Don’t Blow Up Your Ministry: Defuse the Underlying Issues That Take Pastors Down

This article was written by Michael MacKenzie and published by AACC

 

I answered the phone at our office. It was a pastor calling. He got right to the point. “If you don’t help me, I might not be here a year from now.” He was talking about suicide.

Pastors are hurting right now. Yes, everyone is hurting but some are carrying more burdens than others. Pastors are one of the helping professions trying to help everyone else stay on course through COVID, political polarization, and all the other fears and concerns plaguing our nation.

Pastors, like a lot of us, are learning or relearning how to deal with constant stress with corresponding increased anxiety, environments with more conflict, a quickly changing ministry landscape, and the multiplication of needs in those they serve. These are areas where we as counselors can help pastors.

But there is another area where we can help them. While these outside stressors are legit and pastors need interventions in how to healthily handle the external sources of their struggles, they also need help with the internal, their own personal issues that are being revealed by the increased stress.

When the Apostle Paul found out that the church in Ephesus was a mess and sent Timothy to pastor it, he not only had words for the church; he had words for Timothy as well about who he needed to be as he pastored in a difficult environment.

In my book Don’t Blow Up Your Ministry: Defuse the Underlying Issues that Take Pastors Down I write about how pastors, like any other client, will come because of the problems they are experiencing on the surface: anxiety, stress, depression, anger, or issues with conflict with spouse or others, or medicating with pornography or alcohol. All of these are real problems but largely are only symptoms of a deeper problem.

The next level down in them personally is the lifestyle, ways of doing ministry, relationship patterns or general approach to life that fuels the surface presenting problem. Examples of these are workaholism, perfectionism, people-pleasing, conflict-avoidance, over or under attachment with others, or procrastination.  These default positions show up in many of the pastor’s reactions to the challenges of ministry and while sometimes appear to be helpful do not really fix the ministry issue and definitely do not address whatever is going on in the pastor’s own heart and soul.

These approaches to life and ministry I call the driving motivation, meaning to capture what approach is it that is driving the pastor’s reaction. Some of these are easy to see. When a pastor’s go to position is perfectionism it will leak out on staff in the expectations placed on them and most likely the criticism that follows when something like the worship service does not go as planned. Sometimes the reactions are not as easily noticed such as when a pastor is conflict avoidant, but it is interpreted as being a peace-maker.

After identifying the driving motivation, it is helpful and needed to discern what caused these driving motivations in the first place. How did the pastor become so uncomfortable with conflict that they will spend innumerable hours appeasing each party involved? Why does the pastor keep everyone at arms-length? Finding the cause helps the pastor understand why they do what they do. It also helps a pastor who may be over-spiritualizing or over moralizing a reaction they have which creates a lot of shame for them around the issue. Understanding the cause also helps identify some of the possible steps for healing. Did experiencing an abusive parent lead to a fear of conflict? Did an over-controlling and over-protective parent lead to a fear of failure? Did a trauma cause an intense flooding whenever there is too much stress or the pastor is caught off guard by something? Specifying the cause, the driving motivation, and the presenting problem will help dictate what interventions are needed for healing and growth.

But the work is not done yet. Our identity, which is the deepest level, can be the foundational source of the problems if our identity is fractured in some way. Our true identity is that we are children of God made in the image of God redeemed through Christ. But from the fallenness of the world, our own falleness, and the evil one lies can define us and we can have root fears tied to those lies. Such as the lie that I am not good enough and the fear of being found as an impostor or that I am destined to fail. Another lie is that I am not lovable and the fear is that I will be rejected if people really know me. Another is that I am not important and the fear that I will never make a difference or people will never respect me.

It is easy to see how if these lies are sewn deep in our sense of self we will develop ways to simultaneously try to fix the shame we feel deep inside and avoid letting anyone or anything make us feel that shame.

As counselors we can lead pastors and Christians leaders deep into their own souls and hearts and help them experience the work of Christ in those broken places just like they do for so many others.

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