When ministry becomes overwhelming

A therapist reflects on the landmines of pastoral ministry, and how he emerged—barely.

Hymers Wilson, MDiv, MSW, a retired pastor with the Ontario Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, works part-time as a mental-health therapist among the indigenous people in northern Manitoba, Canada.

Many pastors are valiantly trying to cope with managing the tensions and personal stressors associated with being confined at home with family members. While promoting the spiritual health of your church is important and preserving the social health of the family is necessary, pursuing your own mental health is crucial.

From my assignment as a conference departmental director and my many years as a local pastor, I know what it is like to reach the place where ministry becomes overwhelming. I know the experience of feeling as if you are losing your mind. Allow me to share some experiences I had and, enriched by my training as a chaplain and a mental health therapist, offer some solutions that worked for me.

Stresses on the family

A few days before each sermon delivery date, my wife Joy observed the same thing—I shut down. I would grow less communicative as I mulled over what I was going to say and how I would say it. From Joy’s point of view, I had dialed down communication with her. During the early years of pastoring, especially when the children came along, I was not aware of this dynamic. I just felt the pressure of her criticism of my disappearing into my “cave” of contemplation and reflection. For those few days, I was not available to her. She felt as if she were on her own. Our relationship was under threat.

Weekends were my busiest work times—when the rest of the family was relaxing. My downtime came when they were either working or in school. I felt as if I were on my own. True, I had connections with a few other pastor friends. Yet they, like me, were dealing with the challenges of their congregations. We chatted on the phone but rarely were we socially together.

Confidants were few. A gulf existed between the other older ministers and me, and the only ministers I could really trust were my seminary peers. Then, at times, I would hear something distressing or shocking from or about church members. Not only was I unable to share with my wife but, because of matters of distance or issues of confidentiality, I could not share with my fellow ministers. As I locked up these issues in my mind, a mood descended on me like a dark cloud, glaringly visible to those I loved the most.

Stresses from the members

I have held leadership positions in black and white churches, in Europe and in North America. I have observed how a congregation’s exuberant passion for church, when managed well, can lead to vibrant growth. I have also seen how this same passion for church, when managed poorly, can lead to mortal friction. Maintaining the balance was often exhausting; so were members’ expectations of me. I wanted to be able to meet those expectations. In my early days as a preacher, I would feel terrible if I delivered what I thought was a mediocre message because I knew that the congregation thirsted for a rousing message, served hot and with animation. I desperately wanted to preach like the so-called stars in the denomination. At times, I felt members craved a dynamic pulpiteer. At other times, I felt they wanted a consummate administrator. At all times, they expected a spiritual giant—yea, even a saint.

Members could fuss and use strong language at board meetings, but I could not give myself permission to do the same. If I got agitated or upset, I would be held to a different standard. I had to hide my feelings, stifle my anger, and bottle my resentment.

At one church, I thought that ministry was going well. We added 100 members in my five years there. A little more than halfway through my tenure, during a church business meeting, someone criticized the growth we were experiencing. The member downplayed it, describing it pejoratively as “biological” growth, namely, that we were adding only the children of existing members. The person did not believe we were working effectively enough to reach people from the neighborhood.

As I heard a muted murmur of agreement spring up around the room, the comment was like a barb to my soul. I had worked hard. I had been diligent in inspiring the church members to also work hard. The comments seared my mind, and the criticism stung. As on other occasions, I labored to hold in check my passions. I felt resentment at what I perceived was a lack of affirmation, even a personal attack. It left me feeling embarrassed, underrated, and hurt.

On another occasion, one member became upset with the bidding process for remodeling work in the church. He came to my office and berated me. Then, unbelievably, he swore at me, so strongly did he believe in the justness of his cause. It was all I could do to exercise self-control. I told him I was surprised at his conduct and that I did not appreciate his approach. He departed unmoved, leaving me struggling under the pressure of being a saint.

Another member came to my office and told me rather gravely that his wife and others had gone to the conference office to complain about me. I am assuming the conference president redirected them to take their complaint to the local church board first because I never heard anything else about it. But the effect on me was devastating. I felt the impact keenly for a couple of weeks, unable to believe that such a thing could have ever happened to me. What made it worse was that I did not feel I could share what I was going through with my wife. She was a member there, too. I did not want her to view those members differently or get involved in the conflict to protect me.

I realize that we all handle stress differently. What may threaten to overwhelm me may not trouble you. There are ministers for whom criticism flows like water off a duck’s back. I have heard of pastors who took no nonsense from their members and gave as good as they got. You may be one of those. I am not built that way. I grew up in the United Kingdom, where politeness in the face of criticism was met with admiration, and calmness under pressure was considered a virtue. I had to work out how to take care of myself in the face of the challenges of these stressors. So, what worked for me and what may work for you?

Strategies to cope

Although semiretired, I work part-time as a mental health therapist for the First Nations Inuit Health Branch of Health Canada. My present employment encourages us to seek professional counseling supervision to help us keep our heads above water and to work sustainably so that we can avoid burnout. Professional supervision provides a forum to express frustrations and pain and provides for advice on how to deal with them.

