Resilience is a buzzword in many circles, and aren’t there plenty of days we would love a good dose of it for ourselves? Chris Brennan encourages us to reflect on ourselves and our situation to help us get that dose. Chris is the Dean of St Peter’s Cathedral Armidale.
One of the big topics in ministry circles at the moment is resilience. It certainly seems big to me as I experience varying occasional sequences of busy-ness, tiredness, disfunction, envy, frustration and then discouragement in ministry. It happens enough for me that I can sometimes find that I have taken my eyes off all that God has done in the Lord Jesus and is doing through me and around me. And then I hear the crushing news of those ministry fellows who have stumbled, stumbled out of ministry, stumbled out of positive relationships, and even stumbled out of faith. Resilience in ministry is certainly worth the discussion. Some time ago I asked the resilience question of one of those who stumbled. I asked ‘Why is ministry so hard?’ His answer was fulsome, grounded in experience, and practical wisdom, and I’m going to share his insights, mixed with mine, as I have reflected further on what was said. What follows is not a carefully researched study, but merely a reflection of what I found to be a really helpful conversation.
Along with crucial self-care, a careful management of our expectations seems to be an important but often overlooked key to hanging in there. My dear brother helpfully reminded me that firstly, and most importantly, ministry has always been hard. This fact is worth pointing out because we will all live it. We tend to moan about tough days, or particularly busy and stress-laden months, but the apostles daily faced death and hardship in a hundred different ways. In later centuries faithful ministers worked away in their plague-ravaged villages, often succumbing themselves. Missions into war zones, leper colonies and into dangerous and violent jungles are less than a generation old, and even today some really brave and faithful Christians willingly give away daily face to face contact with family members, familiar streets, comfortable climates, and good coffee for the sake of the gospel—hard to believe, but true! In reality, our hard days, here in Australia at least, don’t end in a beheading or crucifixion, but our expectation of ministry should be to expect hardship and personal cost. To have a different expectation is to ignore what Jesus says, and what his people have experienced down through the ages. We need to foster within ourselves a realistic expectation of this, while at the same time developing a right priority of obedience to Jesus over comfort. Even if this stands against what our culture and our sinful selves might attractively counsel, desire, and justify. A thorough and personal reading of Matthew— or at least 10:34-39 if you are really busy—will be a good corrective, along with the pastoral epistles, and the Ordinal for that matter, especially if it is a while since you looked at them.
Secondly, each personality type creates different pressures for each minister of the gospel. It is well worth taking the time to reflect on what kind of person you are (and your spouse too, if you are blessed to have one). The task-focused and driven among us will experience stress as people fail to meet what we see as necessary expectations. The flow on will be the major stress of relational conflict, where our side of the conflict will often be unhelpfully and liberally seasoned with self-righteousness and presumption. On the other hand, the more relationally focused, or academic among us, may struggle to be organised, or to be able to get through all that we need to get through because we are so busy caring or learning. The pressure of time, and the danger of permeable work-relationship boundaries can cause real issues at this point.
Each personality is different, and each will carry with it unique dangers that can impact on us in different ways, at different times.
We need to know ourselves in humility and acknowledge properly that the church is a body with different members: different in maturity, ability, role and responsibility, but equal in value. This will go some of the way towards building more realistic and theologically balanced expectations for ourselves and others.
A second, related danger here is that our personalities will lead us to hear or read unhelpfully. If I am a task-focused pastor located in a remote community with a small population, reading the latest mega-church, step by step leadership guide to awesome godliness and a church of a thousand, may be far less than helpful. It might even be downright unhelpful and depression-inducing if we can’t recognise our unique selves, and unique situations as we hear or read. Similarly, if I don’t recognise myself well, then I may not read at all something that might helpfully correct my lack in this area or that. Ministers of the gospel have been victims of living in the social media opinion bubble for longer than social media has been around, I think. It is important too, to remember that aspects of our personality and effectiveness are properly open to reform by God’s Spirit through exposure to his word and the godly counsel of the wise. Some weaknesses are sinful and require repentance.
