Here are two situations I encounter reasonably frequently as I talk to church leaders
1. A leader has become overwhelmed in their ministry situation. There may be a whole raft of factors including:
- progressive job creep so they are now doing an unsustainable quantity of work
- the perception they can fulfill a whole range of roles they never originally signed up for and are outside their gifting and calling
- trying to sustain too wide a range of personal relationships
- changes in life circumstances, aging and decreased energy levels while they still try to run at the pace they could 15 years ago
- helping other people in their discipleship walk and ups and downs of life but nobody helps you
The list could go on and on. Often many of the factors will coalesce to form a toxic - and potentially explosive - mixture if not worked through with the help of others and the development of a robust enough support structure.
I have had several similar conversations recently and when I have pointed out that the person is carrying burdens that are simply unsustainable (by anyone) and that something will have to be renegotiated if a health is to be recovered, they have all said the same thing: “I cannot renegotiate because the church will say that I am the one who is paid to do all this.” In other words they feel no choice but to continue to juggling the impossible because it is too threatening to do otherwise. Self-destruction (while trying to look outwardly serene, in control and competent) feels like the line of least resistance.
2. A leader finds themselves involved in a pastoral or disciplinary situation where it is impossible to explain all the details to the church. They take decisions that they have to take knowing they are unable to defend themselves and that criticism they can do nothing about will come their way. An especially difficult version of this is when leaders are under personal attack from people who are happy to spread their side of the story widely but there are good pastoral reasons why the leader is unable to reveal what is really going on. I remember personally one individual behaving atrociously to church leaders (including me) while adopting a totally different character with everyone else, and there were good reasons why it was inappropriate to reveal the person’s true character to the church.
The thing that connects these two types of situations is that in both cases the leader struggles with circumstances that are incredibly personally debilitating but is either unable or feels unable to act to resolve their debilitation. They are vulnerable by dint of being unprotected - they perceive they have no defense against the situation - and undefended - nobody else can come to their aid because nobody else knows about it. And so there is a difference between their public persona and their private struggle. In the first case they feel they can’t be honest and open because it potentially damages them and their ministry. In the second because it potentially damages other people and the wider church.
As I said at the start, I think this is comparatively common. Everyone in Christian ministry will meet these things sooner or later. What is also common is that we only discover whether our support structures - our scaffolding if you like - are adequate and robust enough when the difficult circumstances happen - and in many, perhaps most, instances they aren’t.
Almost all ministry situations begin happy and fulfilled. It is frequently described as a honeymoon - with the slightly cynical expectation that it will wear off sooner or later. But, less cynically, everyone starts off with happy assumptions of the best case scenarios - and therefore rarely put in place robust enough support structures for the worst. Why would you when all has begun so well?
The reason to do so, obviously, is that it is almost impossible to do so when you find yourself in the difficult times. You got used to operating in isolation when your environment was positive and supportive and used your environment as your scaffolding. But when you are debilitated and one of the main debilitating factors is precisely what you used as scaffolding in place of more thorough-going support structures then at one fell stroke you lose the thing that helped you and find yourself in that moment without the emotional resources to construct a positive alternative. At exactly the time you most need it.
Add in the often-observed fact that people in Christian ministry cannot demarcate various areas of their lives in the way others do: it is possible for work, leisure, community, personal spiritual life, family life and church to all merge together. Therefore anything that damages church-as-support-structure has the possibility of damaging all the other areas as well. Areas that for anyone else would be separate from difficulties in the work place. Is it any wonder that many Christian leaders become cagey about trying to protect or draw boundaries around personal life? They have much to lose if things start to go wrong in their ministry sphere and domino into every other area.
Therefore it is important to develop those structures of support when the sun is shining. Needless to say the things that help best when stormy clouds loom are also pretty good when everything is bright. Good support structures include:
- prayer-filled, worshipping ministry fraternals of depth
- good rhythms, habits and patterns of rest, refreshment and worship
- accountability groups for leaders and spouses outside of the ministry context
- opportunities for personal and professional development
- clarity with the church about expectations of what they expect and what they should not expect, usually set out in a clear job description
- clarity about the hows and wherefores of how to renegotiate those expectations when necessary
And probably most of all good team life. It is hard for a paid minister to talk about everything with unpaid church officers. For one thing it is unusual for officers to understand the ministry job (even if they think they do). There is just so much you only get to understand from the inside. And, second, the relationship isn’t 100% symmetrical. A paid minister who struggles with a pattern of sin feels far more vulnerable than an unpaid elder or church warden with the same struggle. Nevertheless team - especially elders or the equivalent in your church stream - that prays together, is dedicated to each other and loves each other well is a key means of unlocking the necessary honesty, transparency and help that stop toxic situations turning into explosive ones.