Gauges of sustainability
Framing my life for the finish line
It’s become a cultural phenomenon and buzzword that has just about every sector of society examining their practices and polices as they relate to “environmental friendliness.” Organizations have learned that “going green” is not only good for the planet, it also good for profitability and large doses of favorable PR (think Al Gore and Toyota).
However, the idea of sustainability is nothing new. At its core, it simply means managing resources so that they aren’t damaged or depleted—so they remain renewable and as useful tomorrow as they are today.
The sustainability movement has also entered into youth ministry. For example, Mark DeVries has written a book entitled Sustainable Youth Ministry: Why Most Youth Ministry Doesn’t Last and What Your Church Can Do About It [[Mark DeVries, Sustainable Youth Ministry: Why most youth ministry doesn’t last and what your church can do about it (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 2008).]] His words reflect the many youth workers who have long been asking not just “What is good for the environment?” but also “How do I build a youth ministry that yields long-lasting sustainable returns?”
As FYI launches a new emphasis on leadership and the essentials of leadership, the issue of personal sustainability must be addressed for at least two reasons. First, no resource is more valuable than humanity itself. This is why any “sustainability movement” is ultimately shortsighted if it does not first begin from within. Secondly, sustainability or personal longevity in youth ministry is a relatively rare occurrence. We do not experience it in very many places and we are surprised to find it when we do.
Personal sustainability comes by creating a foundation that allows you to end well, not just start strong. Revelation 21:6-7 says, “Then he said to me, ‘It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. To the thirsty I will give water as a gift from the spring of the water of life. Those who conquer will inherit these things, and I will be their God and they will be my children.’” (NRSV) According to the Apostle John, the New Heaven and New Earth are given to those who conquer, persevere, and finish their life of faith well. The way we end well, the way we help ensure our own personal sustainability, is to intentionally cultivate certain life disciplines. This is just as true for our professional life as it is our personal life.
Think of what follows in the rest of this article as life or leadership “gauges.” I grew up around airplanes. My father has been a pilot his entire adult life, and growing up it was not uncommon for me to be in the right seat of a plane several times a week. Although the cockpit is full of dozens of interesting dials, switches and instruments, my father taught me that certain “gauges” are more important that others. If you want your number of landings to equal your number of take-offs, there are 3-4 gauges that need to be monitored—all the time.
Like the critical gauges of an airplane, the disciplines of sustainability won’t prevent us from experiencing certain turbulence. However, if we understand them and make good use of them, these disciplines will help direct our journeys so that we do not reach our final destinations full of regret, disappointment, and dissatisfaction. They will help ensure long-lasting, sustainable returns.
As a Fuller alum and youth pastor who is now an Executive Coach with Coaching By Cornerstone, I’ve had the opportunity to see these gauges in action. Our firm has surfaced the “disciplines” I’m going to describe in this article as a result of working with hundreds of leaders over the past 25 years. [[The categories in this assessment are adapted from the “Six Disciplines of Personal Sustainability” by Dr. Stephen Graves. Used by permission. Copyright 2009 Coaching By Cornerstone. ]]
As you consider the quality of your own life and ministry leadership, take some time to honestly reflect on these areas. How are you doing? Which of these areas need to be addressed in the next 6-9 months in order to help keep your ministry healthy or to prevent you from burning out? First, ask yourself the questions in the “assessment” section, then consider carrying out the “action” steps. What is most important is to accurately gauge where you currently are, and consider where you must go in order to finish well.
Strategic Clarity- A life that operates with 20/20 vision in areas that matter most
- Am I making decisions based on what is most important to me or have I lost my footing with regards to the priorities of life?
- Am I offering my personal best to others or have I slipped into simply going through the motions of my life and career?
- Do I operate from a “clear conscience” knowing all of my relationships are reconciled or is there an issue or past experience that is paralyzing my relationship with God and my ministry?
- Am I able to handle all of what life throws at me or am I becoming overwhelmed by the speed, complexity and hardships in life?
- Am I anchored to a promising future and a compelling vision of what is possible or do cynicism and despair dominate my world-view?
Take a few minutes at least once a day to ask yourself what you must get done tomorrow and this week. Don’t be afraid to slow down and list everything (and everyone) that is screaming for your attention. Make a short list and score each item (perhaps on a scale of 1-5, with 5 being the most important and 1 being the least important). Make yourself prioritize each item and use that scorecard to direct your time and attention. As the Japanese proverb says, “Vision without action is a daydream but action without vision is a nightmare.”
