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Help for spiritual leaders in hard times

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Archives / 2005 / July/August

 

 

Help for spiritual leaders in hard times

Ben Campbell Johnson
Ben Campbell Johnson, D.Min., Ph.D., is professor emeritus of Columbia Theological Seminary, Decatur, Georgia.

 

Clergy today are having a difficult time! Congregations are harder to serve. They are of greater diversity and have higher expectations. Ministers are caught between traditional values and outlooks and a high-pressure array of daunting innovation and moral uncertainty, all easily identifiable in any one congregation. The pastor is no longer the parson, almost universally looked up to and respected by those under his or her care.

Most pastors serve congregations of 100 members or less. They struggle to raise mission funds and often fail to get an adequate salary. With years of education and professional training, a high percentage of pastors earn little more than a minimum wage. In an effort to meet a congregation's demands, clergy become notorious workaholics and often find themselves living on the borders of burnout. No wonder that each month between 1,400 and 1,600 clergy from all denominations in the United States drop out of the ministry.

In a recent study the Missouri Synod Lutherans found a mixture of attitudes toward the ministry. About 30 percent of the ministers found great satisfaction and personal fulfillment in ministry; another 30 percent had mixed feelings about their work; while the remaining 40 percent were moderately distressed and facing burnout.

Is there help for pastors who are facing hard times? Is there an untapped source of strength for those who wonder if they can go on? Must these dedicated men and women continue with a sense of failure and defeat in one of the most significant vocations there is?

Renewing the original call to be a spiritual leader

A major part of the answer lies in the recovery of a profound sense of who we are; a realization of who called us to this task and the important role that we fill in Christ's body and in His world. We may find a new sense of God in our lives when we review our call and the primal reasons we had for entering ministry in the first place.

The symptoms of burnout, exhaustion, defeat, and depression often flow from a deeper need in our lives, a God-sized need. Not one of us faces a struggle or betrayal or failure that is too huge for God to handle. Servants of God have received grace and help in the past, and we too can count on God in ways that perhaps we have not yet tapped.

Perhaps we should be reminded that these are not the first hard times that God's ministers have faced in their leadership, and they will not be the last.

Consider Paul's testimony as it echoes from the first century: "But we have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us. We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be made visible in our bodies. For while we live, we are always being given up to death for Jesus' sake, so that the life of Jesus may be made visible in our mortal flesh. So death is at work in us, but life in you" (2 Cor. 4:7-12, NRSV).

Paul's cry of pain surely indicates that the servant leaders of God through the centuries have faced times of persecution, perplexity, and even death when they have been faithful to God's call. Experiencing hard times is not a new thing for clergy, but bearing rejection, abuse, and anxiety is always painful.

Perhaps if we can see our suffering for the sake of Christ and the kingdom, we can find the strength and courage to deal with what ever testing may come.

My own hard times

Christ became a real presence in my life when I was 17 years old. I have been a minister for 55 years. I hold degrees from three denominational schools and two from independent schools. I have served two parishes for 10 years, directed a nonprofit ministry for 17 years, and taught in a Presbyterian seminary for 20 years. Through out all these experiences I have, from time to time, known feelings of failure, distress, loneliness, and pain that daily weighted me down.

Five years out of seminary, in my second pastorate, I had the frills of success. In spite of a growing membership and the erection of new buildings, I was struck with disturbing doubts about my call. I had success fully developed a failed church into a thriving operation, but inwardly I often felt empty. Then, something happened that renewed my life and allayed my pressing inner fears.

During my tenure in this second pastorate, I began a lay ministry that had far-reaching consequences. Over the next ten years it grew into a national movement that more than a dozen denominations adopted. The acclaim I had always dreamed of came in abundance.

Unfortunately, my ego was too weak to absorb the applause and properly evaluate it. I began trying to live up to the image I thought others held of me. As the months passed, I felt ever more empty and plagued with growing feelings of phoniness. The strain of playing a role, of feeling so miserably unreal, made me dread every day's work.

