So could you end up having an affair as a leader—even as a well-intentioned Christian leader?
I think the answer is absolutely.
Obviously, some leaders have emotional or sexual affairs with people to whom they are not married. As heartbreaking, future-altering and faith-shattering as those affairs can be, there’s another kind of affair you’re actually far more likely to have.
Here’s my story.
My wife came home one day from a counselling appointment with some news.
We see the same counselor. He knows my story. He knows hers. We’ve even seen him together a good number of times, both in the tough seasons and in the good ones.
As we were debriefing what she learned in her last session, I asked if there was anything else they talked about.
My wife Toni replied, “Are you sure you want to know?”
I told her I did, wincing a little.
“Well, he said that, in his view, you had an affair.”
It was one of those awkward moments, because I know I didn’t have that kind of affair…but my mind started racing. Did he think I had an emotional affair? Again…I couldn’t think of anyone.
So I asked: “What did he mean?”
“He said you had an affair with your work,” Toni told me.
And hearing those words, I knew he was right.
So we talked about it. In both my wife’s view and mine, my affair ended years ago.
And strangely, I’ve been a better husband and have accomplished far more in ministry, both locally and beyond, since it ended than I ever did when work took up most of my time. In fact, since my affair with work ended (for me, it ended in burnout a decade ago), I’ve published three books, launched two podcasts, spoken to thousands of leaders a year and seen our church grow to over double the size it was when I was working more hours. And I’ve spent more time with my family.
So how does that happen?
Well, first you need to understand how you got there. There are at least five reasons Christian leaders end up putting their work first. I outline them below.
But then you have to figure out how to get out of the spin of constant busyness and low productivity that kills both your leadership and your life.
That’s why I created the High Impact Leader Course. The 10-module online course takes everything I’ve learned in the last decade about managing time, energy and priorities to help you get your life and leadership back.
Right now, for a very limited time, enrollment is open for new leaders.
In the meantime, let’s start with how the affair begins. It’s so subtle and innocent, the vast majority of leaders never see it coming.
1. In Ministry, Working More Hours Makes You Feel Like You’re More Faithful
Before entering ministry, I spent a year working as a law student in downtown Toronto. Honestly, it was easy to go home at 4:30.
I hustled hard. I was often in the office at 7 a.m. and I worked my tail off. But I wanted to go home and see my wife and our newborn son. It wasn’t that difficult to draw lines between what I did at work, who I was as a Christian, and my role as a husband and new dad.
I actually worked shorter hours than most lawyers and other law students. Ironically, though, after my year was finished and I was called to the bar, eligible for full practice, they released a colleague of mine who worked 90 hours a week and offered me—who worked less than 50 hours each week—a job. The firm said my year with them was the first time a law student ever made them money.
Clearly, shorter hours does not mean less productivity. Often, it means more.
I wish things stayed that clear when I got into ministry. But it didn’t.
At first, time management was easy because our churches were very small. But then, they started to grow and we merged into one. In fact, within a few years we became the fastest growing church in our denomination as well as one of the largest.
I didn’t know how to lead in such a high growth environment so I did the only thing I knew how to do to keep up: I worked more hours.
In ministry, working more hours felt different than in law. In the church, working more hours can make you feel like you’re being more faithful. After all, it’s for God, right? We were seeing hundreds of people come to Christ and grow in Christ. So working fewer hours felt like faithlessness.
So how did my logic get so messed up? After I burned out, I realized that ministry combines three areas of life that are intensely personal.
Ministry combines your:
Because of that:
What you do is what you believe.
What you believe is what you do.
Your friends are also the people you serve and lead.
Throw your family into the mix (because they believe what you believe and are friends with the people you/they lead and serve) and bam—it’s even more jumbled