Emotional Survival

Emotional Survival

I recently spent time with the leadership of the Salvation Army, teaching at a retreat they had organized outside of Austin, Texas.

They were good people.

They were Godly people.

They were also tired people.

Christmas is kind of a busy season for the Army, but they spend the rest of their time caring for the poorest of the poor and the least of the lost.  As one told me, their flock often lives under bridges or overpasses.

So we spent one of our sessions together on a simple but overlooked subject:  emotional survival.  You would think it would be “spiritual” survival, and we talked some about that, but it’s often the emotions that do us in.

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 our 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 creating dreams of finding ourselves on a beach with a parasol in our drink - permanently.

The heart of the drain, of course, comes from the very ones you live to serve and love so dearly.  We are shepherds, and sheep are messy.  Unruly.  Cantankerous.  Smelly.  At times, they can be 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 crisis mode.

So how do you manage to survive?

First, the bad news.  There’s not a quick fix.  Ministry is just flat-out tough and often emotionally draining.  You won’t ever escape the hits and the hurts.  They come with the territory. 

Now, the good news.  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).

James Emery White



Parts of this blog were adapted from James Emery White, What They Didn’t Teach You In Seminary (Baker).

Editor’s Note

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 newly released book is The Church in an Age of Crisis: 25 New Realities Facing Christianity (Baker Press). To enjoy a free subscription to the Church and Culture blog, visit www.churchandculture.org, where you view past blogs in our archive and read the latest church and culture news from around the world.  Follow Dr. White on twitter @JamesEmeryWhite.