I found myself wishing that I was someone else and engaged some where else. Yet though I could not feel God's presence; I sensed that God had not forgotten me. Without my knowledge, God was planning new directions for my life.

While struggling with these conflicted feelings, I also faced other issues. At times my family relation ships were in shambles, my daughter was not becoming the person that I dreamed she would be, and conflicts with incompetent employees made my days at work more difficult. Somewhere along the way, I lost hope that my life would ever get better.

In those years I looked like success on the outside, but inside I was plagued with a gnawing sense of failure. While I ached with these contradictory ways of thinking and felt confused about the direction of my life, I did not realize God was trans forming my purposelessness into a new beginning.

I do not write about my pain as a masochistic, ministerial exhibitionist, nor do I claim that my pain is greater than another's. I have hinted at the depth of my own struggle to under score the fact that what I write here does not arise out of academic foundations. I have simply felt the pain of being a clergy person struggling with personal and leadership issues.

But I do emphasize that my sense both of God and of myself deepened through my struggles. In offering a few words of guidance for hard times, I speak out of my own woundedness.

A way to God

I recently asked a minister friend what his greatest struggle had been. He responded, "Having a meaningful prayer life." His answer to my question took me back to that church early in my ministry and to my experience there of visible success while at the same time I experienced heavy questions about the call of God to me.

Like my minister friend, I had found it easier to do the work of the church than the work of God.

Back at that time, in the midst of my struggle with emptiness and loneliness, a minister friend had given me a small, sixty-four page booklet, Teach Me to Pray by W. E. Sangster. I had read it and tossed it aside because it offered nothing new.

A week or two later I seemed compelled to pick up the booklet and reread it. This time a voice spoke within me, "If the way you are praying isn't working very well, why don't you try what someone else suggests?" I took that challenge and determined to pray in a prescribed manner for 30 days. Here is the form of prayer that I rigorously followed:

In the morning

Be still. Find a quiet place. Get seat ed comfortably. Relax. Take a few deep breaths.

Remind yourself: "I am here to meet God. No other appointment competes in importance." Read a Bible verse for the day.

Adoration. Think on the greatness of God. How incredible it is that God knows you and desires to have fellowship with you. God is eager to encounter you. Adore God.

Thanksgiving. Name the things that God has given you for which you are grateful: family, friends, health, work, the church, fun, food, etc. Picture these gracious gifts and thank God for each one.

Dedication. Review the large vows you have taken as a Christian, church member, minister, spouse, employee. Reaffirm these, but also focus intent ly upon this day. Offer your life to God for joyful service today.

Guidance. Envision your day with God. Foresee God in each task, each relationship, each opportunity, and each member of your family, and in the unscheduled events and encounters. Ask for God's guidance in each aspect of your day.

Intercession. Make a list of the names of persons who need a relationship with Christ. Resolve to pray for them daily. Also include in your intercessory prayers those whom you love and those who suffer in whatever way. In addition, pray for the country, that the kingdom of Christ may come in all of our national affairs.

If our imagination could grasp the effect of prayer on others, usual as it may sound to repeat it, we would pray more often and with more assurance.

Here are four ways to pray for the persons you have named. Use these forms of prayer alternately.

1. Call their names in God's presence, asking God to fulfill their needs.

2. Picture each person in the trans forming presence of God.

3. Write a prayer letter to God in which you express your concerns and hopes for each.

4. Offer a prayer of presence by deliberately being with the person for whom you pray.

Petition. Tell God what you most deeply desire in your life. "Whatever you ask for in prayer with faith, you will receive" (Matt. 21:22, NRSV). Don't be fooled by the blank check appearance of this promise.

As we spend time in God's presence, our desires change; our true wants are crystallized by the Spirit.

So persist in asking for what you really want until you know what it is.

Act of trust. Release your prayers to God and trust God to answer them. "For whoever would approach [God] must believe that he exists and . . .rewards those who seek [him]" (Heb. 11:6, NRSV).

