Mediocrity in Ministry: What it Looks Like and How to Avoid It

Mediocrity is a tendency of the human heart and a vice to meaningful ministry.  For the sake of God’s Kingdom and Christ’s church, I beg you to consider these factors that tempt us to take the easy way out.  

“The difference between mediocrity and excellence is often a matter of effort.”  – Diana Waring, Christian author and educator

1. Tell people what to believe without telling them why.

Preachers are heralds of the great doctrines of the Bible, and with just cause! Christians should be knowledgeable of biblical doctrine because it saves them from the errors that accompany the acceptance of false doctrine.  Ministers, understandably enamored with the glorious gems of theological study, often neglect to make their teachings relevant to their listeners.  We will readily agree with J.I. Packer who stated, “Doctrinal preaching certainly bores the hypocrites; but it is only doctrinal preaching that will save Christ’s sheep.”  Yet, we fall short in ministry when we neglect to tell people how the biblical teachings will save them or what they will be saved from.

Mediocre sermons produce mediocre sheep.  

Acts 20:28 – Take heed therefore unto yourselves, and to all the flock, over the which the Holy Ghost hath made you overseers, to feed the church of God, which he hath purchased with his own blood.

2. Tell people what to do or how to behave without teaching them how to make their own decisions.

Ministers are sought in order to provide guidance, advice, and counsel.  With time, ministers often gain great discernment and insight in to many problems that plague people and can readily provide excellent answers to challenging questions.  While all of this is desirable and helpful, mediocrity is fostered when ministers write more prescriptions for behavioral adjustments while stopping short of teaching people how to make biblical decisions for themselves.  The reasons for this could be many: the pastor has a need to feel useful or wanted, the counselee requires higher levels of guidance, time constraints on one or both parties, etc..

Counselors must learn to equip their people with an ability to examine biblical virtues, rules, and outcomes before making their own decisions.  Doing so empowers them to take ownership of their decisions and their lives.  Jesus trained his people in light of his departure knowing that his enduring physical presence was not possible.  Similarly, people must be taught to rely upon the Holy Spirit and the Scriptures more than God’s servants when making decisions.  Practically speaking, unless you are a minister who can be physically present with your church members at all times, you are better off equipping their maturity rather than enabling their dependence on you.

Mediocre counsel creates mediocre decisions.

John 14:26 – But the Comforter, which is the Holy Ghost, whom the Father will send in my name, he shall teach you all things, and bring all things to your remembrance, whatsoever I have said unto you.

3. Expect others to do the things that you will not do yourself.

Each minister is equipped with certain gifts that make certain ministry tasks more appealing, satisfying, and enjoyable.  I do not know many ministers, if any, that really look forward to cleaning the church toilets on Monday morning.  Nevertheless, there are jobs that enable the more substantive aspects of ministry to take place.  I’m not simply thinking about maintenance or cleaning responsibilities.  Mediocre ministers can recruit helpers to do the tasks they simply do not want to do.  Don’t want to clean the bathroom?  Just get someone to “be a blessing” and do it for you.  Don’t want to coordinate volunteers for your next event?  Just “empower” a volunteer to coordinate that for you.  Don’t feel like dealing with the problems in that challenging ministry program?  Just put someone else “in charge” of that ministry for you.  This is not an indictment against delegation or facilitation.  This is a check on your perseverance and the example that results.  If you delegate, subtask, or facilitate too many responsibilities then you will be looked at more as a weasel than as a worker.  If you cannot be trusted to persevere through the hardness of administrative or physical ministry then you will not be trusted when serious spiritual warfare overwhelms your people.

Jesus’s example of self-sacrifice serves as the ultimate demonstration of how to shoulder responsibilities.  He endured the most unsavory aspects of ministry: he kept a grueling schedule of personal interactions, ministry opportunities, and teaching demands while confronting unruly leaders, lackluster disciples, and eventual betrayal and murder.  He carried the weight of the world, and He did so with grace and love.

Mediocre perseverance creates a mediocre example.

Luke 12:48b – For unto whomsoever much is given, of him shall be much required: and to whom men have committed much, of him they will ask the more.

4. Avoid conveying mature understanding and application of the biblical text in sermons by simply reciting a compilation of commentaries.

The delivery of a sermon is only the “tip of the ice burg” in the process of biblical exposition.  Many pastors will spend 10-20 hours a week to study for, structure, edit, and refine their weekly sermons.  Given the myriad responsibilities of ministers, there is a real temptation to take short cuts in sermon preparation.  One of the most common short cuts is commentary recitation.  Commentaries are rewarding tools in biblical study, and their information can illuminate the text for the preacher and his audience.  Over-reliance on commentaries, however, fosters mediocrity because the minister fails to personalize the biblical message for himself or his people.  The personalized application of the Scriptures is vital: no commentary or curriculum can account for the personalities, personal circumstances, or personal histories of the people staring back at the preacher.  Use commentaries, but do not rely on them to do the job that you were called to do: feed the flock.   As one of my professors once avowed, “I milk a lot of cows but I churn my own butter.”   You only have three chances, at most, to feed the congregation each week through your sermons.  Make each sermon count.

Mediocre preparation results in mediocre application.

