I was having coffee with a fellow pastor who needed more than caffeine to pick himself up. Summer attendance was down. Key people were leaving because of disagreements about the direction of the church. And money was very, very tight.
I felt nothing but empathy. Yep, been there, felt that.
"Jim," he said, "I knew seasons like this would come. I just didn't know how stressful they would be."
I agreed. To this day, the disappointments can still blindside me. Nothing prepares you for how ministry can drain you emotionally, leaving you in pain or, even worse, feeling numb or in despair or seething with anger. This is why so many good men and women in ministry have careened into moral ditches or still soldier on with plastic smiles and burned out souls.
A few years ago, my wife Susan and I were part of a mentoring retreat with about a dozen couples. We started off with an open-ended question: "What are your key issues right now?"
As we went around the room, the recurring answer was "emotional survival." We heard about the hits and hurts that come our way as occupational hazards. And how they tear away at our souls, sapping our enthusiasm, our creativity, our missional stamina. They leave us creating dreams of finding ourselves on a beach with a parasol in our drink—permanently.
How can we develop the survival skills to withstand the hits and hurts? It starts by recognizing the most frequent causes of spirit-drain.
When you enter ministry, you can't help but dream. For many of us, we dream big. That's one of the marks of a leader—a compelling vision for the future. But for almost everyone, it's not long before the dream collides with reality.
When I planted Mecklenburg Community Church in 1992, I just knew (though I wouldn't have said so) that we would be a church in the hundreds, if not approaching a thousand, in a matter of weeks. Willow Creek, eat our dust.
The reality was starting in a rainstorm with 112 people, and by the third Sunday, through the strength of my preaching, looking out at 56 folks. Actually, 15 or 20 of those were kids in another room, so maybe 40 were actually in worship.
Yes, our numbers did eventually increase, but I don't care what kind of growth you have—you usually had hoped for more. And that can be draining.
It is easy to substitute doing ministry with true communion with god.
It's even worse when you play that dark, insidious game called comparison. When you compare yourself to other churches, inevitably you look to those that are bigger or newer or more prominent in some way. You measure yourself against them, whether in size or style or impact or atmosphere. And that sets you up for a letdown. We say, "It's all kingdom work," but too often, the comparisons drain us of energy and motivation.
And then there are the day-in, day-out realities of serving in a church that is very real, very flawed, and very challenging. No matter how well it goes, you have problems, issues, hassles, defections, setbacks, barriers, and defeats. You have to live with a level of quality about ten miles below what ignited your dream. It's work—hard work—and you realize that it could take years for even a glimpse of your dream to become reality.
And those are just your expectations. Then there are the hits that come from the expectations of others.
Henry Cloud and John Townsend wrote a book titled Safe People, but it was really about "unsafe" people. Church leaders attract such folk as an occupational hazard. They enter our lives and may make a big first impression with their giftedness and enthusiasm. They often talk about the sorry excuse for a church they used to be involved in, and the dark side of your spirit enjoys hearing about it just enough to ignore the warning their words hold.
As a church planter, I was so desperate for encouragement and help that I ignored the red flags time after time. They're willing, eager, and have experience in ministry, so you fast-track them into leadership. You give of yourself relationally, even lean on them emotionally, opening your heart to them about your struggles and fears and weaknesses—and then it happens.
The person you thought was a God-send turns out to be your worst nightmare. Your number-one fan becomes your number-one foe.
You'll understand if I change a few tell-tale facts in the stories for this article.
Shortly after we started Mecklenburg, a man arrived who had a strong, outgoing personality and eagerly championed the vision of the church. He'd been involved with a similar, and well-known, church.
He was willing to serve, had previous experience, understood the vision. He even tithed! What wasn't to like?
But as the church grew and other leaders took responsibility, decisions were made and teams were formed without his involvement. Instead of welcoming the vitality, he became threatened and turned hostile, particularly toward me.
I vividly recall the day things exploded. We had just moved into our very first office, a small suite with two rooms and a work area. This man had gone in and arranged the furniture as he thought it ought to be. I assumed he was just being nice, but as it turned out, that was his way of marking his territory as the church moved into a new era.
Other leaders came to me and said, "What do we do? We appreciate his efforts, and we don't want to hurt his feelings, but we want to arrange our furniture our own way."
In a blazing moment of naivete, I said, "I'm sure he won't mind. Go ahead!" Two days later, we made one of the first major purchases as a church—a copier. And we rearranged the office when it was installed.
