In this practical article by James T. Flynn, you will discover four keys to experiencing a lifetime of fruitful ministry.
Ministerial formation’s goal is for ministers and their families to experience a lifetime of fruitful service. When formation does not take into account forces of deformation commonly experienced in ministry, the result is malformation that leads to failure under stress with devastating consequences.
At least four common stressors in ministry should be addressed to build a “firewall” of protection for ministers and their families to ensure better long-term outcomes.
In the first post, we looked at two of the four stressors: boundary and loneliness stressors. In this post we will look at identity and health stressors:
Identity Stressors: Insufficient skill, personal habits, or awareness of the need for ministers to understand themselves, their profession, and their limitations in order to produce a healthy and holistic concept of self, ministry, and family (incomplete formation)
Health Stressors: Forces that directly work against the holistic health of ministers and their families, affecting their emotional, physical, and spiritual health (compromised wellness)
The role of the minister is one of constant tensions that must be kept in balance by facing one’s limitations in gifting, calling, and frail humanity. There are several constant stressors that ministers face that war against a healthy self-identity and a realistic professional identity for the minister and his or her family:
- Divinely Called but Human: The minister experiences a divine calling and anointing to minister, yet must reconcile this with the weaknesses and imperfections that are evident in his or her life and family (human identity)—e.g., Hulme et al. (1985, p. 94).
- Jack of all Trades: The nature of ministry demands that ministers function in roles that are unbelievably diverse, for which there was little if any training and for which they often feel unprepared (professional identity)—e.g., Spaite (1999, p. 29).
- Life in the Fishbowl: The public nature of the ministry by definition creates a “fishbowl” effect that places the ministers and their families on public display, which itself creates a dynamic that attempts to define identity (public identity)—e.g., Ramey (2000, p. 29).
Central to managing this tension is the need for a deep knowledge of self and calling in order to center identity formation. If a minister has a malformed conception of self, it can result in adopting a false identity and persona based on public or professional expectations. This in turn creates new identity stressors as the minister attempts to live up to that persona.
Understanding how God has sovereignly shaped their identity and destiny through such reflective exercises in training settings can foster the kinds of identity formation that act as a firewall against the key identity stressors the student will encounter later in ministry.
In the West, health is viewed as “the absence of disease.” This kind of reactive model waits for something to “break” and then prescribes a cure to attempt to “fix it.”
Most people would not adopt this kind of model for their car, believing preventive maintenance and proactive care to be a better way to preserve their investment. A reactive mentality and lack of preventive maintenance eventually takes its toll by the lack of exercise and poor eating and sleeping habits common to ministers in their high stress profession.
In addition to the physical stressors just mentioned, there are several emotional stressors common to ministry as Robert H. Ramey (2000), a retired Presbyterian minister who taught at Columbia Theological Seminary observes (pp. 23–35):
- “I Never Finish” Syndrome: It is impossible to underestimate the psychological and emotional stress generated in a work environment where it is impossible to bring things to completion or resolution. Sanford (1982) notes the repetitive nature of tasks in ministry and the often esoteric and non-tangible results are key causes of ministerial burnout (pp. 17–21).
- “Nibble to Death by Ducks” Syndrome: Stress is a cumulative thing, and in ministry, there are an abundance of small stressful things that cumulatively exert a powerful and often deadly amount of stress on ministers and their families.
- “Please People or Please God” Syndrome: The minister and his or her family are constantly exposed to the stress of having to choose between pleasing the people responsible for their livelihood or pleasing God.
Scazzero (2006) quotes Iraneus who said, “The glory of God is a human being fully alive” (p. 27). He also quotes Robert Barron who asserts, “At the heart of the original sin is the refusal to accept God’s rhythm for us” (p. 156).
When ministers abandon normal rhythms of physical life and willingly embrace impossible schedules that prohibit physical exercise, proper sleep, and enforce poor dietary habits, they set themselves up for personal, relational, and professional disaster. We should include opportunities to teach ministers the basics of physical, emotional, and spiritual health and wellness if we are to help them avoid disaster in ministry.
Many of these firewall strategies relate back to a more holistic strategy of wellness currently being adopted by Western medicine in trying to prevent diseases rather than simply react to them. When the physical, emotional, social, vocational, and spiritual wellness of ministers and their families are central to their formation, they win and the church wins.
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About The Author:
James T. Flynn (D.Min, Regent University) serves as Associate Professor of Practical Theology And Director of the Doctor of Ministry Program at Regent University, Virginia beach, Virginia.
Firewall: Health Essentials for Ministers and Their Families is taken from the Christian Education Journal, CEJ: Series 3,Vol. 6, No. 2, Copyright 2009; p 309-324. All rights reserved. Permission granted by Christian Education Journal.
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