What Everybody Ought to Know About Emotions and Ministry

What Everybody Ought to Know about Ministry and Emotions

Life is emotional. But for those of us in ministry, it feels like it’s even a little more emotional.

That’s true even those of us who think of ourselves as more rational than emotional. Sometimes we get surprised by how intense ministry can become. I started out in my twenties as a lawyer, so emotion wasn’t really a huge part of my wiring.

But within a few years of beginning ministry, I realized that if I didn’t figure out how to navigate the emotions of ministry, I probably wouldn’t make it in the long run.

And looking back on my time in ministry so far,  I can honestly say the biggest crises I’ve had to navigate have not been spiritual or vocational nearly as much as they’ve been emotional.

What I mean by that is I didn’t know how to emotionally cope with the demands of my calling.

My biggest challenges for both paid staff and volunteers seem to involve handling the pressures, challenges, and criticism of ministry.

In my post How to Get Off the Emotional Roller Coaster of Ministry, I share six strategies to help you manage your emotions as a leader. But first, it would be helpful to drill down on the reasons why ministry is emotionally draining for so many.

So, to that end: Why is ministry so emotional for so many?

Here’s my theory. Ministry combines three areas of life that are intensely personal:

Your faith

Your work

Your community

Because of that, it gets confusing.

What you do is what you believe.

What you believe is what you do.

Your friends are also the people you serve and lead.

Throw your family into the mix (because they believe what you believe and are friends with the people you/they lead and serve) and bam – it’s even more confusing.

Because of this, things that normally happen ‘at work’ very seldom stay ‘at work.’

Here are three common pitfalls many ministry leaders struggle with:

Disagreements at Home. You and your spouse end up arguing about being out ‘one more night’ at a meeting or event. But because ‘what you do is what you believe’ you feel that staying home is somehow being ‘unfaithful’ to God.

Taking Criticism Personally. You get an email or comment criticizing something you said in a message, and you’re really bothered by it. It’s more troubling because you’re not sure whether it means you’ve somehow failed God, not just your employer.  And then guess what? You bring that home to your spouse, who also loves God. Repeat that pattern multiple times and your spouse can end up resenting the very place that’s supposed to be her spiritual home and the spiritual home of your kids.

Friendship.  One of the worst forms of hurt can come when someone you consider to be a friend becomes a critic of your ministry. I’ve had this happen to me a few times, and it hurts deeply.  When people you share your life with quietly (or not so quietly) start to work against you, it’s very difficult to navigate.

If you don’t navigate these issues well, here’s what can happen as a result:

You begin to resent the church you serve.

Your family begins to have mixed emotions about your church.

You stop trusting people.

Your personal time with God becomes clouded, and even dies for a season.

You dream of getting out of ministry.

You build up an anger you’re not sure how to get rid of.

If you want strategies to deal with this, click here. You can overcome it! I’ve learned to cope with all of this.

But in the mean time, how have you found this to be true? What are have you seen people struggle with emotionally in ministry?

  • Shelly C

    This is all so true. I think the hardest thing for me is not bringing things home and being able to separate my life as a mom and wife, with my struggles in ministry. Everything is all so connected…and while you need to be able to share at home – you also need to be careful because your family is also part of the church and you want them to love the church (especially your kids!) It’s a hard balancing act. Hard to keep it real sometimes, yet still protect the ones you love from your struggles…

  • AL

    My first reaction was, “Carey Nieuwhof needs to stop reading my thoughts.” :) My husband is a pastor…our relationship isn’t suffering at all because of his job, but it certainly is difficult to find friends who “get” us. I can’t talk to my church’s pastor about much of anything, because he’s my husband’s boss. I don’t feel safe opening up to anyone on staff, because they’re his coworkers. And on and on. Also, when you leave a church job, you lose friends and your community. That doesn’t happen in many other careers. Thank you for this blog post! Looking forward to the next one.

  • http://twitter.com/WScottCochrane Scott Cochrane

    Carey, you’ve put language around an issue that doesn’t get a lot of press. Way to go! Can’t wait for ‘Part 2′!

  • http://twitter.com/ljgoodall Linda Goodall

    Working in social services for one church organization, yet attending and serving at another church, can certainly get emotional. Not bringing my emotions home (for privacy reasons through my work and for my volunteering at my church to not overwhelm my husband who is still trying to figure out the whole God thing) can be so hard. I’m a talker. But a lot of the time I feel I have to internalize instead of vocalize at home, which is not natural for me.
    Looking forward to reading the strategies that you’ve learned!

  • Carey Nieuwhof

    Thanks AL and Shelley. I just read my own thoughts…funny how we all have so much more in common than we think!

  • Carey Nieuwhof

    Thanks Scott. I want to write a book about this but the change series comes first. It’s a subject I’ve wrestled with a lot.

  • Carey Nieuwhof

    Thanks Linda. So glad you raised confidentiality. That’s a huge one, and so critical!

  • Jalal

    Looking forward to part two! One of the biggest struggles we have had is not with our believing friends and extended family but with our unbelieving loved ones. The guilt and constant explaining of why we can’t come to Christmas due to church services, why we can’t just leave for the weekend or why it always seems as if our “church family” comes first. I think it is dificult for some outside the church to realize that this IS our job and not always our choice over them. After many years of feeling pain & guilt, my sister just released me with the most beauitful words last week, nothing profound just “I love you and I am proud of what you all are doing, I just get jealous of your time” I knew it was an emotional topic but until she said that, and I felt the grace of her words I did not realize what an emotional struggle I had been in. The worst battle is when someone in the church family you love implies or blatantly tells you that you don’t give enough time (attention,care,focus) to them when you know how much your extended family gives up and what you put into “your job”. Very hard for me to find a balance, I would love to hear if others struggle with this and how they handle it.

  • Carey Nieuwhof

    Jalal…wow. What a powerful story, and a great reminder to all of us of the cost not just to ourselves, but to our family. We’re all better and wiser for you sharing this. Thank you!

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