision that inspires people to follow Jesus wherever he leads.

This passion has led them to engage in theological training, often at significant cost in terms of time, career and money. Most of this training is focused on things like studying the Scriptures, learning theology in community, developing in the Christ-like character traits required for Christian service. In other words, more SIDE A sort of stuff.

But then, once actually ‘in’ Christian ministry, SIDE B suddenly intrudes, for, of course, they are two sides of the same coin and can’t be done in isolation.

The reality is that much church leadership involves stuff like organizing teams, minutes, meetings, employment law, fundraising, buildings, budgets, leases, office management, IT, setting vision etc.

And in theological education where I work, it is a huge luxury of a big specialized organization for lecturers to be ‘only teaching’, writing, speaking and engaging with students. SIDE B reality can’t be avoided if SIDE A is to happen at all. Therefore, in a smaller organization, a huge amount of time has to be given over to budgets, student numbers, viability, recruitment, staffing issues, buildings, fundraising, engaging with Govt policy, administration related to university validation, charity law, company law, Board management etc etc …

It’s a tension that I struggle with every day. How about you?

SIDE A stuff is what gets my heart and mind fired up – teaching people, discussing issues of deep personal significance, seeing students learn and grow and serve God in powerful ways, being in relationships within community.

Yet if SIDE B stuff isn’t done well all that primary stuff won’t happen. It’s essential.

Living in that tension is difficult.

Here are some observations and I’d love to hear what you think:

A lot of Christian organizations really struggle with the professional demands of SIDE B. The passion and training of the people running those organizations is mostly SIDE A. A few exceptionally gifted people are double-sided (I know I’m not – SIDE B stuff is hard work for me and I’d always rather be doing SIDE A stuff). Therefore Christian churches and organisations need to take SIDE B seriously and get SIDE B people into the right roles.

I suspect many Christian leaders find themselves spending a huge amount of time doing SIDE B sort of things for which they have had no real training. Do you agree with this?

Some respond by saying that training for Christian ministry should be radically re-orientated towards SIDE B stuff, arguing current models are hopelessly irrelevant and out of touch.  Yes, to some degree, but I’m generally resistant to this. SIDE B stuff is secondary. To prioritise it is to subvert the very heart of Christian ministry. It leads to the professionalization of ministry and pastors as CEOs. It leads to the marginalization of relationships, love, spiritual transformation and discipleship and ‘mechanises’ ministry into utilitarian models of ‘success’ and ‘failure’. Or am I being a naïve idealist here?

Is attempting to mould Christian ministry into a SIDE B shape to lose touch with the way of Jesus? Is a business model of ministry incompatible with the upside-down, kingdom of God way of ministry?  Or is this a false dichotomy?

A last observation: running a church or a Christian organization is a complicated task. Especially in tough economic times, the never-ending and often all-consuming demands of SIDE B can overwhelm the primary call of SIDE A.

Symptoms include: Pastors end up snatching a few minutes a week for prayer, visiting people or preparing to preach the Word of God. Lecturers in theological colleges become administrators meeting the bureaucratic demands of ‘educrats’, finding only a few spare moments to study, think, pray, write, and spend time with students. Process ends up before people.

I’d love to hear some ideas of how to keep SIDE B in its proper place of serving and enabling SIDE A.

Comments, as ever, welcome.


19 thoughts on “Which side of Christian ministry are you on?

  1. Patrick, I found this entry quite troubling. I think I understand what you are on about… that bureaucracy should never come before ministry and I agree (people should always come before processes and programmes)…

    However the danger is to enforce and underline the thinking that creates a hierarchy in ministry and in life.

    That a ministry is more important and of greater eternal value because this person is “full time” or engaged in preaching the word… while that person is “just” writing emails or doing accounts.

    I’ve been in “full time Christian ministry” for over 20 years and in that time I’ve been involved in both “sides” as you describe it. I’ve also watched in awe as folks in “secular” work have had far greater success and impact missionaries in their workplace than I have ever been!

