I attended a well-known ministry training college. I distinctly remember sitting in our chapel services and feeling an overwhelming sense of anticipation. I was captivated by the vision of all these students being unleashed on the world as fully trained and devoted ministry leaders. It felt like I was part of something big and exhilarating. I kept thinking to myself:
“All these people are going to turn the world upside down for Jesus.”
And, many of them did.
But, what shocked me was that a lot of them didn’t.
Some of the smartest and most talented leaders crashed.
This made me ask a lot of questions. How is it that so many talented and smart ministry leaders fail? I’ve thought about this a lot. I believe ministry longevity has little to do with intelligence or talent. I think it has everything to do with keeping yourself healthy.
Unhealthy people can hide their lack of health for a while but eventually, the dysfunction will cause problems in their lives. The same is true for pastors and ministry leaders. Your speaking gift, leadership acumen or charm can hide your lack of health for a while but eventually, the dysfunction in your heart will spill out and cause problems.
If we, as ministry leaders, want to thrive over the long-haul, we must become vigilant about our health. How?
We have to pay attention to the warning signs. I have five of them.
WARNING SIGN 1: HEART
My senior pastor has a great perspective on ministry leadership. He is a world-class preacher but he often says:
“The most important gift I bring to my church is not my preaching ability, but rather, a heart that is alive to God.”
He understands that everything flows out of his relationship with God. This means that our highest priority as ministry leaders must be keeping our hearts alive to God.
Here’s the challenge: Everything in ministry feels spiritual. When I sit down to prepare a sermon, it feels spiritual. When I counsel a couple who is preparing for marriage, it feels spiritual. When I plan a worship service for our congregation, it feels spiritual. The problem is that none of these things involve me actively connecting my heart with the heart of my creator and seeking closeness with him.
This struggle began for me back in college. In the busyness of my schedule, I began to substitute my Old Testament Survey class reading for my devotional time. But, reading my Bible for an assignment and reading my Bible for the purpose of connecting my heart with God’s heart are two different things!
Ministry leaders become unhealthy when they drift out of close relationship with God. This drift is very subtle because everything in ministry feels spiritual. It all feels like “God stuff.” But, if we are to stay healthy, we must actively engage God and His Scriptures with the purpose of connecting our heart with God’s heart.
Healthy ministry leaders who thrive over the long-haul prioritize keeping their hearts alive to God.
WARNING SIGN 2: ISOLATION
It didn’t take me long to discover how lonely ministry leadership can be. There are plenty of people around, that’s not the problem. The problem is that there aren’t people with whom I can be real. When you are the ministry leader, you’re expected to have everything together at all times. You’re the pastor for crying out loud.
When you aren’t engaged in relationships in which you can be your authentic self, your soul begins to dry up. We are created in the image of God. We are designed for close and authentic relationships.
The more isolated we become relationally, the more unhealthy we become. You were not designed to be isolated!
Ask yourself these question: Who am I being real with? Who actually knows me? If you don’t have anyone, this is a warning sign. It is incredibly important that we as ministry leaders find a small community of trustworthy individuals to journey with. And, I might suggest that they shouldn’t be people from your staff.
Healthy ministry leaders who thrive over the long-haul are deeply connected through authentic relationships.
WARNING SIGN 3: EGO
Here’s something I didn’t expect about ministry: It is intoxicating.
I experienced this reality for the first time a few years ago after I was given my first opportunity to preach from our church’s main stage. The next day, I was in the security line at our city’s airport when the TSA agent smiled at me and said, “Great sermon yesterday.” The TSA agent? Really?!?? I must be famous.
There’s an inherent danger in spiritual leadership. People elevate you. People come to you for guidance. People think you have all the answers. It’s even more difficult for those of us who serve in large churches where thousands of people turn up to watch you preach. All this attention just does something to a person.
There is a warning sign here. When we begin to revel in the attention and the praise, we are on dangerous ground.
Here’s what I have found to be helpful here: People who aren’t impressed. I think it’s important that we stay engaged with family and long-time friends who actually know us and aren’t impressed by the attention we constantly get at church. These relationships keep us grounded and keep us humble.
Healthy ministry leaders who thrive over the long-haul check their ego by staying engaged with people who actually know them and keep them grounded.
WARNING SIGN 4: BOUNDARIES
Have you noticed that ministry is never over? There’s always another project to complete, another person to help, another crisis to navigate, another sermon to preach. It’s literally never-ending.
I’ve observed that many ministry leaders who burn out or crash have trouble with maintaining appropriate boundaries with ministry. They allow it to take over. Soon they are neglecting their family, personal pursuits or even their physical health. Why is this?
I believe that we allow boundaries to be crossed when our sense of worth gets wrapped up in ministry success in an unhealthy way. In other words:
“If this fails… I’m a failure.”
“If this sermon is no good… I’m no good.”
The reason we allow ministry to take over our lives is often because we are connecting our sense of identity to our ministry success.
I see this warning sign everywhere in churches. It’s pervasive.
Here are two things I think can help:
- We all need counseling. Can we just admit that we all struggle with finding our value in the wrong places? Can we all just be ok with each other going to therapy to work on this? Ok good. Go schedule it. Your church needs you to be healthy.
- Talk about it! One of my pastoral mentors talks openly about how he almost destroyed himself and his marriage trying to get his church off the ground in the early days. It is so refreshing and empowering to hear about his struggle. If this is part of your story, share it!
Healthy ministry leaders who thrive over the long-haul protect their boundaries by constantly fighting to find their value and identity in Christ rather than in ministry success.
WARNING SIGN 5: EXHAUSTION
Do you know when I do and say stupid things?
When I’m tired.
I’m guessing you’re the same.
Ministry leaders who make career ending mistakes or fall into sins that disqualify them from leadership usually make these bad decisions when they are exhausted. I can’t overstate how dangerous exhaustion is.
Here’s what’s tricky about exhaustion: Working hard at ministry feels very spiritual. Skipping your day off to fine-tune a sermon or mentor someone feels incredibly godly! But, when we do this, we ignore an important Biblical principle that is crucial for longevity in ministry: Sabbath.
It is amazing how many of us, as ministry leaders, ignore the principle of Sabbath rest.
Please don’t ignore the warning sign of exhaustion. You are most vulnerable when you are tired. Schedule Sabbath! Rest. Your congregation needs a healthy you.
Healthy ministry leaders who thrive over the long-haul protect themselves from exhaustion by vigilantly observing the Biblical principle of Sabbath rest.
So why do so many ministry leaders crash or burn out? I believe it is often because we fail to keep ourselves healthy.
We must learn to pay attention to the warning signs. If you sense that you are growing unhealthy in one or more of these areas, I would plead with you to take action.
- Take some time off to reconnect with God and rest
- Find a group of people with who you can be safe and real
- Reboot your sense of identity and value based on who you are in Christ!
Are there any warning signs you watch for that I haven’t included here? Additional strategies for avoiding burnout? We’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.