Nothing is truly ordinary

Exposing the Secrets – Confessions of a Person Called to Ministry (part 3)

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My list of confessions continues to grow.  Maybe that’s the nature of a journey of transition and healing – to IDENTIFY the things that hurt you and move on.  Confession can be painful, but it’s ultimately one of the most liberating, cathartic experiences you can have.  Because – as with everything else in our walk with God – everything that promises spiritual growth and transformation starts with the simple act of confession.

So far, I’ve confessed many things that I’ve experienced in pursuing a life of ministry – and I’ve discovered I’m not alone in my experiences.  You can read about these in two previous posts (click HERE for the first, HERE for the 2nd).  But to sum up:

  1. We love what we do…too much.
  2. We hate what we do.
  3. We are jealous of others’ successes.
  4. We are still sinners (we still screw up).
  5. Our ministry becomes our idol.
  6. We are often emotionally MESSED UP people.

The final confession I’d like to add is not the hardest to confess, but the riskiest to talk about.  It’s risky because it forces us to examine not just ourselves, but our relationships with those we call our friends…and MAYBE, even our families.  But it is necessary to confess it if we want to identify one of the greatest perils of ministry:

CONFESSION #7:  We develop dysfunctional friendships.

In case I’ve triggered anyone’s automatic defenses with that statement, let me get a few things out of the way first.  First, I acknowledge and completely agree that some of the healthiest relationships in our lives can happen in an environment where God brings people together with a common purpose (and a common Savior!).  The friendships that can develop in a true, biblical community are among the deepest friendships that we can have.  Second, I do not mean to imply that dysfunctional relationships are inevitable – only that they can and do happen.  Third, I believe in a godly community that even dysfunctional relationships can be repaired.  We are to be a community of grace and forgiveness after all, aren’t we?

Finally, I want to make it clear that I’m not trying to simply state the obvious.  Everyone in ministry can relate to the fact that there are people in the congregation, on our staffs, or even leading us that do not have our best interests at heart; thus, they are DANGEROUS and there should be healthy boundaries in place to prevent them from doing us harm.

***

What I am talking about is much more subtle.  Note that above I said “friendships,” and not “relationships.”  We develop dysfunctional friendships.  While this may seem like an oxymoron, I think it happens more often than we are willing to admit.

Let me paint the picture:

Ministry can be highly stressful.  As I’ve confessed in previous posts, it can be something we can love to a fault.  It can be something that we pour everything into it – almost like addicts who can’t say “no” to the next fix.  Then there are seasons where we hate it – either because of the drama of people or the stresses rough seasons of ministry demand.  Throw in our sins and our emotional weakness, and you start to get the idea of what I mean when I say “stressful.”

And all through this process, we make friends.  Under the best of situations, these friends hold us up during our times of weakness.  Our friends are strong when we are weak.  They are steadfast.  They never change even when the situations do.  That’s the ideal scenario.

But all too often, our friends are feeling the same stresses that we do, often because we are serving together in the same context.  In that case, It would be more accurate to say that we hold each other up at the same time.  We become dependent on each other to get through the hard times.  And while this sounds all well and good, I’m about to show you how it isn’t.

***

Years ago, before I even had children, I felt the need to visit a psychologist during a season of depression in my life.  The depression had set in when I realized I was losing many friends I had once deemed to be very close.  It was an incredibly tough season for me and my wife.

You see, we had all served in a ministry together.  We had all poured time and energy into the same thing.  We spent huge amounts of time at each others’ homes.  We went to conferences and retreats together.  We saw wins.  We saw losses.  We were, for all practical purposes, a family.

But over time, our ministry environment had turned very unhealthy.  Micromanagement.  Increased stress.  Lack of financial and resource support from leaders above us.  We were driven to the point of exhaustion.  And, eventually, the ministry we poured all this time and energy into was terminated and we were all “reassigned” to serve elsewhere.  For me, it was literally a dead-end in my career.

And over the next few months, everything fell apart  – including our friendships.  That’s when the depression kicked in, and I went to see the aforementioned psychologist.

As I described our previous ministry context to him – how we were understaffed, underpaid (severely), micromanaged, and eventually hung out to dry – he likened the entire scenario to an abusive relationship – where we were simply being “used” by our leaders to accomplish their goals, with little or no recognition how unhealthy it was becoming to us.

