Becoming Strong Again:
How To Regain Your Emotional Health
Here are some suggestions for getting out from under the unbearable yoke and the insufferable burden of ministry overload.
By Richard D. Dobbins
“Come to me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and lowly of heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For My yoke is easy and My burden is light” (Matthew 11:28–30, NKJV).1
If we believe surveys on the Internet, there is an obvious disconnect between this Scripture and the real world of ministry today. Surveys tell us that almost 20,000 ministers in the United States leave the ministry every year. That is over 1,500 every month. This does not include those who are so discouraged they would leave the ministry if they thought they could make a living any other way.
This disillusionment with the ministry begins early in a minister’s experience. For example, over three-fourths of those who graduate from seminary and Bible school each year leave the ministry within the first 5 years.
The reasons those surveyed gave concerning why they left the ministry are many and varied, but most pastors said they were shocked to discover the ministry was different from what they thought it would be. They anticipated they would spend more time preaching and teaching, things they enjoy. They did not anticipate the demands of business and personnel management the ministry requires.
Pastors grow weary with people’s problems and problem people. They are tired of cantankerous board members, elders, and deacons challenging their authority and draining their energies. They do not like having to confront staff who are not working up to speed. They are tired of having to put up with overly sensitive worship leaders.
Over time, these frustrations take a toll on the minister who has not developed ways for discharging accumulating stress. Ministers need to be aware that stress in many ways is to them what black lung is to the coal miner. You do not know you have it until it has you. As the complexities of modern living increase, the stress trap for American ministers grows exponentially more treacherous.
Dealing proactively with the stress of ministry requires less effort and heartache than dealing with it reactively. And, it also spares ministers the agonizing consequences of allowing stress to drive them from ministry.
Ministry, however, does not have to be so overwhelmingly difficult. Remember, the Lord said, “My yoke is easy and My burden is light.” Here are some suggestions for getting out from under the unbearable yoke and the insufferable burden.
Keep Your Expectations Realistic
Many enter the ministry with unrealistic expectations. You can measure your frustration with any pursuit by the distance between what you expected from that pursuit and what you experienced. The ministry is no exception.
Why are our expectations of ministry so different from what we actually experience? A major reason is the romanticized way in which many view ministry. While growing up in the church I remember what a special person everyone believed the pastor to be. Most members put him on a pedestal. After all, for them he was a platform personality who was inspiring and helpful. They knew little about other aspects of his work experience or family life.
Preaching and teaching, however, are only a small part of the modern pastor’s job. Pastors devote most of their time and energy to administrative tasks. Often this involves dealing with people in difficult circumstances. And, many pastors naÃ¯vely expect God’s people to be spiritual and easy to work with in sensitive situations.
When tension and conflict confront pastors, they expect God’s people to be spiritual. They are not always spiritual. They are sometimes carnal. Adjusting your expectations accordingly will spare you much pain. If you expect church people to be spiritual, you are going to be disappointed and frustrated most of the time.
In all three synoptic Gospels Jesus reminds us, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick” (Matthew 9:12, NKJV; see also Mark 2:17; Luke 5:31). God has not called us to minister to spiritually healthy people. In most cases, people bring into the Kingdom selfish immaturity, wounded histories, and long-standing hurtful habits. Being born again does not instantaneously cure these.
In His parables, Jesus tried to prepare His disciples for dealing with the carnality of church people. He wanted their expectations of ministry to be realistic and practical. So, He talked about tares growing up with wheat, good fish and bad fish caught in the same net, and all kinds of birds perching in the same tree (Matthew 13:25–32,47–50).
If we had pastored the first-century church, our congregants would have been carnal. For example, the apostles wrote almost all of the epistles in the New Testament to confront some kind of carnality. Imagine how many books would be missing from the Bible if God’s people had been spiritual.
So, when people challenge your authority, do not see this as a personal crisis. People have questioned the authority of church leadership for 2,000 years. And, when no one remembers your birthday, your spouse’s birthday, your wedding anniversary, or your Christmas bonus, do not catastrophize this. Normalize it. These are nice, but not necessary.
We appreciate expressions of generosity when people extend them. However, it is easy to feel entitled to them. I doubt if the apostles received such consideration.
As you lower your expectations, you will be surprised how much less stressful the ministry becomes. When you expect nothing and receive something, you are pleasantly surprised. We are called to serve, not to be served. Remember, serving people is the minister’s way of serving the Lord. And, Jesus said, “Inasmuch as you did it to one of the least of these My brethren you did it to Me” (Matthew 25:40, NKJV).
Refresh Your Devotional Life
Dealing with budgets, administrative tasks, and problem people can become so energy demanding and time consuming it is easy to neglect your devotional life. Is your Bible reading limited to preparing sermons and Bible studies? Apart from praying for others in your role as a minister, are you opening your heart to the Lord in prayer?
Remember, Isaiah said, “Those who wait on the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint” (Isaiah 40:31). Waiting on the Lord includes reading God’s Word and prayer, but it also includes reflection and meditation.
Retreat From Institutional Pressure
Focus on serving the body of Christ. Do not get caught up in climbing the ladder of ministerial success. Remember, the institutional church is an organization. The body of Christ is an organism. Denominations tend to be self-serving and self-perpetuating. They do credential ministers to preach and serve other useful functions. They keep us accountable, protect us from heresy, and enable us to do things together that none of us could do by ourselves. God, however, calls us to serve His body, more than the institutional church.
