This post continues thoughts that began in “Tenuous Tenure: The Dangers and Damage of the Pastor-Parish Rotisserie.” This post examines the second of three stages of ministry that occur in the development of a pastor’s relationship to a congregation, and to the development of new churches within the community in which they are planted. Those pastors and new churches who survive the first stage, “Putting Out Fires,” do so largely because they have learned an important skill that is based on an important shift in perspective. They have developed their talent for “Spinning the Plates.”
Why We Must Learn to Spin the Plates
Some church groups may still sing, from time to time, “It only takes a spark to get a fire going.” Putting it out requires a bit more effort. And it takes far greater skill to spin even one plate. And if you’re going to keep even that single plate spinning, your attention cannot waver for very long. Remember, though, just as we discussed in the earlier post about those fires that most new pastors and newly-planted churches need to put out, none of us has the luxury of spinning just one plate. (For a demonstration of what I envision as plate-spinning, there is a clip of Erich Brenn’s plate-spinning, just about as I remember watching it, on The Ed Sullivan Show from 1969. You can watch is here.)
Among the eight to ten legitimate categories of pastoral tasks, the fires erupt from the smoldering embers of unmet expectations. Even if the pastor is talented enough to evenly devote ten to twelve percent of the schedule and energy available into each of the categories, some parishioners will feel that there should only be their favorite three or four activities on the pastor’s schedule. Others will acknowledge that ten percent is fair for each of eight or nine activities, but that one or two should get as much as half each. (If you’re following the math, then you know why many pastors reach a point where their physical, mental, or spiritual health succumbs to there simply being too few hours each week in which to accomplish the to-do list assigned by their congregations…before ever considering what God asks of us…and long before we include the obligations He assigns us by our role within a family.)
If you’ve seen someone spin plates, you know that there is a particular skill to getting them spinning. It also requires constant attention to the plates already spinning, even as new plates are set into motion. But the skill needed to keep a plate spinning is significantly less than starting one, and it would seem to be something more easily taught than the act of getting a new plate up and rotating.
Now, you might imagine that I’m going to suggest that the simplistic solution of delegation might remedy the need for a solo pastor to spin all the plates. That might be true, still, in some areas. But there are two factors to consider. First, in the eyes of many pastors at that transitional point in their tenure (roughly two years in, as we discussed earlier), any suggestion of delegation is usually seen as one more fire to be put out. Even where it is seen as just one more plate to be spun, there can be another fire ignited in the expectation that any and all ministry functions (spinning plates) are “what we hired the pastor to do.”
Is it possible for a solo pastor, especially a bi-vocational pastor to keep all the plates spinning all the time? No. But only those pastors who exhibit the greatest possible passion for keeping the plates spinning can be forgiven for occasionally allowing one to drop. Allowing any passion for a particular plate to engender enjoyment, or even a sense satisfaction runs the risk of distracting the pastor from other, potentially wobbling or already falling plates.
And so the pastor learns to spend only so much time on each task as necessary to keep that particular plate spinning, while constantly attending to the inexorable pull of gravity and the drag of friction. Fighting inertia to maintain momentum means constantly working against the forces that pull each category of ministry into worrisome wobbling, if not causing them to catastrophically crash to the ground. To translate this into the realm affecting newly-planted churches, simply envision how desperately underdeveloped the initial months or even years of a new congregation’s ministry structure may be. Then, combine that with how great the expectations at the five-year mark are that “by now, we should be a full-service church.” Now multiply those factors by the justification for planting the church in the first place: usually a singular, uniquely necessary ministry perceived to be lacking among other congregations in the body of Christ…which would become impossible to maintain if the new congregation simply becomes a differently-branded discount outlet of religious goods and services.
The Rewards of Effective Plate-Spinning
For those pastors and newly-planted churches that manage to put out fires so that they are not consumed by the combined conflagration, any sigh of relief at having passed the two or five-year mark is lost amidst the panicked panting that accompanies the nonstop travel from one spinning plate to another. The estimates vary, but from my observations (having served as a pastor, a church-planter, and a denomination’s Regional Extension Assistant—providing support to several other church-planters), it seems that the eventual cascade of broken dinnerware befalls pastors between the five and eight-year mark, with recently-planted churches reaching that point usually around the ten-year anniversary. Again, this pessimistic view of inevitable disintegration presumes two things. First, that each survives the initial stage by putting out fires fast enough, long enough. Second, that the pastors and congregations in view do not find a way to transition into the third stage of ministry development: “Finding Your Traction.”