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Unraveling Ministry Hurts

Recently I had a conversation with a pastor who shared some of his frustrations in ministry—about his staff, board, and direction. He felt like few understood the level of commitment he had to lead the ministry. We went on to discuss his experience over the years. He had been in ministry for four decades—serving in many different roles and churches across the country, many of them impressive.

We talked a lot about the challenges of leading a church in today’s culture. Conversations like this are fairly normal for us. But something changed this time. We stopped just talking about what’s happening now, and started sharing things that happened in years past. He opened up about pains and betrayals from decades ago. Disappointments. Hurts. Even anger. And it all started in his very first ministry role when he was as a youth group volunteer.

He had been let go, and felt like there wasn’t a good reason. He had been overlooked, taken advantage of, and publicly demoted. But he then had some tremendous successes! He successfully grew large churches. Wrote books. Spoke for thousands of people…and was betrayed again. He had journeyed from survival to success to betrayal and then to surviving again. It sounded both agonizing and exciting. Adversity makes for a good story, and this pastor had met his fair share.

But there was a concerning element here as well. The story was held together by a common thread—hurt intermixed with vindication. He paired the reinforcement he felt from his current success with wounds that were forty years old as if the good could cancel the bad. But it can’t. The hurt is still there. And still affects his daily ministry.

If you find yourself feeling like all this sounds familiar, you are in good company. Most pastors I know feel this way at some level. Baggage hurts, frustrations, comparisons — sadly, it’s all normal. And this brokenness is compounded by the fact that most pastors feel like they have to be superhuman to fulfill their role. It doesn’t help that many people in the congregation also have impossible expectations for their leaders. The reality is that you are not superhuman. We’re not impervious. We have baggage. Sometimes small, sometimes large. But at some level, what you carry impacts your ministry.

Many of our role models are larger than life — the megachurch pastor, the big congregation, author, or prominent social presence. It’s hard to identify on a real level with ministry leaders of this scale. It can be easy to assume that a pastor of a large successful church doesn’t have the same issues that a pastor of a small church does, but they do. When you lead any ministry, you carry the weight of responsibility and problems that come with it — no matter the type, size, or role it plays in the universal Church.

Now, over the years we have seen some pastors who were actually pretty. They exist. And they still had their baggage, but they became healthy by finding ways to address the past hurts.

Here are a few things you might want to consider trying. They might give you a clearer perspective on how you’re actually doing. How to connect better. And ultimately, how to be better.

Remember that you are not superhuman.

You can’t do everything, and you can’t be everything—even if you think your congregation expects that. The truth is they probably don’t actually expect it at the level you think. If we continue to paint that picture of ministry leaders, it’s easy for people to assume we can do a lot more than we actually can.

Ask the people close to you how you are doing in your role.

Ask your kids how you’re doing as their dad. Ask your spouse how you are doing as their partner. Ask your staff how you are doing as their leader and pastor. Now, here is the thing. For this to be effective, you really have to want to know the truth. You have to be willing to listen to someone who looks at you and says “not good.” And then you genuinely have to ask them how to do better. We don’t get better in a vacuum. We get better with others.

Do a self-inventory of your past ministry hurts.

It is easy to point the finger at people who hurt you in the past, and if we aren’t honest with ourselves about what’s happened, the brokenness can be made worse as time goes on. Ask yourself real questions. The reality may be that you were totally innocent in the difficulties of past ministry. It could also be that you helped cause the problem—intentionally or not.

Own your mistakes.

Own mistakes in general. As a leader, the responsibility falls on you. Even if you are only 5% responsible for something going wrong, own it. It will make you better.

Oftentimes, unraveling ministry hurts happens with a close friend. It won’t be fun, but it’ll be healing and eye-opening. It’s through these conversations that we reflect and begin to analyze our motives for serving. Around here, we’ve actually coined the term revenge ministry. You can’t change the past or why you got involved in your ministry, but you can learn to move past your pain and become a healthier leader. As much as we’d like to say our past is in the past, not acknowledging our history dooms us to repeat it. Began processing and healing from your hurts. It’ll help you, your ministry, the people you’re serving, and it’ll keep you from being one of those hurt people who hurt people.

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