“And what do you benefit if you gain the whole world but lose your own soul?” – Mark 8:36
Do you know someone who used to serve in a church but now works a corporate job?
Do you know someone who used to serve in a church but got totally burned out and only goes to services a couple times per year?
After serving in the local church for over 15 years, these questions bring far too many names and faces to mind for me. It’s incredibly tragic how dangerous working or volunteering in the local church has become today.
Did It Have to Go This Way?
I had an intense season of cynicism during my first few years working in a local church. The expectations, passive-aggressive culture, internal focus and hypocrisy were enough to disabuse me of my idealism and hand me a lot of baggage for the future.
While I found hope on the other side of my cynicism and kept moving forward, many of my friends were not so lucky. Some are now human resources directors, volunteer coordinators, professors, doctors, writers, managers and freelance artists. Others have informal relationships with a local church and some haven’t attended a local church in years.
I’m not sure why I kept working in a local church while they pursued other opportunities. We all still have a sense of God’s calling on our lives and we all continue to maintain a personal relationship with Jesus. While I do believe changes in the church could’ve changed those transitions, I also wonder if our practices, friendships and mindsets could have made a difference too.
None of my friends are to blame for where things ended up, but I think we all wonder if we were prepared for the difficulty of serving in the church without losing soul health in the process.
10 Practices to Serve Successfully with a Flourishing Soul
If you’re struggling as you serve in a local church (whether in a paid or volunteer role), these are the 10 things I wish someone would’ve told me when I started serving. They wouldn’t have prevented the wounds I received, nor will they enable you to move forward without scars. But they can help you serve in a local church without losing your soul (and they might have prevented some of the scars I carry around today).
1. Practice self-care.
There’s a fable I once read about a town where a bakery opened and found ridiculous success. Lines ran out the door all day long as raving fans showed up to enjoy the baker’s creations. One day, as usual, the customers showed up early and formed a line. However, the bakery failed to open at its normal time and the customers got restless. Eventually, word trickled out that the bakery was closed because the baker had died suddenly. When the people inquired about the cause of death, they discovered the baker had starved to death. Everyone was in disbelief. “How could someone surrounded by food starve to death?” They learned the baker had been so focused on feeding everyone else, he never stopped to feed himself.
Self-care is the one job you cannot delegate in a ministry context. While others could do your work in ministry, no one can cultivate your life with God. Like the starving baker, if you’re consumed with ministering to others while disregarding the state of your own soul, you’ll end up burned out and bowing out sooner than you can imagine. Author Mike Foster is correct when he wrote, “Self-care is not selfish; it’s strategic.”
2. Set and maintain boundaries.
Serving in ministry is a difficult place to enforce boundaries. Crises don’t limit themselves to normal business hours. It often seems like there’s never enough time, resources or help to complete projects. And the expectations of leaders can often feel unreachable.
If we want to serve without losing our souls, we must set and maintain boundaries. It is wrong to say yes to every request. Contrary to popular opinion, “No” is a complete sentence. Healthy relationships include boundaries and without them, you might succeed in ministry but not without collateral damage.
3. Have friends outside of church.
Unhealthy churches become all-consuming. Like a country club at best or a cult at worst, some churches even publicly admit that by joining a serving team or the staff you’ll be setting aside your life outside of the church. One of my friends passed on a ministry job as a campus pastor at a multi-site mega-church with a famous pastor. In the hiring process, the person interviewing him admitted that their team was like a “country club” where the expectation was of an insulated community of friendship.
If you don’t have friends outside of the church, a change in employment or a crisis in that community will leave you isolated and alone. Having friends outside of church can keep you sane and connected to a larger reality. This may sound elementary to some, but far too many people serving in the Church have done so at the cost of many personal friendships.
4. Lead in the Spirit, not the flesh.
Serving in the Church, we often try to do the work of the spirit in the power of the flesh. We manufacture energy or try to create change in our own power. Sometimes, we’ll start in the Spirit (depending on God for the results), but try to finish in the flesh (falling back to our own power).
The Apostle Paul warns against this approach in Galatians 6:7-8 where he writes, “Do not be deceived: God is not mocked, for whatever one sows, that will he also reap. For the one who sows to his own flesh will from the flesh reap corruption, but the one who sows to the Spirit will from the Spirit reap eternal life.” Kyle Strobel, a theologian, and Jamin Goggin, a pastor, have written a fantastic book on the subject of power within the Church.
5. Get a mentor or coach.
Many of us feel over our heads where we are currently serving. We might be serving at a level we never have before. We’re learning that what got us here won’t get where we need to go.
It’s humbling to ask for help, but getting some mentors and coaching is the best way to serve the people to whom we’ve been called. People with more wisdom and experience can save us from bad decisions and even our own weaknesses.
6. Develop a team.
I’m not sure who said it first, but I truly believe if your vision doesn’t require a team, it’s too small. I’ve often defaulted to just doing the work myself in my history of church service. This path led to burn out, frustration, resentment and collateral damage in my family.
Instead of being a lone ranger, each of us (no matter what our role) must raise up other leaders who can help you accomplish your vision. The healthiest churches I’ve served within or experienced have all been places where healthy teams were tackling big projects together, not places where rock stars were expected to do it all themselves.
7. Locate your identity in Christ, not your calling or position.
We live in a culture where the first question we get asked is, “What do you do?” And in church settings, the next question is often “How big is your church/ministry?” The posturing that second question produces at church conferences and pastor meetings is pretty disgusting, actually.
The sobering reality is our positions can be taken away and the expression of our calling can drastically change. If we locate our identity in a season of current success, a sudden decline can crush our souls. But our identity in Christ is permanent. His love is not based on calling, position, attendance, baptisms or cash. Like Jesus, we were loved by God before we performed any public ministry and we’ll be beloved long after our season is finished too.
Most people serving in churches today with any history, struggle with some level of bitterness. Just as we have plenty of T-shirts from past events, we carry around scars from soul wounds too.
Howard Hendricks, the famous Dallas Seminary professor, regularly reminded his students to fight to maintain “tough skin and soft heart. Get those mixed up and you’re in danger.” Bitter is not better. We often punish those we know in the present for the sins of those we once trusted in the past. Forgiveness doesn’t condone the actions of others; it does set us free though.
9. Practice discernment.
When He sent out his disciples to do ministry, Jesus warned them in Matthew 10:16: “Behold, I am sending you out as sheep in the midst of wolves, so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.”
The Church is full of broken people loved by God. I knew this intellectually when I began serving in the local church. However, I was naive to the level of brokenness, even among the church’s leaders. No matter what your role, it is imperative that you trust your gut and lean into the Spirit for wisdom and discernment. Have a formal or informal team of godly, mature advisors can save you from pain and attacks.
10. Get counseling.
It’s impossible to ignore the mental health crisis our nation is facing. I’m so grateful many local churches are awakening to this reality and changing the narrative around counseling, therapy, medication, anxiety, shame, depression, etc.
At the end of the day, our teams will only be as healthy as their leaders. No matter what level we’re serving at, we must model healthy humility and authenticity. Get help before you think you need it and recognize you can gain the whole world in ministry success, while losing your soul in the process.
There is Hope!
You can serve in the local church, both as a volunteer and a staff member, without losing your soul. While we all know painful stories of friends and family who were victims of injustice, spiritual abuse, and unhealthy environments, it is possible to thrive as we use our gifts to serve Jesus and bless others. But, this experience doesn’t happen by default and it requires intentionality.
I’m praying for you to thrive in your calling even as your soul flourishes with God.