Avoiding Ministry Implosion: What’s Below the Surface?

Brittle leaves crunch beneath our feet as the six of us hike the three-mile trail not far from my home. The temperature spikes into the low seventies, uncharacteristically warm for a late October day in Michigan. I run here regularly and know the route well, but the path is new to everyone else. My five hiking companions are younger pastors. We meet every few months, often in a coffee shop, but today I want to focus our conversation from a specific place we will pass on our hike.

About thirty minutes into our walk, we pause at the site where a barn once stood. The structure is long gone, and today only the foundation is visible. Mature trees rise around the space that once housed livestock and farm implements.

I’ve halted our hike at this location to reflect on that part of our lives nobody sees—the foundation, the world that lies beneath the surface. That space where holy disciplines and hidden sins grow. It is from this interior, private world that our public lives will thrive or falter. For better or worse, who we are in private usually manifests itself in public.
I’ve selected this site and bring up this sobering topic because of a growing casualty list.

  • The computer system of a hookup website is hacked, exposing the double lives of public figures.
  • A professional athlete is besieged by the media when allegations of domestic violence surface.
  • The sketchy financial practices of a politician threaten to ruin her career.
  • A pastor is forced to resign after repeated complaints that coworkers and board members fell victim to his controlling, demeaning rage.

Above the ground all seemed well—a thriving career, a growing ministry, a satisfied constituency. But trouble brewed beneath the surface. And major regions of neglect threatened the whole structure.

You might be a highly gifted, unbelievably talented man or woman who genuinely affects hundreds of lives with impact. But if and when an implosion occurs, it will be difficult for those exposed to the rubble to remember your positive, life-giving side. When secret habits—those concealed below the surface—are exposed, it will be challenging for others to remember the positive aspects of your character and ministry.

It might not be fair, but we are more remembered for a devastating fall than for steady goodness. When a house burns to the ground, the foundation is all that is left to see. Oswald Chambers used the imagery of “who we are in the dark” to urge his readers to pay attention to what was happening beneath the surface of their public lives:

We are only what we are in the dark; all the rest is reputation.
What God looks at is what we are in the dark—
The imaginations of our minds;
the thoughts of our heart;
the habits of our bodies;
these are the things that mark us in God’s sight.

And so the six of us pause beside the aged foundation of the barn and talk about our public worlds and our private worlds. About what is above the surface and what lies below the surface. I take the conversation very seriously, believing the stakes to be immeasurably high. The private habits of these five men greatly affect the health and vitality of five congregations. And apart from the impact on their churches, the hidden lives of these men will affect their five families; together, they have over a dozen children. I am hopeful that our conversation will fend off some future tragedy, that we might detect patterns of sin and weed them out while they are still small and operable.

As we stand at the site of the old barn, we speak openly of our own struggles and challenges. We share of ongoing temptation and success and failure. We talk about our foundations, the part nobody sees. Or rather, that nobody sees for the time being but someday may be exposed to in a manner we cannot predict or control.

And so we hike, and pause, and talk. We talk about who we are when nobody’s watching and the difference it makes. I wish everyone had a space for such honest dialogue.

What’s below the surface?

It’s important to periodically ask ourselves what is brewing below the surface of our lives. That part of us nobody sees. Recall the passage from Proverbs we explored on Day 12: “Above all else, guard your heart, for everything you do flows from it” (Prov. 4:23).

What is the condition of your heart? Does any bitterness grow, threatening to poison your relationships? Do any wounds fester, unattended and unhealed? Does any lust rage? Are any hidden sins nursed, unobserved by all but God? What is growing below the surface?

This is also the space where we quiet ourselves before our Creator, where we plead for mercy, confessing that we are not right. Our hearts are the soil where grace grows, where healthy roots plunge deep, nurturing life above ground.

Rarely does anyone drive past a house and admire the foundation. But it is the foundation that supports the rest of the structure. An enduring public life is supported by a vigilant private life.

A Plea

What did you find when you looked beneath the surface of your life? Did you acknowledge the presence of something that deeply troubles you—a poisonous attitude, a gaping wound, an embarrassing habit, or secret addiction? If you are reading this and believe you’ve really made a mess of things, please reach out to those who love you and can help walk you out of the darkness. Know that your first impulse will be to cover up your mess, to keep your problems hidden. The threat of exposure can be paralyzing.

Here we face a monstrous challenge. A destructive, hidden behavior drains our life away. But voluntarily exposing our darkness to someone feels suicidal. It might be long and hard and complicated and painful, but I plead with you to deal with what grows in your private world. I plead with you to seek the wisdom of a skilled friend or pastor or counselor who can speak God’s mercy and direction into your life. It is highly unlikely that you will find your way out of this on your own.

Trust that there is someone out there who can enter the tangled mess and walk with you toward holiness and healing. Trust that God is not done with your story. Trust that lasting, life-giving transformation is often found on the other side of an embarrassing revelation. Trust that God’s redeeming grace desires to bring you home and that he will show convincing evidence of his mercy along the path.

Believe that there is hope. Remember that many who finish well suffered an ominous setback in the middle miles. It’s not too late to get back in the race. It’s never too late to begin building on a new foundation.


Reflect upon your foundation. What do you see when you look beneath the surface of your life? If you see a tangled mess—something you can’t solve by yourself—you need someone you can turn to for help. Write down the names of several people you can count on when your foundation begins to crack or crumble.

Taken from Dream Big, Think Small by Jeff Manion. Copyright © 2017 by Jeff Manion. Used by permission of Zondervan. www.zondervan.com.

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Jeff Manion is the senior pastor of Ada Bible Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan (a 2016 Outreach 100 church, No. 56 largest), where he has served for more than 30 years, and the author of The Land Between and Satisfied. For more: JeffManion.org