    There are great dangers on both “sides” to lose sight of what we are all about. I don’t believe the answer is making one subservient to the other but in WHATEVER we do, to understand the essentials, the heart-and-soul of what we are about as believers.

    How does this activity help me love God and love my neighbour?

    That simple process can envision and invigorate the most mundane tasks and can also “sift” through the motives of the seemingly sublime!

  2. For once (I think) in my life I am going to disagree with you Patrick!

    SIDE B stuff is NOT secondary! There are many areas that could be given as an example but two will suffice.

    The government, whom we elect, implement laws for the protection of its citizens. Employment law, corporate financial laws (albeit with recent Irish history one would wonder) for good and honest dealings. These matters and all of the other administrations issues need to be dealt with professionally and not bottom of the list!

    Secondly Employees must be dealt with well and this takes administration structures for safety, protection, proper guidance to mention just a few!

    But I agree with you that those who love side A should not do side B. They are usually are not inclined and so no matter how much training and cajoling you do they will do a bad job.

    Our great master left us the answer though. There are people gifted in this area and anointed by God for this good and important work. See “Anointed for Business” by Ed Silvosa, “Thank God its Monday” by Mark Greene and “The Heart of Success” by Rob Parsons. All great books on this and related topics. Bill Hybels book “Leading from the Second Chair” I believe is likewise but I have not read it.

    It is interesting that Jesus gave a key administrative task to Judas (the gad guy) but (and here you could correct me as I am straying into side A) I do not believe that meant that task was bad! Probably another days conversation.

    You might think I am just defending a favorite of mine. I am, but not for me, rather for all those who like me for the first TWENTY years of adult life thought that Side B was unimportant and I should get out there and do side A – the real stuff. I found myself persisting at things I was plainly bad at and feeling very guilty about it! I do worry that this view is still passed on to young people and many will struggle like me for years.

    Of course the real answer is wind up the Side A people and set them at the Side A stuff where they will work miracles! Then wind up the side B people and point them at the side B stuff and they will also work appropriate miracles. They will also enjoy it as equally as you do the side A and more importantly they will be free in the Lord to use there gifts doing good and important and equally primary work!

    IBI is a great example of having the two sides, not in the same person but in those appropriately gifted. It is important that those doing “only the admin” don’t feel under valued. From your brief description of the meeting you were at in the UK it sounds like you should have had a side B person with you and then during side B parts relaxed and had a beer! 🙂

    Hope that is all not too direct but I write because of my own hard experience. Well done on raising the matter as I really do think it is very important and needs more “air time”.

    Tom Slattery

  3. Hi Ruth, Tom. Thanks for your ‘push backs’ and creating the conversation! I think there is quite a bit to talk about here.

    I hear both of your concerns about viewing SIDE A stuff as ‘really spiritual’ and SIDE B stuff as of less spiritual significance and I can see how what I said could be read that way, especially about SIDE B being secondary. But I wonder if we are talking past each other a bit?

    Absolutely – all service to God is to be valued, there is no sacred / secular divide. And that needs to be said again and again in the church where so often ‘Christian ministry’ and ‘church work’ is seen as the ‘spiritual’ stuff and ‘secular work’ as a less valuable and important activity of no real spiritual significance.

    My focus wasn’t so much on comparing the value of ‘full time Christian ministry’ versus secular or administrative roles, but trying (perhaps poorly) to explore the tension of two quite distinct ‘pulls’ within Christian ministry.

    I did try to say SIDE B stuff is essential and needs to be taken seriously within Christian organisations and needs to be done well (and is often done very badly indeed)..

    But I do want stay with my contention that within Christian ministry, the primary calling is to things like prayer, relationships, justice, pastoring, preaching and teaching the Bible, loving God, loving others. If SIDE B stuff takes over or is seen as the route to ministry ‘success’ we’ve misplaced our priorities.

    Worth having a read of this – relevant to the discussion I think .. especially the comment “But we don’t need a CEO, we need a pastor!”

