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11 Tensions to Manage in Ministry

11 Tensions to Manage in Ministry

One of the most important concepts in the Christian ministry is the notion of tension. I instinctively resist tension, as do most people. Tension sounds like friction or conflict, and many leaders think that if they’re doing their job well, there won’t be any tension in their organization. But there is such a thing as “healthy tension.” In fact, more often than not, I have found that many areas of ministry that seem like conflicts to be solved are actually tensions to be managed.

Now, to be clear, in many matters of ministry, there exists a clear right and wrong: We preach the gospel and not works-based righteousness; we stand upon the authority of Scripture, not the prevailing winds of culture; we call our leaders to the highest standards of biblical ethics, not the sliding scale of relative morality.

But the tougher areas of discernment in ministry are not between what is obviously good and what is obviously bad. The tougher calls happen when two good and biblical ideals seem to be competing with each other. In those moments, we are tempted to pick a side to resolve the tension. Many ministry leaders do this with gusto, and they gather great crowds at conferences arguing for their “side.” But what makes for a great conference speaker isn’t always what makes for a real ministry leader. The moment we pick a side in a godly tension, we lose.

Imagine a man balancing a six-foot pole in the palm of his hand. He wants to keep the pole upright, but to do so he always has to shift—slightly this way, now that way. The correcting and counter-correcting never stops.

So it is in our ministries. This is one of the reasons I have tried to be very intentional in structuring our leadership teams so that people don’t all think like me. Our staff is unified in our vision and mission, but we all have different leanings and passions. I want that. After all, if we all lean the same way, we’ll fall over. These various leanings reflect the different gifts that God put in the body of Christ on purpose. I believe God is honored when we experience the tension of competing (biblical) passions. He wants us to come to the table, to argue our positions with conviction, and for each of us to walk away feeling the frustration of a healthy tension.

Here are just a few of the tensions that we manage in our ministries:


The term the New Testament uses for the leaders of the church is “pastor,” which literally means “shepherd.” So on one hand, our responsibility is rather clear: We must care for the flock God has entrusted to us. We are not called to grow an audience but to care for Christ’s bride. Depth matters.

But on the other hand, Jesus tells the story of the lost sheep, in which the Shepherd leaves the 99 sheep that are already his in order to pursue the one that is lost. That’s an astounding statement about the importance of pursuing width—not for our sake but for the sake of the lost. And both matter.


For decades, there has been an argument in missiological circles about whether churches should pursue attractional or missional approaches. The attractional side points out that the church is the place where outsiders are given the chance to hear the gospel. The maddest Jesus ever got was when he saw the temple transformed from a portal to the outsider into a convenience for the insider. Our churches must attract outsiders and be ready to welcome them.

The missional side counters by pointing out that all throughout Scripture, people are drawn to the people of God primarily by their counter-cultural way of living. It is usually in the context of the community, not the church gathering, that the gospel goes forward. As Lesslie Newbigin points out, sharing the gospel in the New Testament almost always begins with the question, “What is going on with you people?”

And both are true.

Healthy Church/Sending Church

We are always trying to keep the temperature turned up on sending, because it’s far too easy to slacken that emphasis. But there’s a pace at which sending our best isn’t healthy for our people here. For instance, the group of staff members most likely to leave on new church plants is our campus pastors. But a quick turnover of campus pastors undermines our pastoral care. So we’re constantly talking with our campus pastors about ways they can go that not only serve the Great Commission but also serve their campuses well.

Empowering New Leaders/Pursuing Excellence

We are committed to developing new leaders, and part of development is putting people in a position to make mistakes. But there are smart ways to do this and sloppy ways to do this. When it comes to our weekend worship services, for example, we don’t want to approach this time as a “lab” for untested musicians and singers. If they’re going to fail (which they will) and grow from it (which they will), it’s best for us to iron some of that out before we put them on stage, say, at the Durham Performing Arts Center during Christmas at DPAC.

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J.D. Greear, Ph.D., is the President of the Southern Baptist Convention and pastors the Summit Church in Raleigh-Durham, NC. Tagged by Outreach magazine as one of the fastest growing churches in America, the Summit has grown in the past 8 years from 400 to over 5,000 each weekend. The Summit Church is deeply involved in global church planting, having undertaken the mission to plant 1000 churches in the next 40 years. J.D. has authored Breaking the Islam Code and the upcoming Gospel: Recovering the Power that Made Christianity Revolutionary.