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Healthy Leadership and the High Cost of Caring

How should we lead the church?

In this Pneuma Review conversation, Christian counselor, Dr. Eric Scalise answers this question by saying that ministry leaders need to recognize how pastoral ministry causes stress and how they need to develop a plan for self-care.

Pastors and ministry leaders, much like those who work in the caregiving professions, are often thought of as being compassionate people. Indeed, many of us who feel called into the ministry readily identify with the compassion of Christ as He related to those around Him. Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary defines the term compassion as a “sympathetic consciousness of others’ distress, together with a desire to alleviate it.” It comes from the Latin word, compat, which means to suffer with. Much of the research on this subject underscores the critical importance of the helping relationship and pastors are frequently in close proximity to the emotional suffering and resulting grief of those they minister to. Herein lies both a potential problem (increased stress and burnout), as well as a wonderful opportunity (to function as God’s ambassadors of reconciliation). Some leaders burn out. Some rust out. And some finish out. May God grant us the mindset of Paul when he said, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith” (2 Tim. 4:7) and, “…nor do I count my life dear to myself, so that I may finish my race with joy…” (Acts 20:24a).

How do you sustain joy along the way? When the unexplainable, the unpredictable, or traumatic event takes place, theological rulebooks are often inadequate when a response of compassion is required. This is because compassion, to be effective, must likewise be visible. The teaching of Scripture is to “Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven” (Matt. 5:16). Yet, the goal is to remain “salt” and “light” in the face of alcoholism, drug use, grief and loss, depression, marital discord, separation and divorce, child abuse, sexual addiction, parenting struggles, unemployment, financial stress—and the list could go on. These are the day-to-day issues that people bring to us when seeking guidance and help. At times, the impact that accompanies the sheer level of pain we are confronted with can overwhelm even the most capable and mature leaders. A primary challenge for those who live and function in a ministry role, is the simple reality that self-care is something pastors tend to focus on when it pertains to their congregations and not necessarily to themselves. The question then becomes, not only how do I finish the race God has ordained for me, but how do I finish well?

The Lord gave me a wonderful life lesson a few years back while flying overseas to speak with over a thousand pastors at conference on, of all things, stress and burnout. It had been a particularly chaotic and hurried week leading up to my departure. On top of that, making difficult connections in multiple airports due to weather conditions was not what I had in mind. When I finally boarded my last international flight, I managed to grab a newspaper and was ready to slow down and relax. If you travel frequently as I do, you may tend to politely ignore the flight crew as they go over airplane rules, seatbelts, emergency exits, and the like.

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Category: Fall 2011, Ministry, Pneuma Review

About the Author: Eric Scalise, Ph.D., LPC, LMFT, is the Vice President for Professional Development at the American Association of Christian Counselors and the former Dept. Chair for Counseling Programs at Regent University in Virginia Beach, VA. He is a Licensed Professional Counselor and a Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist with more than 30 years of clinical and ministry experience. Author, speaker, and consultant, he works extensively with pastors and ministry leaders around the world.

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