2 Timothy 2:15 – Study to shew thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth.

5. Focus more on the people who are easy to get along with while avoiding the messy and needy ones.

All ministers need friends.  Within a ministry context there will always be people that come together easily because their personalities are more compatible.  This is natural and normal – and should not be criticized so long as the minister holds in balance his or her relationships with others.  There are also those in ministry who have achieved strength and maturity, who are refreshing to be around.  But the church isn’t filled with spiritual giants; the strong Christians are outnumbered by those still developing maturity.  And that is how it has been throughout the centuries.  The challenge facing ministers is to overcome the tendency to focus on those people who provide fewer challenges to your spiritual discipline and demeanor.  Mediocrity breeds when ministers reduce the ministry to meeting their personal needs for ease and comfort rather than becoming available to meet the needs of others.  The challenge becomes greater when people present with needs that are messy, distasteful, or immoral.

Sheep go astray.  Sheep get dirty.  The shepherd must leave the ninety-nine and retrieve the dirty, smelly, messy, needy sheep and return it to safety at the side of the Shepherd.  Go get them.  You can’t really be a pastor if you do not smell like the sheep.

Mediocre ministry presence breeds mediocre ministry relationships.

Mark 6:34 – And Jesus, when he came out, saw much people, and was moved with compassion toward them, because they were as sheep not having a shepherd: and he began to teach them many things.

6. Blame problems on people who are not present to defend themselves.

No one likes to be blamed for problems, and when you are a ministry leader there is plenty of blame to be received when problems arise.  We live in a culture of blame wherein we direct our displeasure, pain, and contempt at someone, anyone, who could be at fault.  While each situation is unique, our natural tendency is to deny responsibility and blame others – just look to the troubles in the Garden of Eden to see the beginning of our bias to blame.  Accountability, as opposed to blame, facilitates peace by encouraging all persons to take responsibility for their actions.  Accountability is a vulnerable process, hence it is avoided.  Accountability is not a process in which anger is discharged and blame assigned.  Accountability is the expression of integrity.  For example, Jesus held Peter accountable when he approached him to discuss his threefold denial.  Peter redressed his denial, made humble confession, and expressed his love (John 21).  A minister of integrity gathers and leads appropriate parties to accept responsibility for their actions taken and helps them to design ways to redress wrongs.

Resolving wrongs through restitution and reconciliation rests on the expression of integrity through accountability.  Our Christian testimony depends on our ability to make peace within our relationships.

Mediocre integrity furthers mediocre accountability.

Matthew 5:9 – Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called the children of God.

7. Marginalize successful colleagues, assistants, and volunteers if their success inadvertently exposes your insecurities or weaknesses.

Christ always causes us to triumph and ensures that nothing separates him from his people (2 Corinthians 2:14, Romans 8:38).  Despite identification with the Victorious Savior, ministers can suffer from insecurities.  Although success in ministry is celebrated, an influential helper can strike to the heart of a minister’s sense of importance.  When another person is experiencing a great deal of success, the minister can feel marginalized.  So what does he do?  Marginalize the successful “up and coming” leader in that ministry.  This can be done subtly by moving him to a different ministry, overloading him with frivolous tasks, redirecting his or her attention to additional demands, or reducing his or her involvement.  This can also be accomplished bluntly by simply denying him or her the opportunity to serve, ignoring them, or overshadowing their efforts.  Marginalized people will be left without a sense of purpose and importance.  Having a need to contribute meaningfully to God’s work, they will go elsewhere to serve and to support another ministry.  If minsters develop a strong sense of identify with Christ then they will look to him alone as your source of acceptance in and relevance to the work of God’s kingdom.

A mediocre sense of identity generates a mediocre sense of purpose.

Romans 12:3 – For I say, through the grace given unto me, to every man that is among you, not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think; but to think soberly, according as God hath dealt to every man the measure of faith.

8. Criticize people who fail because you failed to teach, mentor, or assist them.

The church is a center of Christian training and teaching for the work of Christian ministry.  The work of the Great Commission is far too great for any one person to conduct alone.  Jesus himself insisted that his followers should pray for more laborers to enter the field of God’s work (Matthew 9:36-38).  Ministers must use their education and experience to train and equip junior ministerial staff and volunteers to competently engage in the ministries of the church.  This isn’t just a suggestion; it’s a command (Ephesians 4:11-13)!

There are three “C”s that people must have if they are to be involved in ministry: character, commitment, and competence.  Picture these three aspects as the legs of a three-legged stool.  Each are so important that without even one of them you’ll only be left with a “stool sample” (think about that…).  Ministers seek out people of character, those who demonstrate Christian virtues and values, and commitment, those who are faithful to services, tithing, and other areas.  This is definitely a “no-brainer” for any ministry.  However, most people do not come to ministry with a refined use of their spiritual gifts and talents.  The minister is vital to teach, mentor, and assist all church members for the work of the ministry.  There are a number of ways that this can be accomplished; what is important here is that the minister understands his role and responsibility to foster competence through teaching and training in ministry.  Mediocrity prevails when ministers fail to train causing ministries to languish and the people to lament (despite being the intended beneficiaries of that ministry).  Ironically, the mediocre commitment of the pastor to train and equip his people will result in the mediocre competence of other ministers.

Mediocre commitment to teach results in mediocre competence in ministry.

Eph 4:11-13 – And he gave some, apostles; and some, prophets; and some, evangelists; and some, pastors and teachers; For the perfecting of the saints, for the work of the ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ: Till we all come in the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, unto a perfect man, unto the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ:

My desire is that you will sincerely reflect on these challenges and overcome mediocrity in ministry. 

Disclaimer: None of the above statements are focused on any particular person or pastor. These are not passive-aggressive attempts to insult or injure people; these are statements that every pastor should reflect upon to ensure their work remains a blessing rather than a burden.

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