Carey Nieuwhof: “Life is emotional. But for those of us in ministry, it feels like it’s even a little more emotional.”
Life is emotional. But for those of us in ministry, it feels like it’s even a little more emotional.
That’s true even for those of us who think of ourselves as more rational than emotional. Sometimes we get surprised by how intense ministry can become. I started out in my twenties as a lawyer, so emotion wasn’t really a huge part of my wiring.
But within a few years of beginning ministry, I realized that if I didn’t figure out how to navigate the emotions of ministry, I probably wouldn’t make it in the long run.
And looking back on my time in ministry so far, I can honestly say the biggest crises I’ve had to navigate have not been spiritual or vocational nearly as much as they’ve been emotional.
What I mean by that is, I didn’t know how to emotionally cope with the demands of my calling.
My biggest challenges for both paid staff and volunteers seem to involve handling the pressures, challenges and criticisms of ministry.
It is helpful to drill down on the reasons why ministry is emotionally draining for so many.
So, to that end: Why is ministry so emotional for so many?
Here’s my theory. Ministry combines three areas of life that are intensely personal:
1. Your faith
2. Your work
3. Your community
Because of that, it gets confusing.
What you do is what you believe.
What you believe is what you do.
Your friends are also the people you serve and lead.
Throw your family into the mix (because they believe what you believe, and are friends with the people you/they lead and serve) and bam – it’s even more confusing.
Because of this, things that normally happen ‘at work’ very seldom stay ‘at work.’
Here are three common pitfalls many ministry leaders struggle with:
Pitfall No. 1: Disagreements at Home
You and your spouse end up arguing about being out ‘one more night’ at a meeting or event. But because ‘what you do is what you believe’ you feel that staying home is somehow being ‘unfaithful’ to God.
Pitfall No. 2: Taking Criticism Personally
You get an email or comment criticizing something you said in a message, and you’re really bothered by it. It’s more troubling because you’re not sure whether it means you’ve somehow failed God, not just your employer. And then guess what? You bring that home to your spouse, who also loves God. Repeat that pattern multiple times and your spouse can end up resenting the very place that’s supposed to be her spiritual home and the spiritual home of your kids.
Pitfall No. 3: Friendship
One of the worst forms of hurt can come when someone you consider to be a friend becomes a critic of your ministry. I’ve had this happen to me a few times, and it hurts deeply. When people you share your life with quietly (or not so quietly) start to work against you, it’s very difficult to navigate.
If you don’t navigate these issues well, here’s what can happen as a result:
- You begin to resent the church you serve.
- Your family begins to have mixed emotions about your church.
- You stop trusting people.
- Your personal time with God becomes clouded, and even dies for a season.
- You dream of getting out of ministry.
- You build up an anger you’re not sure how to get rid of.
If you want strategies to deal with this, keep reading. You can overcome it! I’ve learned to cope with all of this.
But in the mean time, how have you found this to be true? What have you seen people struggle with emotionally in ministry.
You probably think the only way to get off the emotional roller coaster of ministry is to quit.
In fact, I don’t recommend it.
You don’t have to abandon your calling, even though we live in an age where many do. It’s so tragic, because there is a way to survive, and even thrive.
Believe it or not, there is a way to stay in ministry and not engage all of the emotional twists and turns that leave so many leaders wrung out.
Knowing the reason why ministry is emotional is half the battle, but the other half is about practices you follow to stay healthy.
So, what are those practices? What should you do to stay emotionally balanced and healthy?
Here are six that helped me:
1. Understand the perfect storm of work/faith/community.
Church world is the only place I know of where what you believe is what you do, and the people you serve are also your friends. You need to understand this.