The Affair You Are Most Likely To Have as a Christian Leader

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So could you end up having an affair as a leader–even as a well-intentioned Christian leader?

I think the answer is absolutely. 

Obviously, some leaders have emotional or sexual affairs with people to whom they are not married. As heartbreaking, future-altering and faith-shattering as those affairs can be, there’s another kind of affair you’re actually far more likely to have.

Here’s my story.

My wife came home one day from a counseling appointment with some news.

We see the same counselor. He knows my story. He knows hers. We’ve even seen him together a good number of times, both in the tough seasons and in the good ones.

As we were debriefing what she learned in her last session, I asked if there was anything else they talked about.

My wife Toni replied, “Are you sure you want to know?”

I told her I did, wincing a little.

“Well, he said that, in his view, you had an affair.”

It was one of those awkward moments, because I know I didn’t have that kind of affair… but my mind started racing. Did he think I had an emotional affair? Again… I couldn’t think of anyone.

So I asked: “What did he mean?”

“He said you had an affair with your work,” Toni told me.

And hearing those words, I knew he was right.

So we talked about it. In both my wife’s view and mine, my affair ended years ago.

And strangely, I’ve been a better husband and have accomplished far more in ministry, both locally and beyond, since it ended than I ever did when work took up most of my time. In fact, since my affair with work ended (for me, it ended in burnout), I’ve published four books, launched a podcast, spoken to thousands of leaders a year and seen our church grow to more than double the size it was when I was working more hours, and launched a leadership company.

And I’ve spent more time with my family.

So how does that happen?

Well first, you need to understand how you got there. There are at least 5 reasons Christian leaders end up putting their work first. I outline them below.

But then you have to figure out how to get out of the spin of constant busyness and low productivity that kills both your leadership and your life. That’s why I wrote my brand new book At Your Best (releasing in September 2021). The book takes everything I’ve learned in the last decade about managing time, energy and priorities to help you get your life and leadership back.

In the meantime, let’s start with how the affair begins. It’s so subtle and innocent, the vast majority of leaders never see it coming.

1. In ministry, working more hours makes you feel like you’re more faithful

Before entering ministry, I spent a year working as a law student in downtown Toronto. Honestly, it was easy to go home at 4:30.

I hustled hard. I was often in the office at 7 a.m. and I worked my tail off. But I wanted to go home and see my wife and our newborn son. It wasn’t that difficult to draw lines between what I did at work, who I was as a Christian, and my role as a husband and new dad.

I actually worked shorter hours than most lawyers and other law students. Ironically, though, after my year was finished and I was called to the bar, eligible for full practice, they released a colleague of mine who worked 90 hours a week and offered me—who worked less than 50 hours each week—a job. The firm said my year with them was the first time a law student ever made them money.

Clearly, shorter hours does not mean less productivity. Often, it means more.

Shorter hours does not mean less productivity. Often, it means more. Click To Tweet

I wish things stayed that clear when I got into ministry. But they didn’t.

At first, time management was easy because our churches were very small. But then, they started to grow and we merged into one. In fact, within a few years we became the fastest growing church in our denomination as well as one of the largest.

I didn’t know how to lead in such a high-growth environment so I did the only thing I knew how to do to keep up: I worked more hours.

In ministry, working more hours felt different than in law. In the church, working more hours can make you feel like you’re being more faithful. After all, it’s for God, right? We were seeing hundreds of people come to Christ and grow in Christ. So working fewer hours felt like faithlessness.

In ministry, working more hours can make you feel like you're more faithful. Click To Tweet

So how did my logic get so messed up? After I burned out, I realized that ministry combines three areas of life that are intensely personal.

Ministry combines:

Your faith.

Your work.

Your community.

Because of that:

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 jumbled

Understanding this strange mixture is crucial for breaking the pattern of over-working in ministry. If you equate more hours with more faithfulness, you enter a bottomless pit from which there is no extraction.

Once I realized what the struggle inside was all about, it was easier to change my patterns.

God doesn’t love me any more or less based on the hours I work or the effort I put in.

Jesus’ love for me and for you, after all, is not based on anything we’ve done. (That’s the Gospel.) And his love for you doesn’t go up when your work hours go up.

Once you sort out the perfect storm of ministry (where work, faith and relationships collide), there’s still no guarantee you’ll end the affair. There are other factors at work too, like the next one in this list.

Ministry leaders, Jesus' love for you doesn't go up when your work hours go up. Click To Tweet

2. It’s easier to win at work than it is to win at home

So why do ministry leaders keep overworking?

Let’s be honest, for many leaders, it’s just easier to win at work than it is to win at home. And hence, it’s often more rewarding to stay at work than it is to head home.

Think about it.

At work, people get paid to show up.

At home, people aren’t.

At work—especially if you’re the boss—people generally do what you tell them.

At home…well….um, not always.

And winning makes you feel successful as a leader. If things are going well at work and there are a few issues at home, staying at work even feels more attractive.