  4. Hi Patrick,
    Thanks for the clarification… I’d got the feeling this was your intention / focus but was fearful of the misinterpretation that could have come from your post as I’ve seen that all too often.

    I love the article – thanks for that link.

    It does seem there are a range of pitfalls for those in Christian ministry and calls for balance (a good old George Verwer word), priorities, simplicity and humility are vital.

    For me… it’s about team – building people around us who complement our weaknesses and being willing to admit we can’t do certain things. We need to see people released into their gifting (a bit of a passion of mine) and not feeling they have to confirm to the superhuman or super spiritual boxes we so often create.

  5. You nailed on the head a tension I am wrestling with right now, which I drift in between where I lay my emphasis. Even the pathway you mentioned was me and my story. “Side B” is new to me, as a “young” pastor and has been life-giving in some ways. The danger of putting our emphasis there is alive and well, as I meet collegues who have read every leadership book, though seem to know little in terms of common Christian confessions, managed every minute, abandoned traditional pastoral tasks, dismissed the Christian Year as irrelevant (I know someone who is skipping Easter to continue in a series on marriage and family), and offer up advice that seems to neglect the spirit of Jesus, for the spirit of a CEO. I hope you continue to explore this tension, as I need “Side B”, but I’m tempted to camp out there in the name of being effective and to the detrement of what “Side A” provides.

  6. Patrick,
    You’ve written a great post. In response, a few observations:

    *As you describe so well in your post, the tension is very real. In smaller churches, it is very real for the church leader. In a larger church, it is also very real as it can become complicated to get things done. Regardless, most of us do not have the luxury of one or the other.

    *I am so grateful for those who are especially gifted in Plan B areas. As you noted, sometimes Plan A is not going to get done unless someone deals with the Plan B areas.

    *One reality that many pastors/preachers/church leaders face is coming into a congregation where they expect help with Plan B areas and yet, this person has not experience or knowledge of where to begin. Consequently, Plan B areas take over the ministry as this person attempts to learn.

    *I am not sure what the answer is. While I have attempted to be a life-long learner since seminary, I have also had to learn and at times, re-learn, how to do some of the Plan B concerns that goes with working with established churches. The effort to learn some of this has probably helped prevent these issues from being the overwhelming focus of my ministry.

    As you say, it is a very real tension.

  7. Hello Mark and Jim and welcome. I was writing from personal experience too.

    I’m full of admiration and deeply grateful for those who can do SIDE B well. As several people have said, it has to be about team and gfiting. And of course the sharp distinctions I’ve drawn between ‘two sides’ is useful for a discussion starter but ministry isn’t as black and white.

    I have to spend quite a bit of time in SIDE B, and know that I have to carve out time for SIDE A or I begin to shrivel up inside. Beginning blogging was actually a decision to committ to writing, thinking, and conversing about ideas & theology as a regular discipline and I’ve found it really helpful and if any others find it a good read that’s just a bonus! So I think that pastors / teachers feeling ‘pushed’ or overwhelmed by endless urgend demands of SIDE B, must carve out non-negotiable time for doing SIDE A – whatever that looks like for each person.

  8. 1st question of leadership is this a problem to solve or a tension to manage? Your Side A and Side B reveals this is a tension to manage. When Side A and Side B are identified as a problem, then focus solely on one side, actually harms both sides.

    The challenge is how do you leverage the tension? Side A is the spiritual resources and fuel, Side B is the physical resources that fund the opportunity to do Side A. Wise management when matched with Biblical teaching can reproduce disciples.

    Roy Oswald and Barry Johnson wrote about this issue in “Managing Polarities in Congregations: Eight Keys for Thriving Faith Communities”. They use the idea of a polarity map. Their findings taught me to leverage the tension to build momentum that maximizes life at the top of both polarities.

  9. I consider myself one of those double-sided people and I think working in business AND having seminary training is an advantage. I value ministry and the side A stuff (in fact, that’s what makes me tick), but I also understand the importance of side B and have experience in that area. But, not many people are double-sided, although I think that may be changing with more and more people going into ministry as a second and third career after being in other fields.

