I deal with a lot of missionaries and pastors who are suffering with burnout, with traumatization, with moral failure, with relationship break-down. There can be many reasons for this. Within classic ‘Biblical Counseling’ the answers tend to be along the line of:
- “You need to ‘get right’ with God”
- “You need to confess and repent”
- “You need to work on your ‘quiet time,’ and other spiritual disciplines”
And really, all of these are true… to a point. The problem is that this system of thought commonly identifies a symptom and then guesses at a root cause. The symptom is any problem in the personal life, relational life, or ministerial life of the individual. The associated root cause is then seen as personal sin. While often a pretty good guess, there are important caveats.
First: While many problems are associated with personal sin… there are other sin-related causes. Two obvious ones: (a) The consequences of sin are often commonly experienced not only by the perpretrator of the sin, but by the victim of sin done unto him or her by another Most people would cringe at the thought of blaming the rape victim in being raped, but doing exactly that, blaming the sufferer and playing Job’s ‘friends,’ is often Christians’ default mode. (b) The consequences of living in a generally sinful (fallen) world. Even here, Christians often try to find meaning (blame) for victims of natural disasters or being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Second: Even when sin is personal, there often are root factors as to why the minister sinned. We often simplify things to the idea that the one who committed the sin is immature… or ‘given over to Satan.’ But essentially that is little more than washing our hands of the problem— a quick answer, a Procrustean Bed, that allows for a simple non-personalized response. But while sin may be inevitable, the specific temptation that a minister falls to is tied to very personal character or temperament issues, specific personal history, and unique circumstances. Why does a pastor burst into a rage during staff meetings? Why does a counselor gossip about patients he/she talked with in confidence? Why does a missionary act out sexually with those being discipled? To deny that these activities are sinful is simply denying the truth. On the other hand, to simply say that each needs to confess and repent, without addressing their unique personhood and situation is pastoral malpractice.
Third: Problems often occur when there is a “bad fit” in ministry. This is not really an issue of sin. Not everyone is molded for a specific ministry… and not every ministry is molded for a person. We can talk about SHAPE in this (from Saddleback):
S – Spiritual Gifts – What has God supernaturally gifted me to do?
H – Heart – What do I have passion for and love to do?
A – Abilities – What natural talents and skills do I have?
P – Personality – Where does my personality best suit me to serve?
E – Experiences – What spiritual experiences have I had? What painful experiences
have I had? What educational experiences have I had? What ministry experiences
have I had?
Personally, I would also like to add another “S,” Sphere of Influence, making SHAPES. Often a minister has the wrong SHAPE (or SHAPES) for the ministry they serve in. This stressor will commonly create problems down the road.
I had a friend who was pastoring a church… and fighting developed and he left, went to another church and the same situation repeated two more times. Eventually he came to the conclusion that he did not fit the role of a pastor. What a nice realization! He could have confessed, repented, and gone on a spiritual retreat, and repeated the same problems in more churches… 4, 5, 6, 7…, but instead (drawing from the title of this blog) he decided that pastoring wasn’t good for him… and he does much better in lay ministry.
Unfortunately, Christians have close to 2000 years of history in developing a theology of “ministerial calling.” Very little of it has any discernible relationship to the Word of God. Often there is the belief that stepping out of professional ministry is rejecting God, or changing ministry is giving up. One could argue that the opposite is true. If God made us to be dynamic, growing, living beings involved in a walk with Christ (whether in green pastures, by still waters, or through the valley of the shadow of death), a failure to learn, change, and grow is much more a rejection of God. To not learn and repeat the same mistakes over and over again is truly giving up. I think it is really a good time for Christians to seriously reevaluate the idea of ministerial calling.
But even if one stays in professional ministry, one does have to change at times. It is my personal belief that the Apostle John, when he got too old to go out and around and planting churches, became John the Elder (a person mentioned in early church history), at the church of Ephesus. Frankly, that only makes sense, and almost certainly other apostles would have done similarly if they weren’t directed into martyrdom.
