Most of us go into ministry thinking it will be the safest place to be. Since we’ll be spending our days with fellow believers, we expect that everyone will exude the love of Christ to each other. We often expect that we’ll always be honored, respected, and loved well as we go through our ministry life.
Unfortunately, we often end up encountering some unexpected heartache at the hands of other believers, and many times this catches us off guard and wounds us deeply. Every week, when I listen to the stories of ministry leaders, the stories I hear often include walking through some pretty painful ministry experiences, often involving people in their very church! I hear of experiences of people turning on them, unexpectedly being let go, and “friends” siding with another leader. This shows that ministry can be dangerous business for the heart!
Don’t start concluding that it’s time to run! Don’t start dreaming about a different life just because you’re afraid. Though ministry often comes with wounds, we need to learn how to manage our hearts better so that we can keep going when pain comes. We need to learn how to live out the advice of Kenji Miyazawa who said, “We must embrace pain and burn it as fuel for our journey.” I came across that line in the book Leadership Pain, written by Sam Chand, and it stuck with me. Yes! That is the answer.
Don’t start concluding that it’s time to run! Don’t start dreaming about a different life just because you’re afraid.
So, I want to share with you three specific factors about ministry that make it such dangerous business for your heart. Then I’ll share perspective on what to do so that pain might become fuel for your journey.
Ministry is dangerous business for your heart because:
- People are messy, whether they are believers or not. Even more, people are just as messy on staff as they are in the congregation or the community you are trying to reach.
Being a believer unfortunately does not take the messiness out of being a human being.
Often times we’re comfortable admitting that some of the broken people we try to reach through ministry are messy. But, it’s also okay to admit that even the people we work and lead with on staff are messy sometimes too. We’re simply in the business of leading messy, broken people.
We have to be prepared with the right expectations of people so that we are not utterly devastated and caught off guard when they don’t act like the Christians they should be. I am not suggesting that we should lower the standard for believers and fellow leaders. We should still hold them to a high standard! But, we have to tap into our ability to offer an equal amount of grace to them when they operate out of their human brokenness as we would to the broken people we are trying to reach in ministry. Recognizing the brokenness of their human condition will also moderates the amount of devastation we feel when they don’t live up to their Christ-like potential.
It is also so helpful to be able to look beyond the poor behavior and into someone’s heart. Even though messy behavior may come out of people, look into their heart to see whether it was likely as malicious as it felt to you. Perhaps they are operating out of some kind of personal defensiveness, perhaps they don’t have the right information, perhaps they are caught up in people pleasing tendencies that’s driving their choices. Recognizing these kinds of things is so helpful to ease the sting of people’s messy behavior. It helps our response to their behavior be empathy for their brokenness instead of personal hurt.
- Ministry is all about relationships and ministry relationships are personal.
Relationships are what make ministry matter. The work we do is built upon developing deep relationships. We care about the people we minister to and the ones we serve alongside in a much deeper way than we probably would in a secular role. We often describe our church as our “family.” That means we often invest our hearts deeply into our ministry relationships and, therefore, our hearts can be hurt deeply.
Even more, as women, most of us care deeply about the relationships in our lives. Relationship often have power to hurt us so much more than things like a failed ministry initiative or dropping attendance. What really hits us to the core is when someone we’re in relationship with hurts us.
The answer is not to start putting a guard up with people, stop trusting them, or stop being vulnerable so we don’t get hurt. Those will kill our influence with people and defeat all ministry efforts! We need to recognize that people’s behavior is often not as personal as it feels. I find this to be true so many times! Even if a person intentionally directed their behavior toward you, many times it wasn’t done just so it would hurt you! There are usually so many other motivators rather than a personal attack.
To piggyback on that point, I also realize that sometime it hurts because we think the person should have known how their behavior would impact us, even if it wasn’t intended as an attack. When we are in close relationship with others, we expect that they will know how much things they do will hurt us. Unfortunately, sometimes people are really more blind than they should be to the impacts they make on others. They often get caught up in their own brokenness and they are driven by tendencies like people pleasing, attention seeking, or image management. These kinds of things blind people or numb them to the collateral damage they do to others. The bottom line is that their behavior isn’t always as personal as it feels.
- We invest heavily into ministry and so the strength of the resulting pain reflects the depth of our investment.
People who do ministry usually do it because they feel called. That usually means they are investing themselves to the greatest capacity they can. It means they are often sacrificing family time, finances, and even their sanity in order to do what they feel called to do. Additionally, as women, we often don’t know how to do things halfway when it comes to things that involve relationships either (and remember, ministry is all about relationships). We give our whole hearts to their work we do and the people we minister to and serve with. This deep investment in the work we do makes the wounds that come out of it great!
We need to have healthy boundaries in our lives to protect our hearts in ministry. It is so good to care deeply about the work we do and the people we serve. But, our hearts need to have a way to separate from that world from time to time. It is dangerous for our whole world to be wrapped up in the job we have because that means that when something goes wrong, our whole world crashes. I realize this is hard to pull off when leading a church. Friendships, family time, worship, and work are all wrapped up into one. But, I think we need to be intentional about pulling out a few points of separation to protect our hearts. Perhaps that looks like having a friend or two outside the ministry bubble. Perhaps it means having a day off and investing in life at home, a hobby, or a service project not connected to church. Perhaps it means setting boundaries with availability to people in the church so that you aren’t on call 24 hours a day. We need to consider some boundaries in order to give our hearts something to latch on to that is outside the four walls of our church.
I hope to keep talking with you about pain in ministry through some continuing blogs in the near future. Ministry pain is responsible for too many leaders finishing short in their calling. So, stay tuned for more on walking through ministry pain so that we can learn to burn our pain as fuel for the journey and keep our trajectories pointed toward finishing well!
Here’s a question: What do you typically do with ministry pain when you experience it? Leave a comment below and let us know!
Dr. Byers serves as the Executive Director of Clinical Services for Blessing Ranch Ministries, a non profit dedicated to providing transformational soul care for Christian leaders.
As a licensed Psychologist, she provides Professional Counseling Services to Pastors, Missionaries, and other Christian leaders.
While she connects well with all leaders, she has a particular passion for serving women in ministry.
Dr. Byers’ educational experiences include a B.A. in Clinical Counseling and School Psychology from Western State College of Colorado, an M.A. in General Psychology from the University of Northern Colorado, and a PhD. in Counseling Psychology from the University of Denver.