    There is a business side to ministry and I believe everything done for the Lord ought to be done well and where we can borrow from the business world and sanctify those practices, I’m all for it. The trick though to not having the pastor be all-consumed with side B, particularly if that is not where their giftedness lies, is to have Godly people working in the side B areas. Too often we choose people because of their side B giftedness, but they are low in the area of spirituality and what ends up happening is that the church is run like a business and people are easily expendable if they don’t fit the plan.

  10. Okay, I’m not a pastor so you can totally kick me out of this discussion if you want.

    But this conversation reflects a lot of the conversation going on in the greater nonprofit world as well, which I am a part of. Comparable to how you say pastors get educated on all the “Side A” stuff, we are finding that many people that have gone out and started nonprofits did so with GREAT intentions, GREAT vision, GREAT World-changing desires,(Side A?) but with no idea in how to run an organization. (Side B stuff). So they start with all the passion in the world but end up getting drained and if there is no Side B to support their passion, it can all fall through.

    However, now we are seeing an awesome trend where leaders who want to change the world are actually getting educated and certified as nonprofit leaders on top of getting an education in their field. We find that in general, they are much more equipped to know how to do Side B while using their natural talents, energy, and other education in Side A.

    When these new leaders come alongside existing organizations without Side B support, they can help to lend a hand and create a great base and structure for B so that A can operate.

    A strong Side A cannot exist without a strong Side B.
    And Side B alone is no good.

    I think it would be wise for Side A leaders to get some training in Side B as well, and then they will be much more equipped to handle the balance of these items, whether it is them themselves that has to fulfill A and B, or they have another leader to help them with B. At least then, a Side A leader will understand Side B; they can have a common language on the technical side of things. And if Side A is left without a side B companion, at least they are not starting a ground zero in learning something they are probably not naturally gifted in either.

    But I’ve also seen when people are too “Side B” or if Side B is their only task, that their motivations and goals can over time, become, not to serve Side A, but to meet that bottom line of numbers. If people are going to be involved at a Side B level, they need to also have some passion for Side A and be involved in the programs or ministry in order to still see people as people and not numbers. There needs to be some “grounding” there.

    At the end of the day, obviously teamwork key in balancing A and B, and I also think there always needs to be the priority of starting and ending each day with GOD, so that we can allow him to shape our motivations, intentions, and hearts throughout the day as we deal with each other and work towards His plans.

    • Amy,
      I’m glad you commented. Sometimes it is very helpful (for those of us in pastoral ministry) to hear from someone who is not a pastor. Your comment is good and contributes to the clarity that is so important as we think about this issue. Thanks.

  11. “Some respond by saying that training for Christian ministry should be radically re-orientated towards SIDE B stuff, . . . SIDE B stuff is secondary. To prioritise it is to subvert the very heart of Christian ministry.”

    I agree with you that Side B is secondary, but I still believe there is a great need for inclusion of Side B stuff in Christian ministry education. While i don’t think it should be “prioritized” I think we neglect it at our peril. I am an MDiv student at Fuller Theological Seminary, a flagship institution in many respects. but there is not so much as one course offered on managing the business side of a church. Not one. This is a serious deficit which is dire need of correction. It seems to be it should not only be offered but a mandatory part of the curriculum.

  12. Interesting and a bit surprising Patrick. While I’m against prioritising Side B as if ‘efficiency’ is the ‘answer’, it does seem wise to combine Side A and B in ministry training – and for pastors and leaders to be realistically aware of their giftings and the areas they will need help and expertise from others within a team context.

    • Patrick,
      I really like your last comment!

      I really agree with what you are saying here. A combination of the two in ministry training is very important and would make the transition into pastoral ministry much smoother. As I think you are suggesting, there really is a way to do both in ministry preparation without sacrificing one for the other. (Or prioritizing “Side B” over “Side A”)

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