Caring for Yourself in Chaos

by Cal LeMon

Assuming the ultimate power is with you, here are five pragmatic actions you can immediately initiate so chaos remains present but not pernicious. 

You just learned today three members of your ministry team are intentionally not talking to each other, the computer mainframe experienced a “hiccup” this morning resulting in the loss of thousands of names and addresses, the resort where the annual women’s conference will meet in 3 months lost the reservation and refuses to take your calls, and the junior high pastor just submitted her resignation because of sexual discrimination among staff members.

Chaos is not just change. Chaos is change on steroids — change taking place so quickly and so often there is no time to emotionally, spiritually, or physically accommodate to the latest demand.

The first-century Roman poet, Ovid, described chaos as “a rough, unordered mass of things” (Metamorphoses I,7). Is this ancient writer describing the top of your desk right now?

For those whom the Lord has called to speak for Him on this wobbling, warped, and wanton world, chaos should not surprise us. There are two reasons why chaos will always be the milieu of our ministry.

First, chaos was the backdrop for the creation narrative. Notice that our theology rests on the primordial account. The biblical writer contrasted “the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters” against “the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep” (Genesis 1:2). Chaos, from the beginning of time, was the a priori argument that “no one was home in the universe” until Yahweh showed up.

Second, chaos was the OB ward for the Son of God. Bethlehem was so small, insignificant, and overrun by the chaotic rabble of the day the only option for a crib was a saliva-spattered feed trough.

Chaos is an essential part of our story and chaos is an essential part of our theology. Like our Lord, God has called us to reach into the dark abyss of chaos and offer light and life (1 Peter 2:9).

So, we should be cozy with chaos. Chaos should not be a surprise for those who have willed their lives to do ministry. Our responsibility is to make sure chaos does not victimize the messenger.

Chaos and Clergy Burnout

You and I have probably heard this adage, “I would rather burn out for Jesus than rust out in some dead church.” Frankly, I am convinced both options are camouflage for complacency.

“Burn out for Jesus” does not sound heroic or even biblical. One of the worst indictments against the Church, with its message of good news (euangelion), is to peek into the minister’s home and find a dispirited, disenfranchised, and despondent messenger of the gospel. Unfortunately, the Church has historically refused to admit that spiritual leaders can be candidates for the emotional malady called burnout.

A particularly helpful book for clergy is Burnout: Stages of Disillusionment in the Helping Professionsby Jerry Edelwich and Archie Brodsky. In this resource, the authors framed five sequential stages in the process of emotionally spiraling down from grandiosity into disillusionment.

Stage one: exaggerated enthusiasm

This is the rose-colored glasses moment in the timeline of ministry when the professional clergyperson assumes he will become a denominational household name who does not have the time or energy to satisfy all the invitations to grace pulpits around the globe.

In this stage, the minister experiences spasms of euphoria that often spill into giddy mental images of wall-to-wall adherents who are sermon-spellbound in a 100,000-seat stadium.

This initial stage of burnout totally avoids the potential for chaos. Very quickly the rose-colored glasses get fogged over with the mist of mayhem — the realities of living in a very imperfect world.

Stage two: stagnation

Here the present trumps the future and slowly the walls start to move in on the visionary spiritual leader. Cooperation from the once supportive board of elders is waning. The stellar reputation of a particular Christian college academic department turned out to be a Trojan horse packed with loud, marauding educators. And, a new mission field becomes a burned-over field of broken commitments.

In stage two, hope that sprung eternal has sprung a leak. Stagnation means the minister whom chaos victimizes is doing a lot of staring.

Stage three: frustration

Slipping into this scene is an emotion most professional clergy have difficulty admitting: anger. Frustration morphs into anger because the servant of God believes others have betrayed him. And, nothing hurts more than betrayal.

The reality of this stage comes from a promise someone made and then broke. But, the breaking was open, hostile, and intended to injure.

The problem with this type of anger is it often seeps through the fabric of how we express ministry. The pastor often laces this “trait anger” through public settings — teaching, preaching, and leading worship. Without the spiritual leader knowing it, the faithful perceive him as someone who is pervasively angry about everything.

Stage four: apathy

This is the worst stage because the spiritual leader appears to have no internal energy to be positive or whole again. “Don’t make waves” and “Let sleeping dogs lie” become the mantra of this witness for Christ.

The physiological marks of stage four are: no initiative, emotional and physical withdrawal from family and friends, sleeping too much or too little, eating too much or too little, demonstrating unusual irritability, loss of physical energy, and a preoccupation with the past. In this stage, chaos has claimed another victim.

Stage five: intervention

The minister smashes mediocrity on the rocks of reality in this stage. The burned-out clergy grabs his bootstraps, rises up, and makes a defining choice between victimization and proactivity.

Some professional clergy whine down their calling into a pathetic paste of paralysis. They believe people and circumstances have dealt them a bad hand. They will spend the rest of their lives reminding anyone who will listen to them. A flawed denominational system or some faceless power broker snuffed out the flame of their potential greatness.

On the other hand, there are the survivors. They will briefly admit they have been smashed, mashed, and dashed on the shoreline of chaos, but are eagerly searching for another, strong place to stand.

Do these five stages of burnout look familiar?

Ministering to the Minister … in the Mirror

The paradigm of pain you have just read is preventable. And, caring for yourself is your responsibility.

Assuming the ultimate power is with you, here are five pragmatic actions you can immediately initiate so chaos remains present but not pernicious. First, who is your minister?

Specifically, what is the name of someone who has a history of carefully listening to what you think and feel and then gives you unvarnished, truthful feedback?

Chaos, without feedback from someone outside your head, gets distorted. If no one looks at you and says, “Wait a minute, that sounds disingenuous, distorted, depressing, what is going on inside you right now?” you may be building a very small life where the only people you let in are those who will tell you what you want to hear.

Second, spend time with a humble “great” person. This person is so secure in his or her faith and skin that conversations about failure are not threatening.

Be prepared; these people may not have titles. These are normally uncomplicated people who probably have shot themselves in the ecclesiastical foot more than once but have demonstrated their panache to bind up their wounds and just move on without whining.

When I meet these people, they are unmistakable. The first characteristic you will detect is they have mastered the art of thanksgiving. Every day is Turkey Day. Their life is the simple tale of someone who rode chaos right into the ground, got up, dusted themselves off, and then gave thanks they have learned not to do that again.

Third, in your devotional life admit the presence of chaos in ministry and then ask our Lord to center you in His profound silence. The lie of the ministry is this: if offerings are up, people are filling the pews and regularly slapping you on the back with appreciation, you must be tight with God.

Surrounding yourself with holy noise can create deafness of spirit. I am specifically suggesting you find a retreat environment where silence confronts you. It is in the “nothingness of the Spirit” (Thomas Moore, The Care of the Soul) where we begin to restructure our souls and futures.

Fourth, engage in annual strategic planning with your ministry partners. In this process introduce “chaos quotients.” These are the worst-case scenarios that will test your ability to keep moving, building, and growing.

Finally, look in the mirror and again make your family your first congregation. When spouses, children, and others in your immediate family only see you behind a pulpit, an image on a Jumbotron, or a quickly passing body in an institutional hallway, chaos wins. God called you first to your family before He ever called you to a ministry.