This Isn’t Why You Got Into It
You got into ministry because you loved Jesus and because you felt a call. Your motives, quite honestly, were about as pure as they come.
Yet, if you’re like most pastors or church leaders, you discover that perhaps the hardest aspect of your work in the church is to keep your personal faith in Christ vibrant and your heart open and supple. Those are probably two of the last things you ever expected to struggle with.
But there’s something that happens inside almost every church leader’s heart that makes it difficult to maintain a vibrant relationship with God, with people and even with yourself.
Strangely enough, it’s like a reversal of the great commandment sneaks up on us. The very thing Jesus told us to do—love God, our neighbours and ourselves—often proves to be the most difficult thing a church leader does.
It’s like there is a hollow in your soul that grows. And if left unchecked, it threatens to overtake you.
These days, the hollow feels like an epidemic. Pastor after pastor seems to struggle. Some exit early after it takes them out. And even those who don’t leave, or don’t suffer any kind of a moral failure before they go, still often feel the struggle.
A Creeping Hollow
The problem with the hollow in your soul is that it creeps.
It never gallops. It rarely races. It just creeps.
So just like aging, you hardly see the changes in the mirror from day to day. But you see a picture of yourself from five years ago and realize you’re not quite the same anymore.
I could quote statistics here and point out how so many people who start in ministry don’t finish in ministry. I could point out how many burn out, fail or exit early, some famous, but many who go unnoticed except by the people who loved them.
But you know the statistics. And worse, in seasons, you’ve felt them.
The signs within you are subtle but real. You are angrier than you need to be. You sing lyrics on Sunday, but the world feels distant and disconnected from your emotions. Reading scripture feels like an item on a list you need to check.
What happened to the love? The joy? The hope?
Those are great questions.
Well, maybe this is what happened to your heart: it got hurt.
And it still hurts. You carried forward some wounds from childhood. We all do. You got picked on. Things weren’t always great at home.
Life adds to it. Your marriage isn’t quite as alive as you thought it would be. The kids are amazing, but they also add stress to everyday life.
And then there’s ministry…the people who left after you introduced some change and you thought it was no big deal. That’s what you told yourself. And maybe the first few didn’t hurt that badly. Or maybe they did, but you steeled up and decided it wasn’t going to hurt anymore.
Until it did.
And the friendships you tried to have, which got, well, weird, they bother you.
Because the people who are your community are also the people you work with, and they’re also the people you lead. And it’s just so confusing at times.
You thought when you were getting together for dinner that it was as friends, but then they started asking you about that initiative you proposed last week and suddenly your leader hat was back on. Whatever happened to friendship, you wonder? And suddenly, you feel more alone than you’ve felt in a long, long time.
And the hollow crept up on you. Again.
And Now, The Toll
It’s started to take a toll.
You find yourself getting angry at the kids. You watch yourself get overly upset at the board meeting, and you withdraw from your wife when she asks you what was wrong. Even your time with God is strained because you realize you’re just as equally angry with him as you are dependent on him.
It’s like ministry puts your character in a vice and squeezes it until you feel like you can’t stand it anymore.
Truthfully, you feel a bit duped. Had you known it would be like this, you’re not sure you would have signed up. But now what will you do? Especially if there’s an actual call on your life?
It feels a lot like prison, doesn’t it?
To quit abandons your calling, but to stay makes you feel like the hollow will deepen until you’re not sure what’s left of your soul. And simply praying more doesn’t seem to fix it.
Add to all of this the knowledge that the battle is not just natural, but spiritual, and things get even more complicated. You have a hard enough time handling yourself, but now there appears to be an enemy.
I’m not sure on this side of eternity we’ll ever quite figure out how the enemy works, but very few church leaders would admit to never feeling his activity or interference. At a minimum, he makes the already hard more difficult. At other times, he pounces, making us wonder what happened. We didn’t see it coming.
You can resist, but the resistance, in seasons, gets tiring. You withstand a few attacks, but the hollow creeps a little further, and you ask yourself, “Is this what I signed up for?”
And the answer is both, ‘no it’s not’, and ‘absolutely.’ This isn’t what we signed up for, but it absolutely is.
We have pictures in our minds that if we do everything right, leadership will be a day at the beach. But we soon discover that it’s not a day at the beach, it’s a day in a battle zone, and you are on the front lines.
You see Paul in prison and think, ‘I could never survive what he survived’ (or at least that’s what I think). But in reality, you are doing that. It’s the same…just different. You’re not in a physical prison…you’re in a prison of a different kind.
Sure, sometimes it’s a prison of your own design. And with enough confession, enough self-awareness, enough counselling and some good friends, you can find the key and get out.
But even then, the battle continues.
So What Do You Do?
So what do you do? Too many pastors and church leaders have no idea what to do.
So they stay and shrivel as the creeping hollow becomes more and more dominant. They settle for a shadow of what might have been.
Some quit. They’ll do anything with their lives that will help them stop the pain.
Some burn out.
A decade ago, the creeping hollow led me to burnout.
It was horrendous. I lived in a dark season for months on end. There was a time that was bleak enough I honestly didn’t know if the sun would rise again. My friends told me it would, but I wasn’t sure I could believe them.
I didn’t quit. I didn’t even take a sabbatical. I just told my elders and team that I was broken and I needed their prayers, their love and some help.
They were amazing. So was my wife, and my family. So were the people closest to me.
As I began to deal more healthily with what had felled me, life began to return to my soul and my body. It was slow at first, but within a year, I was at 80-90%.
It took a few more years to reach 100%. I knew I couldn’t go back to ‘normal’ because ‘normal’ was what got me in trouble in the first place.
But slowly, through more counselling, prayer, friendship, reading and encouragement, and a deep look into my soul, my soul got healthier. It was made new.
I believe the ancients called this the dark night of the soul, and they called the process of getting better ‘sanctification’.
A decade on the other side of burnout, I feel better than I ever have in my life. And I’m still in ministry. Do I have learning to do? Growing to do? Absolutely, until the day I die.
But my friends—and the Gospel—were right. It is possible to come back. To hope again, to believe again, and to love again. Deeply.
The hollow still creeps in from time to time. And no, it’s not always easy.
But knowing what it is and being able to call an enemy for what it is and battle back is tremendously helpful.
The sun did rise again. And God did heal. I’m not sure time heals these things, to be honest, but God does.
If you’re in the midst of the struggle right now, just know you’re not alone. At all.
I hear from so many other leaders who feel the hollow creeping in, or who know they’re burning out, wanting me to tell them what they can do to fix it.
There are no easy answers. And, if there are, I certainly don’t hold them.
But there is a direction that can help. At least it helped me.
The best thing you can do is get some friends around you who know you, love you and can tell you the truth and help you. I am a strong believer in Christian counselling. You need someone with a tool kit to help you move through whatever issues are underneath and whatever reconstruction needs to happen.
But in the meantime, here are some resources that can get you started.
I also have done several podcast episodes with church leaders on burnout and rebuilding your life. And yes, one of them I link to is with Perry Noble who is currently recovering from burnout again. Pray for him as you listen. He’s a great man and God has an incredible future for him as he heals.
Whatever you’re going through… just know you’re not alone.
The hollow doesn’t have to stay hollow. God can—and will—fill it up again. But the struggle is definitely real.
What are you learning about the dynamics of ministry and how to stay healthy and alive? I’d love to hear from whatever you’re going through in the comments below.