A few weeks ago, I posted a list of some confessions that people in ministry (myself, especially) struggle with. If you’re bored or you want a peek at the “inside story” of ministry, you can read that here.
In short, the confessions are:
- We love what we do…too much
- We hate what we do.
- We are jealous
- We are still sinners
- Our ministry becomes our idol.
But I wanted to add another confession that may be even harder to admit than the ones above:
CONFESSION #6: We are MESSED UP people.
Many of us in ministry are screwed up. I mean, “Island of Misfit Toys” screwed up. Maybe not so screwed up that we ought to be in jail or an insane asylum (alas, I’m sure there are some out there that are), but screwed up enough to sometimes wonder if we should even engage this “calling to ministry” that we participate in. What I’m talking about is different from #4 (though sin is definitely part of what is messed up about us). This confession is the simple fact that we are human. We aren’t always the exemplars of health, grace, and overall well-being that we strive to be. Heck, many times we are far from that.
Unfortunately, our church culture has over-perpetuated an image that pastors and leaders need to have their act together. To a large extent, that’s not a bad thing – those who lead should set an example by living out what they are professing. And scripture supports having your act together (see 1 Timothy 3:1-7, just as a one example). This confession is not intended as an excuse that “anything goes.”
But perfection is the image we try to convey – that we have joy and peace, even during times when we do not. And therein lies the problem. Often our lives are anything but “together.” So, we put on a front – driven by the fear that if people saw just how “damaged” we really are, they might question the very gospel we cling to.
Let’s get real for a second:
- We can be some of the unhealthiest people on the planet.
- Our family life may be far from perfect. We argue with our spouses and our kids. And we don’t always argue in a good way.
- We hurt when things go wrong – maybe even more than some, because – whether it’s real or not – we feel like we carry the aches and pains of those we pour into as well as our own.
- Our emotions can rule us. We get angry. Really angry. We get sad. Even depressed. We get anxious. And by anxious, I mean downright panicked.
Sadly, being “real” about these things has often become unnatural for many who lead in some capacity in a church. Sure, we try to think otherwise. “You gotta be real. You gotta let people know you’re human.” I don’t know how many times I’ve heard that – either from leaders who seek to create a spirit of authenticity or from leaders struggling to relate to their congregations and appear more authentic and approachable than they really are.
But what scares me is that there’s a modicum of arrogance in the fact that we assume people think – or should think – that we are perfect. If we have to REMIND people that we are human, are we not in some way clinging to the delusion that we are in some ways ‘better’ because we are “leaders”? That our calling somehow elevates us above the body of Christ we are supposed to be leading?
We set, bait, and then get stuck in our own traps. We go into our ministries with expectations about ourselves – and our families and our physical and emotional health. We go in arrogantly – not realizing we’re about to learn a gigantic lesson in humility: That authenticity cannot be mimicked. You are either real and authentic about your struggles (and in a position to receive grace), or you wear a mask.
What does wearing this mask look like? Let me share my story:
In 2009, I developed severe anxiety issues. The stress of ministry and family life overcame me in a way I did not see coming. My anxiety manifested in very physical ways. I developed unusual pains in my neck and jaw. I developed a phantom sunburn feeling over entire areas of my body. At another time, I developed very uncomfortable abdominal pain. At other times, I thought I was having a heart attack. I gained weight. My blood pressure went through the roof (I won’t scare you with the numbers). I struggled to sleep. I even feared bedtime because of this inner “trembling” sensation I had every time I lay down.
I became addicted to doctor visits. I saw my family doctor. I saw ear, nose, throat specialists. I had a sleep study done. I had an MRI done on my neck. I had heart tests done. I had a CAT scan of my abdomen done. I went to a chiropractor. I went to a physical therapist.
And I found no answers. My own family doctor finally threw his hands up in the air and said, “Kevin, this has got to be in your head. There are no physical causes for your symptoms.”
So, he prescribed anxiety meds. And for a brief season, it worked great. Unfortunately, I had such a low tolerance to the medication I was taking (even at a low dose), that I developed withdrawal-like symptoms as soon as the dose wore off. Anxiety attacks became full-blown panic attacks. I would wake up shaking uncontrollably. I would wake up and nearly faint. I could not sleep – and no sleep medication could make it happen. I became terrified of sleep. I became terrified of being awake.
Yet, I had to press on. Every week, I would stand up in front of a group of people, smile, and lead them through songs celebrating the love of God and our faith in Him. In fact, it became the ONLY thing I lived for. “I can at least do this,” I would think to myself. I can choose this. After all, my faith and beliefs were still intact. I still loved my God. I still wanted with all my heart to make a difference. But I felt like in order to continue to make a difference in ministry, I had to wear a mask.
Outwardly, I could put on a face that my life was together. But on the inside, I had fallen apart. My anxiety issues had taken a serious toll on my health, my family, and my productivity.
But here is the hardest part to confess: I feared I could not truly let anyone know – because if I DID expose the depth of my problems, that my leaders and my followers might question my ability and capacity to do the ONE thing that I still found some enjoyment in. I feared being judged for my struggle. I even feared being fired. So, for the longest time, I did nothing but wear the mask.
Fortunately, I’m no longer at this dark place in my life. I learned several lessons that I hope might help any of you in leadership – or any of you that have any sort of relationship with those in leadership:
- Ministers Often Need Professional Help. I eventually saw a psychiatrist. This person helped me see what was really going on, and it has made a great deal of difference. So I believe with all my heart, that leaders should be encouraged to seek professional help – not merely in the event of a crisis, but on a regular basis. Ministers carry quite a burden, as they not only feel responsible for their own lives and families, but for those they lead. It can be overwhelming, and it’s a healthy thing to get help when needed. I still see a psychiatrist – especially during this transitional phase of my life. I cannot stress enough the value in doing this.
- Ministers Need Encouragement. Fortunately, during this rough season, I was surrounded by people who encouraged me. They prayed for me. They talked to me. They let me share my feelings with them. So, if you are a leader, surround yourselves with those that encourage you (don’t withdraw from them…I WARN you that withdrawal is very tempting). If you aren’t a leader, encourage those who lead you. They often need it more than you know.
- Ministers Need to Be Allowed to Struggle. We need to be allowed to be imperfect. In fact, the only way we can heal and receive grace is if we are in an environment – surrounded by people – who will help us through our struggles. Struggling with depression and anxiety does not make us sinners. It makes us human. I worry about a church culture that believes that depression can simply be cured with more prayer and less Prozac – and while there can certainly be faith issues that add to our depression and anxiety, to create a culture where we don’t encourage people to treat the disease that is depression and anxiety is to keep people locked up in their problems. And I can’t help but wonder – how many people out there would make great ministers, yet don’t feel they can because they are hurting? How many aren’t allowed because they are hurting?
One of my favorite leaders and bloggers, Carlos Whitaker, blogs frequently about his struggle with depression and anxiety. You can check out one of his best posts here.
He concludes that post with these words:
In our numbness He feels for us.
In our sadness He will be our smile.
One step at a time friends.
And if this not you, be the feeling and smile for the one in your life who struggles.
If you lead, then confess when it hurts. If you follow, then let them know it’s okay to hurt.
No one can heal if we can’t admit the pain.