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Why So Many Church Leaders Struggle With Their Faith

There’s a secret many leaders won’t readily tell you.

One of the most difficult aspects of Christian leadership is keeping your relationship with God fresh and alive.

It’s amazing to me that a frequent casualty of Christian leadership is a leader’s personal walk with God.

I have had to regularly engage this battle for two decades now. So have so many leaders I’ve talked to.

I realize if I don’t engage the battle, I’ll lose it.

How does it happen?

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The Struggle Starts Innocently Enough

Drifting away from the God who loves you happens innocently enough:

You start out in ministry with enthusiasm and passion.

You get ‘burned’ a few times by people and the challenges of leadership, and your heart grows a little hard.

You confuse what you do (your work) with who you are (a follower of Jesus) and the line between what is personal and what is vocational become blurry.

You end up cheating your personal devotions by reading the passage you’re working on for Sunday. Or not reading much scripture at all.

You end up so focused on strategy and execution that the mystery and supernatural aspect of Christian leadership gets lost.

The services you lead become technical and clinical rather than life-giving and awe-inspiring because you’re focused on executing them well.

You find yourself singing words that used to mean something and preaching words that once sounded more personal and alive than they currently do.

You still believe in your head, but you’ve lost your heart.

I have drifted into or close to that territory in seasons, and as soon as I do I realize it’s a terrible and unsustainable place to be in, let alone stay in.

A Searing Question

I have tried to keep this issue front and center in my life because I don’t want to be ‘that guy’ who gains the world (or even a small slice of it) and loses his soul.

A few years ago I landed on a question that forces me to be 100% honest about where I am with God.

The question:

If I wasn’t in ministry tomorrow, what would be left of my faith?

In other words, if ministry came to a dead halt:

Would I still passionately love God?

Would I have lots left to pray about?

Would I want to lead people to Jesus?

Would I wake up grateful?

Would I still confess my sin?

Would I live out of an overflow of my relationship with God?

If the answer to these questions is “I’m not sure” or “no,”  I have a problem.

And so, I try to foster a personal relationship with God that runs independently of anything I do in Christian leadership. I try to remember that God loves me, not what I produce.  That in the end who I am matters so much more than what I do.

So What Helps?

There are several components to staying healthy spiritually over the long term. You need a close circle of friends for support and accountability (I wrote about how to develop an inner circle here).

You need to pray.

But here’s what I find. It’s so simple you might dismiss it, but I can’t. It’s just always true:

The more I engage the Scriptures, the more I engage God.

When I read the Bible personally, I grow closer to God. When I skip or skim, I don’t.

And this is also the area in which I find many leaders and so many Christians struggle.

5 Ways to Keep Your Scripture Reading Fresh

So in the hopes of helping, here are 5 ways to ensure your reading of scripture stays fresh. At least these work for me:

1. Find Your Best Personal Time. 

For me, it’s a no brainer. I’m always best in the morning. If I try to spend time with God at night, I fall asleep (it’s nothing personal, I also treat late night movies, friends and family the exact same way after 10:00 p.m.)  I love having time with God between 5 and 6 a.m.. I’m fully awake, engaged and present.

What’s your best personal time? Give it to God. You’ll grow.

Okay, I better come clean. I have a bias. I think everyone should become a morning person. I think there are inherent advantages you don’t get any other way. I started becoming a morning person in my early 30s and have never looked back. Think you can’t do it? Michael Hyatt shows you how.

2. Find the Medium that’s Best for You. 

I’m a reader, so a written Bible has always equaled awesome for me. But a few years ago I discovered that I had stopped reading my bible in a fresh way because I had been reading it for so many years. The words didn’t feel fresh anymore because they had become so familiar.

Around that time I had bought my first iPhone. I downloaded the YouVersion app and suddenly I found I was reading the Bible as though it was the first time. Every word looked new, even though I had read it before. And that meant my connection with God and the Bible was stronger. The only thing I changed was the media. Now I read it off my tablet with the same effect. Experiment with mediums. See which one works best for you. If you don’t like reading, get an audio bible and listen.

3. Get a Translation You Can Understand. 

Many new Christians I talk to think there is something sacred to the King James Version of the Bible. There isn’t. It’s a beautiful translation that works powerfully for people with a solid command of 17th century English, but that’s not me.

There are many great translations out there. I personally prefer the New Living Translation. The TNIV (Today’s New International Version), the Message and even the English Standard Version are used by many people effectively.

4. Use a Reading Plan. 

Random reading can get you started, but it often doesn’t keep you going. Like many others, I use a reading plan. Here’s a sampling of the hundreds available.

Year after year (including this one), I come back to the One Year Bible. Nothing has kept me more engaged with God on a daily basis than that. It’s about 15 minutes of reading a day (so it’s a commitment), but for me there has been nothing better. I love it because I simply look for the daily readings and they’re all laid out. No flipping pages all over the bible. If it’s July 6th, all the readings for the day are laid out. So whether you use a paper bible or an App like me, it’s all there for you. So easy to use. If reading through the Bible in a year is not something that will help you, there are a ton of other reading plans out there.

