September 4, 2013

Ministry and Unhealthiness

I asked, you answered! After I listed the 30 things I learned this summer about God, myself, and ministry, you made it clear what you'd like to hear more about: Sabbath rest, emotional healthiness (and how I knew I was not healthy), how I sense my focus shifting from helping the church to helping Kyle, how to walk and serve in the Spirit, and the idea that Christ is our city. Thank you for your input! I am happy to share with you and am praying that God will use what He taught me this summer to encourage you as well.
I think a good place to start is by sharing about the emotional unhealthiness God pointed out in my life, because most of the lessons I learned this summer are in some way related to this one thing. By stripping away ministry, which at times can be a crutch or a detriment to my well-being, He gave me instant perspective, and He took me back to some very foundational truths about who I am and what He has called me to do. I traced all of my emotional unhealthiness back to beliefs that were contrary to these truths. Let me explain...

Last year was a difficult year, although I didn't realize just how difficult until we removed ourselves from our regular routines. In ministry, we were moving at an extremely unhealthy pace. Kyle and I were both allowing too much on our plate, we weren't saying no even when we knew we should, and we weren't making time for things that renewed us, such as friendship, rest, exercise, and family time. My husband was distracted and burdened, and I was distracted and burdened.

This is where things get uncomfortable, but it must be said. Last spring, I had no joy and people were bugging me, my husband most of all. Because of our habits and pace, we had nothing to give each other,  and we weren't enjoying one another anymore. We picked at each other, something that we had never done over an extended period of time in our marriage. I felt an anger rising up in me that I had never felt before and it honestly scared me.

I am normally a pretty perceptive person, but I couldn't figure out why the joy had gone away and why I was so frustrated. I felt it all, but I couldn't pinpoint what the underlying issues were. And isn't that the way it usually goes? Our feelings and emotions often are indicators of what is going on underneath.

Ours was not a forced sabbatical. Our church's by-laws allow a pastor on our staff a sabbatical after a certain period of time, and we'd reached that period of time. We looked forward to our time away, but we had no idea how much we actually needed it. God knew, however, that we could not continue at the pace we were living without major consequences to our health and marriage. It was, to put it lightly, a perfectly timed gift because it gave us time to go underneath the surface of what we were feeling.

Just before we left, Kyle and I sat on the couch and talked. We shared our fears about being together for a whole summer without ministry to talk about, we worried that we would not actually get to the bottom of things, and we fretted that sabbatical would be a low-grade disaster. And even more: Who would we be without the responsibilities and the roles of ministry? Would God give us the answers and the rest we needed? Together, we wanted to put the church back in its rightful place in our lives rather than let it continue to be a third person in our marriage. But we didn't know if we could do it.

Honestly, I wanted to blame my husband for the difficulty of the past year. After all, he had been distracted and burdened with many things. But I knew I had a part in our emotional unhealthiness and it took all of 3 days of being on sabbatical for God to make it crystal clear exactly what my part was.

I sat down with an open journal and asked God, "What has caused me to get off track? How am I contributing to the problem of emotional unhealthiness for Kyle and for me?"

I couldn't write fast enough to keep up with what He spoke to me. His words were darts that hit the center of the bulls-eye, and I knew He was right down deep in my soul. They were still difficult for me to receive, and I felt regret and sorrow that I'd been blind to my own sin and that my sin had affected my husband and my children. My feelings and emotions had been pointing to my sin, but this was the first time I really saw it for what it was. Here's what I wrote down in my journal:
  • My ongoing performance issues (believing that I must act for the approval of God and others) lead me to make decisions that are detrimental to my health and Kyle's health. 
  • I at times prioritize the success of the church over our emotional health. My ultimate goal has been the church's success (this is very difficult to keep reigned in in church planting) because I feel it reflects on me and my husband. I often feel I have something to prove. This point very much corresponds with the first point.
  • I do not trust that God will care for His church. I have been carrying that responsibility. It's quite heavy.
  • I identify too much as a pastor's wife and not enough as a child of God. 
  • I am all about doing instead of about being. I struggle to acknowledge my limits and my needs. I do not nurture my own soul.
Perhaps you can see how these lies lead to distraction, burnout, not loving people, and joylessness. I certainly saw it as I read back what I'd written in my journal. My husband, at the same time, recognized the pressure he has felt to succeed in church planting and how, when not reigned in, it affects our marriage and family.

Church planting is a difficult work and it has been hard on us. At the same time, we saw this summer that a lot of the difficultly has been of our own making. It caused us to stop and ask ourselves, individually and as a couple, "Do we really believe that God will sustain His Church?" I had to ask, "Do I really believe that I am a daughter of God, loved and accepted no matter the performance?" Kyle had to ask, "Do I really believe that I have nothing to prove?" Because, if so, we are freed to hand the responsibility for heart transformation and church sustaining over to God. We work, not as people who have things to prove or earn, but as joyful recipients of grace and gifts to steward.

I had some fears about returning, mostly fears about myself. I worried that I would return to the same old bad habits and joylessness that I had last year. However, it's amazing what springs forth when the underlying beliefs of the heart are firm and true. I have been tempted to say yes when I know I should say no. I have found myself starting to worry, taking on, even if just internally, the responsibility for the church. I have had to fight distraction and busyness. But I've discovered that as I return to the lessons about emotional healthiness that God taught me this summer, lessons that are really about His leadership and approval, I don't miss the stress and lack of joy that came with the lies.

The best part? As we've become emotionally healthy, Kyle and I are enjoying one another again. The burdens are lighter and laughter comes easy once again. It's a great place to be: in it together, in ministry and in life. All because God and this calling He's given us are in their rightful places in our hearts.

What I've discovered in talking to other church planting wives this summer is that Kyle and I are not exceptions in the way church planting has affected our marriage, family, and emotional health. Perhaps you could relate to this post. Can I pray for you? You don't have to be specific with your requests, but will you simply leave a comment and ask for prayer? I'd love to pray for you today.