Managing the Stress of Ministry

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During my time on church staff, I experienced stress.

Not the “I hate my job” stress. Not the “I wish I could do something different” stress. More like the “my life is one torturous anxiety attack after another” stress.

Something like that.

I am not blaming anyone or complaining here. I made some ridiculous mistakes, just trying to keep you guys from doing the same.

There have been patterns in my life. Not good ones. Patterns where my priorities were completely off. With your priorities and life out of balance, you make stupid decisions.

Married, Christian men have lost the right to search for purpose and meaning in their lives. We have no right to attempt to make our work and daily grind into some kind of desperate grasp at significance.

We have given our lives to Christ and to our wives. Our purpose is to serve both. We matter, when we matter to them. We find our missions and destiny together, with them.

My point?

There are countless men in church leadership who get excited enough to dance when they meet guys like me. Young, foolish, confused, eager to make their lives count for something. Guys who will work insane hours on any random project just for a pat on the back. Guys who are delusional enough to think it’s more important to have the approval of their church family, than their immediate family.

Don’t act like you don’t know what I am talking about. If you have worked for the church, for any length of time, you have probably experienced some of this.

I loved working shows and mixing worship services. I loved the preparation and satisfaction of pulling off one flawless service after another. I was a junkie the adrenaline of mixing and making the magic happen. That wasn’t the problem.

The problem was when I attempted to wrap my life around a position or a ministry or a title. I was searching for a way to make my life matter. I was desperate to be “somebody” and feel like I was needed. I wanted to be significant. I wanted to have a mission and do big things that even God himself would applaud.

But I missed the real mission.

Your family is your first ministry. Your wife is at the top of your list of people that matter. I was pushing my family aside to go do things that seemed to matter more.

You don’t tell your family to wait while you rush off to do something for someone else. Nobody matters more than they do.

If you don’t matter to your own wife and kids, then brother, you probably don’t matter much to anyone else either.

Long after those other people have forgotten your name, your wife and kids will still be there. Hopefully.

I am trying to get an exact number… 1, 2, 3, 4, 5….. Not sure I can do it. Trying to figure out exactly how many churches, ministries or other groups I poured my life into over the years.

How many hours did I invest in something that seemed like my purpose in life at the time? How many times did I step over my kids, push aside my wife, change the calendar, donate money, give away something we needed…. To help someone who doesn’t even remember me?

Here’s an easier number. One.

That’s how many of them have even attempted to stay in contact with me. Just one. Again, not complaining or blaming. I just want you to get this in perspective.

Be very careful what, and who, you give yourself to. They aren’t bad people for finding work for someone willing. They aren’t monsters for allowing you to spend as much time as you are wiling to give. It’s not their fault when you give up your life for their projects.

It’s yours.

The same way I had to accept full responsibility for placing myself into one slave-like position after another, you get to do the same.

If that volunteer position is killing you, take some time off. If you feel like the whole world would crash down if you left, try it and find out. Churches will recover faster than you think. Don’t walk out if you have made a commitment, but take some time off to get your head straight.

Take some time to make sure you are still a part of your family. They need you more than anyone. You need to spend as much time with them as possible. You need to make sure that they know you love them.

Allow me to explain what my life looked like, when I didn’t understand this.

Freelance engineer for a production company. Running my own small company and project studio. Volunteering evenings for another music ministry. Staff Media Director for a large and church responsible for several volunteers.

My wife was running the nursery for this same church, so I was helping her from time to time. I had three kids ranging from a toddler to a teenager. We were never standing still. Seriously. All of this was happening at the same time.

My weeks were 80 hours of daylight work and countless hours at night in front of a computer. I slept five hours or less every night. I had to eat sleeping pills to make myself rest, when I was on the road. It seemed to never stop.

After a three week run of shows on the west coast, I came home exhausted. I had been running like an out of control freight train for months.

The day I got back to the church, it all hit me at once. As I touched the door handle to go in, I collapsed. Literally. My knees buckled and I fell on the sidewalk. It took a few minutes to get up. I thought my heart stopped. I couldn’t catch my breath. The stress completely overwhelmed me.

Even after that, I still didn’t get it.

Do you know what finally made me stop and put my life in perspective? What finally made me realize how much time I had wasted on stuff that didn’t matter? What stopped the runaway freight train in its tracks?

Divorce papers.

After almost twenty years of giving the best of me to everyone else, she was done. I might be willing to give up my life for every obligation and project I could find, but she wasn’t going any farther. She had enough. She woke me up. She saved me. She made me stop and shake off everything that wasn’t critical to our survival.

She gave me my life back.

She made me work for the next four years to prove that I was different and that she mattered. She made me earn that trust and respect back. She gave me the toughest mission of my life.

She made me win her heart back.

It was the longest four years of my life. It also has had the best rewards of anything I ever did.

Guys. Enjoy your jobs and ministry work, but don’t make them your highest priority. The most important ministry you have is your family.

Pour your life into that ministry first. Pass that legacy on to the next generation. It takes work, but it doesn’t carry the same senseless stress and pressure of trying to be superman to the whole world.

In fact, learning to love your family comes with very little stress. I highly recommend it.

M. Erik Matlock is the author of 21 Days to Save My Family and Basic Training for the Church Audio Technician. He blogs at ArtoftheSoundcheck.com where he shares hard-earned wisdom from 20 years mixing and recording.

4 Responses to“Managing the Stress of Ministry”

  1. Christopher
    March 8, 2014 at 5:13 am #

    Hello sir,

    I just want to say this article really speaks to me. I am going to read this again a few times so that I can grasp it all. I understand the wake up call..

    • March 8, 2014 at 6:54 am #

      It’s great when someone can understand things before it’s too late. If this one got to you, read a few more. Maybe even on the other blog.
      Just don’t make your family suffer like mine did.

  2. Jack
    November 9, 2014 at 9:43 am #

    Thanks for sharing your story. This is a serious problem, but what do you do if the pastor requires more time & participation of events than volunteers feel to give?

    • November 9, 2014 at 9:52 am #

      There’s no easy answer. It depends on the type of pastor you have. A good pastor, one who has a father’s heart and sincere mission, is pretty understanding about most things. Especially when they begin to strain your family. Just talk to them.
      I have worked under pastors who were purely in the game for the title and position. No compassion. No concern. That guy is just waiting for you to burn out so he can replace you. I have worked with both types. That guy doesn’t deserve you. Feel free to try talking, but pay close attention to the answer.

      Maybe this would help.
      http://artofthesoundcheck.com/2013/12/02/a-letter-to-the-pastor-from-the-tech-crew/

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