When this man saw that we had reorganized the office and made a "major purchase" without his knowledge, he was not happy. His attitude took a major turn, and I didn't have the ministerial street smarts to see it coming. Complicating things further, over the next few weeks we put together a management team that did not include him. Game over. He went on the warpath.
Where I was once the one he was eager to support, I now could do nothing to please him. He began talking to anyone who would listen, spreading all kinds of innuendo. I tried to talk with him and reconcile, but he wasn't appeased. He was mad and wanted others to know he was upset.
And because he was a high-profile person, and we a small church, it ripped the guts out of the place. And out of me!
The turmoil went on for three months. Finally, when he realized he wasn't succeeding in getting other people to revolt, he left, but only after writing a scathing letter to everyone on the management team, accusing me of being loose with the church's money (the copier), and of being autocratic (establishing the management team).
I tried to talk with him in person, but he refused. So I wrote him a letter explaining my decisions. All that did was generate another round of angry letters sent to other people. So I just let it go and tried to move on. But you don't just move on from those things. The harmony of the church (a fragile new church) was damaged. It also emotionally wrecked me and my church planter's idealism.
About that time, I talked to a pastor in another state. He told me about his new church, and in his efforts to solidify the structure, a man who had been part of the founding core was not invited to be part of the new leadership team. The man went on the warpath and sent letters to everyone in the church accusing the pastor of financial wrongdoing, of being autocratic and dictatorial. When I heard that, I thought, What? Is there a school where they train people to do these things?
Nothing hurts more than someone you thought was a friend turning against you and attacking you personally. Little did I know that in ministry, I could look forward to many more encounters with "unsafe people," some who, through their actions, would be able to throw the entire church into crisis mode.
It was Friday night, we were getting ready to leave on vacation the next morning, and the phone rang. It was one of our staff. For him to call me at home on a Friday, much less the night before I was leaving for vacation, was not a good sign.
"Jim," he said, "I have a room full of people here at my house. There's a crisis. They thought you had already left, so they came to me."
"What is it?" was all I could manage to say.
He gave me the name of another staff member, and said, "Jim, they're here because they've discovered she's been having an affair." And then he named the man she was involved with, who happened to be on our worship team. Let's just call them Jane and Bob.
I collapsed on the side of the bed as I held the phone in my hands. Thus began one of the worst experiences of my life and of the life of our church. After a night of no sleep, the next morning, I met first with Jane. Then I met with Bob.
So much for vacation.
It was all true and had been going on for several weeks. She ended up resigning, and Bob and his wife left the church. It rocked our church's world. And mine. The ripple effects were incredible.
From a purely organizational level, it tore the guts out of our then fledgling music ministry. She was the leader of our band, our main musician, and our lead female vocalist. Her husband was our tech person. Bob was our lead male vocalist, and his wife our only keyboardist. Our band no longer existed. Suddenly we found ourselves using "tracks" for our weekend services.
But that was nothing compared to the emotional hit.
There was the pain of the two families with a husband and a wife who felt utterly betrayed. Then there is the pain you feel as a pastor—you feel violated, sick to your soul. You feel sick as a leader—this church that you love so much, that you'd lay down your life for, suddenly ripped apart. And you are supposed to sew things back together.
In these situations, no matter how you handle the folks involved, you'll have some people who think you went too far on the side of grace, and others who think you went too far on the side of discipline.
We got through it as best we could, and with as much truth and grace toward both parties as possible, but Bob and his wife left very upset with us. They felt Bob should have been allowed to return to the platform after just a couple of months of counseling, and they accused us of showing partiality to Jane because she was on staff.
So in the end, after we had poured ourselves into them for their reinstatement, loved them as best we knew how, they rejected us and left angry, taking with them four or five families who were their close friends. It was one of many crises.
Necessary Survival Skills
There are so many other emotional hits. The stress of finances—both personally and in the church—the departure of staff, the pain of letters that criticize your ministry, the pressure of people who want to redefine the vision, mission, or orientation of the church, the agony of making mistakes. And then there's this little thing called your marriage and family.
In ministry so many things can sap your emotions and strength, your very soul and spirit, almost daily.
So what can you do?
There's not a quick fix. Instead, my emotional survival has depended upon a way of life that protects, strengthens, and replenishes me emotionally. This means I've had to cultivate a set of activities and choices that allow God to "restore my soul."
