3 Reasons Stepping Onto A Church Staff Is Emotionally Traumatic

Nobody else may see it, but recently Jana saw the picture above from my first couple years in pastoral ministry and said, “Your eyes! – you just look so weighed down and sad in every picture from that time.” Every job has occupational hazards – in some jobs you risk physical injury, in some you’re at unique risk of litigation. I think the blessings of being in pastoral ministry far outweigh (“are not worth comparing”, I might even say : ) the difficulties. That being said though, one of the occupational hazards of pastoral ministry is that stepping onto a church staff puts you at unique risk for emotional and spiritual trauma. Despite being raised in a pastor’s home, relative fruitfulness, and healthy ministry contexts, my first 5 years of pastoral ministry were still nothing short of the word “trauma” and I hear that from so many others.

Here are three reasons I see for that. I’m laying these out in hopes that the ability to simply name the demons might give some measure of power over them for a few…

1. Everything pushes you toward isolation. Relationships can become extremely difficult because you usually want to be close friends with the people you also are a part of a church with. But when you step onto a church staff, it’s no longer wise or loving to be completely vulnerable with most people in your church. Many of your most difficult life-problems are church and church-staff related, and wisdom + servant-heartedness compels you not to dump that stuff on church members with whom you’d really like to be open friends. For instance, if there’s an elder or pastor in your church with whom you’re having painful friction, it’s neither wise nor loving to unburden yourself or seek counsel about that with anyone in your church body. Senior Pastors, you need to know you are more susceptible to this snare than most. We recently interviewed a man who just wanted to get out of being “the lead guy”. When asked about why, he said (I’m paraphrasing), “You can be vulnerable up, but it’s much harder to be vulnerable down. When I was on a church staff, I could unload my problems / hurts / discouragements up to the person over me, and part of their job is to listen to me, care for me, and help me. But as the Senior Pastor that’s nobody’s job and if you’re vulnerable about hard personal problems to staff members under you, people you need to be able to lead begin to lose confidence in you.” Because ministry requires you to invest enormous amounts of relational resources into ministry relationships, unless you’re strategic, you begin to feel an invisible wall in between you and everyone around you.

2. The high risk for a defiled conscience caused by hypocrisy. A defiled conscience caused by hypocrisy will eat you alive unless you “keep a careful watch over yourself”. In a fantastic little article on spiritual gifts, Tim Keller writes the following [emphasis mine]…

In Christian leadership, character is primary because of the continual danger of hypocrisy. As a Christian leader, you have to point people towards God’s worth and beauty every day. You have to constantly tell people, “God is so wonderful!” This is not something you normally do in other walks of life. Your heart will seldom be in a genuine condition to say such a thing with integrity. Therefore you have two choices. Either you must watch your heart far more closely, continually warming it to God so you can preach to people what you are practicing, or you must put on a “ministerial” face and air and pretend to be something on the outside that you are not on the inside.

Abraham Kuyper said somewhere that Phariseeism is like a shadow—it can be deepest and sharpest closest to the light. Therefore, the ministry polarizes people. It makes them far better or far worse Christians than they would have been otherwise, but it will not leave you where you were! There are enormous pressures in the ministry on your integrity and character. 

3. It’s impossible to appease your “Fear of Man” idolatry. Because of the nature of faithful gospel ministry and church leadership, there is never a time when someone isn’t angry with you, disappointed in you, or hurt by you. “Fear of Man” (the sinful tendency to build your identity, self-worth, and happiness on what people think of you rather than what God thinks of you) is a primary color of our sinful nature. Church leadership violently rips away the possibility of ever appeasing that idol. Unless you really cultivate your heart, this will leave you in a constantly-traumatized state.

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