When you are filled with the love of God and share it with others it is a risky business. Jesus modelled a lot of great qualities and endurance. One we often forget is rejection. Jesus wasn’t treated very well by the people he cared for and we can’t really expect to do better than Jesus.
Jesus said the following:
You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that remains, so that whatever you ask the Father in my name he will give you. This I command you — to love one another. “If the world hates you, be aware that it hated me first. If you belonged to the world, the world would love you as its own. However, because you do not belong to the world, but I chose you out of the world, for this reason the world hates you.
(Joh 15:16-19 NET.)
It is easy to see how following Jesus’ words here can result in some emotional trauma. We are appointed to bear fruit, fruit that remains. We love but in return for our love some will hate us. Being rejected by the people we care for, pray for and love takes a heavy toll. I have wept. I’ve been plunged in to deep soul searching people I invested years in rejected me. These people are not projects, they are (or at least were) friends, so when they rejected my ministry they reject a part of me.
There isn’t any part of organic church ministry that wears on me more than this. However it isn’t like Jesus didn’t go through something similar. Most of his disciples abandoned him at his arrest and crucifixion. The people he invested in for 3 years, some so bold as to claim they would die for him, scattered. Curiously it was mostly women that were brave enough to stick with Jesus to the end. I can only imagine how alone he felt as he as shouldered all the shame humanity could dump on any person. An innocent man treated like a criminal and abandoned by most of the people he loved.
Curiously in my experience with organic churches many church leaders go through a very difficult course of rejection and relational pain.
Dealing with relational hardship
How does one deal with this? There are people like therapists and counsellors that take a clinical approach and are intentionally detached from the people they are trying to help. I understand why. If someone spent half their day meeting with broken people and you became attached to everyone one of them it would wear you out emotionally in short order. In a church situation you will encounter the same kind of people but we need to take a different path.
At the heart of many of our problems is a need to feel worth and belonging. A therapist can’t offer this the same way a community can. There are three types of people you can pay to intimately connect with you: therapists, clergy and prostitutes. In all three cases the money distorts and undermines the benefits of the relationship. When someone goes out of their way to do something for you just because they value you that is powerful expression of love. When someone gets paid to something for you it might help you, it might give you the perspective or the insight you really need but it doesn’t necessarily make you feel valued. Your value to them is at least in part what you can give them. The church can be a powerful agent of healing and strength when it loves people just because they are worth loving.
Everyone who receives gives, and everyone who gives needs to receive. Some people are so broken the need to receive more than they can get, especially for a season. We hope to walk with people until they become healthy enough to give more than they receive.
The pastoral types need to model vulnerability because they need the support of the community to keep going. If you don’t you’ll burn out in short order. One way you can tell if your church is in a good place is if you look forward to getting together when you need ministry. If you don’t then chances are your church gives far less than it takes. A leader can survive this for a time but it is completely unsustainable in the long term.
Everyone needs a network of support inside their church and outside. In the last 6 months our little group has gone through some serious heavy waters. I leaned on a couple house church leaders in the network that I connect with fairly regularly. It is important that these relationships be genuine. Any attempt to structure these relationships based on proximity on some silly persons’s flow chart will restrict the fruit of the relationship. Look for friends and be a friend. I also connect with an old bible college professor and a good personal friend. The resilience of your ministry is closely tied with the depth and sincerity of your strongest relationships.
It is surprising how little this is a focus in conventional church ministry. I know of very few ministries where it is a significant priority for the leaders or the clergy to have the kind of life giving fellowship they are hoping to orchestrate in their organizations. It has to be in organic churches. We don’t have the finances for sabbaticals, seminaries, conferences and therapy. However, we can derive great strength from each other. The joy of being simple means we are restricted in some of our options and that limits us to God and each other.
The most obvious support a married person will have is their spouse. It is best if you and your spouse can be a team, but at the very least ensure your spouse is 100% behind you. If your marriage isn’t in a healthy place then you should consider carefully how much you can give. There are a great many broken families because the Christian leader in the family invested more in church people than in their own family.
Give only what you can
Paul gave Timothy and Titus a brief list of requirements for eldership. There is one requirement about managing family well and being the “husband of one wife.” While I believe these each requirements shouldn’t be adhered to blindly but they should be given a lot of weight. If your marriage or family is a mess and you are demonstrably part of the dysfunction, then don’t spread your dysfunction to other families. Getting neck deep in the lives of other people will place more weight on you than you can handle and you will make things worse.
All families have their problems and when you engage in organic church community you broaden your family and its problems. The normal strains of things like finances and child rearing can be compounded by supporting others in crisis. The double whammy of problems at home and problems in your church community can really hurt you. If my life is any indication it seems the stronger my family life is the more curve balls God throws at me.
One of the great tragedies in the church today is that we often find ourselves with leaders that need more than they can give. In my personal experience many pastors are insecure, isolated and lonely. They need to be in ministry in order to find some sort of worth and connection. If the main reason you want to be in ministry is to feel like you are worth something then you need to step back. Now that doesn’t disqualify you, it just means you are attempting to minister to others from an unhealthy place. When you derive your primary sense of worth from being neck deep in the affairs of others it will skew your perception. You may in fact be helping people but it is dangerous. It makes you dependent on your ministry to the point where you might compromise your values just to keep it going. When people reject you or mistreat you, it will hurt that much more. You may find yourself getting bitter at all those people who aren’t giving as much as you. You may end up comparing your self with others and begin acting competitively.
It also seriously impairs your ability to cope with failure. I can tell you, you will fail. You might say the wrong things or even the right things at the wrong time. There are people that literally hate me because of what I’ve said to them. Only God truly knows how accurate my statements were, I thought they were at the time. I do regret that I wasn’t more patient with people or paid closer attention to the warning signs. If my whole life meaning was tied up in how successful my ministry was I would have crumpled up and crashed a long time ago. It is absolutely essential that you know your worth in Christ and that your worth doesn’t fluctuate with your failure. The sad reality is that there are going to be situations with people where no matter what you do or say things are going to blow up. I know very few simple church leaders that haven’t gone through bitter disappointments.
There are a great many insidious temptations in Christian ministry.
Do what Jesus did
On several occasions Jesus withdrew to pray. Everyone needs to withdraw to get perspective, to find emotional balance, to become quiet enough to hear God speak. There isn’t a universal method to do this because we are all different. Some have spiritual directors, some meditate, some go to retreat centers or ride their motorcycle. I like to retreat to my family’s cabin for a couple of days by myself. It is a bit of test for this extrovert but I need it. When you do retreat make sure you leave as much of the rest of the world behind when you go.
Be reminded of our great hope
The core gospel truths of God’s love for us can grow dim in the light of conflict or busyness. It is always good to have people around you that can offer you perspective. When things are bad they usually feel much worse than they really are in light of Jesus’ victory of the world.