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

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 counselling appointment with some news.

We see the same counsellor. 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 a decade ago), I’ve published three books, launched two podcasts, spoken to thousands of leaders a year and seen our church grow to over double the size it was when I was working more hours. 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 created the High Impact Leader Course. The 10 module, online course 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.

I wish things stayed that clear when I got into ministry. But it 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.

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.

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.

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.

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 The High Impact Leader.

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.

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.

As my friend Perry Noble says, 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.

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.

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?

So How Do You Find Healthy Patterns That Help You Thrive?

What if you don’t need to live that way anymore? Can you have a much higher impact at work AND get your personal life back on track?

Actually, you can.

By the grace of God and with the help of some incredible people, I did come back from burnout and was able to keep leading, this time, far more healthily than before.

A decade on the other side of my burnout, I’ve never felt more alive in my life and leadership than I do now.  And what’s strange (at least to me) is that my marriage has never been better, I feel like I have ample time AND I’m leading far more than I ever did before I burned out.

The #1 question other leaders ask me is this: How do you get it all done?

That question is why I’ve created The High Impact Leader Course. Check it out here.

This 10-session online course will show you highly practical, proven strategies on how to finally get time, energy and priorities working in your favour. It includes 10 videos, an online workbook and 10 specific exercises that will help you create a personalized plan to help you get productive and accomplish the things you know are most important, but rarely have time for. 

And you can do this without burning out.

The course, which proceeds at your personal pace whenever you’re ready to tackle a unit, is designed to help you:

Get your most important priorities done early in the week, every week.

Spend more of your time at work doing the things that energize you and less time doing the things that drain you.

Invest more of your time with the people who energize you and less time with the people who drain you.

Discover time to finally exercise, pursue a hobby,  launch a blog, start a podcast or write that book.

Actually be OFF when you have a day off.

Be far more focused on your family when you’re with your family.

Learn how to say no nicely, so you can free up time for the things you’re truly called to do.

In short, it’s designed to help get your life and leadership back, or maybe find them for the very first time.

Registration for The High Impact Leader Course is currently closed. However, you’ll receive a free series of productivity tips if you join the waiting list today

Join the High Impact Leader Waitlist

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In the meantime, what have you learned about getting and staying healthy in leadership? And why do you think over-working traps so many leaders?

Scroll down and leave a comment!


  1. Floyd Laabs on January 5, 2017 at 4:32 am

    I agree, but what do you do when your church unofficially requires 24/7, says they want you to take care, but in the same sentence you are not working hard enough. It goes farther, forcing a church vote to try to push you out. All under the guise that the church needs more visitation. I have done 22 funerals in 24 months, countered that amount in keeping up attendance. Spent hours at hospitals and in homes – but not enough.. not growing enough, visiting, etc. Thats what we pay you for – our family has suffered, especially our daughter. The affair with my work is awful. You are right, since I came to a realization some months ago, our family time and my marriage is better. However I am made to feel guilty, and we fear loosing everything as our home and income are all tied together. There is no cushion if something happens. I feel we have accomplished everything we are allowed to do and more under an intense couple years. We feel God releasing us, but the damage has been done.

    • Carey Nieuwhof on January 5, 2017 at 8:10 am

      This one’s hard. I think you have to retrain your church. That’s what I did. I wrote about it in Lasting Impact (my last book) and you can see some of my thinking here: You should also about boundaries. Cloud and Townsend have incredible insight on that. Hope this helps. I realize the stakes are high…but move forward prayerful and firmly and see what God does. Something is unhealthy…and it sounds like their expectations are.

      • PF Lee on January 5, 2017 at 8:30 am

        Thank you for the reply, it was unexpected.
        It appears that the prior pastors that served back to back for 40 years had to do the same. It’s been preached by me and others, but it’s what they pay me to do. Have read Cloud and Town, good stuff. Unfortunately boundaries only work if there respected. It all about serving the internal and their families – all the responsibility and no authority.
        Lots has been done, good stuff, but once we leave it will revert back. I’m looking forward to being a soul winner again when and where God opens the door. Tired of firefighting.

        • Carey Nieuwhof on January 5, 2017 at 8:35 pm

          True…but your boundaries matter too. With all due respect, after a while, you can’t just blame the church. Thanks PF.

  2. Jay on December 5, 2016 at 7:32 pm

    Wow, a total MUST READ! Thanks for your honesty and transparency, Carey. This post is like a laser-guided missile headed straight for my heart. I’ve had a series of affairs…and every one of them has been with the local church. Having an affair with Jesus’ bride never ends well. God has blessed me with an incredibly forgiving wife and several close friends who all have permission to speak into my life when I lose my focus.

    • Carey Nieuwhof on December 5, 2016 at 9:35 pm

      Thanks Jay. So true. Appreciate your leadership and honesty.

  3. Amy Woodrum on December 5, 2016 at 7:23 pm

    As the wife of a minister I found this very relatable. One thing I would love to see addressed is how to help the congregation be more aware of a pastor’s family needs and responsibilities. More than once I have seen those serving in ministry (NOT just my spouse) face the gauntlet for being out of the office or for standing firm that a day off is a day off

  4. Shari Rhoades Markley on December 5, 2016 at 7:12 pm

    I do see myself in this article, in several places. I bought the High Impact Leader “kit” at
    Orange Tour Indy, and, um, haven’t even cracked it open yet because I’m “too busy.” I’ve only taken some comp time up until late November, no vacation or personal days, it’s a mess! I know I need to get a hold of my schedule but the Merry Go Round never stops. There are ALWAYS lost people who need introduced to Jesus and I feel so selfish stepping away from that. I will take some time off before/around Christmas and I hope to look into your teaching on this matter during this time. Prayers would be appreciated. Thank you for sharing this guidance with us.

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