My first several years in the Philippines, my wife and I worked in a ministry of medical mission events. It was a pretty good ministry and we got to be fairly competent at organizing them. The team we were part of, Dakilang Pag-Ibig DIADEM Ministries, did around 70 medical mission events in 5 years treating around 30,000 people. Not bad for a small group of volunteers with spotty funding. We did about one mission point a month. We eventually decided to step away from it for several reasons:
- Our passions were different. We were more passionate for pastoral care (especially my wife) and training ministers (especially myself).
- Our training got us good at doing medical missions, but it also got us more competent for other ministries that were not really possible for us to do when we started.
- The stress got to us. Some might find this silly, as medical missions can be fairly relaxing for a few weeks… but then there is the stress of organizing the medicine, transportation, volunteers… and then the craziness of the actual event. During the 3-4 days before a medical event, my heart would jump with dread every time my phone would ring, and I feared that a doctor or dentist or nurse was backing out, or a vehicle was suddenly not available. Some thrive on adrenaline and the craziness that much of international missions entails, but for my wife and I, we do better with ministry that still holds variety, but with more steadiness and reliability of work load.
Some ministries take one away from one’s family a lot. This is typically not good for the family… but the removal of support and accountability may not be good for minister either. Some jobs have set hours, while others challenge personal boundaries, especially in terms of personal time and space. Some jobs really need the right people or problems will occur. Some jobs, on the other hand, may need to change so they do not become “meat grinders” where ministers are run through, destroyed, and replaced.
A person who works with youth may become good with working with youth, but as he or she gets older, needs to transition from the apparent safety of doing what he or she is good at, and move towards multiplying self by training others.
A person may be placed in a position of counseling a lot of individuals of the opposite sex. Many struggle with this… but instead of establishing environmental or procedural safeguards, or perhaps limiting who the person counsels, he or she attempts to resist temptation, without doing anything to limit temptation. This is a recipe for disaster.
Essentially, when a minister fails, one can give the same answers that everyone gives, and help the failure not be dealt with, or recognize him or her as an individual who needs to be dealt with lovingly and uniquely. The minister needs to be helped to know what is good for himself/herself and others.
I have been involved with a lot of responses to ministers who have failed, sinned, or burned out. Some were handled well, some poorly. But some mistakes include:
- Simply kicking the person out. That passes the problem somewhere else, and often leaves the minister in a worse position than before to grow, mature, and minister.
- Simply do counseling. Counseling helps… but by itself is completely inadequate.
- Simply calling for confession and repentance. Most often, the person did wrong or in some way failed, because they needed help and did not ask, or needed help, asked for help and did not get it. If no help is given, the problem is almost certain to recur.
The term “simply” is important, because a failed response is “simple.” Human beings are not simple. Human beings are holistic. As such, it needs a multiple level response. The response would vary depending on the circumstances… but common elements may include:
- One-on-one counseling, perhaps along with family counseling, and counseling of direct and indirect victims.
- Spiritual/ministerial mentor. Telling a minister to read the Bible more, pray more, or perhaps go on a spiritual retreat, is lazy. The minister needs to grow spiritually, and to do so in balance with ministry. This requires help from a mature mentor.
- Accountability partners. Preferably several that care for the minister, and are willing to ask the tough questions while also being supportive.
- Limited ministerial involvement (where power is limited, and time is limited to avoid temptations for abuse, or of burn-out)
- Involvement in a nurturing church family. If a minister sinned in a public way in a church, it is likely that that church won’t be capable of being nurturing. (It might be nice if that fact was not true, but we have to deal with reality here.) Even going to another church may not make this work. Only some churches, sadly, are nurturing. Far to many are sources of stress and chaos.
- Education/training/retooling. Often the minister needs to change. As such, he or she needs to be empowered to do so.
A multi-faceted response is important. Simple impersonal answers? Not if you know what is good for you… or others.