5 Rules of Thumb to Problem-Solving in Ministry Leadership
Published: April 26, 2019
Get a handle on these five filters for effective problem-solving for the problems that arise in your children’s ministry.
It was appalling! A board member in my church wrote weekly critiques to our children’s ministry leaders with a negative tone that attacked the program and people’s character. I didn’t do anything about it, but I prayed and sympathized with my injured coworkers—until the day Sam’s literary critiquing got personal. This time, it was about me! I stormed into my senior pastor’s office waving the four-page letter, ready to tell Sam what I thought about his misguided opinions. And I’ll never forget what my pastor taught me that day because it’s one of the most powerful truths in ministry leadership.
My pastor said simply, “Your reaction to the most difficult person you minister to will shape the quality of your leadership.”
In other words, if I couldn’t be “Jesus” to Sam, I couldn’t be “Jesus” to anyone—adult or child.
What a challenge! It didn’t matter how patient and loving I acted with every child in my church, because I could be rightfully judged by my poor reaction toward this one “thorn in my flesh.”
A New Perspective on Problem-Solving
I left my pastor’s office that day with a changed attitude and a new perspective on leadership. I learned that Sam had deep hurts in his life that others couldn’t see. And I realized that while some issues need to be confronted, wise leaders use prayerful compassion and childlike faith when facing every problematic situation.
Don’t be surprised when you face a challenge such as this. The higher your name on the organizational chart, the more troubleshooting, conflict management, and interpersonal issues you’ll deal with. Effective leadership is essentially effective problem-solving. And problem-solving strategies come in many shapes, sizes, and levels of effectiveness. One pastor I served with hated conflict. He declared staff meetings as “problem-free” zones.
Another pastor said, “Don’t walk across the street to answer criticism. If the charge is true, it’ll land on your doorstep. If it’s false, it’ll walk on by.” Still, another told me to attack a problem as quickly as possible and deal with it before it grew. Very different strategies…so what’s your problem-solving strategy?
You can’t hide from issues. They range from irritating joy-stealers to haunting defeats. As Jesus said, “Here on earth you will have many trials and sorrows” (John 16:33).
Despite all this, you can create a “thumbs-up” ministry by instituting these filters—or five rules of thumb—for tackling ministry challenges.
Rule #1: Know Yourself
Your thumb represents the first step in problem-solving—taking a look at yourself. No matter the problem, first you must objectively examine your role in the issue. Ask yourself these questions.
- What’s my involvement in this issue? What should my involvement be?
- What do I need to do to effectively resolve this issue in a Christian manner?
- Am I contributing to the problem? If so, how?
- What is my responsibility to God, my team, my church, and my pastor?
- Is my relationship with God healthy, allowing me to be an effective problem-solver?
“The decision to serve as a spiritual leader signs one up for conflict,” says Reggie McNeal in his book, A Work of Heart. “Unfortunately, many spiritual leaders prove to be conflict allergic. Unless they develop a strategy for dealing with conflict, they may withdraw from the battle.”
Part of your problem-solving strategy is to know who you are in God. Another part is being self-aware and able to view situations—no matter how volatile—objectively.
“My biggest stumbling block was thinking I wasn’t capable,” says children’s pastor Jelynda Simpson. “My thinking was wrong. Only when I truly knew that I was called by God and could make a difference did God teach me about not giving up under pressures. I learned to ask for wisdom as it says in James 1:4-6 and to have faith without doubting.”
For years Cyndy Salzmann, author of Making Your Home a Haven, felt that Haggai 1:5-6 must’ve landed in the Bible just for her: “Look at what’s happening to you! You have planted much but harvest little.” Reflection on that verse led to a dramatic change in Salzmann’s leadership. By “giving careful thought to your ways,” she opened the door to honest self-assessment, which ultimately helped her become a better leader.
Rule #2: You’re Not Alone
In the midst of problem-solving, we often forget to look to the people we’ve assembled around us—a big mistake. Ask yourself these questions.
- Who is legitimately involved in the issue? Who should be involved?
- How can other team members directly or indirectly help the situation? hurt the situation?
- In what ways can I use the talents and gifts of my team to resolve this issue?
- What procedures or policies can be instituted to discourage such a problem in the future?
God is all about teamwork. The Trinity is a team. Jesus called the Twelve, taught them, and sent them out in pairs. The church is called the body of Christ with many parts. Your team is made of people with different talents working in harmony to get the job done. When you’re facing a troublesome issue, look to the people you’ve carefully assembled around you. Maximize their talents and lean on their experience when appropriate.
And don’t forget to shore up your “built-in” support. Invest in the health of your team. Ask your volunteers how you can pray for them. Demonstrate God’s love. Keep an open and healthy relationship with your staff. Share their ministry burdens, and when it’s your turn to need support, they’ll be there for you. Remember: You’re a key player on a team that empowers people to serve God.
Rule #3: Leaders Stand Together
Your middle finger, standing tall, is a reminder that leaders need each other. As you grapple with a problem, ask yourself:
- Who in your leader network has similar experience?
- What other leader has expertise in, or is a good source of support for, this situation?
- How can you make a more informed decision with the input of other leaders?
- In what other areas of ministry or life have you seen someone lead a successful resolution to a similar problem?
- What traits do you admire in other leaders that you can emulate now?
