How to Stay Motivated as a Small Church Pastor

Smile SandwichPastoring a Small Church isn’t for wimps.

The hours are long. Everyone calls with urgent and not-so-urgent needs. And the to-do list never gets done.


The first six months I spent as a lead pastor of a Small Church were among the hardest in my ministry. Not because I was overwhelmed by the workload, but because I was so bored I didn’t know what to do with myself.


What Does An Energy Junkie Do in a Small Church?

I spent several years on the staff of a large, bustling church with multiple ministries and an on-campus K-12 school. There was a hum – a literal, noisy hum – to the place, almost 24/7. It was easy to stay active and motivated, because there was always a new event to prepare for, a last-minute emergency, a staff birthday party… all the normal activities of a large, busy, exciting church.

Then I took my first position as a lead pastor. It was in a small chapel in the woods, bordering a creek. Yep, on a creek. Just like those inspiration-of-the-day photos with sayings like He Leads Me Beside Still Waters.

The church had been through more than 20 pastors in their 35 year history. There had never been more than 100 people in it. (You couldn’t fit more than 100 people in it.) I knew the task would be tough, but I was young, excited, and ready to take it on.

My first few weeks were great. I dug in and spruced up the facility, visited congregation members and labored over my weekly sermons. But in less than a month, the chapel was as clean as it was ever going to get, the 25 church members had all been visited once or twice, and the Sunday sermons were written by Wednesday afternoon.

I sat in my office. My very quiet office. All alone. No noise. No hum. No buzz of activity. And I didn’t know what to do next.

So I joined the ministerial association. That killed an entire 2 hours every month. I rearranged the office furniture. I randomly called congregation members, almost hoping someone was sick, so I could visit them in the hospital.

I’m a self-starter. Highly motivated. But without the energy of others as fuel for that engine, I started to sputter. By the second and third months, I found myself not wanting to go to the office. My inactivity turned to boredom and my boredom slid into, not exactly despair, but something very much like it.

Soon, not knowing what to do turned into not wanting to do anything. I sat. Bored. Dull. Lifeless. Monday through Friday. When Saturday night came, I hadn’t even prepared a song list or sermon for Sunday morning, so I’d pull a frantic all-nighter.

The pattern of days of boredom followed by a night of panic, then an exhausted Sunday of so-called ministry, went on for months.


Steps to Staying Motivated

So how did I pull out of that funk? (That’s the word I was looking for three paragraphs back! Not despair. Funk.)

Here’s what worked for me.

1. Prioritize the important over the urgent. When we allow urgent issues to run our day, other people control our lives and we’ll either be frantic or bored. But when we prioritize important things, we run our lives instead of our lives running us. If you want a great tool to learn how to do this well, follow this link to read about the Urgent/Important Matrix.

2. Look outside the church walls – physically and spiritually. Shepherds care for the sheep. But they also go looking for the lost lamb. My ministry life became far less boring, and much more meaningful when I got out of my office and looked around the neighborhood. I worked with students at a nearby bible college to start a ministry to the high schoolers who were smoking in our church parking during their lunch break. I organized the grandmas in the church to assemble food bags for poor families. (Oh yeah, that stuff. I think they call that ministry, right?)

3. Learn the art of pondering. Busyness is not the same as effectiveness. Even highly motivated, Type A personalities need to learn the art of slowing down. Quiet doesn’t have to lead to boredom. It can be enriching, if we’ll invest in it wisely and prayerfully. Learn to enjoy the quiet when you have it. It won’t last.

4. Keep in shape physically. Yes, I know, we’re spiritual beings having physical experiences, not vice versa. So we don’t worship our bodies. But we do worship God in our bodies. They are his temple. They ought to be in as good (or better) shape as the church building.

5. Become a planner. No, not everything can be planned in advance, especially in a Small Church. But the last-minute-run-to-pick-up-something-I-forgot should be the exception, not the rule.

6. Try new things. Experiment. Change things up. In your schedule and the church’s ministries. Nothing will blow the cobwebs off boredom like trying something you’ve never done before.

7. Never stop learning. There are so many skill-sets needed to be a long-term, effective Small Church pastor. Nobody is good at all of them. Or most of them. There’s always more to learn.


A Motivated Pastor Means a Healthy Church

And the church? It never became that beehive of constant activity I’d been used to. But it became purposeful, healthy and strong. And it grew, too. One Sunday we almost did jam 100 people in. (We hit 99. I counted three times to be sure.)

And the new ministries were a big part of that new healthfulness. Some of those high school smoker kids came to know the Lord. The bible college students got hands-on ministry experience before they graduated. Senior citizens were validated, not just for what they had done, but for what they were doing. Families were strengthened. Believers grew in their faith. And I learned to be a better pastor.

