Don’t neglect your first ministry


The Apostle Paul gave Timothy the qualifications of the pastor/overseer. We discover that family should be the first priority of ministry. “If anyone does not know how to manage his own household, how will he take care of God’s church?” (1 Timothy 3:5).

Firewall: Health Essentials for Ministers and Their Families, Part 1
Excerpts from CEJ Article: Series 3,Vol. 6, No. 2
By James T. Flynn, Regent University

“The glory of God is a human being fully alive.”

Summary of the Article
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 this post, we will look at two of the four stressors: boundary and loneliness stressors. In part two we will look at identity and health stressors.

Formation and Deformation
I worked in the chemicals industry while I was an associate pastor in the 1980s and was responsible for the design and operation of specialty chemical apparatus that often contained hazardous liquids and gasses under extreme pressures and temperatures. The trick in designing these machines was to select the right materials in constructing the machines so they could withstand the expected forces of deformation (temperature, pressure, corrosiveness, etc.) and not fail (blow up, melt, collapse, etc.) with injury or loss of human life.

I immediately noticed when I went into full-time ministry and higher education that people used the term “formation” but talked very little about deformation. It seems as though the formation processes of ministerial training often follow a standard model of formation developed long ago, without consideration of the different forces of deformation that are at work in the lives of students being trained today.

If this was done in the chemicals industry, it could result in death and destruction. I fear that by not taking into account deformative forces in designing ministerial formation, the same results are occurring daily in the lives of ministers and their families. Leaving the ministry, constant fatigue and depression, moral failure, and marriage problems are symptoms of the real problem. We have failed to understand the common forces of deformation that ministers and their families will encounter and adequately “form the materials” to withstand these stressors.

The Firewall Process
The term firewall has two common uses today. In architectural work, a firewall is a specific design built into a structure to allow it to hold up under the stresses of heat from a fire for a specific amount of time. Should a fire break out in that building, the structural walls are designed to have the integrity to withstand the heat from a fire for a specific amount of time, usually rated at 2 hours (a “2-hour firewall”), so that people can escape before the building collapses due to materials failure from the heat. This was evident in the design of the Twin Towers in New York City after the attack on September 11, 2001—the buildings stood for over one-and-a-half hours under tremendous stress, allowing many to escape before the buildings finally failed.

In the computer world, a firewall is a specific program designed to “surround” the computer with a wall of encoded protection from outside attack by computer viruses, worms, and malicious access.

Both are excellent metaphors for what can be done in Christian education to help ministers and their families survive the common stressors in ministry environments. Ministerial formation should be designed to take into account the key stressors found in ministry environments and build the precise knowledge, skills, and formation of being into those being trained to allow them to stand under stress without collapsing.

Key Forces of Deformation
The study by Hulme et al. (1985), my own personal experience in ministry over the last 26 years, as well as my current research seem to confirm the presence of at least four key stressors that act as common deformative forces in the life of ministers and their families.

These stressors include the following:

  • Boundary Stressors: Forces that work against the ability of the minister and his or her family to maintain adequate personal space and freedom in the discharge of ministry responsibilities (insufficient differentiation)
  • Loneliness Stressors: Forces that work to isolate the minister and his or her family and prevent them from fostering true intimacy in key relationships (insufficient intimacy)
  • 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)

Boundary Stressors
Ministry is known for its relentlessly unforgiving schedule, which quickly consumes all time and energy if proper boundaries are not established. These boundary stressors seem to feed off of several unspoken assumptions that the congregation, church leadership, and often the minister, share:

  • The minister must always be available (unrealistic time boundaries).
  • The minister must always be accessible (inappropriate access boundaries).
  • The minister and family must perfectly represent our ideals (unattainable image boundaries).

Effective work can only be accomplished when there is proper rest in God’s strength and power. If a minister does not learn to set proper time and access boundaries in place, it is not a giant leap to begin to think that “it’s all up to me” in ministry, which can quickly lead to chronic fatigue, depression, broken marriages, and children that stray from the faith, and directly violates the principle of Sabbath rest.

If ministers are not prepared to identify and plan for these boundary stressors, the common response is to create and feed an idealized image of themselves and their families or to try to live up to the idealized image forced upon them by the congregation.

Rhythms in ministerial life that establish proper time and access boundaries include:

  • Weekly Sabbath
  • Monthly periods of reflection that are several days long and coincide once per quarter with an extended period of retreat
  • A yearly sabbatical of more than 10 days allows for sufficient decompression from stress and revitalization of vision and passion for ministry

This rhythm assumes that ministers and their families will not always be accessible, creating proper access boundaries.

Loneliness Stressors
Our English word intimacy comes from the Latin word intus, which can be translated “inside” or “best friend.” Each person seems to have been programmed by design with a deep need to know others and to be known. With this in mind, it would seem that ministry would provide the ideal conditions for intimacy in relationships, when in fact the nature of ministry seems to war against intimacy and often produces ministers that find themselves very alone in a crowd.

In order for satisfying intimacy to occur, Hands and Fehr (1993) advocate three kinds of intimacy that must be developed by ministers to counteract the deformative forces of loneliness (p. 73):

  • Intimacy with Self: A minister must acquire the skills and invest proper time in reflective self-examination to allow for an uncovering, discovering, and recovering process to occur for calling, gifting, personal strengths, and weaknesses.
  • Interpersonal Intimacy: A minister must acquire the skills and emotional intelligence to establish deep, trusting, and accountable two-way relationships that model true biblical community.
  • Intimacy with God: A minister must develop sufficient connection and relationship with God to feel affirmed, forgiven, appreciated, and cherished by Him, which is the foundation for satisfying intimacy with others and self.

These three kinds of essential relationships are needed to act as a firewall to prevent loneliness, and avoid neglecting the area of formation of being.

Proper formation of being requires time for personal reflection and the kinds of self-intimacy that place a minister in touch with personal strengths, weaknesses, gift-mix, and calling. Powerful relational skills can be built by facilitating the kinds of interpersonal contact. Prayer, spiritual disciplines, and relationship with God can be experienced.

Many of the key stressors that will be encountered by ministers and their families in the practice of the ministry are defined and predictable. If ministers adopt a proactive posture toward their formation that anticipates and deliberately integrates firewall strategies, they will have a much greater chance of withstanding the stressors in ministry.

Continue Part 2

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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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