There’s a song that I hate. No… that I loathe. It’s R.E.M.s “Shiny Happy People.” Every time I hear those nasally-sounding lyrics sung, I want to gouge my ears out with a ice pick (do I even own an ice pick? Well, a BBQ skewer will make a nice alternative).
It’s not that I hate R.E.M. Well… maybe it is. But my hatred has more to do with those lyrics: “Shiny Happy People.”
No, I don’t hate happy people. Maybe I envy them. People who are truly happy have a way of lighting up a room. The world needs more of them.
But as a person who has chosen to be a minister, there’s an unwritten rule: “You are supposed to be happy.” Oh, sure… we can tell ourselves we’re allowed to feel otherwise, but how can we stand in front of a crowd of people – or guide someone through their own problems – if we aren’t happy? How can we spread joy and hope to a world that needs if we’re not the ones that have the “peace that passes understanding?” We’re supposed to be THE “shiniest, happiest people.”
But here’s the confession: Many times, we are not. We are far from happy. In fact, many people who’ve chosen a life of ministry are depressed, lonely, and riddled with anxiety issues. Our families hurt. Our bodies hurt. Our relationships struggle. We have trust issues. We even have faith issues.
Maybe we feel we must maintain the image that we have it all together, or people might think us hypocrites. Maybe we’re afraid to be authentic and let the people we lead know that, “Hey, we’re real people, too.”
But if we’re not confessional about our struggles in ministry, it only shows that we rely more on our own image control than on God’s grace. So I think there’s an opportunity here – not to deny the power of grace by confessing our darkest secrets, but to expose just how powerful grace can be.
So here goes:
CONFESSION #1: We LOVE What We Do… TOO Much.
That doesn’t sound like a confession, does it? But it is. Often our ministry becomes EVERYTHING to us. We live it, breathe it, and dream it. No, literally – we DREAM about it. Sometimes it’s a nightmare (I’ve had one about standing onstage and everything is going wrong – no one knows the order, sound isn’t working, and people are getting up and walking out). Our ministries can become our obsessions. And when that happens, we can forget that not everyone shares that obsession with us. It creates a rift between those of us IN ministry and those that volunteer their free time with us. It can even cause us to sacrifice our own families on the altar of ministry – and our children and our spouses take a back seat to “the calling.” Sooner or later, this obsession can destroy us. The divorce rate among pastors is sky-high. Our “higher calling” is not supposed to be destructive like this.
CONFESSION #2: We HATE What We Do
First, in spite of seminary educations and leadership conference “pep talks,” no amount of preparation can truly make you ready for the day-to-day “weight” of ministry. There’s always an Easter service coming (or a Christmas one. Please don’t utter the phrase “Christmas light show” around some of my friends, or you might lose a limb). There’s a big event to plan. There’s the week-to-week preparation for services, complicated by the fact that you have to deal with other people who don’t share your sense of urgency to get it done. So stress sets in. You begin to develop this (false) assumption that if everything’s not ready and perfect by Sunday morning, people will go to hell because of you. (Not kidding…it feels that way sometimes).
Second, when you deal with people you deal with drama… with a capital D: Drama. D-R-A-M-A. When the same people keep struggling with the same stuff no matter how many times you talk to them. When Judy tells the secretary Barbara that the pastor’s sermon was too irreverent because he used the word “crap” somewhere between his first and second point. When someone on your team shows up drunk (yes, that’s happened). When that family gets up and leaves mid-message because they’re offended because you made fun of a church sign down the road. Drama permeates the whole culture, because people are messy. We think we knew that going into ministry (maybe), yet we often weren’t ready for its incessant nature. So even more stress sets in. Anxiety sets in. I have had severe anxiety and panic attacks myself. It is not pretty.
So, we may even begin to hate what we do. Sure, we try everything from medication to meditation. We attend conferences to get “re-charged.” We tell ourselves burnout is our fault because we’re not spending enough time in God’s word. So we press on. And we try to smile. I confess, many Sundays (as a worship leader) I would stand up onstage just minutes before the service and pray this prayer: “God, today I am not feeling this. I just want to go home. But I CHOOSE to worship today. So please use me, or work in spite of me.”