I also became the longest-tenured pastor in the church’s history. A record that has thankfully been broken since then. I’ll always be grateful to the people in that little chapel. They stuck with a young, naive pastor through some tough, rookie mistakes.

I’ll never forget the lessons I learned there.

And I haven’t been bored in ministry since.


So what do you think? Have you ever had a problem staying motivated in ministry? Do you have any tips that others can use?

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(Smile Sandwich from kvanhorn • Flickr • Creative Commons license)

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8 thoughts on “How to Stay Motivated as a Small Church Pastor”

  1. I have to say I feel your pain for the first year was like that here at our Church, I was blessed in coming to my current church, It is a 95 year old church, that has had only 2 pastors that have been here for 6 years. The pastor before me was here for 9 months. they even had a pastor that was here for 30 days. I walked in an established church that really nothing more than a church plant. I started praying and asking God how He wants me to shepherd this church. I got an answer that blew my doors off, God showed me that He called me to not only pastor this church but also this community. He has opened doors to be the chaplain for the American Legion, VFW, Lions club, Hospital, As well as opening doors to assist coach track and football. The Counseling that my wife and I do is more to people that do not attend our church. We encourage all the town people to attend one of the 5 churches in our community. Our town has 600 and county only has 1000. So remember that God has placed you in a pasture that He wants you to shepherd, sometimes it is bigger than the four walls of your building. Go and Be Jesus with Skin on! Show people that you care about them and not about the nickels, noise and numbers. Be Blessed Mike

  2. Mike, that’s amazing! There are so many faithful servants like you, whose “successes” will never be measured in numbers others can see. Thank you for such vision, passion and impact for your community and the kingdom of God.

  3. Mike, that’s amazing! There are so many faithful servants like you, whose “successes” will never be measured in numbers others can see. Thank you for such vision, passion and impact for your community and the kingdom of God.

  4. “Healthfulness”
    That is a word you use on a regular basis.

    When I first read it (in the book or a blog, can’t remember) it really struck a cord (or a nerve). I guess it was one of those “Ah-Ha!” moments, and I began looking at the healthfulness of our fellowship and realized it begins with me and had to begin taking real stock in what I was doing. (I believe that was one of those times I told you about Karl, ya know, when I wanted to punch you in the arm or something!)

    And Mike, I so relate to the pastoring the community. Owning a small business, being on the school board, and just being connected through other organizations is a vital role in smaller communities. Ours is not as small as yours, but close.

    As you like to say Karl, (and it is truth, nothing but truth), it’s about adding to the Kingdom, not necessarily our individual churches!

    The spilling over into our communities of the health of our church…that’s the growth that matters.

  5. Wow, that was almost helpful.

    So you were bored for a while. Shocker. You had nothing to do in a small church? Hmmm. Never heard of that. You met with some young people in a conveniently located Bible college and helped them connect with kids in your parking lot and you asked the old people to hand out food. Amazingly, the church grew to a 100.

    So, in other words, yet another success. A young and energetic pastor fixed a tiny church.

    For every one of you, of this story, there are a hundred that didn’t see 100 people come to church. They did what you did and saw the same 25 that had always come. Now, THAT would be interesting to read…how to handle being a small time pastor and NOT (so incredibly predictable) grow it to 100 people.

    I’m sorry.

    I’m happy for your success and I understand your initial boredom. But the simple truth is that you just told the multitude of pastors who did what you did and never see the results that they suck. Maybe they do, maybe they don’t…but did we really need yet another success story?

    1. You mis-read the post. And I think I understand why, because I’ve read all those success posts, too. And I’ve felt the pain and guilt they’ve piled on, too. But that’s not what this post or this website is about.

      The church never got to 100 people and I never said it did. I said “one Sunday we almost did jam 100 in.”. Just once. It never happened again. And that line was meant with a self-deprecating, we-never-quite-made-it attitude that perhaps didn’t come across as I intended.

      I am one of the 100 pastors you mention who didn’t see 100 people come to the church. Not even close. I saw the original 25 people get energized and healthy. We added a few more, but our average attendance never hit 50.

      I’m sorry for your hurt, which came across underneath your sarcasm. If you’re really looking for something other than the typical success story mentality, take a look around this site. I think you’ll find it.

      You can start with my most recent post, “We Followed the Steps – Where’s the Church Growth?” by clicking this link:

      It includes the sentence, “Despite years of following every healthy step on the list, our church hasn’t broken the numerical growth barriers.” This may be what you’re looking for.

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