Monday, October 4, 2010

Good Ministry is Good Poker

It came out in a text conversation - the idea occurred to me, today, how similar my experience of ministry has been to my experience of playing poker.  I'm not a professional poker player by any means, and am not even particularly good at poker, but I know enough of the basics, the tactics involved, to see some definite connections between poker and ministry.

Know What You Have
It's important to know what it is you are dealing with - to have a clear sense of what appears valuable or powerful, and what is in fact valuable or powerful.  The suited Ace-King is a good example.  It looks good - an Ace and a King, of the same suit!  What could go wrong?  But the chances of drawing a flush or a straight are not very good, and at the end of the day, if your best cards are an Ace and a King,  you will lose to dos deuces.  Even if an Ace or a King comes up, you will lose to a starting pair of Aces or a pair of Kings.

It's definitely possible to see a particular program, or volunteer, or vision statement or whatever, and to think of it as powerful, when really the slightest bit of wind will blow it over.  Think of your commitment of time and energy as your "bet" - you are betting your life, or a small part of it, that what you put your time and energy into will bear some fruit.  But how likely is that, really?  Is this just a pet project? An ego thing?

Bet to Learn
The way to figure out what is going on in poker is to bet.  You can observe all you want, but until people start putting stakes in what they want, you won't learn much.  This starts with you - put a bet out there and see what happens.  Commit some time and energy to a new project, and watch the responses.  I've done this with a few programs and ideas already at DPC where I'm the new pastor.  I've felt good about an idea, I've been asked for something to happen and I make it happen - and then no one shows up.  I try it again, ask around, and again get a blank.

That hand I thought was pretty strong?  Trash.  Toss it aside and wait for the next one.

Obviously, there is the exception to this, which is in the case of a moral imperative.  No matter how unpopular the right thing to do is, you should still do it.  But we're not talking about moral imperatives - those don't really inform poker, and that's the metaphor of the day.  This is for the marginal things, the ideas or programs of initiatives that are interchangeable - just as good as others you might try.

Watch Others' Bets
Your bet is your time and energy - and as paid clergy, I have a glut of time and energy to put into ministry, because I don't have another job.  I figure that my 10 to 20 hours is about equivalent to someone else's 1 to 2 hours of commitment, and I act that way.  In worship, the liturgist, choir, soloist, person doing the children's sermon, whatever, is an equal, even though I've put 30 hours into worship.  Truth is, I had 30 hours to spend, and was paid quite well for it.

But where do the Elders, Deacons and parishioners put their bets?  Where do they put their time and energy? Those are the things, like it or not, that they have a stake in.  If that happens to be weekly tea with their lifelong friends where they sit and gossip, that tells you something.  If that happens to be cooking all the spaghetti for the spaghetti dinner every October, that tells you something else.

I'm learning to basically ignore what people tell me is important, or what they tell me they want.  I look at what they actually do with their precious time - what things actually compete with leisure and work and family.  As I said, and I'm sure other pastors get this all the time - ten people telling you that they really want something to happen, like a new Bible study or men's group, means nothing if no one shows up to the Bible study or men's group when you schedule it.

Pick Your Spot
Once you've got a good idea of what your resources are (your "hand"), you've committed some time and energy to a few things (your early "bets"), and you've watched where you get some commitment from others (their "bets), it's time to choose something and commit more time and energy to that.  You can't do everything - like any poker player, you have a limited amount of resources to deal with - limited time, limited tolerance, limited energy, limited creativity.  I think it's important to pounce, however, when you feel that there is some movement afoot; just as important as it is to let go of failing initiatives where the pastor is the only one whose committed.

But there comes a time to make bigger and bigger bets, hoping that all the time and effort will pay off for everyone.  That's a huge difference between poker and ministry, actually.  When you "lose", everyone in your church community loses.  They lose your time and energy that could have been better spent, they lose momentum and optimism about future experiments and initiatives, and they lose whatever time and energy they themselves put into a project just becuase it was the pastor's pet project and they wanted to show that they love and support you.

There are people who will bet with you just because you are the pastor.  That doesn't mean you should squander what they give you on a bad bet.

Move All-In
At some point, you need to commit totally.  This is the direction we're going.  This is the new program we're going to try.  This is the ministry opportunity we're going after.  Moving all-in at the beginning is, frankly, stupid.  Pouring your resources into something new when  you have no idea whether it is even viable just seems foolish, and is a great way to burn out in five years, like 50% of pastors do.

It's possible to front-load a project - to go all-in early, to pour effort into a new, untried ministry because you are passionate and motivated, and because the people who volunteer for everything will volunteer for this too, giving you the illusion that there is lots of support.  The problem is that you reduce your chances of winning anything significant, and you run a high risk of just flushing your efforts down the proverbial toilet.

At some point, you will run out of resources if you are not making anything back.  If your work is not building enthusiasm and joy, bringing people closer to God and to each other, healing your community and the relationships around you, and making peace in the larger world (which all are what I mean by "winning" in the case of ministry) then you will run out.  You'll wear everyone down until your ministry is Reverend Overfunctioning's Solo Hour.

Why won't they support these vital ministries?  Why will no one volunteer?  Why am I so tired and angry all the time?  Maybe, just maybe, because you made stupid bets.

Ministry Is Not Gambling...Except When It Is.
There are a hundred ways in which ministry is not gambling.  This is probably only a one-blog-post caliber metaphor - but I still think this is worth consideration in ministry, and it is something I will keep in mind.  Or, rather, it is a way that I was approaching ministry that I only now articulated clearly.

Given the differences, I don't think that betting is that far off.  We only have so long, and so much, before we die.  The ways we spend our time are like bets, and as pastors, we are extended a line of credit from our parishioners which runs out if we don't refresh it with some winnings.  We can squander time and energy and good-will just as easily as money, or even more easily, since our society values money more than anything else.  Money is precious - anyone will tell you that.  Time not spent earning money...time spent at church, say, volunteering for the pastor's new pet project?

That's time wasted.  Except when it isn't.


Nick.Larson said...

It totally works. Ministry is NOT gambling, except when it is. I love the analogy.

Aric Clark said...

Definitely a metaphor with some legs. I would add - "reading tells" as a Ministry skill. How to know when someone is betting heavy hoping to get you to fold, and when they really have a good hand.