And much like the children of abusive parents, those of us who served together had developed a type of co-dependency on each other.  “Anything that forces you to give up your own emotional health in order to keep peace, satisfy, or attempt to “cure” or cover for another person can set you up for a codependent style” (via lifecounsel.org).  Like a spouse enabling an alcoholic husband, or children trying to please the whims of an abusive father, we pressed forward to make ministry happen and to meet the demands of our leaders – no matter the cost or what it was doing to each of us spiritually and emotionally.  And while we thought we were truly supporting each other and holding each other up, not ONE of us stood apart from the situation and said, “This is unhealthy.  We need to leave” (at least, not soon enough).  No one was above the problem.  We were all drowning in it, and our friendships became more coping mechanisms, rather than healthy relationships.

Codependent friendships.  Dysfunctional friendships.  It sounds so harsh, especially because our friendships did not start that way.  But the codependency that developed in an unhealthy situation damaged our friendships in ways that we did not recognize.

We had all the symptoms:

  • Constantly trying to please others.
  • Accepting responsibility for OTHERS’ actions.
  • Letting others dominate or abuse you.
  • Low self-esteem.
  • Fear of leaving the situation lest we leave others to fend for themselves.
  • Feeling that we have to take care of each other, or no one else will.
  • Relationship problems growing out of a weak sense of self and excessive dependency.
  • Lack of trust.
  • Eventually, developing our own efforts to control or change others to supplement our own efforts to appease our leaders.

Having never truly realized this codependency, we did not recognize the damage it had done.  We did not realize we had forgotten how to talk about things other than the situation we had left behind.  We did not realize that we were not healing, but merely venting about the “bad” situation we were all in.  We did not realize how we began to manipulate each other to make sure the job got done.  We did not realize that we began to expect more than what was fair from each other.  We did not realize how much we enabled the leaders that took advantage of us, or how we enabled each other’s codependency by never daring to stand up and scream “This is wrong!!”

In the end, it’s almost like we didn’t know each other any more apart from the context of the ministry that had left us so wounded.  So, inevitably, many of our friendships fell apart when we were no longer in that ministry situation, and we gradually went our separate ways.

To be fair, not all the friendships fell apart completely.  Some survived and I value them to this day.  And even some of those that had fallen apart have seen new life breathed into them in recent years, as many of us have had time to heal and move on to new things.  And I praise God for that.

***

What have I learned from all this?  I’ve learned that this happens all too often in many ministry contexts.  I cannot tell you how many people I’ve met who have resigned themselves from ministry positions and/or church in general because their unique situation became too dysfunctional for them to continue, and the pain still haunts them.  I’ve also learned that there’s a fine line between being asked to make sacrifices for ministry (godly) and allowing leaders to manipulate your time, energy, and resources (not godly – I may write about this later).  Finally, I’ve learned that if no one stands up as a true friend and says “this is wrong,” that we inadvertently perpetuate a co-dependent situation that does more damage to our friendships than we realize.

But there is a way out.  There is a way for friendships to be healed – or for them to never become dysfunctional in the first place.

1.  Friendships should not be built on ministry alone.

People say things like, “those that serve together, stay together.”  I’ve heard it, anyway.  And it sounds powerful.  But if the act of serving together is all you know of a person, then you don’t truly know them.  Our friendships must be built on more than just the ministry context.

Having been a leader in ministry for many years, I began to realize I did not know people beyond that context.  After resigning from my last church, I have spent time just hanging out with people – getting to know what they like, what they do, what they look like outside of church.  It’s a great thing to do – to get to know someone without the hidden agenda of “hey, can you help out this Sunday?” waiting to disrupt the simple way friends can be friends.

When friendships are built on more than just ministry, you get to know the “whole” person.  And in many ways, that makes the relationship more authentic.  It shows we really care.  And that’s one way friendships can survive and avoid becoming dysfunctional.

