Life is emotional. But if you’re in ministry, it feels like it’s even a little more emotional.
As in, crazy-emotional-roller-coaster emotional.
That’s true even if you think of yourself as more rational than emotional. Sometimes you get surprised by how intense ministry is. 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. And, sadly, if you can’t emotionally cope with the demands of your calling, you’ll likely abandon it. Not because you want to, but because you can’t figure out a way to make it work anymore.
My biggest challenges for both paid staff and volunteers seem to involve handling the pressures, challenges, and criticism of ministry.
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:
And 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:
1. 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.
Cue perpetual conflict right there…unless you figure out how to stop it.
2. 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.
Church leaders should take criticism seriously, but not personally. Still, that’s easier said than done.
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.
begin to resent the church you serve
have no idea how to navigate a personal life in the vortex of ministry
stop trusting people
dream of getting out of ministry on your bad days
build up a resentment you’re not sure how to get rid of
You probably think only the way to get off the emotional roller coaster of ministry is to quit.
You don’t have to abandon your calling, even though we live in an age where many do. It’s so tragic, because there is a way to survive, and even thrive.
Believe it or not, there is a way to stay in ministry and not engage all of the emotional twists and turns that leave so many leaders wrung out.
Knowing the reason why ministry is emotional is half the battle, but here’s the other half is about practices you follow to stay healthy.
So what are those practices? What should you do to stay emotionally balanced and healthy?
Here are six that helped me:
1. Understand the perfect storm of work/faith/community
As I outlined above, the church world is the only place I know of where what you believe is what you do and the people you serve are also your friends. You need to understand this.
If you keep this in mind it will save you a thousand times over. Here’s why: understanding why something is emotionally confusing is the first step toward untangling the issue practically. When you turn on the lights, you don’t have to stumble in the dark.
2. Find friends who aren’t in your church or organization
Be friends with the people you live with and serve. But find some friends you can talk to about anything.
You don’t need many – even two or three is plenty, but they can be invaluable.
If you only have friends ‘inside’ the church, there’s always a dual relationship. You either don’t disclose enough because you worry about being fired or inappropriate, or you over-disclose and you put a strain on the friendship because you are also that person’s leader.
A spouse or unchurched friend isn’t the right person for talking through every problem with either. Your spouse wasn’t designed to bear the full weight of your frustrations every time you’re frustrated. And your unchurched friends probably aren’t the right people to confide all your frustrations in either. Because this is the church you’d like to invite them to.
So develop some friendships in which you can talk honestly. It’s healthy. An easy choice is to find a peer (pastor or key volunteer) in another church or community.
3. Don’t base tomorrow’s decisions on today’s emotions
This one is so simple but so often missed. Don’t make decisions when you’re angry. Just don’t. Go to bed. Pray about it. Call a friend. Wake up in the morning and then make the decision. Or wait a week.
Don’t make the decision Until. You. Calm. Down.
Never base tomorrow’s decisions on today’s emotions.
You’ll thank yourself later. Unless you want even more terrible emotions, that is.
4. See a good Christian counsellor
I’ve gone to a counsellor numerous times over the last 15 years. I’m pretty sure it’s why I’m still in ministry and why I’ve got a solid marriage today. My counsellors have helped me see things I’m blind to, challenged me on issues I’m sure God wanted me to deal with and helped me realize that personal change can bring leadership progress.
Don’t think of it as an expense. Think of it as an investment. Your spouse, kids, church and colleagues will be grateful you sought help.
5. Develop a devotional life that has little to do with work
One of the common casualties of serving in the church is your devotional life. You get too busy to read your bible. Or you ‘cheat’ and make your sermon or lesson prep your devotional time as well.
Over the years, I have used the One Year Bible again and again to make sure I read through all of God’s word, not just the parts I’m teaching on. And I try to pray about the things I would pray about if I wasn’t a pastor.
6. Develop a hobby or interest outside of work
Or you might say, get a life.
I struggle with this (because I love what I do), but if you have a hobby like photography, hiking, painting, woodworking, golf, skiing, cycling – something to get your mind and heart into fresh space, you will be richer for it.
For me, three b’s that have become the hobbies I love to do: boating, barbecue and biking (road cycling).
For me, if I didn’t have a hobby outside work, I’d probably just work. Too many driven leaders are like that.
Leaders, work isn’t a hobby. It’s work.
Is Any of This Pushing You Toward Burnout?
Leadership can be hard, and one of the first casualties is your health.
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Of all the journey a leader takes, the interior journey is the most arduous.
Didn’t See It Coming tackles the seven core issues that take people out: cynicism, compromise, disconnectedness, irrelevance, pride, burnout, and the emptiness of success and provides strategies on how to combat each.
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Over the years, one of the things I’ve enjoyed most about being a public speaker is having opportunities to hang out with Carey…It’s not a matter of if you’ll run into these challenges; it’s a matter of when. Be prepared by spending a little time with a leader who has already been there.” Jon Acuff, NYT best-selling author
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What Are You Learning?
But in the meantime, how have you found this to be true? What are have you seen people struggle with emotionally in ministry?
And what’s helped you overcome the emotional battle?