By Kent E. Fillinger
“Hurting people hurt people” is a familiar and true phrase. But on the flip side, “healthy people help people.” A minister’s spiritual, mental, emotional, and physical health will directly affect his ability to lead, serve, and help others. The healthier the leader, the more fruitful he can and will be.
A recent Gallup survey found that workers are more stressed this year than last year. This coincides with a 2022 survey by ValuePenguin (a research and analysis company) that reported 84 percent of Americans feel stressed at least once in a typical week. A U.S. Surgeon General report said that common workplace stressors include low salaries, long hours, and a lack of opportunity for advancement. (Those three stressors sound a lot like ministry to me!)
The 2021 Pastor Attrition Study by Lifeway Research reported that half of ministers often feel the demands of ministry are greater than they can handle. The study found 63 percent of pastors say their role is frequently overwhelming, and 41 percent say they are often concerned about their family’s financial security.
These stressors often have a negative impact on the overall health of a minister. There are two other challenges many ministers face that can also diminish their health.
The Pastor Attrition Study found that 71 percent of ministers said they feel they must be “on call” 24 hours a day. This feeling persists despite God modeling the principle of Sabbath rest during creation and reiterating the value of a Sabbath in the Ten Commandments.
So, it should come as no surprise that a 2023 study reported in the Journal of Applied Psychology confirmed the benefits of leaders taking a mental break from their work. The researchers found that when leaders stop thinking about work in the evening, they are less likely to feel depleted the following day.
An evening’s rest, in turn, helps them see themselves as leaders and to act the part, making them more effective the next day. Even the people who report to the leader reported a positive difference in the leader’s behavior, according to the study, with the leader’s communication and effectiveness improving.
If you’re suffering from “accessibility overload,” then it’s time to create some healthy boundaries for your life and ministry. True productivity requires periods of rest. If Jesus needed time alone, how much more do we?
In Out of Control: Finding Peace for the Physically Exhausted and Spiritually Strung Out, authors Ben Young and Dr. Samuel Adams asked these great questions: What if you dared to take God at his word and took a full day off for physical and spiritual rest . . . or simply to spend time with friends, family, and God? What if you actually unplugged all your technological toys for a day—could you imagine the impact?
Addicted to Ministry?
A May 2023 Wall Street Journal article addressed the issue of entrepreneurs who are addicted to their work. “There is workaholism, and then there is addiction,” April J. Spivack wrote. “Entrepreneurs who cross the line into addiction don’t just work too hard. Rather, for them, the business becomes their life. They derive all meaning from it, and their emotions rise and fall with it. They are always hungry to expand or launch another startup—even if it isn’t wise to do so.” (From the article, “Entrepreneurs Famously Work Hard; for Many, Dangerously So.”)
The article caused me to think of some lead ministers and church planters I’ve crossed paths with during my 30 years of ministry. I see this hard-driving approach as a lurking danger that often gets masked behind the guise of serving God and helping people.
The WSJ article examined six traits that demonstrate when a leader has crossed the line from workaholism into addiction that are applicable to ministers and their work. If you’re a church or business leader, honestly assess how many of these traits are true for you. I adapted the traits of work addiction to ministry, and they are:
- All the minister thinks about is the church. Addicted ministers think about the church or ministry virtually all the time. When they are not obsessing over the day-to-day workings of the church, they are pondering new ministry initiatives.
- They have manic cycles. With addicted pastors, their moods and motivation alternate between strong highs and lows, depending on the state of the church. They are elated and energized when they are serving and working, they are full of excitement when leading and helping others, but they are miserable and can feel trapped when they are not leading. When addicted ministers take a break from work, they can become agitated and irritated.
- Their self-worth is tied to the church. Addicted pastors start to measure their worth entirely by the growth or success of their church. So, they feel great about themselves when the church is doing well, but miserable if not. For ministry addicts, the success of the church becomes the biggest determinant of their mood.
- They become one-dimensional. Addicted ministers start defining themselves entirely by their church. They don’t think of themselves as parents or spouses who serve in ministry for a living. They are ministers first, and everything else becomes a footnote. Pastors often feel social pressure to focus on their church and make sure it grows, especially those pastors who lead very visible churches.
- They keep raising the stakes. Addiction often escalates. The pastors find themselves grasping for more leadership in the church and pursuing greater success, and they feel compelled to take bigger risks to feed their need.
- They do things in secret and suffer alone. As with many addicts of all types, addicted pastors often recognize their destructive patterns and feel guilty and ashamed about what they are doing. But instead of seeking help or just confiding in someone, they hide their feelings and keep their activities secret.
The consequences of ministry addiction can be traumatic. It can lead to sickness, insomnia, poor health, damaged relationships, destroyed marriages, and spiritual decay.
Avoiding these outcomes requires self-awareness to take preventative steps. One great step is to find a trusted friend outside the church who can hold you accountable and ensure you take time off and invest in your spiritual, mental, emotional, relational, and physical health.
This isn’t easy because workaholism in ministry can be a revered part of our culture. It is important to remind ourselves of that invisible line and recognize that stepping over it is a lot easier than stepping back once you’ve crossed it. Remember, healthy people help people.