A third reality is that our post-Christian and increasingly individualistic society brings to bear new and unique pressures that eat away at our time and confidence and therefore at our resilience. We need to note up front that we are part of this society, products of it, and therefore not innocent collateral damage of the shift—in some ways we propagate it. Although ministry has always been hard, individualism brings with it a staggering complexity. Only a generation ago, denominational ministers followed pretty closely to a set format, both liturgically and in terms of congregational expectation. They carried an authority that was rarely challenged, and their role revolved around Sundays and the regular occasional services (hatch, match, dispatch, and umpiring the local games of cricket). Evangelism could be run comfortably from the church through those services, Sunday schools and youth groups, trading on community expectations and a widely accepted authority. This form of ministry and evangelism sat comfortably in what was a basically Judeo-Christian world view, blessed with a fair biblical literacy and Sundays reserved for just these purposes. Clearly, the situation has changed.
Individualism has impacted both the wider population and the institutions that serve them, including the church.
People are far more suspicious of denominations, churches and church leadership (and with some good reason it must be said). People are far more focused on themselves, and seek self-actualisation, rather than fitting in with a broader paradigm (‘we’re all individuals’ someone once famously said). More comfortable with the supermarket approach, people seek options and points of difference. For the minister this has huge impacts. No longer is the denomination trendy, so we’ll go independent. No longer is the office valued, and so we’ll change the title and redefine the role. (I’m no longer a minister. My desk slab says ‘cool, relatable, lycra-wearing, fun-loving teacher of truth and eternal direction. See me for the best climate-neutral, and social-justice-approved coffee bean advice going around’). That creates a pressure. A pressure to be entrepreneurial, sadly competitive, and relevant in accordance with the assessment of a changing society, and deeper questions of worth from within. Our people too, having dispensed with clerical authority, have become more vocal about their preferences, not as preferences, but as essentials to connect with them and a society increasingly distanced from the church and less biblically literate. That’s why you must dress this way or that, play this type of music or that, with these lights, using these new technologies, addressing these particular hot-button issues, and for this long. Rocking up to church to work through the Bible as an authoritative and revealed text, using a set liturgy, a set song book and holding to basic orthodox theology does not easily sit with many of us and with the society thirsting for the new and exciting that we now inhabit. This creates extra work, and a perceived or real need to engage more fully with a quickly-changing and suspicious world. Conflicts arising today would have been unimaginable to many in the generations before us. On top of this there is now a new and significant administrative load created, at least in part, by the failings of those who came before us. This is particularly evident in the areas of safe ministry and compliance. Again, these burdens were not within the normal experience of those who came before. That said, our expectations must be built for the now, not for what once was. If we are going to minister in today’s world, we are going to have to acknowledge the situation and work in it, holding on to that which is essential and good, while being prepared to jettison some of that which was just easier. We will need to develop an expectation of flexibility and heightened relational engagement. We will need to be sure of the positions and directions that we take, why they matter, and be prepared to communicate this clearly, confidently, and with great patience.
All of this is about knowing ourselves, knowing our situations, and then in humility building realistic and godly expectations in the midst of this.
After all it is God’s church. If we want to survive in the ministry world, we will of course have to take on board all the self-care wisdom that has been helpfully generated, but we will need to do this carefully, not selfishly, slavishly or without consideration for others, but with godly flexibility and a view towards loving our neighbours and ourselves over the long term. We need to work on our own relationship with the Lord Jesus through prayer and Bible reading. We need to take our days off when we can, and make sure our staff, if we have them, can responsibly do the same. We will need to look after our marriages, and families as we seek to present those closest to us holy and blameless before the Lord, and we will need to develop a proper love for the brothers and sisters given over to our care in our churches. All of this will take time, energy and organisation, but perhaps the building of proper godly and humble expectations and understandings of ourselves and situations might help us here too.