Staying Passionate as a Ministry Leader - by Keith Farmer

28 April 2021

I seem to need to click on the “Refresh” icon quite regularly as I work at my computer. Perhaps that is also a good idea for life generally. Ten years ago I was fortunate enough to be able to be refreshed by taking four months of saved up holidays and long service leave. I felt like a new person. I had only partially realised how tired and drained I was. Since returning from that time, one part of my ministry has involved mentoring about 90 ministry leaders from a wide range of churches and ministries. My role is to support them in ‘who they are’ in ministry, rather than ‘what they do’. This mentoring role is best combined with them also having a coach (for what they do) and a peer support group.

I have been very surprised and concerned by the prevalence and level of emotional depletion which Christian ministry leaders are experiencing. It is both important and urgent that this be addressed. Urgent - because very strongly committed and gifted people are at risk of not being able to continue. I believe many others have already drifted out or quit because of emotional burnout while giving other reasons. Important - because this situation is a tragic waste. But it is rectifiable.

Emotional resources are closely related to the Biblical concept of the heart (kardia – the seat of feeling, impulse, affective desire). This is translated by Petersen in “The Message” as ‘passion’ e.g. Matt 22 v 37 ‘Love the Lord your God with all your passion…’. It can be seen as an integral and central part of who we are.

Running low on emotional resources means that people have been expending or giving out in this area more than has been being replenished through rest, sleep, recreation and other means. It does not usually happen suddenly but gradually creeps up on us. We realise progressively that what we would normally have approached enthusiastically and even excitedly, we have to gear ourselves up to be able to do – e.g. meeting people, meetings, commitments such as preaching etc. all require us to take a deep breath before we can proceed. We can sometimes cover this up, even from those close to us, for quite a while. But we don’t get away with ignoring it.

The people I mentor have invariably a strong sense of ‘call’ to ministry and are motivated to work very hard. I find myself in awe of the skills they express in the course of a normal week. Because of their strong motivation and often their success, the emotional depletion creeps up on them. Emotional depletion will invariably effect other areas of life and ministry. There is a strong interrelationship between our emotional well being and spiritual, intellectual, and physical health. Relationships begin to suffer with the person who is normally enthusiastic and resilient beginning to avoid and even dread relating to others.

Emotional resources can be restored through a wide range of activity and non activity – worship, rest, love, fun, encouragement, inspiration, stimulating conversation, prayer, meditation, reading, being in nature, appreciating beauty, being creative, playing or watching sport, experiencing others’ creativity etc.

When the giving and/or draining experiences outweigh the restorative experiences we head towards emotional burnout. Probably one reason why the ‘new breed’ of ministry leaders tend towards emotional burnout is that they do not have enough boundaries or their boundaries are in the wrong place. It is part of the high level of commitment and their applied energy levels that this dilemma creeps up on them.

Part of my role as mentor is to help them to be more attentive to their own emotional needs. However, part of the problem lies in the fact that not only do they not fully appreciate the possible difficulties but the ‘Boards’ etc to which they are accountable do not seem to appreciate the dilemma. In the past decades when ministry was being equated with the ‘professions’, the conditions of work for those in ministry have gradually been amended through the concept that Ministry as a profession should provide employment conditions commensurate with other work which normally requires Higher Education qualifications. However, for at least the last 10 years, the ‘heart’ of ministry leaders has been to see their role as closer to a ‘vocation’ (with a strong calling) than a profession (with employee entitlements because of training etc). I applaud this change, but we have slipped into an area of oversight which can be very damaging for individuals, families and churches.

Eugene Petersen has written very eloquently and persuasively concerning the Godly rhythm of “Sabbath”. (Eugene H Petersen, Working the Angels-The Shape of Pastoral Integrity, Eerdmans,1998). He emphasises the pray and play nature of having a weekly sabbatical. Most of the people I am in contact with have put this in place and observe it regularly. What has not been widely recognised is that the scripture outlines not only the 7 day rhythm with one day as sabbatical but also the seven year rhythm with one year as sabbatical (Exodus 23 v 10-11, Leviticus 25 v 1-7). The vital resources of productive land require that there be a fallow year in order to allow it to keep producing for the long term. The sabbatical year also freed the landowner from the day to day responsibilities of producing and harvesting crops, which would therefore also bring refreshment for the future of their vocation.

The Babylonian exile of seventy years is even expressed as allowing for seventy years of fallow to make up for what the Israelites had neglected to do for many years (2 Chronicles 36 v 20-21).

My suggestion is that we consider it normative for ministry leaders who are vocational in their approach to ministry to be granted, in addition to one day of rest per week, the equivalent of the sabbatical year. This one in seven Sabbatical leave should be allocated between holidays and long service leave (play), and special leave (pray). i.e. an average of four weeks annual leave plus one week Long Service Leave plus two and a half weeks of special leave per year. It is probably best arranged that the special leave part be taken approximately every three or four years and Long Service Leave every 10 years. Special Leave is not holidays but the opportunity to be refreshed and refuelled vocationally and spiritually for the next three or four years of ministry. It is interesting to note that the scriptural principle of sabbatical became accepted a long time ago within church run education centres and has become accepted practice in Higher Education, which is predominantly secular, while the churches have not recognised its application to ministry. The ministry leader would normally be required to submit a proposal to his/her Board for approval. A wide range of ways of effectively using this time; from Retreating through to undertaking formal professional development, to being exposed to the ways other ministries/churches operate, could be invoked. The necessity is that the person is not responsible for a period of time for their normal (emotionally draining) responsibilities.

Ministry is very emotionally draining with its wide range of needed skills and its necessary constant people contact. Our society willingly allows school teachers more time for replenishment than the normal four weeks of annual leave. Close people contact and responsibility is very draining.

It is not only ministry leadership in larger churches which requires great commitment, skill and emotional energy. Equally demanding are situations of churches being transitioned to being more outwardly focussed and the pioneering work of church planting.

A key question will of course be – ‘Can we afford to do this?’ I suspect that we cannot afford not to do it. The fact that there has not been a clamour before this to recognise how important it is to resource the inestimable value of the ministry leaders who take their work responsibilities as vocational is an indication of their hearts being in the right place.

I am willing to talk with any Ministry leaders or Ministry Boards desiring to explore these issues further.

Keith Farmer has been involved in ministry and ministry training over many years. His background was in commerce and psychology. Keith has been involved in local church ministries in NSW & Victoria and then for 24 years was the Principal of what is now known as the Australian College of Ministries – ACoM.

Keith is now involved in an itinerant ministry providing mentoring to Christian ministers and leaders across Australia, as well as some preaching and teaching. Keith is passionate about helping Christian leaders to develop in spiritual and personal maturity for ‘who they are’ to sustain ministry and service.

He and his wife, Margaret, are based in NSW. They have three married children and nine grandchildren. Keith has been a keen sportsman, has a real interest in news and current affairs and enjoys walking.

Photo by Nick Fewings on Unsplash

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