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How to Survive the Emotional Battlefield of Ministry

You can develop a way of life that protects, strengthens and replenishes you emotionally. You can cultivate a set of activities and choices that allow God to restore your soul.

Some things are obvious: regular days off, annual study breaks if you can get them. And you’ll need to get a lot more savvy about people and how to deal with them.

But here are two choices I wish I had made much earlier in my life. They may seem far removed from what caused the emotional hit in the first place, but they are key to ensuring you have a full emotional tank, and can keep putting gas into it for the long haul.

First, how you serve is critical.

Ministry is tough enough. But if you consistently serve outside of your primary areas of giftedness, you won’t last very long under the stress and strain that comes with the territory. I really don’t hear this talked about very much, if at all. But there’s something about large amounts of time spent serving against the grain of your natural gifting that saps your emotional and spiritual energy. 

I do not rank very high with the spiritual gift of mercy, not to mention how that plays itself out in, say, extended pastoral counseling. If I had to invest in that area with ongoing, regular blocks of time, it would wipe me out. I’ve had to learn to be very up-front with folks about my areas of giftedness, and how those gifts are supposed to operate in the mix with other people’s gifts in the body. Because what happens in a church, even one where spiritual gifts are taught and celebrated, is that the pastor is still expected to have them all—and to operate in them all.

The danger is that you’ll let yourself try, and soon you’ll be wiped out with little or no reserves for the daily toil.

Related to this is operating outside of your personality type. A surprising number of pastors are, ironically, introverts. It’s not that they don’t love people or aren’t good with people—most are even charismatic in terms of their leadership and speaking ability—but they are, in fact, introverts in terms of emotional make-up. As a result, many pastors get their emotional energy from being alone. If such realities are not acknowledged, and managed, you will find yourself emotionally spent, and soon, burned out.

So yes, even as a pastor, you need to guard how you serve.  

Second, I’ve had to learn to intentionally pursue emotionally replenishing experiences.

When you hurt, if you don’t find something God-honoring to fill your tanks with, you’ll find something that isn’t God-honoring. Or at the very least, you’ll be vulnerable to something that isn’t. I am convinced this is why so many pastors struggle with pornography—it offers a quick emotional hit.

To prevent that, I’ve had to learn to do things that channel deep emotional joy into my life. For some folks, it’s boating, or golf, or gardening. For me, it’s travel, reading, time alone with family and being outdoors—particularly in the mountains.

So next Christmas, when you pass by one of the red kettles, toss in a coin, but also whisper a prayer for them and every other pastor.

They’re good people.

They’re godly people.

They’re also trying to survive it all emotionally.

(Just like you.)  

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James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and the ranked adjunctive professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, which he also served as their fourth president. His latest book is What They Didn’t Teach You in Seminary (Baker). To enjoy a free subscription to the Church and Culture blog, log-on to www.churchandculture.org, where you can post your comments on this blog, view past blogs in our archive and read the latest church and culture news from around the world. Follow Dr. White on twitter @JamesEmeryWhite.