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When Ministry Becomes High Risk

August 9, 2012

In my last blog I highlighted the value of having a “soul friend.” Today I would like to give a deeper rationale for this type of relationship. More and more men and women in ministry are losing their way as a result of the unchecked stress fostered by the overwhelming expectations – whether real or perceived – which are placed on them.

Ministry responsibilities have been significantly compounded by the increasing programmatic and executive functions that now dominate the job description. It is becoming painfully obvious that many leaders are unable to sustain these escalating challenges currently faced in the complicated task of overseeing a church or Christian organization.
Leadership comes with occupational hazards. We must face the primary contributors to the at-risk nature of Christian leadership in today’s world. This is critical if we hope to guard ourselves and maintain sustainable leadership practices. So let’s name the primary hazards that leaders regularly experience.

Unrealistic Responsibilities: The job of the ministering person is never finished. There are simply too many important responsibilities within the leader’s job description. Additionally, in most settings, these expectations are implied and rarely written down – they fall into the category marked “unmeasurable.” Over time, leaders of churches and Christian organizations often wonder if they are making a difference despite all of the energy that has been expended. The risk of becoming disillusioned and even embittered, runs high for the leader who rarely experiences positive feedback or encouragement.

These unrealistic responsibilities have led many leaders to a very dangerous place. They work harder to reach the unattainable. In so doing, they allow the world of ministry to run them over; to convince them that self-care is unnecessary. They ignore a basic principle: when ministry demands go up, the need for soul-care also increases. Instead, they fall into a compulsive pattern of “drivenness” as they become enmeshed in the world of ministry and the demands it places on them.

In working with Christian leaders I often throw a question at them: “You love what you are doing, but you simply can’t keep doing it this way…right?” Or, I say, “You love what you are doing but it’s killing you…right?” The response is almost always the same. I have touched the core issue: They love the ministry but, at the same time, they feel overwhelmed as the treadmill effect impacts their soul.

Emotional Drain: It is difficult to keep any emotional equilibrium in a world where one is celebrating births, mourning deaths, nurturing marriages, advising parents, confronting divorce and counseling individuals in crisis. Add to that the weight of shepherding a flock where people are making decisions with eternal implications and it is no surprise that the leader often feels emotionally depleted.

One individual expressed himself to me by saying: “I feel like I am an ATM – I am being hit up for withdrawals constantly, very few people make a deposit. Very few people understand these demands and the importance of disengagement from ministry to care for my own soul.” This individual is saying what every leader must learn- the reality that emotional drain will sweep you off your feet if you don’t develop a strategy to care for your soul. The relational demands of ministry are relentless. They just keep coming. On the same day you have the indescribable joy of leading someone into the kingdom of God, you hear of an affair, a death, a conflict, a betrayal. There are no categories to process the highs and the lows of leadership that come at you so fast there is no time to readjust. Emotional drain isn’t just a part of the job…it’s the painful part of the job that’s never-ending.

Spiritual Neglect: In the face of the many responsibilities and resulting emotional drain, most leaders struggle to find time to tend to the health of their spiritual life. When I asked how ministry pressures were affecting him, one colleague wrote, “When I get weary of ‘spiritual work,’ I’m not easily drawn to the spiritual disciplines to refresh myself. There doesn’t seem to be emotional energy or reserve to pursue God.”

Many leaders indicate that they feel a resistance toward prayer and other spiritual disciplines in the middle of their busy world, even though they know this is the pathway to health. They find themselves edging away from the places that lead to personal renewal and wholeness. As I minister to leaders I have discovered a dangerous pattern. Many of them have no practices of spiritual renewal built into their lives. In their week-to-week schedule they overlook the necessity of prayer, scripture, solitude and Sabbath. As contradictory as it seems, many leaders have no sacred rhythms in their world.

I recently connected with a pastor who told me he simply could not preach one more message. He felt a profound sense of hollowness and deep disillusionment had captured his inner core. He then said, “I feel like I have tended to my professional development over the years but have failed to care for my own soul while in the ministry.” The situation had reached such a high level of ambiguity that my counsel was painful but necessary, “You need to leave the ministry so that you can discover God again.” He resigned.

Relational Isolation:
Ministry has another occupational hazard – the tendency toward isolation. This is often the case at the very time a leader needs emotional and spiritual support from others. In surveying pastors within my denomination I discovered that 50 percent do not have someone they consider a close friend. In surveys done by other organizations that number is as high as 70 percent.

Leaders often experience a sense of brokenness in dramatic ways, yet the culture of ministry makes it very difficult to reveal this neediness to others. Some of the confirming statements made to me include: “My failures are not safe to share. My attempts at being the so called ‘authentic, transparent leader’ are always met by elders with looks of concern.” Another wrote, “The challenge to be transparent and honest is one that I’ve struggled with. Will people allow me to be honest?”

Speaking for myself, when I hit the wall I was simply too ashamed to let others know the depth of my interior crisis. I had lots of close friends and ministry colleagues who loved me. Yet, in the middle of the crisis I pulled in and tried to hold it together. I didn’t know how to process the frustration and failure. I was isolated.

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  1. Morris, I love reading what you write, because I know you mean it and you live it. I was just talking with my wife the other night about this very thing, and about how men (and especially in ministry) isolate themselves because there is no safe place for them. Honesty and transparency has been one of the top values in my life ever since I sat on your living room floor in Keizer, OR back in 1997. It changed my life to hear men share openly. It scared me to death. Now it is the key ingredient to change for me. God can’t do anything with you if you keep your stuff in the dark. Now, my best friends are outside of my places of ministry because I can NOT be 100% honest there. I have 7 best friends that I spend 4 days per year with, and one in Houston that I regularly meet with. People in ministry have NO idea how critical this is. No one falls away, they just drift until one day they’ve realized that they are in a place that they never intended. Keep up the good thoughts Morris. It’s critical.

  2. Thank you – this blog was insightful, loving and helpful. I know for me in Germany, I am praying for a mentor. I need someone beyond my own ministry, beyond my own organization. Someone that is German that I can share my failures. Someone that could give me a picture of the German culture through their own eyes.
    Sorry, I think that I might have just verbalized a prayer request publicly… Thanks for letting me do that!

  3. David Underwood permalink

    Thank u Morris. Especially thots on assumed or unwritten job descriptions. Seems theres no shortage of us pastors today who discover our job description via uncovering land-mines.

  4. I really value the perspectives you share in this space, Morris. Thank you. As someone only recently called to ministry and entering into it with my full heart, your wisdom and lived experience is invaluable to me.

I invite your perspective in the comments section below. Thanks!

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