Ministry is Stressful: Minister in Freedom
The recent Barna Study of 14,000 pastors confirmed a longstanding experience of being in ministry – it is stressful. High expectations from leadership and congregants, vague job description, blurry boundaries between work and personal life, comparison to those who are “successful” in ministry and just the responsibility of being God’s voice and bringing His Word to the people are all factors that contribute to the stress of ministry.
The pastor can overlook himself or herself as a source of the stress. All of us are a mixed bag, we are saints and sinners, we are holy and we are dysfunctional. So, while God calls those to serve in ministry and he or she responds faithfully to this call, it does not mean he or she does not bring his or her own brokenness and potential other reasons for being in ministry to that call.
People can be hoping to feed their own brokenness in ministry. How does this play into stress? Ministry has more than enough demands on its own. If a pastor is also searching for something to get from ministry, he is more likely to have poor boundaries, more likely to try to step into God’s role in people’s lives, and most draining, is trying to answer his own heart/soul questions through doing ministry and not from the True Source.
I am going to call these reasons, desires, because I think it better captures the heart and soul element of what pastors can be looking for in their work. Here are three of them.
First we will look at the desire to be accepted or acceptable. Pastors can come into ministry with shame, guilt, or brokenness from their past that they are still trying to shake. They can land on the formula of “performing in ministry lessens my feelings of shame.” If I do well and God and others are pleased with me, then I am okay. Obviously this sets up a whole lot of pressure to perform and an impossible way to gauge when enough work is enough. Many in ministry who appear to have excellence as their goal are driven by the need to be acceptable.
The desire to be secure is another. Pastors know that they work for God, but everyone in the church thinks that they work for them. Let down the wrong people, offend the wrong person, don’t grow the church fast enough and the pastor wonders how long he will have his position. Sometimes the pastoral role is like being a hockey coach. If the team isn’t performing well, who is the first person to be let go? Throw in a dose of personal insecurity or experiences of being abandoned in the past and you have the perfect storm for a pastor who overworks to try and ensure his job security. He sees every opportunity to serve as another opportunity to get some credits in the security bank.
The longing to be affirmed or respected or even admired is the third desire. While the pastor who wants to be acceptable is just looking to get to being okay, this pastor wants to be better than okay. Their way of feeling good about themselves is outperforming others and getting the recognition for doing so. Inside they have a big question that shouts, “Are you good enough?” and they answer it by trying to be better than good enough.
The desires to be accepted, secure, and affirmed can add a whole lot of stress to being in ministry.
Could it not be argued that these are good and natural desires? Shouldn’t a pastor feel accepted and secure and even admired in his ministry? Yes, to a point. There are two dangers for pastors when it comes to these heart desires and ministry. First, is when it goes too far, when the desire is too intense. In discussing these desires and their potential dysfunctional manifestation in ministry I am talking about when these desires have a place at the table about how decisions are made in ministry, then they are playing a role they shouldn’t. The second danger is when a pastor places these desires in the hands of those he serves he is placing his personal well-being on a volatile, fragile, and fickle foundation.
Do you recognize any of these in yourself? Do you not feel acceptable when you don’t perform or someone is not happy with your performance? Are you regularly on edge about your job security? Do you make some ministry decisions based on improving in your own mind your security? Do you find yourself searching for attaboys after a good sermon? Do you check how many people have watched your sermon on youtube? If yes to any of these, you are not alone. We all bring our own brokenness into ministry.
If hoping these desires will be met through ministry leads to increased stress then what do we do with them? We take these desires to God and let Him heal the dysfunctional part and answer the healthy part. And we can take these to those who truly know us and love us.
Find Personal Freedom Through Faith
There are many ways to allow God to speak to these places in our hearts. Scripture is one. If you know that the desire to be acceptable/accepted is partially what drives you in ministry try mediating on these verses. Matthew 3:13-17, “Then Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to be baptized by John. But John tried to deter him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” Jesus replied, “Let it be so now; it is proper for us to do this to fulfill all righteousness.” Then John consented. As soon as Jesus was baptized, he went up out of the water. At that moment heaven was opened, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, whom I love, with Him I am well pleased.”
God’s words to Jesus were when He was just starting out in his ministry. He had not accomplished much. And these words of acceptance and blessing from God were not because of what Jesus had accomplished. They were because Jesus was His Son and He loved Him. Likewise, you are a child of the Father, deeply loved and accepted, not because of what you do. You are not primarily a tool to be used, but a child to be loved.
If security is your struggle, focus on these words of Christ. John 10: 27-29, “My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one will snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all; no one can snatch them out of my Father’s hand. I and the Father are one.” The Son holds you in His Hands. The Father holds You in His Hands. You will never perish. Nothing can snatch you out of their hands, nothing. The Father is greater than all. He is greater than any perceived threat. The Holy Trinity holds you in perfect security.
If your desire is to be affirmed and respected, meditate on these words. 1 Peter 2:9,10: “But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of Him who called you out of darkness into His wonderful light. Once you were not a people but now you are the people of God; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.” Pastor, you do not need to be anything more than what you already are. You are God’s special possession. You are declaring the praises of Him who called you out of darkness.
Meditating on these verses is to attempt to make it more than an intellectual exercise, but to make it a heart exercise.
There are other ways that your walk with God helps to heal your own brokenness and meet your deepest needs. That will be the subject of another blog.
A Pastor Set Free
I was meeting with an associate pastor and he had a struggle with all the above – he didn’t feel he was okay, he feared rejection, and he strongly desired admiration of others. How this manifested in his ministry was that he said yes to everything. Whenever an idea was being thrown around at a staff meeting, he would quickly agree to do it. He desperately wanted to be “the man.” But it was burning him out quickly and the many hours at the church were damaging his marriage.
We worked on the above issues and he was making great headway in healing, but old habits die hard. He found that when he was sitting in a staff meeting or was approached by the senior pastor with an idea that his anxiety felt overwhelming if he considered saying no. All his fears of rejection and not being good enough came crashing in. He desired something practical he could do it those moments. Perhaps by the nudging of the Spirit, I recalled an intervention suggested by Brennan Manning in one of his books. It was to meditate on the phrase, “Abba, I belong to you.” I shared this with the pastor and explained how it could help in those moments. He tried it and it worked wonderfully for him. When he felt he needed to say yes to man because of his own brokenness he would repeatedly remind himself of who He really belonged to.
Pastor, the ministry is stressful. It is full of meaning, but also full of challenges and criticism and unrealistic expectations. God calls you and equips you to fulfill a role. Take your brokenness to God so that ministry is not harder than it needs to be. Do not be distracted by the noise of your own issues and hear Him clearly leading.
Do ministry freely, He came to set you free.