Ministers Only: Here’s How to Protect Your Ministry

The call from the chair of the deacons of a church with regular attendance over 2,500 announced their pain in simple words. “Our pastor has failed his church, his marriage, his family and himself. I don’t know what to do.”

Watch your life and doctrine closely. Persevere in them, because if you do, you will save both yourself and your hearers. I Timothy 4:16 NIV

Unfortunately too often the ethical and moral failings of key pastoral staff unleash havoc on everyone who knows and follows them. And the bigger they are, such as the very public issues with Mars Hill and Mark Driscoll, the greater the mess’s impact has on our society’s view of Christianity.

As God has used me to walk alongside many in their healing I have found each of the struggling pastors to be shocked and pained at their own actions. Most have shared a similar sentiment that can be summed up as: “I don’t know how I ended up in this mess.”

When I was writing this article my thoughts kept coming back to the many pastors God has asked me to work with in similar scenarios. Based upon patterns I have witnessed, I believe God has placed on my heart to share a few key recommendations to help church leaders protect the ministry God has asked them to steward.

Take Care of Yourself. A preacher in my childhood years frequently prayed, “Lord, wear us out in your service.” My experience, personally and professionally, has been that ministers who do not take care of their health and well being are easy pickings for Satan to take out. Setting boundaries for your personal health may feel selfish but you cannot expect those who follow you to take care of their “temple” (I Cor 6:19) if you do not take care of yours. Get regular sleep, eat healthy, enjoy routine exercise, visit health professionals as recommended and follow their advice.

During Jesus’ short ministry on earth He did not heal everyone. He did not raise everyone from the dead. He did not feed every hungry mouth and cast out every demon. He set healthy boundaries with the public, His followers and even His closest Apostles. In following Jesus’ example we also must set boundaries around caring for our very own physical, mental and spiritual health.

Early in my ministry career I occasionally found my personal spiritual development on hold as I focused heavily on leading and teaching others. If the only spiritual discipline you follow is when you are with others or studying in order to teach or counsel others, check to see if you have placed your spiritual development and relationship with God on temporary hold. I am thankful for Richard Foster’s “Celebration of Discipline” and Gordon McDonald’s “Ordering Your Private World” for guiding me toward prioritizing daily practices above my leading of others.

Love Your Spouse.   I believe, practice and teach that I (and you in your home) am the most responsible person on the planet for the spiritual formation and development within my home.   My first pastoral ministry is to my family. The most important link in a healthy family is the marriage relationship. How I do life with my spouse and my family speaks volumes to those who know and follow me.

My wife Devra and I have worked with thousands of couples and led over one hundred couples retreats and workshops. Yet we invest in our relationship regularly. As couples we need to invest in our relationship:

  • every year or two by attending a retreat,
  • annually by assessing our relationships highs and lows and renewing a relational plan for the coming year,
  • quarterly with a day or overnight trip,
  • monthly with regular date nights,
  • weekly with crucial conversations about any unresolved issue and
  • daily by giving and receiving each other’s movement toward each other, instead of against each other or away from each other.

Every couple rides the roller coaster of “feeling in love” and “losing that loving feeling.” Your spouse’s desirability to you is directly proportional to their place as the sole object of your affection and desire. When you lose that loving feeling make sure there are no others, virtually or in reality, whom you have placed in the space in your head and heart meant solely for your spouse.   Forsaking all others in every way changes your brain neurochemically to lead you to experience that loving feeling toward your spouse again.

Be Present for Your Children.   Do not let your children grow up relationally poor. Invest in your children beyond going to their games, recitals, shows, etc. Be present in their lives physically, emotionally and spiritually. Make time in your schedule to be in their world. Know their friends, find out their “favorites,” learn about their challenges and successes and seek to understand their world view. And bring them into your world. Share what is going on in your life, your “favorites,” and glimpses of things that challenge you and bring you joy.

What children experience of us will influence them more than anything we will ever say. How we handle our spousal relationship and marriage commitment, what we do with disappointments and challenges, how we handle our emotions and what they see of our integrity will be crucial influencers to how they will do life as adults. Remember that your first ministry is to your family (I Tim 3:4).

Create an Authentic Accountability Group. I do not believe God intended for us to minister alone. Too many ministers feel like they cannot share the truth about themselves to anyone in their flock, their governing board or even anyone in their town. They fear that if anyone found out the full truth about the worst parts of their history or their heart they would be disqualified from serving. In fact, churches have been brutal to ministers over the years, so this fear is not baseless.

