Poverty is like everything else. In the end it becomes bearable. It acquires a pattern and comes to terms with itself. One vegetates — that is to say, continues to exist in a wretched sort of way that is just sufficient to sustain life.

Victor Hugo, Les Misérables 1

This paragraph leapt off the page when I read it. What a vivid description of the way life becomes when there is no vision for anything different than what is and when people settle for what they are already getting! Why should such a sad state be accepted as normal and something to be endured indefinitely? Why should anyone fall into a rut and be content to stay there? Leaders need to know how it is that they could fall into a rut, and if they find themselves in one, how to get out.

Leaders must not fall into a rut and lead in a wretched sort of way that is just sufficient to sustain organizational life!

How We Fall Into Ruts

Here are some ways we might fall into a rut:

  • Pessimism overcomes activism. Every mission-driven organization exists to make a difference in our world. That means every Christian ministry should be an activist ministry, a change agent, driven by a vision of the ideal. The enemy of activism is pessimism, which could be defined as realism negatively magnified and gone wild.
    • When we succumb to “this is just the way it is,” we lose the edge that keeps us actively engaged in our mission.
    • When we settle for whatever is our current experience and make that the definition of what is normal, we lose sight of what could be.
  • Lack of self-reflection. Leaders who are not taking the time to reflect on their own leadership using prayer, journaling or any of the other spiritual practices that are available to us, are lacking in self-leadership. Leaders without self-reflection are like a ship adrift, maintaining life aboard the vessel but not realizing the boat isn’t going anywhere! That may be a pleasant place to be, but it isn’t fulfilling the ship’s purpose of taking people from one place to another. Leaders must challenge their own leadership. Don’t wait for a board or major donor to do the job that you should be doing yourself. Leaders ought to be their own most objective, insightful, relentless critic.
  • Tiredness/Loss of Passion. These factors may or may not be temporary. If the leader has lost the spark which invigorated their leadership, if they feel burnt out, it’s time for a sabbatical to recover that spark or to let someone else lead. Leaders need a passion for their mission!

How To Recognize You Are in a Rut

It shouldn’t be hard for a leader to recognize when they are in rut, as long as they are self-aware. These questions are ones I’ve picked up from others which should help a leader identify if they are in a rut:

  • Do I still feel challenged by my role or can I do it with my hands tied behind my back?
  • Is anything big happening in our ministry?
  • Am I looking forward with excitement about anything related to the ministry?
  • Does the ministry need anything that it doesn’t already have?

If the leader isn’t self-aware and not asking these questions, at least one of the staff members probably is, and most likely more than one. The leader should proactively ask the team these questions individually as part of a one-on-one meeting, and see how they feel. Their responses may alert the leader to something the leader has missed.

Getting Out of a Rut

The following suggestions can help a leader get out of a rut:

  • Prayer and discernment. You are leading Christ’s ministry, and he will certainly have something to say to you about it. This is foundational to anything else you do. Book yourself a spiritual retreat and spend time alone and in quiet with the Spirit.
  • Go back to your first passion and vision for the mission. This is the advice Christ gives to the church in Ephesus: Go back to your first love!2
  • In addition to recovering what you once had in terms of passion and vision, take a fresh start at developing your vision for what the ministry could achieve. This is all about rediscovering God’s purpose for the ministry and your call to it. You go back to recover your passion and vision and then you project forward to discern where God wants you to go from here.
  • To expand your concept of what is possible, get outside of your ministry world; go look beyond your organization, denomination, subsector, generation and see what is happening elsewhere.
  • State what you believe about the way things are and then challenge those paradigms. Prove yourself wrong!

Recognize that if you, the leader, are in a rut, then the staff probably is too. This means you have a bigger job than just getting yourself out of a rut – you must help everyone else to get out as well. That also means the ministry’s culture must change because somehow the culture has supported the complacency that got you into the rut in the first place.

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Get out!

If you have fallen into a rut, immediate remedial action is required. You’ll have to shake things up, including yourself! The good news is that Christ and the Spirit are with you, still have a purpose for you and your ministry, and will give you everything you need to get back on track.

Key Thought: Life is easy when you are in a rut, but then you are no longer leading!

The discussion guide for The Church Needs Some R&R applies to this post as well.

  1. p. 585-6
  2. Rev. 2:4

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An exploration of Christian ministry leadership led by CCCC's CEO John Pellowe