How to Stay Emotionally Healthy in Ministry

Posted by Aaron Buer on March 9, 2017

It’s no secret that ministry is emotionally draining.

We’ve seen the statistics of how ministry longevity, particularly among youth pastors, is scarily short. We’ve also read the news headlines about high profile ministry leaders who have made catastrophic decisions that have cost them their ministries.

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Most of us are in the positions we’re in because we feel gifted and called to serve and lead. We believe in the purpose of the Church and we are passionate about leading people into growing relationships with Jesus. So, how do we avoid burn out, moral failure and cynicism? How do we stay healthy in ministry?

I am just a few months away from celebrating my 14th year in ministry. I’m proud of this number but it pales in comparison to my senior pastor who is close to 35 years leading the same church! Now that is impressive.

Along the way, I’ve learned some things from my own journey and also from him on how to stay healthy in ministry. Here are a few strategies.

Find a Safe Place

In ministry, we feel the pressure to have it all together, to know all the answers, to never doubt, to lead lives of unapproachable integrity and to have the richest spiritual lives.

Let’s just drop the show and be real for a moment.

You and I are normal people. We are broken. We struggle. Yes, of course, there are standards for leadership in the church and we should be hitting those standards but we are far from perfect.

What I have discovered is that in order to stay healthy in ministry, I need a safe place. I need a place where I can drop the performance and be real. For me that place is Friday mornings. I meet with a group of guys who know me as simply Aaron, not Pastor Aaron. We ask each other hard questions. We talk about our struggles. We keep each other accountable. We laugh together and sometimes cry together.

In my experience, finding a safe place is crucial to long-term health in ministry. Without fail, the seasons in which I struggled the most, or came the closest to burning out or failing, were seasons in which I had no safe place.

Please, for the sake of yourself, your family, your church and your ministry, find a safe place. Ideally it should be a group of people who don’t go to your church so that you can drop your guard and be honest.

Off-Load Anxiety

While attending something called the Global Youth Movement in Atlanta, a new friend named Grant, who serves as a student pastor at Passion City Church shared a devotional that rocked my world.

He shared this well-known passage of Scripture:

Humble yourselves, therefore, under God’s mighty hand, that he may lift you up in due time. Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you. (1 Peter 5:6-7)

Grant argued that most cases of ministry burn out happen because we constantly onboard the struggles of other people, believing that ministry requires us to carry these burdens for our people. We think we are doing work for God but never in Scripture does God ask us to do ministry for him.

Instead he invites us to do ministry with him. And, Jesus is constantly inviting us to cast our anxieties and burdens on him and let him carry the weight.

Also, we often misunderstand this passage thinking that casting our anxiety on Him is a one-time event in which anxiety will be eliminated. This isn’t true. Instead, it is a daily practice. Each day we ought to be in the practice of onboarding the burdens and anxieties of the people we serve and then off-loading them to Jesus. We can’t fix people. We can’t carry their burdens, we can only journey with them and point them to Jesus.

These thoughts have impacted me deeply in recent days and I believe that if we can lock onto this concept, it could revolutionize how we do ministry and keep us healthy.

Build Walls

A third practice that has enabled me to stay healthy in ministry is to build walls. What I mean by this is that I have intentionally built walls around what matters most in my personal life.

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For example, my marriage and my kids matter. They matter more than my ministry. Because of this, I have built walls around my time with them. I try to protect family dinners, evenings and Saturdays.

The thing about walls is that they must be maintained. They require constant attention. I have to continually evaluate “How am I letting ministry creep into my family?”

When I find myself checking my email instead of hanging out with my kids, there is a wall that needs to be rebuilt.

When I catch myself committing to an event on Saturday or during family dinner, there is a wall that needs to be rebuilt.

Protecting what matters more than ministry is a key strategy in staying healthy in ministry. Consider making a short list of what truly matters and then take the time to build walls around what matters most.

Practice Sabbath

For whatever reason, pastors and church workers are typically awful at Sabbath. Maybe it’s because our work falls on the day that we traditionally practice Sabbath. Maybe it’s because we believe that the people we serve are more important than Sabbath.

One of the most important lessons I’ve taken away from my senior pastor is that Sabbath rest is crucial for longevity and health in ministry. To be sure, practicing Sabbath is very difficult and requires flexibility but I believe we have to find ways to rest and relax. Otherwise, we’ll find ourselves running on “E” and these are the times we are most vulnerable to failure, depression or burn out.

For me, I practice Sabbath on Fridays. I try to be intentional about slowing down and focusing on rest and relaxation. The purpose is to refill my emotional tank.

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If you're interested in digging into this topic of rest more deeply, I'd encourage you to check out the book "Dream Big, Think Small". (It happens to be written by my senior pastor who has a passion for the sustainability and longevity that comes with resting well).

Wrap Up

So, how do you stay healthy in ministry? For me it comes down to finding a safe place, off-loading anxiety and worry, building and maintaining walls and practicing Sabbath.

If you’d like to move toward a place of health and sustainability in ministry, I would suggest choosing one of these strategies and focusing on it. Make it a reality in your life. Once it is established, move on to a second strategy.

You may also be interested interested in some of our previous posts related to this topic:

If you have found ways to thrive in ministry over the long-haul, we’d love to hear your strategies. Leave us a comment below.

Topics: Advice

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