Surviving Ministry Means Knowing Ourselves
By Rob McCord
I believe the pastoral ministry is one of the most exhilarating and rewarding ways one can spend a life. It is an honor and a thrill, an adventure and a delight, full of amazing highs and irreplaceable glimpses of God at work.
However, upon entering ministry, I completely lacked understanding of the pain that would accompany it. Pastoral ministry carries with it the potential of psychological, emotional, and even spiritual trauma. It can be dangerous.
The statistics regarding pastoral burnout and failure are staggering. The pain and anguish that so many pastors endure is heartbreaking. These servant leaders have an uncommon responsibility that brings with it an uncommon burden. If leaders are unprepared for this, such pain will easily drain and eventually destroy many of them. That is not acceptable.
The stakes are high when it comes to the state of a pastor’s spiritual health and emotional well-being. When a pastor quits or falls, the impact ripples beyond him. When he is greatly diminished in his or her effectiveness due to stress, woundedness, or imbalance, the whole congregation suffers. In The Emotionally Healthy Church, Peter Scazzero writes:
The overall health of any church or ministry depends primarily on the emotional and spiritual health of its leadership. In fact, the key to successful leadership has much more to do with the leader’s internal life than with the leader’s expertise, gifts or experience.
We cannot afford unhealthy churches; thus we cannot allow church leaders to become or remain unhealthy. Such leaders must see maintaining their own health as a serious responsibility.
Of all the talents, training, and experiences a minister brings to a ministry, the most important thing he brings is himself. Wherever you go, there you are! And because no single aspect of our ministry will more reliably determine success or failure than this one, it’s essential that we know and understand ourselves.
Self-assessment of personality type, aptitudes, leadership style, and intelligence are worthwhile and can bring valuable insights. For the purposes of surviving ministry’s traumas, we must answer these four important questions.
1. What are my vulnerabilities?
Our vulnerabilities include our wounds. We all have them. Some fresh, some scarred over, but all tender and sensitive to pain. Ministry brings wounds (hurtful criticism, false accusation, betrayal), and so does life (childhood abuse or neglect, troubled relationships, grief and loss). Though we may refuse to admit it, these wounds affect our ministry greatly. Understanding them gives us a handle on our behavior as well as the motivations behind it.
Our vulnerabilities also include our weaknesses. We’re not all equally strong in every area or in every way. We have vocational weaknesses in that we are naturally more gifted at some aspects of our work and less gifted in others. We also have character weaknesses in that some virtues, such as compassion or self-discipline, are strong in us while others, like patience or joy, need to be developed. Spiritual weaknesses cannot be ignored. For one it may be lust leading to adultery, for another laziness leading to apathy.
Our wounds and our weaknesses can both create insecurities. These are areas in which we feel inclined to defend ourselves or overcompensate for our self-perceived deficiencies. It is good to be a humble leader. It is nearly impossible to be an insecure leader.
It is important to know the situations and conditions that leave us vulnerable. Are you an introvert who’s drained after prolonged social interaction? Are you especially sensitive to criticism in the hours after you’ve preached? When traveling alone, do you find it difficult not to wonder what you could get away with? We all have times in which we are particularly vulnerable to being wounded or doing something we must not. Understanding such times and adjusting accordingly is wise and necessary.
2. What are my capabilities?
We each have a unique set of strengths to meet the demands of ministry. While we must take our vulnerabilities into account, we are wise to make the most of our capabilities. We should lead with that giftedness because these are gifts from God given to us for his good purposes.
Too many pastors suffer from gift envy. Instead of gratefully maximizing the gifts he has, a minister might pine over the gifts he sees in others that he doesn’t have. This is a waste of time and energy, as well as an affront to God and his sovereignty. We must give ourselves permission to be ourselves, making the contribution to Christ’s body he intended. Coming to terms with this frees a minister for happier and more effective ministry.
Even a minister’s strengths have limits he must accept. Human beings can only work so hard and do so much. A minister’s strengths are gifts or tools he is called to use. A minister is a steward of the gifts, but it isn’t intended that he be driven by them. A minister must do his best, to be sure, but the excellence Jesus deserves from a minister does not equal the perfection a minister may demand of himself.
“Don’t cherish exaggerated ideas of yourself or your importance, but try to have a sane estimate of your capabilities” (Romans 12:3, from J.B. Phillips’s The New Testament in Modern English).
3. What is the condition of my soul?
Jesus said that just as a branch must receive its nourishment from the vine, we must abide in him if we are to bear fruit (John 15:1-8). It is vital to maintain connection to our Lord Jesus—through prayer and worship and time in his Word, fellowship with our siblings in the faith, and most importantly, constant submission to his will and grace. This connection to Jesus is far more important than assessing our vulnerabilities and accessing our capabilities as we aim for fruitfulness in ministry.
“Above all else, guard your heart, for everything you do flows from it” (Proverbs 4:23).
Philip Yancey ponders, “I wonder how much more effective our churches would be if we made the pastor’s spiritual health—not the pastor’s efficiency—our number one priority.”
When we neglect our spiritual health we set ourselves up for ministry failure. Our joy decreases as our anger and bitterness have room to grow. We become exhausted as we meet others’ needs with less and less to give. We lead with less vision and enthusiasm because we’re not gaining inspiration. Our heartburn increases and our hearts burn less as we worry more than we pray. We lose our bearings and our way. Truth becomes fuzzy and our values fade. We do things we never thought we would do that bring consequences neither we nor our churches can endure. This must not be allowed to happen.
4. How do I process pain?
Be assured that the sooner one answers this question, the better prepared one is for real, live ministry. Pain is inherent to ministry; it’s what we do with the pain—and what we allow the pain to do to us—that makes all the difference.
Does pain cause you to withdraw, or does it fill you with anger and the need for revenge? Does it make you afraid, or do you feel the need to defend yourself? Do you keep your hurt to yourself or do you prefer to talk it out? Each person responds to pain in his own way, in good ways and less-than-good ways. Understanding this and getting ahead of it will save us many sleepless nights and even a few visits to our doctor.
As Wayne Cordeiro writes in Leading on Empty:
Pain is inevitable. Misery is not. You see, pain is the result of loving deeply and living fully. Misery, on the other hand, is a result of living without reflecting and trying to forge our future without insight.
Reflecting on these matters and gaining insight is essential. It is also our responsibility.
What does knowing yourself lead to? A healthy sense of self-examination and self-doubt. In other words, it leads to humility. Pastors are leaders and, as such, should possess a level of confidence, but that level must always be kept in check. Confidence in God and the goodness of his gifts is good and right, but not taking time for self-examination can lead to an unhealthy self-confidence that will eventually betray us.
“Who can bear the weight of souls without sometimes sinking to the dust?” Charles Spurgeon once said to his students, “Count it no strange thing, but a part of ordinary ministerial experience.”
Knowing ourselves well prepares us for the demanding work ahead and enables us to do it in a spirit of Christlikeness.
I have come to value the lessons of humility, brokenness, and resilience that ministry’s traumas bring. I have also seen that without an understanding of myself, I am ill equipped to face them.
Rob McCord serves as senior minister with Outlook Christian Church in suburban Indianapolis, Indiana, and as professor-at-large with Lincoln (Illinois) Christian University.