A Case Study in Emotional Health in Ministry
A Pastor is leading a vibrant and growing congregation. Things are on track for good growth. As the excitement builds, tension arises in the congregation and conflict of some type is inevitable. The pastor feels unable to manage the tension and conflict. Discouragement sets in. He/she responds to the pressure over-defensively or with an emotional outburst or by withdrawing from relationships, or by resigning… These responses on the part of the pastor reveals a personal emotional issue. We hesitate to identify this issue as a weakness or dysfunction or compromise, but many times, it is.
I am more convinced than ever that the success of a minister is immeasurably impacted by their emotional health. We’ve seen very gifted and hardworking women and men who should be experiencing significant ministry productivity but suffer from an inability to deal with the stress and pressure that such a ministry includes. We all know that pressure and stress cannot be eliminated from ministry; we must simply learn how to deal with it.
How emotional health dictates ministry success:
The more individuals involved in a ministry, the more likely the stress. Contrary to the opinions of a few, the larger the church the more difficult it is to lead. People, even church people are messy. A leader must be adept at dealing with imperfect people, the larger the ministry, the bigger the messes become! Some Pastors enter the ministry expecting to deal with kind, sweet and well-functioning folks. Then they conduct their first church service – LOL!
Too many church leaders are not emotionally strong enough to handle disappointment. The inevitable letdowns get them down. When folks leave the church, the Pastor gets depressed. When the money is tight, anxiety takes over. When the pressure gets too great, the pastor transfers, resigns, retires or gives up on ministry. However, some stay in place but (knowingly or unknowingly) reduce the stress level of the ministry by reducing the number of people in the ministry. They literally run people off. (A few folks need to be run off, but that’s a different story). There are countless churches that are being held back numerically by leaders who, due to their emotional struggles, can only lead a limited number of people. Ouch! This is not necessarily an issue of sin or lack of talent or laziness; this is an issue of emotional health.
So, what should we do?
- Recognize reality, don’t live in denial. If your daily or weekly routine includes discouragement, anxiety and/or depression, please don’t negate the impact. You, your family and your church are all suffering. Remember, “strike the shepherd and the sheep will scatter.” (Zechariah 13:7). If your current ministry role is crushing you emotionally, get help before it’s too late.
- We must pray for emotional healing and strength. God can and will heal our weakness and build us up to increase our emotional capacities.
- Remove the stigma. While I don’t recommend you make your emotional issues public, realize that many good Christians in our day are also hurting. There is no shame in that.
- We can seek medical attention. God also works through doctors and medication. It is not wrong to receive medical treatment, while it may be wrong to limit the impact of a ministry because of our refusal to seek help. But don’t self-medicate! Whether chemicals or relationships or therapeutic binges – all can be destructive.
- Secure Christian counseling. The scriptures tell us to seek out godly counsel. Rather than being considered an act of weakness, getting help is a sign of strength.
- Understand that you may be hindering your future. How we deal with stress today is an indication of how prepared we are for the future. God loves us too much to promote us to the point of destruction. If we desire an increase and it never comes, perhaps God is protecting us from something that may destroy us. Let’s take charge of our emotional health!
- Know your limitations. This is very important! Many of us have a desire to impact more people but we have trouble managing the ones we currently lead! Don’t set yourself up for failure. If a church of 50 is an unbearable emotional and mental weight, a church of 100 may crush you. Rather than asking God to give us more of what we’re already struggling with, let’s stay where we are until we can get healthier emotionally.
A word about prevention:
Take care of yourself emotionally! This includes the priority of family, a healthy diet, sufficient sleep, an exercise routine, time off (regular day off, vacations, sabbaticals), and significant spiritual disciplines. Learn to relax. Laugh and enjoy friendships inside and outside of the church. Get a healthy hobby. Learn to read your emotions and when you feel overloaded, take a breather. When you find you are weak in a particular area, recruit help. Those who refuse to take care of themselves emotionally are ticking time bombs, waiting for implosion.
Let’s grasp the connection between our emotional selves and our spiritual selves. While the two are not interchangeable, they are certainly related. One can be very close to God but suffer emotionally. But the healthier one is spiritually, the healthier they will be emotionally. Get as close to the Lord as you can.
Pastor, take care of yourself. “Be strong in the Lord and in the power of His might!” (Ephesians 6:10). Your family needs you emotionally strong. Your church needs you healthy and vibrant. The Lord wants you to be whole.