5. Take time to Reflect and Pray. 

A combination of prayer and some kind of reflection time is advised. Some people love to journal. I’ve tried to journal, but I’m not sure it’s me. Other people reflect on their life and issues when they pray. I often do when I cycle. If you make your prayer time a time of asking God to help you apply what you’re learning and apply what you’ve read, you will never run out of things to pray about.

Whatever you do, keeping your relationship with your Saviour fresh and alive is critical.

After all, if your relationship with God dies, you lose your authority to lead, not to mention your passion and joy.

What has helped you? What would you add?

15 Comments

  1. patrick cartier on October 14, 2019 at 3:31 pm

    After hearing how many people in the ministry are leaving, I found myself in depression and today really began to doubt. Very troubling day and right now I do not know what to think. I know it is hard to be a pastor and have gone through two issues where the pastors were challenged and eventually left. They get pulled pushed and are manipulated from all directions. Would not want to do it myself. Today I do not have an answer.

  2. Marvin Penner on September 26, 2018 at 11:16 am

    I have no fear of losing my faith if I was to lose my position as a pastor. The truth is I have sometimes wondered if I should stop being a pastor to save my faith.

    • Sharon on September 26, 2018 at 11:21 am

      Oh, I resemble that remark Marvin. I am amazed at how parishioners treat their pastor. In just a short time I have discovered this , as I have only been in the pulpit for a year.

  3. James Warren on September 26, 2018 at 9:48 am

    This was very helpful and I plan to share it with my men’s group. I must confess that I have gotten away from “being” and focused more on “doing. ” I feel like I’m losing the passion and ability to dream for God. This has helped me to remember that it was because of God that I was inspired to dream and my relationship with Him ignited my passion! This was right on time for me. Thanks!

  4. Rudy Schellekens on September 26, 2018 at 9:23 am

    I believe there is a mistaken notion of “ministry.” There is no other example of “full time, located minister” other than missionaries. By developing the idea of the located, full time preacher model, problems became inherent.

    Ministry is ANY believer serving God actively in ANY given environment. Be it a missionary, a housewife, an insurance agent, a teacher, IT project manager – whatever. But to interpret “ministry” in the sense of a located, salaried, single ‘pastor’ of a congregation just does not exist in early Christianity. There was, seemingly, no need for such a role. But by the highjacking of the term for that role, a set of problems has been created that are avoidable!

    I was a missionary for 20 years in a different country. In each congregation where I worked, I made sure that my job was not to be in charge, but to serve needs where they existed. After 20 years, due to circumstances, I stepped out of that role. But my ministry never ended…

  5. Mike Cooper on September 26, 2018 at 9:23 am

    Great word and reminder. It is truly a struggle to see how much the Father loves us apart from our roles a spiritual leaders. This sounded a lot like some of the discussions that my wife and I have been having lately.

  6. Anthony DiMaio on September 26, 2018 at 6:52 am

    OK: a couple things (or a couple of couples).
    1. JOURNAL – Journaling is #1. What I journal becomes the basis for my prayers.
    2. WORDS FROM GOD – I journal on the right side of my spiral notebook. The left page is what I write down when God talks. [If you are not hearing personally from God, that is problem #1.] Reread those thoughts from Him.
    3. Testimony file. The testimony file is not only your own testimonies, but those that you walk with.
    4. Ask The Father, What should I be asking?

    Finally your link for Your Reading Plan is broken . (I think it was meant to go to Youversion).
    Thanks for the honesty…
    Anthony

  7. Lyndrea Lynch on September 2, 2016 at 10:44 pm

    Wow, thank you so much for this… it’s exactly where I’m at. It didn’t tell me a whole lot that I didn’t know, but it articulated it so well all in once place. Thank you for empowering me just when I needed some encouragement.

  8. Wayne Stiles on October 30, 2015 at 10:03 am

    Oh man, I love this, Carey. You’re spot-on about being a Christian before being a leader. Those of us in ministry face a special challenge of getting paid for so much of what laymen have to do on their own time. Your questions are penetrating. Thanks.

  9. ICYMI – October 30, 2015 | Josh Evans on October 30, 2015 at 7:00 am

    […] Why So Many Young Church Leaders Struggle With Their Faith – Via Carey Nieuwhof […]

  10. Mark Riggins on October 29, 2015 at 3:51 pm

    Thanks for your transparency Carey. As a pastor, I’ve found it incredibly easy to drift away from my personal relationship with God because I’m busy doing ‘good’ things for Him. Great stuff Carey! Keep it up.

  11. Gordon Kaneda on October 29, 2015 at 2:32 pm

    I think many Christian leadership books and articles are causing this very problem.
    Those books and articles tell us to do ministry “the right way” so that people will follow. It almost tells you that church growth and people’s spiritual growth depend on how pastors/leaders lead…how they communicate, how they care, how they compliment, etc. Although the Bible says that all we should do is “sow and water” and God will make it grow, all those books say otherwise…that YOU (or I) have to make it grow. That’s why many leaders lose sight of God and get too focused on what they ought to do, and end up burning out.

    • Carey Nieuwhof on October 30, 2015 at 12:56 pm

      Thanks for sharing this Gordon. I’m not sure I fully agree. Strategy is also a part of our biblical foundation…we just need to remember it’s a combination of strategy and trust. I’m glad you remind us to keep our eyes on God though!

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