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When Ministry Becomes High Risk

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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Leaders with Soul Friends

Recently I sat with a very close friend and lead pastor in his mid thirties. The church is doing well in every way. However, at his pastoral staff meeting earlier that day he broke down and reported that, “things are happening inside of me that never happened before.” In tears, he admitted that the challenges were wearing him out. He needed to take a break before he went over the edge.

Working with leaders has convinced me that there are many of us who unexpectedly wind up in places of brokenness, confusion and disillusionment.

I have a deep conviction that has grown over years of ministry. Here it is: Every Christian leader needs a “soul friend,” someone who knows how to help us make sense of all the things that are going on at spiritual and emotional level.

In the past I have blogged about the importance of spiritual direction. (If you want to catch up, you might want to look at what I wrote back in June.) I don’t think spiritual direction is a specialized ministry for persons facing unique situations. I believe every leader needs a soul friend. I’m not the only person that believes this.

Kenneth Leech authored the groundbreaking classic, Soul Friend: Spiritual Direction in the Modern World over thirty-five years ago. In the introduction to his book Leech declares, “Spiritual direction must be reclaimed in the service of the kingdom of God.” And, just in case we don’t get the message, on the first page of his book we find only one line – an old Celtic saying, “Anyone without a soul friend is a body without a head.” That might seem overstated to you; however, if you take a closer look at what is happening to leaders in ministry it might actually begin to make sense.

Ruth Barton, founder of the Transforming Center and spiritual director to other leaders writes:

I am not the only leader to have come to spiritual direction by way of desperation. Many pastors and leaders come for spiritual direction because they, too, are experiencing inner emptiness in the midst of outward busyness, feeling “stuck” in their spiritual lives, or longing for more in the midst of seeming success. Their question is, where does a leader go to articulate questions that seem so dangerous and doubts that seem so unsettling? Who pastors the pastor? Who provides spiritual leadership for the leader? Often it is a spiritual director.

I spent over 35 of those years in ministry so far. Recently someone asked me to speak on the topic “What Would You Do Different If You Were Starting Over Again.” (Not my favorite question because of the implications!) There are several things I would want to say, but I definitely have a bottom line which comes out of my life experience after all these years, “Everyone needs spiritual direction. Everyone needs a soul friend.”

My conviction actually goes back almost 2000 years as early Christians began to see the need for guidance amid all the challenges of spiritual living in a pagan world. So what’s changed over two millennia? Nothing! We still need guides, people who will help us discover where Christ is at work amid the highs and lows of our life and leadership.

Some time ago I met with one pastor (we’ll call him Mike) who oversees a large and healthy church. My regular contact with Mike left me assured that he was on top of his world. His emotional well-being seemed strong and I certainly viewed him as someone who was not in the at-risk category. However, shortly after I made this optimistic assumption about Mike, I met with him only to find out that he had a dramatic meltdown the Sunday before. It was the beginning of a new year and he was preaching a series on vision. On this particular Sunday, Mike was making a point from Galatians 6:9 – “Be not weary in doing good” – as a way to stir the congregation to greater commitment. When these words left his mouth he stopped short and then began to weep. It went on uncontrollably. Mike was unable to collect himself despite several attempts over a period of about five minutes. Finally, some church leaders came to the pulpit to offer support so that he could bring the service to a conclusion.

When we met for our time of spiritual direction, Mike indicated that he had no idea the meltdown was imminent in his life. All he knew was, when the words “Be not weary in doing good,” left his mouth, a tsunami surged in his own soul. He was weary amid the responsibilities – weary in a way that he had somehow been able to avoid.

Maybe you can relate to Mike. You might not be at a crisis point yet, but deep inside you know our soul needs oxygen. In the future, I’ll keep blogging about the importance of finding a “soul friend” and spiritual direction. Why… because according to the statistics 50- 70 percent of pastors don’t have a close friend. Let’s work together to change that!