2.  Do not be afraid to say something is unhealthy.  

THE hardest thing for people to do in a codependent situation is recognize it and call it what it is.  When I visited my psychologist, it took several sessions before I would even utter the words that my situation was unhealthy.  I did not want to acknowledge that something that is supposed to be godly had turned into something that had hurt me deeply.  And when I finally did, I became an emotional wreck as years of pain were released with that simple confession.

If your job or your volunteer experience has turned into something where you’re not driven by passion to reach people, but fear of letting your leaders or others down (and, thus, incurring their wrath and/or disappointment), you have to be honest about what it has turned into.  Maybe that means you have to leave the situation.  Maybe it means you have to confront your leaders.  Maybe it means you have honest conversations with those you work with about what has happened so you can all recognize it for what it is and take the appropriate steps.

But too often fear drives us to remain silent.  Even when others start to feel that something is wrong, our gut reaction may even be not just to remain silent ourselves, but to make sure that they remain silent so that our jobs or hopes for a better future are not jeopardized (even if that’s unrealistic).

But sooner or later, a choice has to be made.  You either remain silent and enable the system of codependency, or you call it out.

Make no mistake, there is great risk in this.  Often, the leaders who have created a codependent situation will not listen.  And if you speak up, you may be risking your job and or your relationship with those that lead you.  You may alienate yourselves from those who aren’t yet willing to see how they are remaining in an enabling the codependent situation.

But the alternative is worse – to remain in a situation that is unhealthy.  To remain in a situation where our friendships become more and more dysfunctional because we will keep the peace at any cost.

3.  Make allowance for each others’ faults

Galatians 3:13 in the NLT says “make allowance for each others’ faults.”  I like to interpret this as giving people room to screw up.  No situation is perfect.  No friendship is perfect.  If you’ve found yourself in a codependent ministry situation, then don’t condemn others for winding up in the same situation.

It’s too easy to blame others when we are hurt.  We may wonder why people didn’t stand up and defend us when something became unhealthy.  We may feel alone, even when surrounded by people we serve together with.  We may even feel betrayed by those who have enabled the codependency by remaining silent – or worse – by telling us to press on.

But if you’re hurting, it’s likely the person serving next to you is hurting, too.  So we can’t blame them.  We have to make an allowance for the fact that they may feel as powerless as we do.  We have to make this allowance also in the hope that once we both have moved on from the unhealthy situation, that the friendship can heal because we will LET it heal.

4.  Get a mentor.

Let’s face it.  We need people outside of our situations who can see things clearly.  We need accountability.  We need that sobering counsel from someone who can tell us when we are engaged in an activity that is hurting us.  Leaders need elders or committees to answer to, true.  Staff needs leaders to answer to…also true.  But most importantly, we need people in our lives who can speak wisdom into us.  So find an old friend you can talk to – maybe an old student pastor, pastor, professor, employer, etc – ANYONE you can trust to talk to who is outside of your current situation.  They may bring a wisdom and perspective into something that you have not considered.  And that can be the difference between remaining in an unhealthy situation, and getting out with your friendships intact.

4b.  Get help.

Sometimes a mentor is not enough, though.  Sometimes, we need professional counsel- a professional psychologist or psychiatrist who can help us work through the emotional damage and help us heal.  That made a great deal of difference in my own life.

5.  Please God, not people.

This last one is more preventative than anything, but it’s never too late to develop this mindset.  Once we get caught up in a game of trying to please people – whether it’s our leaders or even people in our congregations – it’s hard to get “un-caught.”  Once you’ve established a pattern that you’ll do whatever it takes to make someone happy, they will exploit it.  It will create a cycle that usually can only be broken be ending the relationship or quitting the position.  So it’s best not to let it happen in the first place.

In Galatians 1:10, the Apostle Paul says, “If pleasing people were my goal, I would not be Christ’s servant.”

To be  servant of Christ is to serve him.  It is not to make our leaders happy.  It’s not to make our congregations happy. People-pleasing is not only ungodly, it is a dangerous way to do business.  It is dangerous because it is contagious.  Too often we drag our friends into our “people-pleasing.”  And that’s how we develop dysfunctional friendships in the first place.

As with all things in our walk with God, the answer is always Christ.  Serve him.  Trust him.  Don’t whore yourself out to making others’ happy.

That’s where the healing begins.  That’s where the dysfunction ends.

With Christ.

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