I felt nothing but empathy. Yep, been there, felt that. 

“Jim,” he said, “I knew seasons like this would come. I just didn’t know how stressful they would be.”

 Neither did I. To this day, the disappointments can still blindside me. Nothing prepares you for how ministry can drain you emotionally, leaving you in pain or, even worse, feeling numb or in despair or with seething anger. This is why so many good men and women in ministry have careened into moral ditches and many more still soldier on with plastic smiles and burned-out souls.

A few years ago, my wife Susan and I were part of a mentoring retreat with about a dozen couples, all well-known leaders of large and thriving churches. We started off with an open-ended question: “What are your key issues right now?

As we went around the room, the recurring answer in each of their lives was “emotional survival.” We shared our stories about the hits and hurts that come our way in ministry as occupational hazards and how they tear away at our souls, sapping our enthusiasm, our creativity, and our missional stamina. They leave us dreaming of finding ourselves on a beach with a parasol in our drink—permanently.

What makes ministry so emotionally hazardous? That’s easy. It all starts with overbuilt expectations. When you enter ministry, you can’t help but dream. Many of us dream big. That’s one of the marks of a leader—a compelling vision for the future. But for almost everyone, it’s not long before the dream collides with reality.

When I planted Mecklenburg Community Church in the fall of 1992, I just knew (though I wouldn’t have said so) that we would be a church in the hundreds, if not approaching a thousand, in a matter of weeks. Willow Creek, eat our dust. The reality was starting in a rainstorm with 112 people, and by the third Sunday, through the strength of my preaching, looking out at 56 folks. Actually, 15 or 20 of those were kids in another room, so maybe 40 were actually in worship. Yes, our numbers did eventually increase, but I don’t care what kind of growth you have—you usually had hoped for more.

Then there are the day-in, day-out realities of serving in a church that is very real, very flawed, and very challenging. No matter how well it goes, you have problems, issues, hassles, struggles, defections, setbacks, barriers, and defeats. You have to live with a level of quality about ten miles below what ignited your dream. Coupled with this is the work—hard work—and you realize that it could take years for even a glimpse of your dream to become reality. And those are just the emotional hits from your expectations. Then there are the hits that come from the people you are working so hard to serve. This is the heart of the emotional drain. We are shepherds, and sheep are messy. Unruly. Cantankerous. Smelly. They are a chore to care for.

And they can hurt you more than you could imagine—in particular, through the relational defections of those you trusted and the crushing crises from those who throw you into disaster mode. You’ll understand if I change a few details in what follows. In fact, most of the stories I’ll tell throughout this book will be altered a bit to protect the guilty.

It was a Friday night in July. We were getting ready to leave for a vacation the next morning, and the phone rang. It was one of our staff. For him to call me at home on a Friday, much less the night before I was leaving for a vacation, was not a good sign. 

Jim,” he said, “I have a roomful of people here at my house. There’s a crisis. They thought you had already left, so they came to me.”