The heart has its reasons which the mind knows nothing of

From time to time I tape an important quote or saying on my office wall.  One of the most significant of those quotes is by Blaise Pascal, the French philosopher who was a Christ-follower. He wrote, “The heart has its reasons which the mind knows nothing of.

All of us have personal spiritual struggles. In the privacy of our own minds we wonder whether other people experience questions or issues similar to the ones that plague us. For years I was someone who wrestled with doubt. How could I really know that the Bible was true, that Christ was God and that when I die the reality of heaven would break in upon me? The stakes seemed too high to just take a chance and believe. Why would someone take a risk on things involving eternity? I longed to have some security, but there was never enough evidence.

All this went on for years until, after considerable pain, I realized that I was approaching Christian faith in a rationalistic manner, one which demands some proof that sets the doubt aside once and for all. I had read all of the books on Christian apologetics with their intellectual arguments designed to buttress my faith. They were helpful, but never quite enough. I needed certainty. Yet, it seemed that assurance was forever out of reach! During this time, I visited with a friend who helped me to see that looking for rationalistic assurance of Christianity’s truth was a dead end. Such pursuits were simply my self-seeking way of trying to get God to work on my terms and, in the end, eliminate the need for faith.

About this time, I began to turn from my head to my heart, which lead to a very important breakthrough! I realized that I had all kinds of spiritual longings which could only be met in Christ. Where did they come from? Could it be that these aspirations were an “apologetic” in and of themselves for the existence of God and the truth found in His Word? After all, where did these heart longings come from except from the very God who intended to satisfy them? I began to ponder the Pascal quote, “The heart has its reasons which the mind knows nothing of,” and I began to give myself permission to follow “reasons” from beyond the rationalistic world.

Soon, the walls of doubt began to crumble. It was as if God introduced a whole new level of assurance, one that is not bound by rationalism. Suddenly my faith took on a whole new sense of energy, confidence and joy! I had come to the end of a frustrating journey that was driving the need for intellectual proof. I realized that I have more than a head, I have a heart! And the heart has its reasons which the mind knows nothing of.

Leaders who are controllers

When it comes to understanding people, I learned a lesson a long time ago: whenever you discover a personality strength in an individual, you can usually find a weakness on the other side. Strengths and weaknesses usually run together.

I’ll use myself as an example. I’m a leader. I love to take charge, cast the vision and lead the troops. But the weakness that comes on the flip side of this strength is the tendency to be a controller. The God-given desire to steer the ship can tempt us to use our influence to get our own way all the time. Leaders turn into controllers when they start to think that everyone would be happier if they did it our way.

For most of my life I was blind to this “controlling instinct.” But several years ago, God began to show me how to counter-productive it is to attempt to manage the outcome of every situation. I am learning to listen more, to be a flexible planner and to discover the joy of saying, “Why don’t we do it your way!”

Are you a controller? Let’s find out by taking my Controller Quiz:

  • I am afraid to entrust important tasks and decisions to others.
  • I am perceived by others as a highly-opinionated person.
  • I find it hard to admit to mistakes or failure.
  • I am quick to provide solutions to other people’s problems.
  • I am usually able to convince others to do what I would prefer.
  • I am a competitive person…winning is very important.
  • I get frustrated with people who make mistakes.
  • I often think I could do a better job than someone else.

If you answered “yes” to a number of these statements you are probably a controller. There is no need to be discouraged or ashamed about this. Chances are, you demonstrate the strength that runs as a counterpart to this weakness-leadership. But people with strong personalities (i.e. people who can influence the outcome in relationships with others) must guard against controlling them. To be Christlike is to know how to listen and to know when to defer to others. Take your direction from Jesus. He is a wonderful leader, but is not a controller!

When the desire to pray is gone

Sometimes the desire to pray is gone. When we feel this way, it’s easy to let this spiritual disciple slip until the motivation returns once again. However, you’ve probably discovered that the longer you hold out, the deeper the apathy becomes lodged.