Wait. In the silence wait to hear what God wishes to say to you. "Speak, Lord, Your child listens." Repeat your passage for the day and reflect on it. Write it on a slip of paper and carry it with you throughout the day.

In the evening

Review the day. Identify the places God has been at work in your day and give thanks.

Confession. Note your feelings, actions, and choices that have been contrary to God's will in Christ. Be specific. Acknowledge those and accept God's forgiveness.

Commitment. Release yourself to God for the night. Pray that you may drift into sleep conscious of God's loving presence.

Learning

Each morning I arose, took W. E. Sangster's booklet, and opened it to the guide. I read, "Adoration," think on the greatness of God, etc., and I fol lowed this suggestion. I let my mind wander into the mystery and wonder of knowing God.

I then read Thanksgiving, and I named the specific persons and things for which I was grateful. I continued until I had completed each directive. I followed my new instructor's guidance for 30 days.

At the end of the month I identified definite changes: I was praying daily and had begun to sense that I was making contact with God. The prayers that I prayed were being answered; I was at peace and welcomed my daily time with God. My focus in ministry also changed from dread to delight as I looked forward to what God might do through preaching and worship and visits with people in the parish.

It had been my struggle with my call that led to meaningful prayer.

If you feel some of the things that plagued my life, you might find it helpful to engage in your own 30-day experiment in prayer using the daily guide. You might be surprised at what happens in your life and ministry!

Becoming real

Later in my life and ministry, I had a struggle with my self-image—how to be real, how to express on the outside the person I was inside, how to be the person God had created me to be.

I had fallen into the dangerous trap of trying to be the minister that other people thought I ought to be. This distortion of our true identity causes us to spend excessive energy trying to please others.

This is precisely what I did while leading a nationwide renewal movement. The dichotomy between who I knew myself to be and what I thought others wanted me to be led me to an act of confessing my whole life before God.

The idea of confronting myself in all of its raw reality came from a great spiritual writer, Francis de Sales, author of Introduction to the Devout Life. He suggested that I lay before God all the failings and errors of my life.

Being challenged to face myself before God, with all my emptiness and failure and hypocrisy, was daunting. But I set out to do it.

As a backdrop for this wholesale confession, I first reviewed the love of God for me. I remembered that God loves me no matter what I may have done or thought or felt. Nothing can cause God to love me more; nothing can cause God to love me less. God loves me unconditionally at this very moment. Nothing that I was about to utter in my confession would surprise God.

With this confidence, I set a day to begin my first real-life confession. I began with my earliest childhood memories and placed before God my actions, attitudes, and feelings that were betrayals of Christ. One by one, I acknowledged them to God. After each confession, I asked, "Do you love this person?" A "yes" rang in my heart.

Next, I began to confess my acts of adolescent sexual exploration, my indiscretions, lies, deceitful actions, stealing, swearing, disobeying my parents, and totally ignoring the One to whom I was confessing.

As I went through this list, I sought to place myself in the situation, envision the setting, and feel the dark urges in my soul. Seeing myself in each of these situations, I held the picture up to the light of God.

In God's light, my darkness became diffused by the divine Presence. No matter how painful, I persisted in owning and confessing the barrenness of my life. After each session I felt more deeply that God did love me, the real me.

The same acceptance by God held fast when I began confessing the sin and brokenness of my adult years— failed parenting, greed, false ambition, materialism, the desire for greatness, lust, evil imaginations, a critical spirit, betrayal, broken vows, and pride, to name a few.

As I looked hard at the failure and sin of my adult years, I could build a strong case against myself. I could name a hundred reasons why God should not love or forgive me and why God should not permit me to share in the divine mission to the world.

My self-accusations, however, did not hold up in God's court of mercy. God loved me, accepted me, and for gave me. God chose to use me despite my struggles and failures. I believe that God will help all of us to get real, if we bring our whole self to Him.

Though I did not at first write my confession to God, I have since found an enormous value in writing it. Insight often comes in the act of writing. This does not come by only mentally rehashing your life. Besides, when you write your confession, you have an enduring record before you. So consider writing your confession, even if you burn it when you have finished.

