The Weight of Ministry Life

The emotional challenges of ministry life are real! Few vocations rival the emotional and spiritual weight that those in ministry carry- the result of being on the front lines in the brokenness of our world.

These challenges can be intense and constant. Much like those in emergency response roles (the “first responders”), the grief that clergy encounter in crisis situations can be crushing to the most optimistic spirit. In the daily and weekly work of caring for souls, the pain, griefs and disappointments run like dripping water over the heart and soul. Over time, a deep spiritual and emotional erosion can occur.

The challenges can also arrive in the form of our own internal dialog. We battle with our own wounds, with tendencies to make ministry “all about us” and with the subtle belief that we are limitless in our capacity to live out this calling.

Regardless of how we experience them, these encounters take their toll. We often feel depleted and, on the edge, wondering why we don’t have the reserves to keep up with even the ordinary rhythms of life.

The founder of PIR Ministries, Dr. Chuck Wickman, wrote about those in ministry who weren’t burned out but “bummed out” – weary, worried, having lost a sense of the meaningfulness of the work they were called to do.

Caring for souls is the primary role that clergy fill – a role that brings them face to face with people in the middle of the mess of life. While the option exists to take a simply clinical approach to these people and problems, most pastors and ministry leaders are wired to invest in people and their growth. We will enter their journey and walk with them in their brokenness. Even the apostle Paul experienced the weight of ministry in this way. “Besides everything else, I face daily the pressure of my concern for all the churches. Who is weak, and I do not feel weak?” – 2 Corinthians 11:28-29.

Many of us have seen that the anger, fear and pain that people feel in their lives ends up on our front door instead of where it needs to go. As David Rohrer commented in his book, The Sacred Wilderness of Pastoral Ministry, Often, we are the target of the business people actually need to do with God. It passes through us on its way to him. Both good and bad.

What is a minister to do? How do I handle the grief, the inconsistencies, the challenges to my leadership, the tensions with staff and family, my own fear of not measuring up or getting enough done, the worries over the sustainability of a church or a ministry? How do I deal with the undertow of swimming in the ocean of heartache and pain that is part and parcel of ministry life?

Far too many of us are willing to take the route of ignoring or burying the effect these can have on us; choosing to accept them as “just part of the job.” Unfortunately, the pressure mounts, and we end up in a place where we are not living a life that is our own – a place dominated by the needs of others while our own are minimized. Spiritual, emotional and physical fatigue is the first sign we are not processing these emotional challenges well. Medicating with behaviors that are self and soul destructive is the final stage – signaling that we have lost our sense of who we really are.

We need to think differently about the emotional impact of ministry on our lives if we are going to serve with a whole heart.

I am convinced that there are some foundational truths we need to regularly revisit – truths that can prevent us from being swallowed up by the “inconsolable things” (Zack Eswine) we face in ministry life. Let me suggest two that are helping me offload the weight of ministry life that tends to accumulate in my soul.

Processing with others.
The importance of trusted others who can help us process these deep emotional challenges is vital – whether counselors, mentors, peers or friends. These are our “advocates” – those who will advocate on our behalf before God in prayer, as well as advocate the grace of God to us in the bleak hours of our soul. As I look back on my own years of pastoral ministry, it makes me sad to remember that I had so very few friends – not by their choice, but mine. This did not serve me well. I am grateful that this is no longer the case.

Embrace both my humanity and the Gospel.
It is far too easy in a ministry role to forget that we are human beings and not human doings. We have bodies that need rest, exercise, and intimacy. We have hearts and souls that need stewarding as much as the ministry tasks on our list. Being human means I must embrace the fact that I have limits; and that my role is not to fix people or the world. Learning to daily immerse myself in the Gospel reminds me that He is the Savior and I have been invited to partner with Him in His work of restoration. The Gospel also allows me to remember who I am – that my identity is not in what I do but in being made in God’s image, lavishly loved by Christ and called to a daily journey with Him.

Leaning into these two truths make it possible for me to take the weight – the griefs and cares – of ministry life to their true resting place. They belong in God’s hands.

We are living out the most important calling in the world. As ministers and pastors, we are the “first responders” to the chaos, pain and spiritual brokenness that people experience. Sharing in their grief – and experiencing our own – requires that we have a solid foundation in who and what we really are. Without that, the weight of ministry life will slowly consume our passion for the calling God has given us.

Burnout isn’t Just a Pastor Thing…

Last week I reposted an article by Ken Sande regarding his first hand experience with a pastor friend who burned out. This week, we hear the story of how easy it is for the spouse of a pastor to get caught in the whirlwind of ministry life and end up toasted as well.  I want to encourage all pastors to read this – and work to protect their spouse. But to the church at large – let’s do a better job of caring for both our pastor AND spouse.

Read here

Pastors’ Wives Can Burn Out Too

 

Isolation and Loneliness – the Danger Zone for Pastors

“It is not good for the man to be alone” (Genesis 2:18).

question-friendsWe are all familiar with the typical questions pastors get asked – “How big is your church? What’s your annual budget? How many services do you have?” But there is one question that pastors rarely get asked: “How many true friends do you have?”

