8 Nitty Gritty Habits for Sustainable Ministry

Spade with mortar in front of a brick wall

Good communication habits and healthy boundaries between the laity and the minister make for a sustainable and resilient ministry. Here are eight nitty gritty (i.e. fundamental) habits that should guide full time ministry:

  1. Limit weeknight commitments. The most effective (and non-burned out) ministers do not attend every committee meeting. Two-three evenings a week away from life and family is plenty.
  2. The minister needs time off. One full day a week completely off (that included evening meetings) is considered the minimum. Start with this formula: one day a week, one weekend a month, one week a quarter plus two full weeks sometime during the year. Other formulas include a month of vacation and a month of study leave.
    Support the minister as they plan ahead for pastoral care and other ministry coverage, then help them communicate clearly and often to the congregation about who to call in an emergency on the minister’s day/time off.
  3. Hold clear communications boundaries. Be clear to the congregation (this included leaders!) about how to communicate with your minister, and when. With so many potentially intrusive ways to communicate (cell phone calls, texting, Facebook messenger/calls, Facetime, direct Zoom chat during worship, etc.), congregants can be tempted to reach out in inappropriate ways.
    Keep checking in about what’s intrusive and what is working, and help the minister hold those boundaries. (Often the times and modes of communication are spelled out in the newsletter and in the email signature of the minister.)
  4. Collegial connections are essential. UU Ministers’ chapters meet monthly, as do clergy support groups. It is important for ministers to attend. Ministers who feel isolated generally don’t do as well as those who network and connect with colleagues.
  5. Model communication that is direct and respectful. Make sure you talk TO your minister rather than ABOUT him/her/them?
  6. Discourage Triangulation: Congregants come to lay leaders with feedback about their minister, which can feel awkward. Often the congregant wants the lay leader to “tell the minister” but doesn’t want to be involved or even identified. But anonymous feedback does not allow the recipient to understand, question, or work things out with that person, and can be toxic to the overall health of the congregation.
    Here’s a simple three step formula for you to use when someone brings you feedback for the minister: “Have you talked to xxx?” “Would you like my help – we could (role play, I could go with you, I could convey the feedback with your name and have him/her get in touch with you)?” “No? If you change your mind, let me know”.
  7. Practice! Neither lay leaders or ministers are automatically excellent, caring communicators. Our covenantal relationships call us to practice, to stay at the table, and to make space for errors and forgiveness.
  8. Reach out early and often. Get help early if you sense that attempts at helpful communication habits and healthy boundaries not going well. It takes time for these habits to become congregational norms. Don’t hesitate to contact your UUA Primary Contact person if needed. Ministers and other members of UU professional organizations can contact Good Officers.