By Brian Giese
Hebrews 13:17 exhorts Christians to respect and follow their church leaders so their work will be a joy rather than a burden. That is God’s ideal. But what happens to a leader who is rebuffed by his followers and loses the joy of ministry?
Many factors can cause a church leader to lose effectiveness in serving a body of believers. We will consider some of these factors later. For now, we must acknowledge that many church leaders have suffered from painful resistance to and/or forced termination of their ministries.
Many statistics are available concerning this subject. Suffice it to say more than 50 percent of church leaders who spend most of their adult lives in ministry will have at least one painful “season” in serving God’s people. So, for most of us, the question is not, “Will I get hit?” but, “Will I bounce back?”
Analyze the Cause
The first step toward healing may be to determine what went wrong. Every situation is unique, but there are several generic factors that cover most situations. Here are some of the most common “ministry killers.”
1. The needs of the ministry and your gifts do not match up well.
2. The goals and/or personalities of other leaders clash with yours, and these conflicts cannot be resolved.
3. You and/or your family’s personal needs are not being met, and your resources are running dry (emotionally, financially, etc.).
4. Due to a moral lapse and/or severe marriage or family problems, you lose your credibility.
5. Health problems (physical or mental) prevent you from fulfilling ministry demands.
6. You and/or the congregation have unrealistic expectations.
7. Because of poor judgment or other leadership mistakes, you alienate too many people to be effective.
8. You experience burnout (this is listed last but it certainly is not least). Many scenarios in ministry can lead to emotional/spiritual depletion.
When facing adversity, we should look first for some opportunity in the problem. If that isn’t possible, we can at least try to learn from the experience.
Analyzing the cause of ministerial failure may help you avoid a more serious problem. It could, for example, save you for future ministry, help you avoid a divorce or other family problems, avert a church split, or prevent the church from suffering weakened influence in the community.
Maintain an Upbeat Attitude
When you experience ministry failure or misfortune, it is important that it be only a temporary setback. You must stay proactive—have a “can-do” attitude. Accept personal responsibility for your future. This does not mean you don’t need the Lord. But it does mean you understand he will enable you to accomplish the mission to which he has called you (2 Corinthians 4:7-9).
Keeping a positive attitude is easier if you choose upbeat friends, mentors, and role models. When you are depressed, you should avoid, as much as possible, people and situations that tend to drag you down.
Finally, allow time to heal. It may take many months for you to completely work through your feelings and forgiveness. You should learn from your mistakes, but don’t beat yourself up over them. Also, remember to pray for your enemies (Matthew 5:44).
Get Some Support
Church leaders are accustomed to helping others in crisis, but sometimes we find it difficult to admit we cannot fix our own problems without help from others. We may be too close to our own situation to be objective.
Find a counselor, trusted friend, or mentor to help you come up with a plan for recovery from your setback. Admit to yourself you are not Superman or Wonder Woman. Be accountable to someone besides God and your spouse. Have him or her help you do a personal inventory of ways you may have messed up and contributed to this crisis. Also, ask your friend to help you create boundaries to protect you and your family during the healing process.
If you need more support, consider the resources of organizations like Safety Net or Focus on the Family. There are also a variety of recovery ranches and retreats especially designed for healing church leaders.
Continue to Serve
Stay involved in ministry. Don’t let the devil win a victory by getting you to drop out of kingdom work. He will give you “noble” excuses for quitting. Prayer can even be an excuse for not working. You can, however, work and pray at the same time.
In fact, ministry can be a part of the healing process. Many years ago, I was forced to terminate a ministry. Although it was traumatic for my family, God blessed us through it all. He called us to serve a congregation that also had been deeply wounded. Together, we brought healing to each other—the church to our family and our family to the church.
You don’t need to quit being a church leader everywhere just because you have had a bad experience somewhere.
Second Corinthians 1:4 says, God “comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves have received from God.” In other words, once you have recovered from a painful ministry, God may call upon you to help others with similar struggles.
Always remember we are involved in spiritual warfare. Satan knows how we want to point people to God, and that is against everything he desires. The devil’s purpose is to lie, steal, maim, and kill. We must keep our guard up to protect and preserve our ministry and the ministries of those who labor alongside us.
And when it’s time to leave a church, please leave sweetly. Don’t spew venom all over the community or start a competing congregation down the road. “Love the brotherhood of believers” (1 Peter 2:17). Encourage others!
Power in Ministry
I recall two unforgettable messages I heard as a young man. In “Playing Hurt,” Wayne Smith shared some sports anecdotes about famous athletes who played while hurt. Then Wayne spoke about some of God’s servants in the Bible who labored for the Lord in spite of apathy and rejection. Wayne concluded by saying, “Ministry is not for sissies. If you don’t learn to play hurt in the church, you won’t play at all.”
Of course, Jesus is our ultimate example here. The Bible says he was “a man of sorrows and familiar with suffering” (Isaiah 53:3). Jesus said of himself, “The Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Matthew 20:28). He has called his followers to greatness through service (Mark 10:44).
The other message was by Marshall Leggett, who spoke of a church leader’s top three priorities: (1) stay as close to God as possible; (2) stay as close to your people as possible; and (3) do everything you can to bring God and your people closer to each other.
Power in ministry begins with our connection to the Lord. Jesus said, “If a man remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15:5). As we draw upon his strength, we not only can survive painful setbacks, but thrive for his glory!
After serving 45 years in vocational ministry, Brian Giese is now retired and living in Kewanee, Illinois.