Friday, July 29, 2011

Emotional Survival

I was having breakfast with a couple of fellow pastors who needed more than a cup of caffeine to pick themselves up.  Summer attendance was down.  Key people were leaving their churches because of disagreements.  And money was very, very tight.

One of the guys said, “I knew seasons like this would come.  I just didn’t know how stressful they would be.”

To this day, after twenty-five years in ministry, these kinds of disappointments still blindside me.  Nothing prepares you for how ministry can drain you emotionally, leaving you in pain, even worse, feeling numb or in despair or seething in anger.  This is why so many good men and women in ministry have careened into moral ditches and many more just soldier on with plastic smiles and burned-out souls.

About two years ago Renae and I had dinner with a neighboring pastor and his wife at Bonefish Grill in Pensacola on a Friday night.  We were going through similar experiences in our respective churches, coincidentally at the same time, so we spent the evening sharing our painful stories with each other.  We talked about the hits and hurts that came our way in ministry as occupational hazards and how they tear away at our souls, sapping our enthusiasm, and our ministry stamina.  Before I realized it, four hours had elapsed!  This left me dreaming of finding myself on a beach with an umbrella in my drink – permanently.

What makes ministry so hazardous?  That’s easy.  It all starts with overbuilt expectations.  When you enter the ministry (or plant a church), you can’t help but dream.  Many of us dream big.  That’s one of the marks of a leader – a compelling vision for the future.  But for almost everyone, it’s not long before the dream collides with reality.

When I planted PCC in the spring of 1998, I just knew (though I would not have said so out loud) that we were going to be a church in the hundreds in a matter of weeks.

The reality was having 70 people in our first service, and by the third Sunday looking out at 45 people sitting in plastic chairs in a school cafeteria.  Yes, we did eventually increase in numbers, and even today we are a mid-sized church, but I don’t care what kind of growth you have – if you are a pastor you usually hope for more.

Then there are the day-in, day-out realities of serving in a church that is very real, very flawed, and very challenging.  No matter how well it goes, you have problems, issues, hassles, struggles, defections, betrayals, setbacks, barriers, and defeats.  You also have to live with a level of quality that is about ten miles below what ignited your dream.  Coupled with this work – hard work – you realize that it could take years for even a glimpse of your dream to become a reality.

And those are just the emotional hits from your expectations.  Then there are the hits that come from the very people that you are working so hard to serve.  This is the heart of emotional drain. We are shepherds, and sheep are messy.  People can hurt you – more than you ever imagined – in particular through the relational defections of those you trusted.

You’ll understand if I change a few details in what follows.  It was a Friday afternoon in July a few years ago and it was raining hard that day.  I was caught up with all my work and was hoping to knock off soon when one of my key leaders unexpectedly showed up at the church asking to speak with me.  For him to show up in the middle of the day asking for a special meeting was not a good sign.

“Ron,” he said, “Do you have a few minutes?  I’d like to bend your ear concerning a couple of things.”

“Sure” was all I could manage to say.

We met in an office and he began to unload.  He had more than just a few things he wanted to talk about.  I could not believe the things he said to me.  I was deeply hurt and offended.

So much for knocking off early that day.

This meeting, it turned out, was the trigger that set in motion a series of events that eventually resulted in our Ten Year Hiccup at PCC.  To say that I never seen it coming would be an understatement. 

It rocked our church.  And me.  The ripple effects were overwhelming.

On a purely organization level, it created quite a hit for PCC.  A number of people sided with this person and left our church taking their talents and financial contributions with them.   Suddenly we found ourselves trying to make up the gaps created by these departures.

But that was nothing compared to the emotional hit I took.  There was the pain of close friends, and even relatives, who left abruptly leaving me feeling utterly betrayed and abandoned.  Then there was the pain I felt as a pastor.  When something like this happens, you feel violated, sick on the inside.  I grieved deeply as I watched the very church I had laid my life down for to suddenly be ripped at the seams.  And somehow I was supposed to sew things back together.  With God’s help we did.

But the biggest emotional hit is how quickly I became the enemy, the bad guy, in they eyes of so many people.  In these situations and others like them, no matter how you handle the people involved, their allies will get upset.  Some will think I went too far on the side of grace, while others will think I went too far on the side of discipline.  Change the story, change the people, and it’s still the same; pastors get caught up in the cross fire of these emotionally charge situations and often become the scapegoat.  It’s kind of like the first person to rush to the side of a dog that has been hit by a car; in the midst of the dog’s pain and frenzy, he bites the very person who is trying to help.

I didn't ask for this and I didn't start it.  But it landed on my desk and as the senior pastor of PCC  I was the one who had to deal with it.  Our church got through that situation as best we could and with as much grace and transparency as possible.  But still, a number of people left PCC very upset with me, refusing to even talk or meet with me, preferring the gossip instead.

I felt like I had been kicked by a horse.

Then of course, there are so many other emotional hits in the ministry:  the stress of finances (both personal and in the church); the unexpected departure of staff; the pain of letters that criticize; the pressure of people who want to redefine the vision and mission of PCC; the relentless torture of expectations; and the agony of making mistakes.   And then there is this little thing called marriage and family.