Do I hear crickets?

In a culture that encourages a very individualistic approach to life, many people feel a general sense of loneliness every day. That general sense of loneliness is exponentially heightened in the life of the ministry family. In Chapter 5 of his book Pastors at Risk, Dr. Chuck Wickman talks about the impact of isolation and loneliness on the pastor and his family. Pastors often feel a deep sense of isolation from others – an inability to connect in significant relationships that bring balance and health. This is due, at least in part, to the distance between pastor and parishioner that often defines the role. Add to that the care-giving functions of pastoral ministry, and the pastor can be left depleted and unavailable emotionally.

There are times when the isolation that we experience is of our own doing. We allow the pastoral persona to become all that people see of us. We fear that connecting too much or being too real will lead to hurt or doubt. Unfortunately, this can, and does, take its toll. The path of isolation and loneliness winds its way to dark places, where health, spiritual vitality and emotional integrity can be compromised. It is also true that some of us will use this as an opportunity to be “on our own” and unaccountable for our time. This is a dangerous place to be.

Recently, I came across some research linking social isolation with poor health outcomes including depression, heart disease, sleep problems and other disorders. But it has never been clear what it is exactly about being alone that may be so harmful. In a study published by Dr. Carla Perissinotto, an Assistant Professor of Medicine at the University of California, San Francisco, researchers reported that “…it’s not just living alone, but having actual feelings of loneliness and isolation that matters.” (How Feeling Lonely Can Shorten Your Life, TIME, 6/19/12)

Pastors, and their spouses, often deal with:

  • feelings of abandonment, rejection and the deep sense that no one understands them, or the expectations placed on them
  • the sense of “overload” that can make having significant relationships a chore and therefore easy to avoid
  • difficulty with transparency – you might blow your cover and you will be shown the door
  • feelings of martyrdom – the sense that you alone carry the burden of ministry

lonelinessThere is another component to this as well. Most pastors do not have a pastor that THEY can call on, adding additional stress to the growing list of dangers (Pastors at Risk, p 51)

My own story of crashing and burning is one where, in a deep sense of isolation, I could not risk sharing my guilt, shame and fears – which eventually led to a very public and disgraceful exit from ministry.

What can be done? 

First, pastors need to be reminded that, in addition to being a leader, they are human. They are also a part of the Body of Christ, and need to be connected in significant relationships to others. Having the title of pastor doesn’t come with its own supply of “anti-loneliness” pills. Like any other person in your congregation, you need others in the journey of following Christ. So, it is vital that you:

Acknowledge the need -“It is not good for the man to be alone” (Genesis 2:18). Why? Wasn’t God enough? If you will let me wax theological for a moment – God Himself is not solitary, but is in eternal relationship. Love, which the Scriptures tell us God is, can only happen in relationship. We were built for relationships. While there are some things that only a relationship with God Himself can supply, He has determined that there are things that He wants us to experience in connection with others like us. We need to “flesh out” the love that we have in relationship with God. You need friends!    

Don’t hide! If nothing else, reach out to other pastors who share the same need. It will take effort, but the benefits are worth it. Find those pastor or ministry leader friends who won’t posture, but are genuinely interested in being there for you – and you for them. And, contrary to popular opinion, it is OK to connect with people in your congregation and build friendships. Accept invitations to ball games and dinner parties. Putting yourself in those situations will give the Holy Spirit opportunity to lead you to those who can become a “Jonathan” to you (1 Samuel 18:1).

Share your heart, not just your head One of the most significant shifts in the way I relate to my wife, that has carried over to other relationships, has been to talk about how I am feeling at any given moment – not just what I am thinking. This is an issue for men who are pastors and leaders. We are far too often in our heads: ideas, visions, concepts, principles, etc. Remember that it is the “feelings” of isolation, identified in the research above, that have the negative impact on our lives. In addition to asking, ”What are you thinking right now,” my wife will ask me what I am feeling. This gives me permission to connect to the current state of my heart. In those significant relationships, sharing our hearts – including the loneliness and weakness we feel – can open the door to spiritual health.

Refuse the shallows Recently, Mike Foster wrote about a new way to view what we have called “accountability” groups. He uses the term “advocacy” to describe the role of key people in our lives who walk the path with us. They are advocates, on God’s behalf, of grace.

 Radical grace is the core engine for any healthy relationship. You cannot have true transparency or confession without it. I encourage people to make verbal commitments to each other and clearly state that they will stand by one another through the best AND the worst.

Most people live with the fear of rejection and allow this fear to dictate how honest they will be with others. In advocacy, we are constantly demonstrating that this relationship is a safe place. Through our response to one another’s failures, our own deep confession, and reminding each other that we are in this for the long haul, we implement radical grace. (ChurchLeaders.com)

friends In general, I am encouraged that the emerging generation of leaders seems to be able to embrace the need for connection to a greater degree than many in my generation. Having learned this lesson the hard way, I have found great joy, comfort and encouragement in the company of great friends who walk with me on this journey.

Who is walking with you?