As an ex church worker, working for a church can be painful but you can help.

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The first ‘church position’ I held was as a youth ministry intern in 2000. Since then the vast majority of the past 17 years have involved me spending my working hours, in some capacity either paid or as a full-time volunteer, on churches. Through many of those years I was in leadership roles. I’m now on an indefinite break (until I work out what comes next/God presents some direction) and from this side one thing stands out from the past 17 years – working for a church can be hard and painful and leading one can be even harder. 

I’ve worked for 8 different churches since I was 19 and each one of them was packed full of wonderful people whom I have great love for but each one was hard to work for at times in very different ways. As someone on the ‘other side’ I am committed to being encouraging and in some cases defensive of those who do what I used to do, because I’ve felt the burn of church work. I also, in talking to people in the past few months since ‘stepping out’ of church work, have realised that the struggles and difficulties that come with these jobs aren’t widely known. Many leaders and church workers are struggling but not telling anyone who could change their situation. Of course, all jobs come with struggles and can be hard to do,  but this isn’t a comment on those, it is a comment on the working world that I’ve known and experienced through the years. 

I realise that perhaps some of these may just be reflective of my character or emotional fortitude (or lack thereof) but conversation with hundreds of leaders suggest I am not alone. 

Here are the things I think we all need to consider when we interact with our leaders.

Once you work for a church you’re never ‘part of a church’ again (or at the very least it is very difficult). 

Once you move into a leadership role in a church you lose what you’d always known as ‘church.’ Overnight the people you shared life with and with whom you were friends, or (if you had joined the church as a member whilst working elsewhere) would have become friends, become your employers. If you have a family, they experience this too. People around you don’t necessarily change their behaviour towards you, but the fact that in every interaction you are speaking to those who are responsible for your livelihood, rarely leaves your mind. I always struggled to drop that guard and be 100% myself which led me to my own issues with stress. So many church leaders I’ve spoken to feel lonely and isolated because of this. 

If you want to support them create spaces where church ‘business’ is banned unless they raise it. Don’t talk about the small groups or the music team. Eat with them. Buy them a drink. Watch movies or sport with them. Cycle with them. Do whatever can create space for them to be free and comfortable.

Worship gatherings change forever.

When creating worship services is your job it can be very difficult to be in the moment without considering where that moment fits into the wider and long term vision of the organisation. How do you feel the person leading is developing? How can you build them up more? Do we really believe what that super-popular-new-song is saying on repeat 35 times? Are people talking to the new person to make them feel welcome? How are we doing for time? That light bulb needs replacing. 

Gatherings and services were a huge part of my spiritual vitality for a long time. I would react emotionally to music and teaching and that would often lead to significant moments of progress in my faith. When I moved into roles where I was responsible for these things I lost the ability to connect with them in the same way. My faith bore the brunt of it and, across the past decade, I would often be starving for some spiritual nourishment when working long hours to help others eat. 

If you want to support your church leader in this then give them space to be elsewhere for worship regularly. Send them to conferences, retreats and events. Make days of retreat and refreshment part of their contractual requirements.  Give them two Sundays off in a row to go elsewhere. This won’t just benefit them, it will benefit your whole church. If they are vital and energised so to will their leadership. 

Sometimes critique of work done feels like personal attack (even when it obviously isn’t).

I think being open to being questioned and critiqued is essential to being a good leader. I can think of difficult conversations with people whom I was employed to serve that led me to make steps huge forward and to improve. Sometimes though, it can feel so personal. 

As an example, I can think of times when I’ve worked long hours late into the night writing a sermon and realising that it would take my personal vulnerability to really make the point clear. I have then preached that message with very personal stories of struggle or doubt only to spend ten minutes immediately afterwards being critiqued on the volume of my voice, quality of my slides, amount (too much or too little) of Bible that was included, or on some occasions how my accent pronounced the words. Few, if any, of these people were being vindictive and would have hated to hurt me but on occasion it really hurt. 

It hurt because a sermon like those mentioned and a presentation are very different. A sermon forms around your desire for people to know Jesus. You write it with the faces of the people in the room in your mind. These are people you love and want the best for. I often, and I’m sure most pastors do too, would take risks with my own emotions by being vulnerable in order to give people a means to engage with the hope of the message or, at the very least, to not feel alone in their similar struggle. Most sermons I have preached were costly for me and I know they are for many many preachers. 