Ministry Contribution- A life that is engaged in meaningful, productive and fulfilling work.
- Am I fully engaged in my work or am I doing “just enough” to get by?
- Am I operating in my sweet spot with honest familiarity of my best skills or is the majority of my day spent doing things that “tax” or “deplete” me?
- Am I still motivated and energized by my work or does burnout and/or boredom define my recent ministry experience?
- Would colleagues and supervisors strongly affirm my work and contribution or do they notice a decline in my contribution and work ethic?
- Do I see the work of my hands as valuable, productive and fulfilling or am I wondering why I am doing what I am doing and eager to discover what is next?
- Am I taking the initiative to sharpen my skill-set and getting better at what I do or am I perfectly content with my current level of training and education?
If you are currently very satisfied with your work and your performance, begin to ask, “What’s next?” What might God want to do in and through your ministry in the next 6-12 months? If you are not currently bringing your best effort, it’s time to reflect on why that is and recommit to bringing your whole person back to your ministry. Do not just bring your body; bring your heart, soul, intellect, and emotions. If you are totally miserable, and have been for a long time, it is time to prayerfully seek God to determine if you should seek a transition to another ministry.
Life Balance- A life that successfully juggles the multiple opportunities and assignments circling one’s personal and professional world.
- Is my life in rhythm with Days of Work, Days of Rest and Days of Play or do I often feel overwhelmed by all that I have to do?
- Am I living a driven life or a called life?
- Would the people who mean the most to me say, “You are consistently present in my life?” or would they say, “You are consistently absent at critical moments?”
- Can I ever lay down my work or do I feel guilty for taking a break?
- Do I need a day away to realign my life?
If you do not have a hobby, get one. Incorporate Sabbath rest (one 24-hour period) into your weekly schedule where you turn off your cell phone and lay your work aside. Examine your workload, looking for specific things that you can delegate to others. Review your current structures to see if they maximize your time and effort.
Relational Quality- A life that is not being lived alone and is constructing a handful of heart-level relationships that can last a lifetime.
- Are my relationships vibrant and life-giving or do I need to repair or revisit any relationships?
- Am I being totally transparent with those closest to me or am I ‘masking’ secrets and suppressing my feelings?
- Am I investing in personal community and relationships or am I content “going it alone?”
Make a list of 3 people with whom you could have a deep, meaningful, transparent relationship. Take a chance and try to strengthen the fabric of those relationships. “Lean-in” with appropriate but exploratory questions that would allow a more meaningful connection to occur. You might also inquire about their desire to strengthen the relational bond.
Make a second list of 3 people who you currently appreciate and who you consider your closest friends. Take the time to write each of them, letting them know how they specifically encourage you and why they mean so much to you. If you have not seen them in some time, reach out to them and initiate dinner, time on the phone, or a skype session.
Spiritual Vitality- A life that pursues a vibrant and life-giving relationship with God.
- Am I authentically engaging a relationship with Christ, or am I simply going through the motions?
- How and when am I practicing spiritual disciplines?
- When was the last transformational encounter I had with God?
- Who currently knows the true condition of my heart?
Take a couple of minutes at the end of your work day to write out all the things that you are grateful for, and the things that are weighing heavy on your heart. Take a day to visit a truly beautiful location. Look for a new way to serve in your community that is not currently connected to your ministry.
Financial Fulfillment- A life that shrewdly earns, stewards, and invests resources for Kingdom extension.
- What is the last gift I made that caused my heart to spring with uncontrollable joy?
- Would others describe me as a generous person?
- Am I earning income from my core skill set?
- Is my personal contentment increasing or decreasing?
- Is my level of debt inhibiting my ability to give generously?
- Do I need help in stewarding my finances and/or other resources?
Begin by asking, how much more can I give? Or, what will it take for me to take the next step in my commitment to stewardship and generosity? Find a person or a cause that you deem worthy and secretly invest some resources into them. Take a look at your financial picture and determine your “lifestyle number” that you want to construct your life against. In other words, how much money is enough income “in” before you are willing to further increase the amount of income and resources you give “out?” Get a handle on your consumer spending and debt by listing out every debt and every expenditure for a couple of months, then tracking those against both your income and your core values. Begin to dream a bit about how God might use all your assets for his Kingdom.
Unfortunately, life does not come with a “start-over” or a “reset” button. Inevitably, we have all made mistakes in these areas and burned up resources that we will not get back. Undoubtedly, we will burn up a few more. Yet, practicing these disciplines will increase our ability to create long-term, lasting results for our life as well as in the lives of those we serve in ministry.
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