How to Deal with Ministry Pain

We all carry baggage not only from our family of origin, but also from our previous ministry experiences. For some, that baggage may feel like a light daypack. For others, it may feel like a 100-pound duffle bag. How can we deal with this pain so that it doesn’t affect our families, ourselves, and our ministries? Consider these insights.

First, recognize that these factors influence how heavy your baggage feels.

  • Your overall emotional health. If it’s not good, you’ll ‘spill over’ more easily when jostled by ministry demands and conflict.
  • Your personality type influence by your genetic makeup. Some people are more genetically pre-disposed toward anxiety and depression than others. Our genetic makeup accounts for about 1/3 of our ability to be happy and enjoy life.[1] The remaining 2/3’s, however, gives us lots of leverage to change, manage stress, and bounce back from difficulties. 
  • Your previous ministry setting.

Second, look to Jesus.

If dealing with your pain seems self serving, look to the words of Jesus Himself. In response to a Pharisee’s question about the greatest commandment, Jesus said, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’” (Matt 22.37-39, NIV) So Jesus’ own words remind us we should love ourselves and be kind to ourselves which encompasses processing our own hurts and pain. Research indicates that pastors who are kinder to themselves when they fail or don’t meet others’ expectations, are less prone to burnout.[2]

I learned this insight several years ago when I transitioned to a church in California from a church in Atlanta. After we moved I was surprised when I began to grieve. I recall one day as I assembled an outdoor tool shed how deep feelings of sadness swept over me. I wasn’t sad about my new role as teaching pastor. The new possibilities exited me. However, my emotions reminded me that I must deal with my feelings of loss from leaving the church that my wife and I had planted 14 years earlier.

Third, admit that some leftover baggage from your prior ministry may still be weighing you down.

These questions may help bring to the surface unresolved issues that could potentially derail your new start.

  1. With whom did you experience the greatest conflict or the greatest hurt?
  2. How did you deal with those conflicts? Passively, aggressively, biblically?
  3. When you think of that person(s) do you feel significant anger, rage, or bitterness rise to your awareness? Or are the emotions more like mild disappointment or sadness?
  4. Do you feel that any of those conflictual relationships lie unresolved and that resolution remains possible? Or do you feel that you did what you could to resolve the issues?
  5. How would you rate where you stand in relation to this person(s)/issue(s): distraught, hurting but managing, coping OK, or in good shape with occasional twinges of loss or pain?
  6. Is God prompting you to do anything to resolve this pain?

 Fourth, take specific steps to deal with the emotional baggage.

When I’ve faced ministry pain, I’ve sought professional help though psychologists and hired coaches who have helped me process my woundedness. An objective third party can help you see issues to which you may be blind. 

As you process your pain, God may want you to initiate an act of kindness toward the person(s) who may have hurt you in your prior ministry. God prompted me to do that after I heard a sermon from a pastor friend.

Years ago I heard a sermon that dealt with turning the other cheek toward your enemies and loving them despite the pain they may have caused you. Like a lightning bolt, I felt God impress me to send a restaurant gift card to two leaders who had hurt me in a prior church. I included a nice note with each card. After I took that simple obedient step, I felt God begin to close that painful chapter in my life, although sometimes I can still feel a tinge of emotion when I recall those experiences.

God has used my pain to teach me much. He can use your pain to teach you as well. However, we must never allow pain to fester in our souls. I encourage you to inventory your life and bring out into the open any stuffed or hidden pain and process it. If you don’t deal with it now, it will leak out, insidiously drain you, and quite possible derail you and your ministry.

What has helped you process your ministry pain?

Related posts:

[1] “Can Happiness Be Genetic?,” Psychology Today, accessed November 20, 2015, http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/media-spotlight/201302/can-happiness-be-genetic.

[2] Laura K. Barnard and John F. Curry, “The Relationship of Clergy Burnout to Self-Compassion and Other Personality Dimensions,” Pastoral Psychology 61, no. 2 (May 21, 2011): 149–63, doi:10.1007/s11089-011-0377-0.

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