Your list may be different, but here is mine:
1. A regular day off. I take a day off every week, and I'm really off. It's the last part that matters. It's so easy to let ministry tasks, emails, phone calls, text messages, and work demands weave themselves into every nook and cranny of every day. It takes self-discipline and clear intent to actually have a day off. For me, it's Friday, so that I can unwind before our weekend service schedule begins.
Once a month, I also go on a spiritual retreat in the mountains. I drive away from the office on a Thursday afternoon, stay overnight at a little bed and breakfast, and come back the next afternoon. The time is spent in a place that is renewing, a manner that is renewing, and with a God who is renewing.
2. An annual study break. I take an annual study break of four to six weeks, where I physically relocate. This isn't vacation, but a time of intentional spiritual and emotional renewal for the tasks at hand. Those who teach and lead have to pour out instruction and guidance to others, and need to have annual times not just to rest, but to replenish themselves. This is a time to separate myself from the emotional wear and tear but still invest myself in issues related to ministry.
When I'm on study break, I read widely, travel broadly, visit other churches intentionally, map out another year of teaching strategically, and tackle large leadership challenges diligently. I've taken a summer study break of some kind for nearly 20 years, and it's one of the reasons why I'm still thriving in ministry today. Like an athlete that goes through a grueling season, you have to stop, give your emotions time to heal, all in order to enter a new season.
3. Clear boundaries regarding giftedness. As a pastor, you teach people about spiritual gtifts, and the importance of making that gift their area of primary investment. I've had to learn to apply this teaching to myself. There will always be times where you have to serve as needed, but staying primarily within your gift mix is preventative medicine against burn-out, because nothing will drain you faster than operating outside of your giftedness.
I do not rank very high with the spiritual gift of mercy, not to mention how that plays itself out in, say, extended pastoral counseling. If I had to invest in that area with ongoing, regular blocks of time, it would wipe me out. I've had to learn to be very up front with folks about my areas of giftedness, and how those gifts are supposed to operate in the mix with other people's gifts in the body. Because what happens in a church, even one where spiritual gifts are taught and celebrated, is that the pastor is still expected to have them all—and to operate in them all. The danger is that you'll let yourself try.
4. Emotionally replenishing experiences. I've had to learn to intentionally pursue emotionally replenishing experiences. When you hurt, if you don't find something God-honoring to fill your tanks with, you'll find something that isn't God-honoring. Or at the very least, you'll be vulnerable to something that isn't. I am convinced this is why so many pastors struggle with pornography—it offers a quick temporary emotional lift.
To prevent that, I've had to learn to do things that flow deep emotional joy into my life. For some folks it's boating, or golf, or gardening. For me, it's travel, pleasure reading, time alone with family, and enjoying anything outdoors—particularly the mountains.
5. Real time with God. The most strategic investment is time with God. But not just any time with God—I must have time with God that touches me at a heart and soul level. Every day, I seek to spend some time pouring out my heart, and in turn, receiving his. Few people had the emotional ups and downs of David, and if you read the Psalms carefully, you see that he poured out his emotions to God in a disarmingly candid way. Learning to pray like David has been healthy for me.
Ministry can be hazardous to your soul. Since we're always doing spiritual things, it is easy to substitute doing ministry with true communion with God. Plus, so many people assume we're spiritual, it is tempting to believe that and let the estimation of others be the standard by which we judge the state of our souls. From this, there can be enormous levels of self-deception in regard to our spirituality. Coupled with the emotional drain of our vocational lives, we are terribly vulnerable.
I had a defining moment years ago when a mentor in the faith fell into moral failure. I thought, If that can happen to him, it can happen to me. It terrified me. At the time I was in a season where I was emotionally drained and spiritually undisciplined. I was overwhelmed with my own vulnerability, and with the realization that no one would ever own my emotions, much less my spiritual life, but me. If I was going to endure in ministry, it would have to be my responsibility. I knew that a personal resolve was called for.
And I made it. You've just read a list of some of the life-changes birthed as a result.
There are so many other investments I have learned to make or seen others make, such as the importance of healthy staff community, safe friends, and effective Christian counseling. They all matter, because the best gift I can give the Kingdom of God as a ministry leader is a healthy, whole, sane me. The hits and hurts of expectations, unsafe people, and crises will never end. But I can be in better shape for them when they do come, and give God my best to still be standing after they are over.
James Emery White is pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, North Carolina.
Copyright © 2009 by the author or Christianity Today International/Leadership Journal.
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