Here are some suggestions you may consider.

1. Talk to your spouse. If you are married, maintain open communication with your mate, not about specific details but about identified emotions. When I opened up and expressed my feelings, it had a better effect than when I stubbornly held them inside, allowing them to fester. Letting them build up without release only led to their bubbling out in moodiness or, worse still, erupting like a volcano in exhibitions of frustrated anger. Fortunately, Joy has always been able to listen to my vulnerabilities and has stepped in with loving support.

2. Share with a peer. If ministers are single or have partners unable to give satisfactory levels of empathy, they need to share feelings of hurt, anger, or frustration with fellow clergy that they trust. I have found that even unburdening yourself to fellow ministers in a local ministerium from other denominations can be helpful because they experience many of the same feelings.

3. Find a counselor. Connect with a reputable, qualified Christian counselor. In Canada, this means at least finding a counselor registered with a professional college of, for example, psychology, psychotherapy, or social work.

4. Take care of your body. I discovered that going to the gym weekly and getting a regular dose of exercise was a lifesaver for me. I say “dose,” because research suggests that exercise is effective in preventing symptoms of stress, anxiety, panic attacks,1 and mild to moderate depression.2 Progressive physicians are even prescribing it. I also found an interesting side benefit to going to my local gym and working out regularly while I was employed as a minister. I was able to meet and connect with people who were not members of my local congregation. It was refreshing. I did not have to be on show. They placed no professional demands on me or my time. I could form friendships without the prospect of getting accused of favoritism or partisanship.

5. Take care of your mind. I have heard of ministers who, after graduation from seminary, stop studying and searching Scripture. They no longer keep up with reading what biblical scholars are currently saying about its passages in light of their research of the original language and the history and customs of biblical times. Such diligent research may save you much heartache when approached by questioning members armed with comprehensive knowledge of an issue.

6. Take time off. Self-care includes taking reasonable but regular breaks from the work of ministry. This break is one day when no one can contact you for anything except the direst of circumstances. Delegate to your associate pastor or head elder responsibility for dealing with urgent issues. Let that person know how to contact you for situations, such as a death, that require the minister’s prompt and personal attention. It is a day when you can just “chill out” and do something pleasurable. It may include doing something with your partner or children. Monday was my day off, but I found most Mondays were times I spent doing something helpful for me. I have conducted a few funerals on Mondays. But I was clear with my designated person that pretty much everything else could wait until Tuesday.

7. Take a vacation. I found it vitally important to take at least one annual vacation for one week, two weeks, or even more. In my years of interacting with other ministers, we all agreed that getting out of town with your spouse and children is vital. Work has ingenious ways of finding you on a “staycation.” When our children were younger and we were getting by on our modest minister’s salary, we would simply go camping. We look back on those occasions, preserved digitally or in photographs, as important milestones. They fostered our bonding as a family and helped cement the message that my spouse and children were my main priority, even above the church members.

8. Limit your availability. Making themselves unavailable is anathema to some pastors. They quote John 5:17, “But Jesus replied, ‘My Father is always working, and so am I’ ” (NLT). Restricting access is critical. Members have access to you 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, through emails, texts, and calls to your cell phone. A minister needs to manage this kind of access. My cell phone has a feature that allows me to silence calls or texts after I go to bed. Communicating your availability to your members could mean directing them through your outgoing message to leave a voicemail for urgent attention the next day or to use local crisis telephone numbers for life-and-death emergencies that cannot wait.

9. Go easy on yourself. When members are critical, it is important not to take it personally. Listen to the criticism with an open mind. Sift it, explore it, and consult with others whose counsel has proven wise in the past. Assert your right to be spoken to respectfully. I reminded one church member that I had always been respectful to him and that I expected the same treatment in return.

10. Do not forget to breathe. When someone riles me and I get angry, I find myself breathing in quick, shallow breaths. I get hot under the collar and automatically shift into defensive mode, thinking of sharp rebuttals. At such times, remember to breathe. Using the principles of mindfulness, focus on breathing deeply, getting oxygen to your brain. It will help you keep your wits about you so that you do not react inappropriately. The person before you could be carrying pain, hurt, and frustration from problems at work, unemployment, broken relationships, or pressures at school. You may not want to deal with those underlying hurts at that moment in time but make a mental note to self to gently explore later what is going on in the background, if the member is open to it.

I have found that, if you are conscientious, the work is just as busy and potentially just as overwhelming in a small church as it is in a large one. It is essential for pastors to follow a routine of self-care. Self-care is crucial to avoid being overwhelmed. Jesus practiced it (see Matt. 14:23). My advice would be to follow His example.

  1. Edmund J. Bourne, The Anxiety and Phobia Workbook, 5th ed. (Oakland, CA: New Harbinger, 2010), 105.
  2. Mental Health First Aid Canada, 2nd ed. (Mental Health Commission of Canada, 2011), section 3, 13.

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Hymers Wilson, MDiv, MSW, a retired pastor with the Ontario Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, works part-time as a mental-health therapist among the indigenous people in northern Manitoba, Canada.

June 2020

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