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.