It's easier to win at work than it is to win at home. So too many leaders stay at work. Click To Tweet

Let me show you why it happens. I remember a season when our kids were young during which Toni and I had different views about bedtime. I wanted the kids in bed right on time. She’s just more relational than I am and would sometimes extend bedtime a bit.

My office at the time was in the basement of our home since we were a portable church. I remember coming up to tuck the kids in bed one night, only to realize they weren’t in bed when I had hoped they would be.

Instead of doing the right thing—going upstairs and loving my wife and tucking my kids in, I went back down the stairs and worked for another hour because it honestly just felt easier. Complete loser move. But I did it.

You never get those nights with your kids back. And I could have been a much more supportive husband in that season.

You know what I’ve learned since then? If you’re winning at work but losing at home, you’re losing.

If you're winning at work but losing at home, you're losing. Click To Tweet

3. You begin to suffer from the fear of missing out

Ending the affair is even more difficult if your church or ministry is growing, as ours was.

Even if you realize that working more hours doesn’t make you more faithful, it’s still easy to worry that you’re going to miss out on fully realizing your mission if you change your ways.

After all, if more hours got you to where you are today, it’s just natural to believe that more hours will take you even further in the future.

There’s a logical absurdity in that (you only get 24 hours in a day), but a profound fear of missing out on future opportunities can drive you to keep going.

Looking back on it, I think I had a profound fear of missing out in ministry.

What ended that? For me, it was burnout, and then an intense desire to carve out a new pattern in my recovery that would lead to a much healthier way to live and lead, which I outline in detail in At Your Best.

The irony, of course, is that healthy, sustainable patterns don’t make you miss out on anything. In fact, you realize far more opportunities than you ever miss.

Healthy people realize far more opportunities than they miss. Unhealthy people miss far more opportunities than they seize.

But when you’re stuck in the fog of the affair, you just can’t see that.

Healthy people realize far more opportunities than they miss. Unhealthy people don't. Click To Tweet

4. Your affair gets rewarded and promoted

Making this ever-more-complicated is that our culture rewards and promotes people who work hard.

Some of that, of course, is good and natural. There is nothing wrong with hard work. I believe God created us to work hard at whatever we do. I still work very hard at what I do.  But I’ve realized you can work hard AND work healthy.

Workaholism is the most rewarded addiction in our culture.

Often, leaders who work too many hours don’t get punished, they get promoted.

Well, what about a board’s role in all this you ask? Shouldn’t they be regulating how many hours you work?

Sure… I had a board who was always checking in to see if I was okay. They cared very deeply.

I always told them I was doing great, because, at the time, I felt like I was.

And like most addictions, a lot of the extra work was done in the off hours when no one was looking.

So is it the board’s fault if you keep getting promoted for your obsession? Well, no, especially if you’re not telling them the whole story.

Ultimately, no board or group is responsible for your health. You are.

Often, leaders who work too many hours don't get punished, they get promoted. Click To Tweet

5. You never think it will implode… until it does

When I was in my 30s, I had more than a few people tell me that one day I was going to burn out.

My first mistake was that I didn’t believe them. I felt invincible—like the rules didn’t apply to me.

And that’s the problem with leaders. The rules never apply to you, until they do.

They did. And I burned out.

And that's the problem with leaders. The rules never apply to you, until they do. Click To Tweet

The problem with true burn out is that once you’re past the burnout line, you lose all control. You can’t get yourself back quickly or easily.

Personally, if you’ve seen yourself in this article, I would encourage you to listen before you slip into burnout.

And even if you never burn out, living today in a way that compromises tomorrow is a mistake. Why would you want to keep hurting your family, your leadership, and your life?

Living today in a way that compromises tomorrow is a mistake. Click To Tweet

Can't find the time to get it all done? Become a high-impact leader without burning out (or sacrificing yourself).

Without a new strategy and approach, it's easy to continue to:

  • Sacrifice family on the altar of work
  • Overcommit and underdeliver
  • Have no time for what you actually want to do
  • Struggle to get time off to refuel and relax

Worst of all, other people—other tasks, jobs, and projects—will continue to hijack your life.

It’s time to change that by implementing a strategy that works.

At Your Best is a proven strategy to get your time, energy, and priorities working in your favor. It's my step-by-step online course that will help you overcome stress, find a sustainable pace without losing impact, and be far more productive at work.

50,000+ leaders have used the At Your Best strategy to escape the stress spiral and finally do what they want to do—grow their organizations, advance their careers, launch new ventures, be far more present at home, and take regular time off.

Wow! I didn’t realize I was in desperate need of this message and system in my life and business. 

This message so profoundly impacted us, that we named our annual company theme, “At Our Best,” using Carey’s system and resources to strengthen our culture and make health a priority this year.”

Sean CannellFounder and CEO, Think Media

Whatever you choose to do with it is up to you. Join today for instant access.

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Carey Nieuwhof
Carey Nieuwhof

Carey Nieuwhof is a best-selling leadership author, speaker, podcaster, former attorney, and church planter. He hosts one of today’s most influential leadership podcasts, and his online content is accessed by leaders over 1.5 million times a month. He speaks to leaders around the world about leadership, change, and personal growth.