Ministry stress

Ministry Stress

How do you deal with division, decisions and development in church life? Challenges in these areas can lead to some of the toughest times for a church leader.

Although 2.45 million copies of the war-time motivational poster were printed by the British government in 1939, it was actually hardly ever publicly displayed until a little known copy was discovered in 2000 in a bookshop in Alnwick.

Now it has become a marketing phenomenon, a widely recognised take on British self-deprecating humour: Keep Calm & Carry On.

But it emphasises an important Biblical insight on leadership, phrased as, "But you, keep your head in all situations” (2 Tim 4:5 NIV). The original comment points to a, ‘steady under fire’ mindset – not the detachment of the stoic, nor the mania of the mystic, but the resolution of a Christian leader serving his Master faithfully with an eye on the final day (2 Tim 4:18).

It isn't easy when all around you are losing their heads in blind panic or in pessimistic defeatism. But ‘in season and out of season’ we have to ‘discharge all the duties of our ministry’ (2 Tim 4:2, 5).

You will be confronted by personal tragedies and individual pain, shock, and sadness. These cause massive emotional strain on the people you minister to. They take a toll on you.

So how do you handle that? Emotional detachment doesn't seem to fit, and trite answers don't work, yet being dragged down into despair in the face of adversity isn't our calling either.

Carrying other's burdens is part of what it means, along with gentle spiritual correction (Gal 6:1, 2). Certainly it is having enough self-control to, ‘let your gentleness be evident to all’ and that is a key part of ‘keeping your head’ (Phil 4:5; 2 Tim 2:24-26).

I have found the more challenging pressures in ministry have come from corporate stress and strain.

Three come to mind:

1. Division

One source of significant anxiety in leadership is caused by a divided or confused membership, with some vocal opposition thrown in for good measure. Keeping calm involves not being intimidated or angered by problem people, nor being bullied into sullen inactivity.

Early in my ministry I was presented with the negative comment, “Lots of others feel like this” from a certain individual. Keeping my head involved realising that even if he had worked hard he could only have been in touch with a fraction of the membership, and I certainly had more access to people and their comments than he had. He tried to counter with a, “Well they will say things to me that they won't to you.” But of course that works two ways and I said so. I kept calm, and we moved forward.

Mercifully I have been in a church largely free of that. But I know too many brothers for whom that kind of internal warfare has stressed the mind and soul, and caused ill-health to the body.

2. Decisions

Decision-making can be hard. So often it isn't the case of making a ‘right or wrong’ type of choice, but a, ‘good, better, best’ or even ‘least worst’, with options not being at all clear. I know I should have adventurous faith in leadership but it can be difficult to discern a ‘preferred future’ without entering into a world of ‘name it and claim it’ and presumption on God.

I have vacillated in answering, ‘What's next Ray?’ and I've been perplexed about taking things forward when I am not sure what's best for the church. It made me feel uncomfortable – that’s an understatement. But I have had to remember to keep my head despite pressures until it is clear how the church can go forward.

3. Development

I’ve also had to keep calm over the developing of roles, gifts, and talents in the church. In my early years, a pastor near me was making a lot of gospel progress and he wondered why I was not. It appeared to me that he had a significant number of very gifted members, and I felt pretty discouraged, and also frustrated that I couldn't just conjure similar people out of thin air.

At other times I have come to realise that, 'Everybody is normal until you get to know them’ - as the title of a popular book goes1. Even the best of people are only people at the best. Having to see, and also intentionally not see, the weakness in others is hard. Challenging a real problem and having that ‘awkward conversation’ is a necessary leadership thing (Gal 2:11).

On the other hand to keep developing someone towards their strengths and not let concerns over weaknesses imbalance the overall good, is very tricky. This is especially true when the good of the individual and the good of the whole church seem in conflict.

Clarity about role, job description, and accountability, have to be kept separate from issues such as likeability or other aspects of someone's personality. This isn’t always easy and that is powerfully pointed out by the record of Acts 15:36-40 where we see a severe difference between two mature leaders over a wisdom issue to do with someone’s gifts (see especially v37).

The author, Jim Collins, uses a, ‘get the right people on the right seats on the bus’ metaphor when he describes the deployment of gifted people2. He is right of course, and the situation above is a picture of that happening in the church. Yet I still feel the corporate business world is a different context to the one we are faced with when we pay a worker to serve in the church. It is not so much ‘just a job’ they are doing as ‘working for the family’. Correcting them or especially redeploying them can be exceedingly painful to all. They can feel as if they are being rejected by their nearest and dearest. You can feel ruthless if you act, and cowardly if you don’t.

So there are three areas where keeping a clear head and a warm heart have proved difficult for me. Division, decisions and development. What about you? Where has it been hardest for you to keep calm and carry on? What has God taught you through these difficult times which has made you a more mature servant of the King?

1. John Ortberg, Everybody’s normal until you get to know them (Zondervan, 2003)
2. Jim C. Collins, From Good to Great: Why some companies make the leap… and others don’t (William Collins, 2001)

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