Maintaining emotional balance in messy ministry situations

We who are in ministry are often compassionate persons. We can talk about boundaries and self-care and all of those issues. But often unnoticed inner draining and sometimes toxicity takes place within us without our awareness.

It seems that the more one is open to compassionate awareness of communal groups of people and the problems and pain that is there, the more one is also open, inwardly as well as outwardly, to the deep toxicity of unhealed wounds, both of individuals and communal ones.

The writer of Ephesians warns about putting on the whole armor of God. What does this mean for us as Kingdom workers? What do we need the armor for? I believe that this inner draining and toxicity can happen through the projection of another's expectations or hostility on us, through our own internalization of problems or toxicity of others around us, or through the generational problems associated with the communal group we are a part of.

How does this inner draining make itself manifest? Maybe by fatigue, sudden inappropriate anger or anxiety, longings to just sleep or eat.

When a person projects his or her desires, needs, or hostility on us, we are more likely to begin to lose our inner sense of stability of self. We may lose the sense of boundaries and feel we need to live up to something or react in ways that are not typical for us. We begin feeling or acting in ways unlike ourselves.

Or we begin taking into our own bodies or personal space the problems and darkness of others. The changes that can happen to us are more gradual and chronic. We may begin to feel powerlessness, malaise, a growing fatigue, or health changes.

Jesus asks us to pick up our cross and follow Him. But, the one specific cross that He invites us to bear does not destroy us. The 153 fish that God puts in our nets do not tear the nets (John 21:11) If we do not wait for God's guidance, if we pick up every cross we see, if we load our nets with fish of our own choosing, then we are on the road to breakdown. We do not experience spiritual protection when we "go faster than grace" as Brother Lawrence said it.

Jesus said in his prayer before his death, "I am not asking you to take them out of the world, but I ask you to protect them from the evil one." (John 17:15) This refers to the daily toxicity, the draining that we can encounter every day in our leadership.

In Mark 5 in the story of the woman who touches Jesus' cloak, earlier translations said, "power went out of him." The NRSV says, "power had gone forth from him." What a difference! The first implies a sense of depletion; the second implies a flowing forth from an abundant source. If we ourselves don't keep drinking from that overflowing cup of Psalm 23, we cannot lead others to that cup.

We sometimes talk about being a conduit for Christ, the go between. But there are some problems with this image of ourselves as learned from Saint Bernard of Clairvaux of France:
  1. A channel of water can become contaminated if the toxic earth into which it flows backs up. And the darkness of others can infect us if we internalize their problems.
  2. A channel gives out immediately what it receives without allowing time for its own healing immersion and transformation.
We are not in a mechanical relationship, but an organic one. Neglecting our needs leads to spiritual and emotional problems. God within Christ enfolds and revitalizes both ourselves and the ones to whom we minister.

Spiritual trap #1: attraction to power

Needing to be needed

It is a great temptation to accommodate unhealthy desires and create dependent adoring persons of us and our ministry in their lives. We can actually set ourselves up as a false savior and sin in our own arrogant idolatry.

One of the first signs of having given into the temptation of needing to be needed is that you feel consistently drained after ministry, an abnormal tiredness.

Instead of creating dependency on yourself, you must become less and less important in a person's process. You can learn to say with John the Baptist, "Jesus must increase, but I must decrease." (Jn 3:36) You move aside so the person is connected with God instead of you. It is God who is making all things new, not you.

Being impressed with your own gifts

Another temptation is to secretly nurture a belief in your own gifts, instead of faith in God. You forget that "apart from me you can do nothing." (Jn 15:5) You need people to get better so you can look good. It is good to have an honest appreciation of your gifts, but your gifts are not really your possessions, nor are they given because you have earned them. You can't change anyone. It is God who transforms. We need to learn how to give up our own agenda for God's outcome!


The temptation to overwork can arise out of a good, caring motive: to serve God's people with generosity and love. However, wanting to help can quickly become having to help. It then becomes difficult to set limits or simply say no. Seeing a need can become confused with hearing a call. There are many forces that fuel a temptation to overwork; most reveal your own need for healing. Working long hours may seem to prove that you are holy and important. Meeting the expectations of others may come from a desire to get others to like you or keep them from criticizing.

It is so easy to come to think that we are indispensable to the Great Commission. And it is easy to confuse our commission with our own compulsions. Our frantic busyness belies our real convictions about service and ministry — that ministry is really up to us, that our significance is tied up to our ministry, that our relationship with God depends
on our ministry.

Sometimes you are indeed in situations that will exhaust you and demand truly sacrificial giving of your energy and resources. Discernment is vitally necessary to distinguish what God is really asking of you from your unhealthy need to keep going, and going, and going. "We are called to die in ministry, not of it."

Jesus demonstrated three healthy ministry boundaries:
  1. He listened to the Father, not to the crowd or to insecurities — I do only what the Father tells me to do.
  2. Jesus found his own specific mission — Jesus could have traveled on 57,000 miles of Roman roads, as Paul did, but he stayed in Judea and Galilee because that is where the Jews were.
  3. Jesus accepted his own human needs and limitations — Jesus spent time traveling from place to place, he had to catch fish to eat, there were no electric lights so he could continue working all evening.

Spiritual trap #2: fear of power (running away from God's power)


Ministry situations can feel overwhelming and the result for us is anxiety and feeling out of control. The temptation is to run the other way like Jonah and find a less intense situation to deal with in ministry. We need to learn that it's okay to be stretched in ministry and to continue to surrender ourselves to his direction while hanging on to the faith that he will show up!

Limiting God with our techniques and systems

A strong temptation is to impose a structure on God's activity by adopting techniques or systems for ministry. But, God won't be put into a box. Live as best you can in a contemplative balance between uncertainty about how God will act, and faith that God will act in healing transformative ways.

Distancing from other's suffering

To do pastoral care contemplatively, you must neither turn away from others' suffering, nor take it on yourself. No one is big enough to carry the load. Like the friend who lowered a paralytic through the roof to Jesus, you carry another long enough to give him/her to Jesus to care for.

Protecting yourself from your own pain

A temptation occurs when your own need for healing gets stirred up when working with others. When you do not deal with your own issues as they arise, you begin to see every stress and situation through unhealed eyes.


Consistently giving room to even one of the above temptations can eventually lead to burnout. In burnout your pride is wounded because you were not good enough, not wise enough, just not enough, period. Your days are full of guilt, shame, pain, and utter fatigue. Your breakdown is spiritual, emotional, and physical. Healing from burnout takes long periods of time; therefore, prevention of burnout is well worth the effort. Nutrition and exercise, Sabbath time, participation in a spiritual community where persons tell the truth to each other, daily prayer, and daily discernment are all needed to prevent burnout.

When we study the story of the Good Samaritan from this perspective (Luke 10:25-37), we realize that he gave the urgently needed help though he knew the robbers could also attack him; he handled a bleeding man which could be contaminating. But after taking the man to the nearest inn, he continued his business trip. He did not lie down in the ditch, bleeding alongside the victim. He did not abandon his own valid business to hang around to make sure he got well. Rather he delegated the on-going care to others.

It may help all of us to end our day of work with a prayer of asking God to cleanse us of all that does not belong to us. If I have been listening to problems and criticisms a lot in a day, can I intentionally lift all of that up to God. This is intercessory prayer as well as personal cleansing for us.

We need to surrender ownership of our work. Since it is really God's it is God who needs to direct and empower it. Then our ministry can flow from constant listening for the answer to the question, "Lord, what do you want me to do now?" God will give the energy, the wisdom, the discernment, and the tools to follow God's own direction.