Recently, I have written a thorough confession of my life. At my age there are many reasons to place my whole life before God. 1

Listen to God

Most of us have been admonished to listen to God, but no one has ever told us "how" to listen for God. In addition to this lack of direction, many of us were trained in seminaries that looked with suspicion upon those who claimed that God spoke to them.

Recently, a woman shared her experience with me. She said, "When I read your book The God Who Speaks,2 I was so encouraged. I went into the ministry because God called me in a rather unusual way. However, I never spoke about this call with my seminary professors because I feared that they would think I was crazy. I felt relieved when I discovered that you, a seminary professor, believe that God still speaks to us. Even if you have not faced rejection for believing God speaks to us, I imagine that you would welcome hearing about ways to listen for God."

Try these suggestions as modes of listening for God:

First, still your body and your mind. In the stillness begin to muse over the questions of your life. Write the questions that interest or trouble you. Begin with the hard ones. Write each of these in a notebook or journal.

When the first eruption of questions slows down and it appears that there are no more, muse over your relationships and notice the questions that arise. What are the questions that come to you regarding your family? Move on to the congregation, the government, the war, and the injustices in the world.

When you have exhausted your questions, lay your pen down and be present to the questions on your list. Don't try to answer the questions; simply be present to them. Spend as much time as you need. I invite you to trust that God is in your questions. As you muse over them, you are likely to hear God speak.

Second, move into the deep stillness of your soul and ask the question: God, what would You say to me? Put your pen to the paper and begin to write. Don't think ahead for an answer. Catch the words as they bubble up from your deeper self. Try not to think about what God ought to say or what you wish God to say. Simply write what comes to you.

This is a right-brain activity, so let the words present themselves to you. Be playful and delight in the experience.

Third, when you have exhausted your writing, you may keep the flow moving by asking, "What else would You say to me?" When you have finished writing and looked at what you have written, I think you will be surprised by two things: how easily you wrote and the content of what you wrote! Wisdom, insight, and inspiration will come forth that will shock you.

Fourth, evaluate what you have written. I believe two things about this way of writing. First, God does not dictate what I write and second, what I write is not nonsense. I believe that God is in the writing. So, I reread what I have written to discern what God has said to me.

When I listen for God in this fashion, I generally have greater clarity, a sense of direction, and the conviction that I am not alone in my struggle. If I find in the writing something that disturbs me, I ask a spiritual friend for evaluation and guidance.

Find a spiritual friend

My idea of a spiritual friend is a person with whom I can talk, a per son who not only listens but also offers spiritual discernment.

This person may be older or younger; wisdom is not a monopoly of the mature. Some younger persons seem to discern the ways of the Spirit more keenly than older ones do. I think this has to do with spiritual gifts and the maturity of the person regard less of age. Be sure to find someone whom you can trust. Decide on a time and place and the frequency of meeting. Meeting monthly works fine.

A spiritual friend may be only for your guidance, or it may be a mutual experience. If it works out that you are to be listeners and discerners for one another, a short break between the times of sharing will help you change roles and thus have a better experience.

If you set up a mutual spiritual friendship, a workable plan would be for one person to share, receive questions and feedback, and be prayed for. After a short break, change roles and repeat the process.3

In this brief article I have endeavored to share two things with you—my own struggles to survive as a minister and spiritual leader, and a few discoveries that have come out of them. I have passed these discoveries on to you with the hope that some of them will be of help to you in hard times. If you desire to share your story with me, I welcome the opportunity to hear it. I will join you in prayer, and I always answer my mail (bjohnl923@aol.com).

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1 Ben Johnson, Confessing a Life (Vital Churches Resources, P.O. Box 18378, Pittsburgh, PA 15236. Or online: bookorders@vitalfaithresources.com).

2 ———, The Coil Who Speaks (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2004).

3 Tilden Edwards, Spiritual Friend (Mahwah, N.J.: Paulist Press, 1980).

 

 

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