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How to Avoid Being Crushed by the Relentless Toll Of Ministry

relentless toll

The day I was told you’ve got cancer was darker than the other side of the moon.

Ministry life had been skipping along as usual.

However, my annual blood tests regime showed my PSA reading was trending high. A possible sign of prostate cancer.

My Doctor arranged a biopsy and my new year equilibrium was shattered by my dark side of the moon day.

After getting a second opinion I decide to proceed with invasive surgery and have my prostate removed.

Surgery presented genuine risks.

Severe incontinence and sexual dysfunction were possibilities and countenancing these dreaded outcomes took an emotional toll.

Thankfully I came through the procedure without those dreaded side effects and eleven years later I remain cancer free.

How do you survive traumatic scenarios like a cancer diagnosis and continue to thrive in ministry?

I pastored in our church for 30 years and during that time I not only survived cancer but mind-bending depression and my wife’s burnout. How do you avoid being crushed by the relentless toll of ministry especially when life throws you curve balls?

1. Prayer

One of the more traumatic seasons of my life was a relational breakdown with a key mentor that led to 15 months of dark depression during which I suffered suicidal thoughts.

One thing I never stopped doing through this season was prayer.

My prayer life was weaker than a new born babe however I refused to give up my place of prayer.

I regularly sat with the Lord, often speaking just a few words.

It was during one such prayer time that I had a vision in my mind.

I saw a hand reaching down from heaven holding me by the collar as my hands and legs dangled in the air like a rag doll. The Holy Spirit spoke and said, “Even if you let go, I never will”

Personal, private prayer has helped me avoid being crushed by the relentless toll of ministry.

2. My wife, Dianne

Dianne is a consistent, rock-like person who shows up and delivers what is needed.

She’s not a flighty type who drifts in and out of her pursuits.

She is like the proverbial rock of Gibraltar. Always there, always steady.

Her wisdom and support have kept me grounded when at times I wanted to desert my post as a pastor.

More than once Dianne has navigated me away from ship sinking reefs and guided me to my destination.

I would not have made it to today without her love.

Don’t get me wrong. Di has had her own struggles in ministry. Lifeway research reveals the impact ministry life has on a pastor’s spouse.

While 90% of pastors spouses think ministry has had a positive effect on their family, 59% believe that church commitments limit family time and 49% say they feel they live in a fishbowl.

The ministry takes its toll on not only pastors but also the one they married. Fortunately, Dianne knew that about my ministry aspirations before we got married and I discovered that she had similar aspirations in serving Christ.

This combined sense of call has served us well.

I’ve known other couples where a wife has resented her husband’s pastoral role and struggled to partner with him in their endeavours. This produces immense tension in a marriage and can cause it to even breakdown.

Di and I have found ways to talk things over and agree on the way forward. We’ve discovered that consistent and vulnerable communication of each others needs has helped us diffuse tensions in our ministry marriage. No plaudits in ministry can ever match a successful marriage

3. Friends

I have always made it a priority to invest in friends.

I’m not sure whether that’s my sanguine nature or Christ given wisdom or a combination of both.

Either way it’s enabled me to be a natural born networker who loves being around friends.

Friends have guide me, chided me and saved me from myself more than once.

And often it’s been pastor friends who have given me comfort as they intuitively understand my world and its pressures.

Open-hearted pastors have normalised my struggles and made me realise I am not the only one wading through the mud.

True friends lend us their eyes so we can see the other side

4. Jesus

I only need to look back to the pit from whence I was dug to get more perspective on my current problems.

I was a mess at 19, more confused than an 80-year-old at a rave party.

Christ shattered the immovable darkness that clouded my life, redeemed me, saving me from destruction.

When I look back at the chaotic state of my life and see where I am today, I feel a deep sense of debt to Christ. Walking away from his call would just feel so wrong.

However, it’s not just the past works of Jesus that have helped me get through the pain of ministry, it is also my ongoing walk with Him that has empowered to not only survive and yes, thrive.

I don’t know how pastors lead a ministry life without a vibrant walk with Christ.

Yes, that’s me back in the hippie days (on the left)

5. Purpose

I thrive best when I am ‘on purpose’ and focused.

When walking through dark times I have often latched onto a purpose, an objective that has given me the fuel to keep travelling down the road.

For instance, in the year I was fighting cancer I decided to put a huge focus on our annual men’s conference.

It was bumping along with 100-150 guys attending and was fun, but I knew it had another gear or two.

In that year I had coffee with over 50 pastors and gave them a personal invitation to attend the Real Men conference with the guys from their church.

It had an immediate impact with our next conference attracting 500 men.

Two questions I consistently ask leaders are:

What should you stop?

What should you start?

These are coaching questions par excellence that help leaders prune withered branches of purpose and launch new quests.

These questions help leaders get back on purpose which enables them to move out of quagmires and onto solid ground.

6. Sense of call

LifeWay research on why pastors left the pastorate indicates that calling is a significant factor when it comes to assessing your future.

40% of pastors left their pastorate because of a change in their calling.

My calling and even more significantly Dianne’s sense of calling kept us in our church on more than one occasion.

I knew Jesus had called me to pastor and more specifically to pastor our church.

And when I got so despondent that I wanted to quit, Dianne would tell me ” Well I’ve been called here, and the Lord has not called me anywhere else, so I am not leaving”

What do you say to your wife when she emphatically states that truth?

I believe the calling of the Lord is an anchor that helps us stay when we should stay but also enables us to move on when we should move on.

When Di and I came to the realisation that our time pastoring our church was coming to an end we both knew that the calling was finishing and a fresh call to a different ministry was developing in us.

The apostle Peter puts it like this, make every effort to confirm your calling 2 Peter 1:10.

Work on your calling.

Establish it in prayer.

Do the hard work of reflection.

Walk in it.

7. Getting older

As you get older you see things differently, including crises and problematic people.

You watch people make wrong choices and learn from their mistakes.

You reflect long and hard (or should at least :-)) on your previous decisions and the outcomes that flowed from those decisions.

You watch people make godly choices and see the blessing that flows into their lives and families.

You ask successful people probing questions and gain wisdom from their fruitful lives. 

You see bad things happen to good people and vice-versa and you ponder the unfathomable mysteries of life and things become less black and white.

You develop a forgiving heart rather than a crusty bitter one and you realise you are all the better for it.

In other words, you grow up.

Growing up for me has caused me to slow down impetuous decision making which made me less prone to radical shifts of direction. Over the years I have become better at surviving crises due to my gradually evolving maturity.

8. Leverage my talent

OK this is going to get slightly weird and appear boastful.

Let’s go.

I have a good skill set.

I’ve been an above average student.

I was an above average sportsman back in the day.

I can lead large groups of people through impossible situations.

I have a proven capacity to get along with people.

I have the perfect mix of skills, aptitude, personality and experience (I warned you this would get weird) to consult with a wide range of churches and pastors.

So, what am I saying here? What is all this boasting about John?

I have a healthy (I think it’s healthy) appreciation of who I am and what I can achieve.

Plus, I have a healthy awareness of what I don’t do well but I’ll leave the task of compiling that list to my family and friends.

I know my strengths, my weaknesses, my upside, my downside.

Therefore, in my thinking, I should MUST leverage my talents to the max if I am going to fulfil the call of God. And for me, that is ministry, not a business and not gardening. Yes, my daydreams during the odd crisis have taken me to the pruning of roses and planting of daffodils.

I carry a sense of destiny and am assured that Jesus has called me to the ministry I am fulfilling these days.

What’shelped you avoid being crushed by the relentless toll of ministry?

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