I receive calls every week from pastors looking for advice on how to better do their job. These are smart, noble, ambitious people trying to figure out what works best.


I began cataloguing the core competencies of pastoral ministry, which, in-and-of itself was a chore. I identified 37 key skills every pastor has to possess. As I mentioned, pastoring is unlike any other job. There are lots of things people expect you to be able to do despite whatever training you may lack. You’re part businessman, part chaplain; part therapist, part humanitarian; part monk, part venture capitalist.


Once I had these core competencies outlined, I began to look for a way to make them sticky. I wanted people to blink at a model of my work and remember how the whole fits together. I tried complex Venn diagrams, organic models (DNA helix, molecules), metaphors (fruit, cornucopia, forest, garden), even fantasy fiction (RPG archetypes, character-builders), before finally settling on a model of the solar system.


Everyone knows the basic shape and functioning of the solar system. I thought if I could hang my thinking on that, everyone would understand instantly how it all fits together.


I began to learn about space, and the more I learned the more complex my model became.


(Did I mention I tend to overcomplicate?)


I knew I was heading into dangerous territory when I realized the true genius of the solar model was that it allowed for different configurations of the planets, moons, stars, and asteroids. So, I reasoned, when there was a double-shadow transit on Jupiter, pastors would know of its problematic consequences for intergenerational ministry.


(Knowing you’re obsessed is, sadly, not enough to keep you from your obsession.)


I learned about medieval orreries and decided I had to build one. I found schematics. I began purchasing gears. I priced out small motors before deciding I’d need to build my own.


(Have I mentioned I can hardly wind a watch? I can’t change my own oil. I’ve never even used a chainsaw.)


When I finished my thinking, I decided to show my thesis to several pastors I respect. They caught onto the core competencies easily enough, but the second I showed schematics for the orrery their eyes glazed over like a nutritionist in a Krispy Kreme shop.


I tried to simplify the model. I showed it to other pastors.


No dice.


I came to the conclusion I had complicated my thinking so intensely that the model really only helped me. And I didn’t need a model to understand my own thinking.


So I scrapped the orerry and built a simple clock instead. It’s got planets, moons, rings, and a sun. I may still add an asteroid belt to separate inner and outer planets, but I’m a little low on patience. (I only finished it so I could clear off some of my workspace in the office for my next weird idea).


Here’s the simplest version of my solar ministerial metaphor: people are planets, moons are skills, the sun is the Lord, and rings are things that have to keep spinning.


Let’s start with the sun, the source of heat and light around which everything revolves. If you drift too far from the sun you become a space cadet—someone who loves all the weird emptiness “out there” and forgets who they are in relationship to God. If you concentrate too hard on what’s right in front of you, you turn into a puny earthling—someone loves the work but forgets who the work is for. In my model, the sun has rings. These rings are meant to indicate the things you have to keep spinning in order for life to perpetuate, such as family, personal health and wellbeing, spiritual vibrance, etc.


The inner planets, the four closest to the sun, are about you and those like you. Mercury represents you, the worker. Pastors have to learn self-management. We’re like small business owners working a start-up. We’ve got to be motivated internally to make things work. I’m not naturally that way, so I’ve had to learn some skills about how to Get Things Done and differentiate between urgency and importance, and I’ve become a fan of Harvard Business School’s writing on leading yourself.


Venus represents you, the leader. You’ve got to learn how to cast vision, achieve buy-in, articulate the mission, brand the church, create an ethos and a culture, identify core values, establish plumblines, structure church government, plan for strategic wins in each quarter, and discern how best to do it all and when.


Earth represents you, the preacher. I know not all pastors are preachers, but the majority of those who seek my advice preach at least some of the time. And preaching is difficult, terrifying, and estimated to be either way too important or not important enough. It matters. Enough to figure out how to do it well. You need a basic understanding of homiletics, provenance, good commentaries, a way to make things stick, and a good hermeneutical framework. You’ll also need to do some cultural exegesis, and you’ll need to identify the necessary pendulum swings that will keep your church biblically honest. My friend Dwight Friesen calls this orthoparadoxy—things that are contradictory, but both represented in the Bible. These topics include being both missional and attractional; focusing on both evangelism and discipleship; digging in and reaching out; giving to God and giving to others; establishing a structure and ensuring the church also works organically.


Mars represents the paid staff at your church. I put them with the inner planets because they need to be with you and they need to be like you. I don’t mean they need to have your skills or your personality, but they need to have bought into you as a leader and into your vision for the church. When your staff is wishy-washy on either of those big things, you’ve got a major problem. It’s also important to like your staff. You should enjoy their company, respect their families, and generally not want to claw your eyes out every time they speak out loud. Handling paid employees is a huge learning curve for most pastors. You need to establish good evaluation rubrics (ours is here), keep your staff aligned with the overall vision of the church, handle arbitration and disputes over limited resources, and you’ve got to find ways to let employees go when they don’t work out. That part is awful. It’s also part of being in charge. And you have to find good staff, which is the second most awful part of HR. We typically receive between 150-300 applications for every job we post at Westwinds. There were +/- 1,100 applicants for my job. Sifting through resumes and prayerfully considering candidates always feels like a crap shoot.


One final word about the inner planets: This is stuff every good leader does in any industry. CEOs and mid-level executives all have to lead themselves, hone their personal proficiencies, lead their organizations and manage staff. The difference between us and them is that we didn’t start out wanting to lead. We started out wanting to serve. Our innermost desire is almost immediately at war with our outward reality. Our nobility is chastened by our responsibility. There will always be a part of ministry that feels like betrayal to the ministry itself, because the work of the ministry can often feel like work that keeps us from ministry. Part of maturing as a pastor is knowing this, accepting it, and working diligently in spite of it.


The asteroid belt separating the inner planets from the outer planets represents all the little things that get in the way: fatigue, poverty, ego, resistance. You can turn just about any asteroid into a temporary home if you choose. Most are big enough to keep you there for a long time. But they’re stark. They’re always colliding with other asteroids. And if you stay there, you’ll never get anywhere exciting, meaningful, or useful.


Mind your distractions.