Here are some important words from Edward Ferrell’s book Prayer is a Hunger,

“Prayer tomorrow begins today or there will be no prayer tomorrow. The penalty of not praying is the loss of one’s capacity to pray! The promise of tomorrow is the hunger of today.”

How true! We will never dig our way out of a period of spiritual dryness by hoping our motivation will return. We must put our will into action and start talking with God openly and honestly, even when our feelings won’t join in. In so doing, we will be priming the pump…and, in time, we will find that the river of life begins to bubble forth once again.

Farrell is right, “The penalty of not praying is the loss of one’s capacity to pray.” In other words, we are working against ourselves when we wait for our spiritual climate to improve. Waiting must give way to seeking.

It is imperative to remember that the spiritual life is not natural to us. It must be cultivated or it will die. Too many believers want to enter the Christian experience without any sacrifice. They refuse to pursue the disciplines that are necessary to insure personal encounters with the living Lord. Their spirit remains out of touch with God.

Has prayerlessness conquered your life? It’s time to turn back. Start simply and sincerely. Take a few minutes each day to honestly confess your condition. Worship God sincerely in spite of the coldness of heart you may feel. In time, the pump will become primed and the water of life will run freely once more. Start your journey towards prayer by remembering the advice given by Abbot Chapman who said, “Pray as you can, not as you can’t.” So, the goal is to pray, no matter how feeble your prayers may be.

The importance of aloneness with God

The American lifestyle is a busy one. And even though we complain about being busy, most of us wouldn’t slow down if we could. As soon as we have to sit for a few hours, with nothing to do, we feel bored. So we make plans: call a friend, go out to eat, head for the mall, drum up another project, go to a movie, or turn on the T.V. There are many ways to keep yourself busy. Rather than be alone with our thoughts, most of us turn to some kind of entertainment…we don’t know how to slow down.

When we keep up this kind of distracted pace, we lose touch with out inner selves, our soul, that part of us that longs for deeper meaning, destiny and a sense of eternal significance. The word soul means appetite, desire, crave.

It is that part of our person-hood that calls for spiritual attention. David says, “My soul thirsts for God like a parched land,” (Psalm 143:3).

Yielding to a busy pace of life, without time for solitude (aloneness with God), causes a person to feel hollow, disillusioned, empty and even depressed. We get off of the treadmill of work only to find the world of entertainment, leisure, or vacation something less than what we had hoped for. With the Psalmist we need to cry out, “My soul thirsts for God like a parched land.”

The answer to this deep hunger is aloneness with God. And at first it will seem like boredom, because we are accustomed to all the stimuli around us. It’s hard to be alone with our thoughts, and our God. We don’t know how to hit the pause button long enough to see the value of solitude, prayer, reflection and worship.

My prayer is that we might all experience what John Baillie wrote about in A Diary of Private Prayer:

“Almighty God, in this quiet hour I seek communion with Thee. From the fret and fever of the day’s business, from the world’s vain imaginations of my own heart, I would now turn aside and seek the quietness of Thy presence. All day long have I toiled and striven; but now in the stillness of heart and the clear light of Thine eternity, I would ponder the pattern my life is weaving.”

If we never take time to “ponder the pattern our lives are weaving,” we will certainly become hollow souls. We will never encounter the joy that comes from union with God. Jesus longs for us to hit the pause button long enough to rediscover the things that matter most. He will lead us beyond the initial boredom of quietness to the beauty of His presence if we are willing to let Him.

Christian Leadership: Checking your motivation (Part IV)

This is the fourth and final blog in a four-part series dealing with motivations in ministry.  With the help of Ignatius of Loyola (a 16th century leader), we will track down what he referred to as “inordinate attachments.”  In our contemporary world of ministry there are dangerous driving forces that often remain hidden and unchecked in the life of the leader.  Let’s take a closer look…

Inordinate Attachment #3: The Need for Perfection – Working to Make Things Right

Leaders who are given to perfection as their primary motivation find themselves living in a world that is always in need of correction. Their compulsive energy is continually seeing areas that need attention and they are always devising ways to improve. The focus might be on reforming themselves, another person, an organization, a community, or something in the world.