If you allow yourself to focus on the inconsistencies and unfairness found in the dealings of the institutional church, you can feel frustrated and depressed much of the time. You will see those who are well-connected in the political process of the denomination receive favors. At the same time you will see many deserving ministers in smaller churches go unrecognized.
But, we have Jesus’ word that anyone giving as little as a cup of cold water in His name will not go without reward (Matthew 10:42). Remember, Jesus is the One who calls us into ministry. Believing He will see that you are appropriately rewarded for faithfully ministering to people will keep you free from judging others and being envious or jealous of them.
Remember what Jesus said to Peter when he seemed unreasonably concerned about Jesus favoring John: “If I want him to remain alive until I return, what is that to you? You must follow me” (John 21:22). Seeing ministry as a way of following Jesus simplifies your life.
Reflect on Your Current Situation
Reflect on your situation and open your mind to the insights and creative solutions only Jesus can share with you. What about your current situation is so stressful? Are you in over your head financially? Have you inherited a troubled situation created by the former pastor? Are there warring factions in the congregation? Prayerfully write down the things that most trouble you. Prioritize that list. Focus on the most troubling. Then, commit to write ways you envision managing the most troublesome.
Ask yourself, If I acted on my first option, what would my situation be like in 6 months, a year, and then 18 months? Remember, Satan wants to use your impulsivity and your exaggerated sense of urgency to make matters more complicated. But as you extend your second, third, and fourth options through this same process, ask God to share His wisdom with you in choosing which to follow. We have His Word that He will (James 1:5).
Put as much emotional distance between you and your situation as you can. Avoid premature solutions of your own making. Then, trust God to give you an increasing urge toward the option He considers to be wisest in resolving your issues.
Peter gives us some wisdom: “So humble yourselves under the mighty power of God, and in his good time he will honor you. Give all your worries and cares to God, for he cares about what happens to you” (1 Peter 5:6,7, NLT).2
Over the years I learned a practical pattern for applying this Scripture to my thought life. Here is a series of questions I ask myself in determining what my responsibility is and what cares I can cast on Him:
- Can anything be done about what is troubling me? It is possible to become troubled about matters for which there are no solutions. There will always be wars. There will always be poverty. Some godly people will die from their disease while some carnal ones will be healed. No one can do anything about that. So, when I find myself troubled by these things, I cast these cares on Him.
- Can I do anything about what is troubling me? If I find myself distressed by matters about which I can do nothing, I cast these cares upon Him. At times, I can do something about what is troubling me. I define what that is and go on to the next question.
- Can I do anything about it now? If I cannot do anything about what is troubling me now, I make a note in my calendar that reminds me what I can do and when I can do it. Everything else I cast on Him.
Notice the forcefulness of that word cast. Learn to mentally hurl out of your mind those things you cannot do anything about now. Following through by doing what you can do at a time when you can do it will carry the reward of healthy leadership.
Refocus on Your Marriage and Family Relationships
Marriage gives the pastor and his wife opportunity to model a healthy Christian marriage before those they serve. It is never God’s will for your ministry to harm your marriage. Unfortunately, some ministers consider themselves married to the ministry and use this misguided priority to explain their neglect of their spouses and children. Paul clearly outlines the minister’s biblical priorities in Ephesians 5:21 through 6:4. God comes first. Your marriage comes second. Your children come third. And your work is fourth.
One of the best things you can do for your ministry and your children is to plan two or three marriage retreats each year. During these weekends enjoy prayer and devotions, but agree there will be no discussing church affairs. Simply focus on renewing your love for God and each other. Your wife will love it and your children will enjoy the difference it makes in your relationships with them. A healthy minister knows that marriage comes before the ministry … and so do the children. So do not allow the enemy to make you feel guilty for protecting these priorities.
When your day is done, develop the ability to mentally close the door on concerns about the church and open the door to enjoying your marriage and family. Have an understanding between you and your spouse that you will not discuss church matters at home. This is not only healthy for your marriage; it is also healthy for your children. As much as possible, you should protect them from painful situations you are dealing with in the church.
Recreation Is a Part of Your Ministry
Nature teaches us the importance of recreation. Calves leap, foals frolic, sheep play in the field, dogs chase balls, and kittens play with yarn. Do not let the enemy make you feel guilty for taking time to play. Play to have fun … not to win. Playing with somebody who has to win is not fun.
Find some things you and your spouse enjoy and do them together three or four times a month. Have at least one fun night for the family each week when your children are small. Do not force them to do what is fun for you. Do what is fun for them.
God did not call you into the ministry to frustrate you. He wants the ministry to fulfill His will. He wants you to enjoy the work of the Lord. Choose your friends carefully. Avoid those people who chafe under the yoke of ministry. When you leave them, you feel drained. Sometimes it is necessary to minister to people like this. However, choose your friends from those who love the Lord, enjoy life, and energize you in your times together.
Remember Paul’s admonition: “So don’t get tired of doing what is good. Don’t get discouraged and give up, for we will reap a harvest of blessing at the appropriate time. Whenever we have the opportunity, we should do good to everyone, especially to our Christian brothers and sisters” (Galatians 6:9,10).
1. Scripture quotations marked NKJV are taken from the New King James Version. Copyright Â© 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
2. Scripture quotations marked NLT are taken from the Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright Â© 1996. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., Wheaton, Illinois 60189. All rights reserved.