“He is a liar and manipulator”
“You are a bad leader”
“You are a friend of the devil if you do that”
“Do you love your people at all?”
“I can’t believe a Christian, much less a pastor, would say that.”
These are just some of the, unfortunately many, negative and hurtful comments that I have endured over my years of pastoral ministry. Being a leader anywhere is tough, it puts the bullseye on your back, and your front, and forces you to endure both direct and indirect attacks from people. But in the church where God’s people come together under his banner, leadership seems to be even more difficult. Why? Two main reasons, First, because you are fighting an eternal battle. A life and death battle for people’s souls. Second, because of that sin does not go quietly into the night. This makes otherwise nice, normal people, difficult, ornery, and sometimes downright mean. On account of this, Christian leaders must recognize that this kind of stuff, WILL take its toll on you. No matter how tough you are, no matter how committed you are, no matter how convinced of the call of God on your life you are, these kinds of ‘head-shots’ will take their toll. The worst part about it is that often, like an NHL player, you don’t realize you have endured ‘head trauma’ and you just keep going to the determinant of yourself and of those around you – family, friends, fellow leaders and the church itself. Like the NHL, Pastors and Christian leaders need to have ‘concussion protocols’ in place so they can survive the often difficult aspects of church leadership. The NHLs handling of head injuries offers an interesting parallel to how Christian leaders must handle the injuries that will occur in Church leadership.
You need to be honest about where you are at
NHL players must be honest about their injuries so that they can get back to peak performance. Christian leaders are the same. You have to be honest with yourself, and your fellow Christian leaders about the toll that ministry is taking on you. So many troubles and so much pain can be avoided if you are honest with the leaders around you about what you are going through and how you are feeling. Don’t try to be a super-pastor, or ta super-elder, there is no such thing. We are all human, we all have limitations. Ministry is not easy, it will sap your joy sometimes, it will feel hopeless sometimes, it will feel like everybody is against you at times. But it’s OK to feel this way. Paul felt this way at times, so did Jesus. Don’t cover it up. Don’t pretend that it will just go away on its own. Don’t think that when things get better you will be fine. Be honest with yourself, your spouse, your discipleship partners and most importantly with your fellow leaders. If your fellow leaders are worth anything, they will appreciate your honesty, understand what you are dealing with and rise up to protect you and get you well. If they don’t – LEAVE IMMEDIATELY! Don’t wait, just leave.
You need a spotter
The NHL employs independent concussion spotters who are authorized to call the bench during a game to identify a player who they believe may have suffered a concussion and needs to be looked at further by the medical staff. As a Christian leader you need concussion spotters. We often don’t see the symptoms of the injuries we suffer in ministry. If you are like me, you keep going, you keep battling, you keep doing what God has asked you to do even when you seem to be facing the Gates of Mordor itself (sorry for the change in imagery). So you need someone to spot for you. Someone you trust who knows you well, someone who has the wisdom to discern what you are going through, the courage to speak to you about it, and a deep love for you which leads them to constantly watch out for you. This is simply the principles of discipleship applied to an individual who needs protection from others and from himself without which he cannot be successful in ministry. I had two such men in my church, my youth pastor and my elder board chair. Without those two men spotting for me, I would not have lasted as long as I did in my ministry.
You need a quiet room
When a player is thought to have suffered a concussion, they are ushered into a quiet room, a room free of distractions where the trainer and team doctor can administer tests to determine whether an injury has taken place or not. A Christian leader needs a quiet room on a weekly basis. In addition to taking my days off to do something other than church work, I tried to take ‘Q days’, once a month, but in the really difficult times I tried to take them once a week. These were days when I would not go into the office but would find a quiet place where I could read, reflect, and pray and not do any church ‘work’. I use this time to ‘test’ myself with Scripture and to pray intensely for the church, fellow leaders and myself. When I made these days a priority, I was able to clear my head and I was able to get back in the game. Although I must admit these Q-days didn’t happen as consistently as they should have, since I often wasn’t honest with myself regarding what I was truly going through and how it was affecting me. Don’t make the same mistake as I did. Take the Q-days that you need. But there are times, when even a Q-day a week is not going to be enough time to recover. In this case…
You need appropriate recovery time
The only thing that really heals a concussion is time off from strenuous activity. An NHL player shuts down all activity – on-ice, off-ice, weights, cardio work – in order to get well. If a Christian leader has suffered from notable ‘injury’ they may not be able to recover in the ‘quiet rooms’ of their normal schedule. They may need to step away from the game for awhile in order to recover. There are a few practical ways to find recovery times over an extended period -take a personal leave of absence and do something else for awhile; visit a retreat centre, I went to Kerith Creek in Alberta with my wife and it was outstanding; take a sabbatical (make sure it is a minimum of 3 months). Sometimes the only thing that will truly heal you is an extended time off from the ministry that has put you in this difficult spot in the first place. So take advantage of these types of things if you need them. One other thing, if your fellow leaders are care for you and are spotting for you they will be want you to see you take the time you need to get healthy. If they don’t – LEAVE IMMEDIATELY! Don’t wait, just leave.
You may need to ‘retire’
Ryan Clowe was 33 years old when he had to retire from the NHL due to concussions. He had three years remaining on his five-year, $24.25 million deal with the New Jersey Devils when he walked away from the game. The same may also apply to Christian leaders. Unfortunately, sometimes the best way, or the only way, to protect yourself, and your family, and to ensure your long-term spiritual, emotional and familial health is to simply hang up your skates and move on. This is a tough step for many pastors because no matter how hard things are, there are two things that drive us to keep going in our current roles. First, we love our people and we love being a pastor. That makes it really tough to walk away from the church we are serving. Second, we always think the head-shots will stop and then we will get better. We think that with a little more time the symptoms of our injuries will go away and we can once again operate with a clear head. This may happen, but in my case, it didn’t. Too many shots to the head, most of which were pot-shots, took their toll on me. So I needed to walk away. I had everything in place that I have outlined above. Though imperfectly, I tried to follow the above ‘concussion protocol’ but eventually I had to admit that the head-shots had taken their toll and I needed to walk away. I loved the church I was in, I loved the people I worked with, and I loved being at the centre of God’s work in the world. But sometimes you just need to walk away.
Ministry is tough sometimes. But if you follow the ‘concussion protocol’ for Christian leaders, you will be better equipped to handle the call God has placed upon your life. God bless you as you lead your people in whatever way that he has asked you.
Soli Deo Gloria