What we love can become something we hate (and yes, it’s that complicated).
CONFESSION #3: We Are Jealous
Why does the church down the road have more members than we do, yet they started years after we did? How can they afford a new building? God, why won’t you show up here the same way you seem to be showing up there?
If you’re in ministry, you’ve probably felt this way at times – that all your hard work (and the stress included) aren’t yielding the great blessings from God you think others are getting instead of you. But this is not the only jealousy we feel. We can feel jealous of others under our own roof. Maybe the student pastor is a better speaker than I am. Maybe the new guitarist can play circles around me. Maybe there’s a bond of friendship among a few people in leadership (staff or volunteer) that you just can’t seem to be a part of.
When you live/think sacrificially (even to a fault), sooner or later you begin to wonder why God is not blessing you the way he blesses others? Jealousy happens.
CONFESSION #4: We Are Still Sinners
This confession is one of the toughest. Any of us who have ever held a leadership role often have a hard time dealing with our sins. I have sat down in circles with men and women in ministry who were struggling with some pretty heavy sins (everything from porn addiction to substance abuse), yet felt like they could never truly confess them, or they might be harshly removed from leadership. So they remain silent. They tell no one. Their struggle becomes something they feel they have to deal with alone. I’ve been there myself – at that point where you are desperate to discuss your sin, but fear that there is no safe place to go and receive grace and the necessary counseling and accountability to deal with the struggle. Therefore, misery and hopelessness set in. Then you feel like you’re living a lie, as you challenge people to confess their sins when you aren’t doing so yourself.
CONFESSION #5 (and this one is the kicker): OUR MINISTRY BECOMES OUR IDOL
Maybe #1 through #4 all rest on this one. That somewhere along the way, our job – our role – our ministry – our image – our success – becomes something worshiped itself instead of God.
- Why do we love our ministries too much? Because it’s become our idol. We elevate it above God, so we can leave out His pesky rules about taking time and loving our families and building loving relationships. Success in our ministry becomes everything. Even people that we believe we love often become obstacles to our ambitions to “reach people for Christ.” Ironic, isn’t it? We use people to accomplish our goal, yet that’s not the disciple-making that God talks about. It’s almost…narcissistic. We love OUR ministries and our “higher calling” (words we learn to use to justify leaving people in the dust).
- Why do we hate what we do? Because we’ve exchanged faith in God for faith in systems and productions and “5 steps to growing your church” thinking. We’ve put our faith in our own abilities to deal with drama, rather than see people through God’s eyes. We hate it because we’ve started leaving God out of it.
- Why are we jealous? Because we care more about what WE are building than what God is doing. When His purpose doesn’t line up with our ambitions, we feel like failures, and jealousy of others’ successes reigns in our hearts.
- Why can sin still dominate us? Because an idol is unforgiving. We can’t stand on our own pride in what we’ve built (our idol), and at the same time admit that we fail miserably. Our very success is the most unforgiving thing on the planet. Yet we trade that success for God (and the forgiveness he offers) every time.
Idolatry is at the heart of the matter for those of us in ministry. Our Enemy is so crafty, that he’s taken something good and precious – the church, the Bride of Christ – and (in our minds) warped it into something it should never be – a substitute for God himself.
If we are to heal… If we are to escape the trappings of idolatry… If we are to become the leaders that God wants us to be, we must let go of our idol.
I share this not to be shocking or to suggest that everyone in ministry struggles with these things to the same capacity. But I have talked with enough leaders (on every level from volunteer to pastor) that I see these common aches and pains more often than not.
So, on behalf of all those that struggle like this, I confess these things. Because that is a start. That is how the healing begins. I lay them at the feet of Jesus and trust that He is faithful and just to forgive. I share them here only with the hopes that my struggle might in some way help others to heal, too.
All that said, confession is ONLY the beginning. Repentance follows. Getting back on the right path is the next step.
But that is a path that is still unfolding as I set out on a journey to answer God’s calling all over again. Repentance will not be a quick blog post containing 5 bullet points on “how to do it right.” It will be a daily process of listening to God and seeking His will and His Kingdom…
…not to build my own.