Having a place where ministers can share their struggles with “what I do not want to do, I do” (Rom 7:15), takes the power away from the issue. What is kept hidden and secret within us becomes powerfully disruptive. Getting it out in front of us with another human or two is healing (James 5:16) because eliminates its power over us.

Every minister needs to meet with a group of two or more from outside of their church family on a regular basis. This group can hold each other accountable for those areas in their lives where they see any integrity breach. They can help each other close the gap between what they believe in their heart and what is going on in their thought life or in what they are doing. We all need a place where we have no need to hide and where our fellow group members can challenge us by telling us things about ourselves that are in our blind spot. Prayer and confession with each other will strengthen our fight against the things of the flesh.

Develop a Healthy Leadership Culture.   Many of the struggling pastors I have worked with through their personal and professional failings have described destructive and unhealthy cultures within the staff and key leadership of the church. Sometimes it was a culture they inherited when they arrived in their new post and sometimes it was unwittingly developed over time through their own decisions and interactions with staff and key leaders.   The health, or lack thereof, of the key leadership and staff will determine the level of overall church health. It is important that ministers at all levels influence the creation of a healthy climate within the culture of the staff and key leadership of the church.

Practice and expect responsible communication. Some people become problems in our personal ministry and professional goals. Many times we share our problem with that person with multiple other people in our attempt to request prayers or seek advice. That problem begins to solidify as a host of other people become cheer leaders for taking a specific action with the problem person. By the time we come around to taking steps to address the issue (Matt 18:15) our mind is already made up before the discussion starts.

Stop talking about others and instead begin talking to them. When you have a relationship issue, address the issue first with the person whom you have the issue. I call it a “tell me about it meeting.” Meet with them to explain what you experienced them doing and ask them to tell you about it. Focus on trying to understand from their point of view what they did and why. Use your listening skills to hear and accept what they say as their truth about the situation.   Share how what they did impacted you and make a simple specific request of them regarding what you would like them to do in the future if a similar situation should arise.

If a key leader brings you a problem with another ask them if they have addressed it with them yet. If not, ask them to let you know when they do. If they feel like they can’t address the issue with the person, offer to schedule the meeting with the three of you. Your role will be to help the person who has the relationship problem have the “tell me about it meeting” … not to serve as a referee to judge and resolve the issue. By doing so you will not only be teaching responsible communication but socially reinforcing its practice within the leadership and staff team.

Establish a type of “whistle blower” policy. Encouraging an environment where key leaders talk to each other instead of about each other will greatly influence a healthy environment. Another step is to give the person who is struggling with a decision or interaction with another a way to share their issue inside of the organization instead of outside to media, bloggers, etc. Establishing a policy that provides a person with a grievance a chance to state their case to an established leader can help them feel heard even if it is not resolved and reduce the likelihood the issue is broadcast for public consumption.

Determine what position will be the most responsible to receive such grievances. Add an additional layer of reporting should the grievance be against that person. Specify the steps the person should take in stating their grievance. Many such policies do not promise any action other than receiving the grievance, but whatever the person should expect from making the grievance should be stated clearly.

Lead with collaborative decision-making processes. Some church decisions require prayerful consideration of very few people. In emergency situations people look to their leaders for urgent decisive action. But in most cases ministers’ and key church leaders’ decisions do not need be made in secret and dictated to the rest of the leadership team. In fact, that type of dictatorial decision making structure usually does more to hurt the rest of the leadership team and the church. Sometimes a well meaning pastor focused on leading well insulates his decision making in such a way that it leads to people experiencing him as a spiritually abusive tyrant.

Collaborative decision-making slows the process to make sure that everyone has a chance to participate. It includes meetings where team members’ skills, knowledge and intellect are tapped for making the best decision. It also provides space for people who are slow to adopt change to move in the direction when the final decision is reached.

Using collaborative decision-making processes does not mean naysayers always get their way. It means that everyone has the opportunity to voice any issues with a decision before the decision is made. They are able to be heard and feel heard even if the decision does not go their way.

In order to protect your ministry, take action immediately to invest in your relationship with God, your spouse, your children, and your self. Develop a plan of action to implement a healthy leadership culture within key church leaders and staff. God’s blessings!

This article was written by Roy and Devra Wooten, authors of “The Secret to a Lifetime Love”. Learn more at © Roy and Devra Wooten 2015. All Rights Reserved. You may replicate this article as long as it is provided free to recipients and includes appropriate attribution. Written permission for other use may be obtained at [email protected].