They are driven to reform people and things until the “project” reaches a level of perfection allowing their soul to rest.  However, that place of rest never comes.

The motivational force of this leader is fixated on getting things right. Their heart easily tends to judgmental thoughts because they evaluate everyone based on internal standards of correctness. We know that legalism is the great enemy that seeks to capture the church wherever an entry point can be found. Often, that entry point is the perfectionistic leader. It may be religious legalism with a focus on moralism.

Alternately, it may revolve around performance, making excellence the singular goal.  Perfectionism has many faces and ways to assume it’s control in the life of a person and an organization. Obviously, the church is a place where leaders with a driving motivation to fix things are often able to live out their addiction unchecked. After all, shouldn’t the church seek the ideal?

Anger usually sits unresolved in the heart of a perfectionistic leader. They repress their frustration after using all of their manipulative energy to get something corrected according to their standards. As we bring this motivation into the spotlight, we find the deep-rooted inordinate attachment. A spiritual director is able to lovingly touch the pent up anger and gently expose the  disordered affection through questions and a listening ear. Change becomes possible as light shines into a dark place.

In my work as a spiritual director I often meet leaders with the perfectionist motivation. I asked permission for one of my friends to share his story. It’s a good way to wrap up this series of blogs on what Ignatius of Loyola called  inordinate attachments which often show up as faulty leadership motivation:

I am the pastor of a church of 150 people in Anchorage, Alaska.  It was six years ago that I had reached a place of despair.  I was carrying out ministry responsibilities out of willful duty, knowing that the things that I said and did were true, but enjoying none of the personal experience of God that I spoke of so often.  After months of pleading, my wife, now in tears, was begging me to call our denominational office.  My pride finally succumbed to her tears and I made the call, and through district leadership was connected with an individual who would function as a spiritual director in my life.  This has begun a six-year relationship that has been a steadily refining journey.
Frequently our dialogues were questions of core motivations, of what really drove me in life and in ministry.  It became apparent that wrestling with my inner life was going to be necessary and this would lead to discovering my area of greatest struggle.  The process allowed God to “help” me understand the condition of my own heart, but I was determined to keep final authority in both who I was, and what I was going to do about it.  When asked by my director if I believed in step one of the Twelve Steps:  That, “my life was unmanageable, and was I powerless to change it?” I was immediate in my response. “No, I can do this!”  I was a helpless perfectionist.
Early on in life, after a series of continuing losses, I concluded that no one was ultimately trustworthy with the condition of my heart.  Even after my conversion as a teenager, while I was immensely grateful for God’s forgiveness, I lived every day as if my salvation depended on me.  Life, especially ministry, became an exhausting journey of doing what everyone on the outside thought was best, but all the while sinking deeper into the abyss.  And now I was finally crashing, arriving at the place where God might reach me.
I began to take time to listen, to journal, to open my heart and mind to what He wanted to say to me.  As I processed things with my director, he would offer open-ended questions revealing God’s heart for me, not the pastor, but the one whom Christ loved.
A circumstantially difficult nine-month season of ministry through 2011 brought me to a place of soul weariness.  I reentered deep discouragement, even as my director continued to gently nudge me into places of solitude, asking me to readdress truths God had spoken to me about where my identity truly lay.
During a walk at a retreat center, I cried out to heaven, “I can’t do this anymore.”  What descended upon me in that moment was the deepest awareness of my sin that I had ever known.  I was sinful to the core, and there was nothing I could do to change that.  All this in a manner of seconds, and yet immediately, the overwhelming flood of His grace washed over me, and I reflected, “So this is what the peace that passes all understanding feels like.” Years of spiritual direction, gentle questions, fierce challenges, and loving support had led me to the place where I could receive the truth.