A healthy church is a great place of healing.
But an unhealthy church causes problems for everyone who touches it – including the pastor who’s called to help turn it around.
More people get sick in hospitals than anywhere else. Because that’s where the sick people are. Health care professionals know this, so they have stringent protocols to keep themselves from contracting the diseases they’re trying to cure.
Churches are the same.
So how does a pastor keep spiritually and emotionally healthy while living, worshiping and leading in an unhealthy environment?
I’ve pastored in three church turnaround situations – two of which worked, one that didn’t. Turning an unhealthy church around is one of the hardest tasks any pastor will ever be called to do. Don’t attempt it without observing these nine principles to protect yourself and your family:
1. Be Proactive, not Just Reactive
This was the first, and one of the hardest lessons I’ve learned in pastoring.
Don’t stay in fix-it mode, responding to every need, crisis and emergency that arises. Yes, those have to be responded to, especially in a turnaround situation. But if that’s all you’re doing – or even the main thing you’re doing – the church and you will suffer for it.
When we stay in reactive mode, the squeaky wheels are in control. Not us. Not Jesus.
A pastor who wants to stay healthy while bringing a church into health needs a plan. Something designed to replace the current toxic environment.
It’s not enough to drain the swamp. We need to replace it with something of value.
This is essential for the pastors’ mental and emotional health, because there are fewer things that will draw us into an unhealthy church’s drama than constantly living in reaction to that drama.
2. Invest in Teachable People
There’s a great scene from the movie The Untouchables, where they’re trying to figure out how to build a team of agents in Al Capone’s Chicago who aren’t already on the take. The older cop (played by Sean Connery) tells Elliot Ness (played by Kevin Costner) “If you're afraid of getting a rotten apple, don't go to the barrel. Get it off the tree.”
The next shot in the movie shows them at the police academy, looking through the qualifications of new recruits. They haven’t been in the police department yet, so they cannot possibly have been corrupted by it. Thus, they’re untouchable.
That scene is a turning point in the movie, and that idea can be a turning point in the life of a toxic church – and in a turnaround pastors’ ministry.
Instead of depending on dug-in church members, a turnaround pastor needs to look for those who are willing to be teachable. Often, that means investing your time into the young, the new and the untested. It may even mean going outside the walls of the church to bring them in.
This also assures that the pastor will spend some time in life-giving, forward-looking discipleship, not just problem-solving.
3. Meet With a Coach, Mentor or Spiritual Director
Too many pastors are trying to go it alone. That’s hard to do in a healthy church. In an unhealthy one, it can kill you.
Find a mentor, coach and/or spiritual director. If you can’t find someone who does that as their ministerial calling, get together with a local pastor (active or retired) who you can trust.
If you live in a rural area with few options, pick up the phone and call some of your old seminary professors, your denominational officials or a former pastor (of yours, not of the church you’re serving). It may take a few calls to find the right fit, but don’t give up until you find someone.
It’s best if you can find someone who’s done a church turnaround themselves, but it isn’t a requirement. What matters is that you have a mature minister who can listen to you, pray with you and offer Godly wisdom – not just about the church, but about your own emotional and spiritual health.
And no, this can’t be your spouse. Although you should lean on each other, each of you needs someone else to bounce things off of.
4. Make Your Own Spiritual Life a Priority
The Bible is more than a collection of sermon texts. Prayer is more than petitions we make on behalf of others. The spiritual disciplines must be lived and strengthened within our own lives before we can teach them to others.
Don’t neglect your own spiritual nourishment.
5. Protect Yourself Against Known Temptations and Triggers
Everyone has a unique set of temptations and triggers. Don’t ignore them or beat yourself up for them. Acknowledge them and protect yourself against them.
Find an accountability partner if needed (maybe your mentor or coach, as seen above). Moderate your behavior so you don’t allow triggers to enter your life. Stay away from places, behaviors and people that pull you into temptations. Note your body clock and seasonal weaknesses, so you can get extra help when you know you’ll be vulnerable.
And, above all, stay strong spiritually (as seen in the previous point). Put on the whole armor of God.
6. Observe a Sabbath
Unless your church meets on another day of the week, Sunday is not your Sabbath. It’s a work day. So take Sabbath on another day. Mine is Monday.
Every pastor needs a regular down time. This isn’t a suggestion, it’s in God’s top ten.
And get plenty of sleep and exercise, too. Discouragements and temptations thrive in the Petri dish of exhaustion and physical ill-health.
7. Draw Clear Boundaries Around Personal and Family Time
The order of our priorities must always be Jesus, then family, then the work of the Church.
It takes an amazing amount of time and energy to turn around an unhealthy or toxic church. We can’t let it steal the time that belongs to our families – especially our spouse.
Aside from time spent on our walk with Christ, there is no more hope-giving and joy-sustaining aspect of life than time spent with a family that loves and cares for each other.
On the other side of that, there’s nothing that will shortcut the potential for effective ministry faster than neglecting our family. When we do, we suffer and so do they – often to the point where they can start resenting us, the church and even God himself.
8. Don't Help Them More than They're Willing to Help Themselves
This is the first rule for anyone who works in recovery ministry. You can’t force anyone to get better who isn’t willing to put the work in for themselves.
Sometimes, that means leaving a church once you discover that they aren’t ever likely to step up. At other times, it means working with the remnant that is willing (see point 2, above).
But it always means pulling the best out of them, not doing the work for them.
That won’t happen overnight, but if there isn’t some evidence that church members want that, no amount of prayer, work or coaxing will turn around an unhealthy church that doesn’t want to turn around.
9. Remember You’re their Pastor, Not their Savior
It’s Jesus’ role to save people and build his church.
The pastor’s calling is to equip the saints to do the work of ministry.
Never confuse the two.
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