Cookie Cutter Books on Ministry Aren’t the End All and Be All for Ministry Success

There are thousands of books out there about ministry: how to do it, church growth, small groups, Bible class, and so much more. It is important that we don’t view the work and words of others as something to press down on our congregation like a cookie cutter and expect a similar shaped cookie to emerge. Instead, ministry books become one voice in a larger conversation about what effective ministry can look like in a given congregation, under a given leadership, with a particular church culture, at a particular point in time. That means effective ministry will also be watching and listening to other local ministers, bouncing ideas through email, twitter and facebook with guys doing similar things, and prayer and listening for God’s guidance. Jesus didn’t teach his disciples how to minister by handing them a book. They lived it out together.

Sometimes we assume success in someone else’s ministry can be guaranteed in ours if we just duplicate their efforts. There is no such guarantee. That is a false assumption that often comes with books on ministry. Mimicking someone else’s effective ministry is almost never the way to go. You can learn some great principles and gather some good ideas from watching those who are gifted but it cannot be our goal to be miniature versions of well known ministers we may never even meet.

Many of you have faced this issue before. You picked up the latest, greatest book on ministry. You tried a few things out and quite possible had minimal success. There are a number of reasons for this:

Different leadership:
What  is accepted, empowered, and pushed by one set of leaders won’t necessarily be as quickly embraced by another set of leaders. It is easy to get resentful when this happens but don’t. Count yourself blessed that God has given the congregation the men who are serving as elders. They may see issues you haven’t picked up on yet. Be patient with them. Their inability to get onboard with a particular vision of how something might look doesn’t mean we need to fight our elders or wish they were anyone they aren’t. We don’t need to think they should be like the guys across the street. They just have a different style and different priorities and we have to respect that.

Different talents:
Chances are you have a different skill set than the guy who wrote the book you like so much. You may not be skilled to do all the things just as they are laid out in the book. It may not be a fit for you. That is not a bad thing. It just may make sense out of why you struggle to implement and maintain some of the specifics. Some of us are better at implementing change than maintaining it and others better at maintenance than innovation. Also, what works in a mega church with a few dozen on staff won’t look the same in a church with a staff of 2-3.

Different congregational context:
The congregation and community you live and work in is probably different than the setting of the ministry described in the book. What works for a booming campus ministry in one town may not work in a small town with a commuter campus. What works with young adults in Atlanta may not look the same in Iowa. What you read is working here or there may not make any sense at all for where you worship. You must be mindful and respectful of those you minister to. It can be easy to spend more time reading books about ministry by people you don’t even know than actually ministering to the real people all around you. Remember, God is the one who equips us to do good works that He has prepared in advance for us to do (Eph 2:10) so it is imperative that we don’t miss those opportunities.

Techniques Often Don’t Account for the Work of God/Spirit
It is tempting to view congregations and ministry through more of a corporate lens than a spiritual lens. You might almost think we thought all of this was up to us and rose and fell based on our abilities alone. There is an X Factor in ministry that you just can’t account for. It is God and the work of the Holy Spirit. There is no way to effectively include this in a ministry template because an author cannot account in advance for the specific ways God is going to work in any given situation. Because it cannot be quantified or an “X” be put on the spot where God is supposed to show up and what that is supposed to look like it often gets left out. We all give an effort but it is God who makes things grow (1 Cor 3:6-7).

So what can you learn from ministry books?
You can certainly learn general truths and principles that can guide you through your own process in how you use your gifts in your own congregational context. This influences how we read about someone else’s ministry experience. We aren’t looking to live out the same story as they did. We are listening in on their story to see what impact it might have on our own or on the people we minister to.

You can read about what some of the most gifted ministers around share what has worked for them. That is a blessing for sure. However, it is better to read these books as a peer around the table rather than sit at their feet as a pupil. Let me give you an example. There is a difference in preparing for a sermon by picking up all the commentaries first and then forming conclusions about the text than studying the text for yourself and then consulting the commentaries. The same is true with reading books about ministry. It changes your position as listener when you have done the hard work first. You listen differently. You also have a better idea of what to accept and what to reject. This is one reason it is so important that ministry students do more than take classes. They need to be doing ministry along the way so they see how the pieces fit together in real time.

Let me end by asking a few questions:

  1. What have you found helpful with books about ministry and where do you feel they miss the mark?
  2. What are the most helpful ones you have read?

About mattdabbs
I am a minister, husband, and father. My wife and I live and minister in Saint Petersburg, Florida. My primary ministry responsibilities include: small groups, 20s and 30s, involvement, and adult education.

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