I would often go home after speaking and be exhausted for an hour or two. The worst possible time for me to receive critique or criticism was immediately afterwards. I just didn’t have the emotional capacity left to process it well. It was like telling a marathon runner they could have picked up the pace in the middle miles as they lie in their silver blanket on the pavement a few moments after finishing their race. 

If you want to support your pastor encourage them immediately afterwards. If you have things to critique wait until Tuesday or Wednesday. They will want to hear constructive feedback just choose your moment well. If they are vulnerable in their talk, acknowledge it in the moments immediately afterwards. Even if you have critique to give later, thank them in the moment for their emotional risk for the sake of those listening. When people did that for me (often) it made a great difference to buoying me up. 

You feel like you live under a microscope.

Being in church work is a privilege. I’ve always felt that. Not just in a ‘working for God’ way but in a ‘working for people’ way. People work hard and give money to churches and that money pays your wage. That is a real honour. It, however, does sometimes lead to a feeling of being examined. It also leads some (relatively few but enough people to be noticeable) to feel that they have a right to examine your whole life and that their payment of your wage gives them a right to comment on the other, non-work, parts of your life.  

Here is an example. About 9 years ago I bought a new car. It wasn’t brand new, that’s a financially bad move for anyone, but was new to me. I loved that car, and had saved for it. I had wanted a slightly more expensive one but something in my mind said that it was inappropriate for a church worker to own. ‘How can you preach about the love for the poor and drive that car? That will undermine your message,’ I remember thinking. For the record we are talking £10000 instead of £8000. The sad thing is that the third time I drove the car I pulled up into a supermarket car park and was greeted by a family from church. ‘We are obviously paying you far too much,’ was the first thing I heard. One would have assumed they were joking but actually within 6 months a discussion was had within a meeting I attended that suggested the staff were paid too much. Their voices featured loudly. My car wasn’t the reason for that discussion but their comment betrayed a sense that they had a right of comment over what I drove. 

That is a silly example in some ways, but for all of the last 17 years I’ve had moments like that. Shoes, holidays, cars, houses, music I listen to, movies I’ve watched, my weight, my gym membership – all of these have been commented on with a ‘should you as our employee be …’ I’ve even had someone let me know to my face how many children I should have as a church leader (apparently 3 is too many by the way.) 

Now, I’m sure that much of this is about how I feel and how I react. I am also sure that this happens in all walks of life. I also must stress that this has only ever happened with a very small number of people, the vast majority don’t go as far as the examples. However, I know I’m not alone. Every church leader has their version of these stories.  If you want to support your church leaders then shut this kind of talk down when you hear it. Ask those raising it why they feel they have a right to control someone’s personal life. Also, celebrate the normality of your church leader’s life. Their are just a person doing a job, they aren’t a spiritual superhero.

As, I’ve said, I think for me, a lot of this was in my head. It is however in the heads of many other church leaders too. That is on us. You can help though. If you know your leaders well, then raise it with them. Buy them dinner and ask them about it. ‘Do you feel like you live under a microscope? How can we support you better in that?’ 

Success is very hard to measure and that is often demoralising. 

Many jobs come with targets and KPIs. At one point in my ‘career’ I worked somewhere that investigated setting out a way of measuring success for the various ministries of the church. Numerical growth, i.e bums on seats, kept coming up as a measure and would instantly be rebutted by something akin to ‘numbers don’t equal success.’ This is a basic description of what many church leadership books say; growth is hard to track. Growth is hard to track because real growth in a church is in unmeasurable things like compassion, reconciliation and restoration. The number of people showing up to sing and listen to a talk is a poor measurement of these things. 

Add to this that, for many Christians, their personal spiritual growth is not something they broadcast or necessarily even think about, and you end up in a place where the one tasked with leading the community can be at risk of seeing no visible return for their work. It isn’t that what they are doing is ineffective, not at all, it is just very hard to spot the successes and outcomes.  

I’ve been there. I’ve worked for a year and looked back and wondered what I achieved through all those hours and all that energy. The things that kept my head up were the stories that people from church would tell me, and looking out for how we were treating one another and those outside of our community. If you want to help your pastor deal with this struggle tell them your stories. Tell them what you are seeing develop in your faith, stories like that are like jet fuel for keeping pastors going. 

It may not be the hardest job in the world and it isn’t without its perks but church leadership can at times be gruelling. It is a privilege and it is tough. I’m on the other side of it at the moment and am only now realising how many of these little acts of support and encouragement were helpful in sustaining me across the past 17 years. If you’re a church person please do these things for your church leaders. If they feel encouraged they will serve you so much better and ultimately we will all win. 

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