Getting your head straight keeps you from domineering and bullying others

These behaviors do not challenge us to go onto spiritual, emotional or interpersonal maturity.

Ronald E. Keener

Ministry can be wearing and draining for the best of us. It’s people-intensive and problem-pervasive. How many pastors are ready to quit every Monday morning? Virginia Todd Holeman and Stephen L. Martyn call it “losing your soul for ministry” in their new book Inside the Leader’s Head: Unraveling Personal Obstacles to Ministry (Abingdon, 2008).

“We were referring to losing one’s heart for ministry; one’s desire to be engaged in the ministry to which God has called you; to minister out of a sense of despondency and joylessly,” says Holeman, who responded to questions from Church Executive about how leaders can develop spiritual, emotional and relational stamina to better minister to the family of God.

Holeman is professor of counseling at Asbury Theological Seminary, Wilmore, KY, and Martyn is associate professor of Christian leadership and spirituality at the same seminary and an ordained elder in The United Methodist Church.

You write that anxiety undercuts effective ministry. How so?

The kind of relationship anxiety that undercuts effective ministry clouds one’s judgment. When we are caught up in this kind of anxiety our emotional functioning tends to take over so that we sense little difference between our feelings and our thinking. Therefore, actions or decisions are prompted by our strong emotions without the benefit of clear, objective thinking.

In such situations we are more likely to say things and act in ways that may impede ministry and unnecessarily wound others. In addition, when we are caught up in relationship anxiety, we will respond in self-protective ways.  We may seek to fuse with others and give in to whatever they want to keep the illusion of peace and harmony (at least “they” are at peace because “they” have gotten what they wanted).

Or we may act in domineering and bossy ways, even to the point of bullying others into doing it “our way.” Or we can withdraw and resort to emotional cutoff. These behaviors may be self-protective, but they do not challenge us to go onto spiritual, emotional, or interpersonal maturity. Nor do they challenge others to go onto spiritual, emotional, or interpersonal maturity.

How can a church leader avoid the personalization of tensions that build up in ministry?

A great question! One way to avoid personalization is to realize the differences between what you can control and what you cannot control. Let’s take the pastor as an example. What things does the pastor really control? He controls his speech and behavior. He controls the degree to which he maintains a strong, intimate relationship with God and with family. He controls how he spends money. It’s somewhat frightening — and liberating — to realize just what one doesn’t control.

It is easier to avoid personalization when you do not need to be in control of everything and everybody else around you, when you do not take yourself too seriously, when you do not need everyone to like you and when you can tolerate someone being mad at you without rushing into make it “all better.”

It’s easier to avoid personalization when you realize that God really is God; that the world is much bigger than you, that people have issues that have nothing to do with you, but for which you act as a trigger or lightening rod just because you exist; when you act with as much integrity as you can at any given moment; when you abound in forgiveness, gratitude, and generosity of grace; and when you realize that you can be doing everything right and someone still is likely to be unhappy with you (because of their issues).

What does it mean to be interpersonally mature?

Interpersonal maturity has to do with how we engage others in relationships. In the book I used the relationship triangle (see illustration) as the lens through which I discussed interpersonal maturity. At the risk of talking in circles, interpersonal maturity is spiritual and emotional maturity put into action within a community context.  It means managing my own relationship anxiety, being responsible for my own words and actions.  It means being clear about who I am so that you are freer to be clear about — or even discover — who you are.

When dealing with an antagonist in the congregation, is it ever appropriate to say, “I was hired for the job, it’s time for you to worship elsewhere?”

While I might not use those exact words, church participation/membership is the choice of the congregant. What that person doesn’t have a choice about is to individually hold an entire church hostage to his or her personal whims. So finding a way to offer that person the option to not attend may indeed be what is needed.

If the individual chooses to stay, but continues to be antagonistic, then I would encourage the pastor to discuss the congregant’s behavior and options again, but this time having a board member or elder join the discussion, following the biblical conflict management structure found in Matthew 18. It would be helpful to describe the other’s behavior that is disrupting the church and the goals that the leadership team has adopted, and that “the congregation” has affirmed.

In either the more private discussion or the more “public” one, I would be keenly interested in what was behind the antagonism.  What unmet dream or expectation is pressing this hostility? Seek to understand the other — as challenging as that may be. It is possible that once a pastor understands the pain (think of relationship anxiety fears) that is driving this antagonism, a mutually agreeable way forward might emerge.

What’s the “dance” that staff members engage in? Is it a coping strategy?

The dance is indeed a coping strategy — it is a way to reduce my anxiety without confronting myself to act differently or to take my fear by the hand and calm it down.  The tune for this “dance” is the perpetual assessment that each one makes as to comfort with my personal desire for individuality and uniqueness as compared with “the group’s” call for more togetherness and conformity.

It’s a dance about closeness and distance, perceived independence and perceived dependence.  It can take various forms. Three “classic” examples include the pursuer of relationship and the distancer from relationship; the over responsible person and the under responsible person; and the emotional volcano and the ultra rational thinker.

Recall that when our interpersonal anxiety is low, that we can function interdependently without reacting to others. When our anxiety rises, then we begin the dance steps as a way to lower our anxiety.

How can people work to reduce the tension and hurtfulness that surfaces on a staff?

Let me reframe the question a bit to the following: How can I increase my capacity to remain connected to others when the relationship becomes laced with anxiety? Can I develop the skills to “calm myself down” so that I can think clearly, even objectively when the discussion becomes “heated?” Can I learn not to personalize everything that another says, and learn how to “hear” the pain or anxiety that is behind their anger or cutting comment.

What I am getting at is this. It would be nice if another person changed, but that is not within my control. It would be great if “they” spoke more gently or acted more responsibly, but that is not something that I have control over. I only control my response to them.

So let me quote and then paraphrase Romans 12:17 ff — with sincere apologies to those who do biblical exegesis and interpretation: Do not repay anyone evil for evil [don’t react with anxiety driven words or actions. Be aware of your emotions, but engage your thinking processes when things get tense]. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone [live within the bounds of the “relationship covenant” that guides your work as informed by Scripture. Live as a person of integrity when it comes to your relationships and work]. If it is possible [and realize that means that sometimes it is impossible], live at peace with everyone [there will be those who will remain unhappy no matter what you do].

What couple things can a church leader do to recognize the personal obstacles to ministry?

Reflect on the kind of dilemmas that continue to pop up in your ministry, then ask yourself what your contribution to them might be. If you can’t answer the question, then ask your spouse or your co-worker. The kind of relationship problems from one’s family of origin (especially with your parents) are also likely to reappear in one’s ministry.

What do you want readers to know from having read the book?

An understanding that holiness is more than “following the rules.” It is about living in right relationships with others inside the church walls and outside the church walls. This starts with understanding oneself as a spiritual, emotional, and relational being who is made in the image of God.


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