Maintain a balancing act between confronting issues that truly need attention and building trustworthy relationships with those in authority. Your relationships with other pastors can be some of the most vital when it comes to the longevity of your ministry and your ability to lead.
“I truly believe my pastor tries to understand children ministries and the importance of this ministry in the overall church plan,” says children’s pastor Michael Jester. “We still struggle with things because church and ministry are messy and complicated. We understand this and live in grace as we share the load together.”
In 25 years I’ve served with six senior pastors, and I learned unique lessons from each. H.B. London always thought of the other person during a conflict. He taught me to be cautious when discussing problems because he demonstrated his care and concern for others so intentionally. Gordon Coulter told me I wasn’t tough enough. He taught me to have courage during a conflict and to stand up for what I believed to be the best solution. Other pastors taught me other things about myself and about leadership in ministry. I believe I also brought something to these gifted leaders because relationships are reciprocal. Leaders really do stand together.
Rule #4: We All Have Weaknesses
The ring finger “can’t stand alone,” so it reminds us to bring our weaknesses to light. Ask yourself these questions.
- Specific to this problem, in what ways is our ministry weak? strong?
- How do these weaknesses impact our volunteers, children, parents, leadership, and congregation?
- What would it take to remedy these weaknesses?
- How can we learn from our strengths to improve our weak areas?
I honestly tried to buy into the concept of the One-Minute Manager when the bestselling book came out. But when the follow-up, The One-Minute Teacher, hit the shelves, I knew my first instinct had been correct: It takes time to become a successful leader. It also takes commitment, flexibility, and a willingness to acknowledge that we have weaknesses—as people and programs. That means looking critically at your ministry, your people, and your leadership.
A strong leader pinpoints and shores up weaknesses quickly. In the midst of problem-solving, examining weaknesses is easy to overlook because we’re busy trying to remedy the ailment. But without seeking out the root of the issue, we’ll probably find ourselves battling the same problem again. Be “cure”-minded rather than “remedy”-minded in your problem-solving.
Years ago, I heard a keynote speaker talk about the nervous breakdown she’d had while serving as a children’s pastor. Conflicts and burnout drove her to a three-month stay in a psychiatric hospital. I’ll never forget her admonition.
She said, “Talk to whomever you need to talk to, whenever you need to, about whatever it is you need to discuss.” Her weakness had been a resistance to direct communication. Communication seems to be the weakest link in all human relationships. We’re not born with communication skills, but learning them and teaching them to others is vital to a harmonious ministry.
Motivational communicator and children’s pastor Craig Jutila offered these techniques for better communication.
- Use “I” statements when you confront someone.
- Restate what you hear before you reply.
- Reflect empathy when you talk to hurting people.
- Avoid dirty-fighting tactics. Don’t use gross generalizations or attack the person rather than the problem.
“When you’re both sure you’re hearing each other, the communication keeps going deeper,” says Jutila in Leadership Essentials for Children’s Ministry. “Most of our problems…stem from our reluctance to be direct. After all, this calls for us to bare our souls to some extent, to reveal who we really are.”
Communication is only one weak spot that can lead to problems in your children’s ministry. Be willing to take a brutal appraisal of every aspect of your ministry. Ask outsiders for their opinions, volunteers for feedback, and other leaders for insight. And use what you learn.
Every children’s ministry needs a conflict-resolution policy. Employees and volunteers all review and sign our church’s policy each year. We purposely based the policy on Matthew 18:15-16. We believe it helps everyone stay focused when confronting relational issues.
Rule #5: Children Are the Reason
The pinky reminds us who and why we serve—the little ones. When others ask us why we work so hard, we all know the answer: “We do it for the children!” So, for the children, ask:
- How could children be impacted by this problem?
- How does this problem affect our mission, value statement, and ministry goals?
- What resolution best serves children?
- What is the potential fallout for children?
Children are the apples of God’s eye. Children’s ministry leaders and volunteers love being God’s hands and feet to young hearts and minds. The children themselves are our rewards. So children should be one of the key filters we use when resolving problems—no matter how insignificant or monumental a problem is. And children are why the lesson my pastor taught me about Sam’s critical letter was so life-changing.
With these “rules of thumb” in hand, you’ll find God at work, helping you hold tight to him and the ministry to which you’re called.
Oh, The Problems You’ll Know
I asked children’s leaders for their top five ministry problems. Their answers may sound familiar.
- Challenges stretching money and resources.
- Communication problems with parents, volunteers, and other leaders.
- Challenges initiating change in programs and policies.
- Discipline issues with children and untrained volunteers.
- Fighting the battle of the clock-time issues!
Isn’t it a relief to know that no leader has all the answers?
But we can be sure that God understands the issues and permits them for our growth in grace and character. I’ve learned (and am still learning) to put my hand in God’s. Use this prayer based on James 1:2 when you find yourself facing a handful of problems.
God, thank you for the problems we’re charged to solve, the issues that force us to put forth our best effort, and the disputes that require us to draw closer to you and to others. Help us to be joyful during life’s tests. Help us hold tight to a faith that perseveres, and help us reflect your glory in the world. In Jesus’ name. Amen
Pat Verbal is the manager of curriculum development at Joni and Friends. She trains parents and teachers to lead children into growing experiences of faith.
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