So how do I manage my emotional survival?

First, the bad news:  there is no quick fix.  Ministry is just flat-out tough and often emotionally draining.  You won’t ever escape the hits and hurts.

Now, the good news:  I have learned to develop a way of life that protects, strengthens, and replenishes me emotionally.  Here’s how:  I simply cultivate those activities and choices that allow God to restore me inwardly.  Some things are obvious, like regular days off or engaging myself in hobbies.  And I’ve also learned to get a lot savvier with people and how to deal with them.

But for now, here are two choices I wish I had made earlier in life.  They are key to my emotional survival and have kept me in the ministry for the long haul.

I Work Well Within My Boundaries of Giftedness

First of all, ministry is tough enough on its own.  But if I serve too long outside of my primary areas of giftedness, I won’t last very long under the stress and strain that comes with the territory.  There is something about spending large amounts of time serving against the grain of my natural gifting that saps my emotional strength and spiritual energy.  I have grown up enough to recognize this.

For instance, I do not rank very high with the spiritual gift of “mercy,” not to mention the way it plays out in, say, extended pastoral counseling sessions.  I don’t the have patience for it and I’m not good at it.  So if I had to spend extended amounts of time with people in this kind of setting listening to them cry, it would simply wipe me out.

Even in our church, where spiritual gifts are taught and celebrated, and people are encouraged to deploy their own gifts for the benefit of the body, I, as the pastor, am still expected to have them all – and to operate in them all.  It’s impossible.  The danger (temptation) I face is that I will allow myself to try, and soon I will be wiped out with little or no reserves for the daily toil.

So I need to guard how I serve by working within the boundaries of my giftedness most of the time.

Emotionally Replenishing Experiences

Second, I intentionally pursue emotionally replenishing experiences.  When I hurt, if I don’t do something God-honoring to fill my tank with, I am tempted to find something that isn’t God-honoring.  Or at the very least, I am vulnerable to something that isn’t.  I am convinced this is why so many pastors struggle with secret vices – they offer a quick emotional or pleasurable hit.

To prevent that, I deliberately do things that channel deep emotional joy into my life.  For some folks it might be boating, or golf, or the beach.  For me it’s being away from the noise of daily grind, long drives in the country, reading, time alone with Renae, gardening, and enjoying anything outdoors – particularly in the forest.  There’s something about being in the woods away from people, listening to the wind in the top of pine trees that invigorates me.

About twelve years ago I was in Charlotte NC attending a meeting for pastors, when a certain mentor asked me, “What do you like to do more than anything else that is not work related?  What is it that puts emotional reserves back in your tank?”

I didn’t have to think long or hard about it.  I knew the answer:  “I would go to the forest and be alone.”  For as long as I can remember, being alone in the woods has held a significance for my state of mind that I cannot explain.  Even as a boy, I spent a great deal of my time alone in the woods walking on narrow trails, sitting on creek banks, exploring, climbing, canoeing, and sitting in solicitude just listening to the quiet.  And to this day, being in the woods is particularly rich for me.

“Good” he said, “You should do it once a month.”

I thought, “You’ve got to be kidding.  Once a month?  I don’t have the time.  My life is too busy and too full to put something like that in my schedule.”

Then he said something I will never forget.  “If you don’t, you will end up in a ditch.  You will burn out, lose your ministry, perhaps your family, and become a causality of the cause.”

I knew he was right.  I was already seeing the edges of my life fraying and knew how easily my world could unravel.

I went to Blackwater State Forest.

My first trip there found me driving for hours along the dirt fire lanes and discovering new places.  I remember it to this day.  It was like water on a dry desert.  I felt energy flowing back into me.  I came home walking on air.  My wife thought I had been drinking.  I had – from the well of living water which God intends for all of us to draw.

Now I escape regularly, usually with Renae.  We may spend a day or two in a budget hotel in some little out of the way place, or on the river in a canoe away from the crowds.  Or we may simply take a day trip driving along country roads and stopping at roadside vegetable stands.  We’ve been to Calloway Gardens a few times, another very nice place which has proven to be an excellent retreat for us.  We’ve spent time at Wakulla Springs near Tallahassee; a state park with a turn-of-the-century hotel that has no T.V. or inter-net.  It’s like stepping back in time.  It’s particularly refreshing to go to these places in the fall when the air is cool and the skies are clear because I feel the weight of the world fall off my shoulders.  When I inhale the cool air it goes all the way down to my toes.  I feast off it for weeks.

On the front end, I would have told you that it was impossible to put this into my life.  Looking back, I will tell you that it is unthinkable not to have it.


Louie said...


I really enjoyed reading this blog. It really resinated with me because I long to do things in my life to replenish my batteries and don't because I feel guilty that it may take me away from my family. However, some of those things I can do with my family and haven't and I think it is doing more harm to not do them than to just do them. Thank you for sharing this blog with us. May God continue to bless you and Renae and to keep your ministry alive. I enjoy the journey we are on together with sharing the news of Jesus with others. Keep up the good preaching.


Ron said...

Thanks Louie!