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Dangerously Discouraged

Jennifer Hooks

Adversity, despair, and disillusionment -- these children's ministers have been to the brink…and survived. Here's how you can, too.

Some call it a dry spell. For others it's a low point. Whatever you call it, a dark season in your ministry life can seriously impact your motivation, your love for ministry -- even your faith.

Several children's ministers* bravely shared with us their stories of adversity in ministry, stories you can probably relate to. We took their tales to the experts -- professional counselors and career coaches -- for their insights on how to find encouragement again.


With Friends Like These...

Danette was a children's minister for 14 years at the same church -- the church she always thought she'd grow old in. But when a new pastor came on board, it was quickly apparent that he didn't like Danette. Despite an uncomfortable and at times unhappy relationship, she was determined to stick it out. Finally after four years, the pastor pulled her into his office and fired her. Then he instructed her to lie about her firing and tell her team she'd resigned. She was tortured by that mandate, so she remained silent and refused to lie. On Staff Appreciation Sunday, the pastor stood at the pulpit and announced that Danette had resigned.

Distraught -- but needing work -- Danette accepted a children's ministry position at another church. It was clearly not the best fit: Danette, a veteran leader, was now being micromanaged and "trained" by someone who'd never even served in children's ministry. After four years in that position, she finally quit, utterly disillusioned and feeling separated from God.

"I'm scared," she admits, speaking of the emotional distance she feels from God. "I never would've thought this could happen to me. I always felt so close to God, but I don't anymore. I'm better, I guess, but I'm not where I used to be spiritually."

Danette has stepped away from ministry at this point, and she worries that her relationship with God is in jeopardy.  


Find Yourself -- and Your Faith


"One of the most valuable lessons I've ever learned is this: God is way more concerned about me as his child than he is about my performance in ministry," says Julie Beader, children's ministry consultant and founder of Connect Ministries International (connectedministry.com). "When we've been through tough, emotionally draining circumstances (and unfortunately ministry can be loaded with them), we often forget to take the time we need to heal. We're so used to moving forward at a rapid pace that we just keep going and sometimes don't notice that we're bleeding all over the place."

Danette's initial situation with the pastor may be an underlying cause to her feelings of separation from God, notes Phil Monroe, a Christian psychologist, biblical counselor, director of the master's program at Biblical Seminary, and blogger (wisecounsel.wordpress.com).

"Danette's spiritual shepherd wounded her instead of mentored her as he should have," comments Monroe. "When God's representatives act in ways God would not, it does damage to the soul. Danette may need to be more aware of how this damage has interfered with her relationship with God. She likely has a view of God that's been challenged by these circumstances. She needs a friend to walk with her on a regular basis. Ultimately this friend may be able to help her see that her disillusionment is with humans and not with God, and that her faith is not in his human structures but in the Christ who suffered alone on the cross for her. She should find a friend who'll pour into her (not by lecture or advice) by being present and crying with her during her pain."

When we experience a situation that traumatizes or rocks our faith, it's critical to step back, reflect, and heal before attempting to forge ahead, says Beader. "When we try to move forward in ministry while carrying bitterness, anger, resentment, or even hurts, it's dangerous for us and for those we're attempting to minister to," cautions Beader. "It flavors our ministry. You have to get to the bottom of it -- and it may get messy -- and get things right. That may mean some serious time alone with God, or it might involve some counseling." 


When Parents Attack

Veteran children's pastor Sarah was concerned when one of her best teachers came into her office and said she was ready to quit. The teacher's preteen class was out of control -- so much so that the teacher of 16 years asked Sarah to step in. Sarah was appalled-the kids were disrespectful and disruptive. They even threw things at the teacher. After many failed attempts at discipline, Sarah took a drastic step and called a meeting with the parents and kids. She told them if they didn't shape up, she wouldn't promote them to the youth group.

"What a mistake!" says Sarah. "Instead of the parents disciplining their kids, they turned on me and said they weren't aware of a problem, my discipline policy was flawed, and my teachers didn't follow through. I left the meeting in tears...One thing I learned: You don't mess with Momma Bear -- and certainly not a whole pack of them!" Sarah canceled class for the next week to give the teacher, the kids, and herself a break.

"It was very discouraging," she admits. Even though her pastor supported her, Sarah reeled; her confidence had taken a major hit from the attack. She knew her reputation and her previous rapport with many of those parents might be irretrievably broken. "I was questioning everything about myself and my ministry." 


Plan Your Defense

A parent coup can be nightmarish, especially when the attacks are personal in nature. In this situation, say experts, the best response is to step back and let the dust settle while you think things through.

"Sarah's experience shook her faith in herself and her abilities to the point of wanting to quit," says Krystal Kuehn, a licensed professional counselor, author, and co-founder of NewDayCounseling.org and BeHappy4Life.com. "Never make a decision when you're experiencing strong emotions such as deep frustration or anger. Work through your emotions first," Kuehn advises. "And remember that people blame others rather than take responsibility. That doesn't make it your fault." But, cautions Kuehn, don't overlook the possibility of self-improvement. "Recognize the opportunity in the situation to learn and grow as a leader and disciplinarian."

Sarah came out of her situation bruised, but intact. The turning point for her was when a child from the class approached her and said, "Pastor Sarah, I can't learn anything in class." That helped Sarah get her resolve back.

"After that, I made sure those kids behaved," she said. "I sat in on every class, and the kids were aware that if they disrupted once they were out of the class. Over time, everything eventually blew over. I'm sad that some bridges may have been burned, but I'm proud that I stuck to our policies and defended my teacher -- who is still teaching." 


The "Pastor's Wife"

Paula and her husband planted a church two decades ago, and today it's thriving with hundreds of members. Paula took on the children's ministry at the church's inception, at first volunteering a couple hours per week. Soon her work turned into a part-time, paid position of 20-plus hours...and then 40-plus hours. As the work increased, so did Paula's love for children's ministry -- even though her paycheck did not. The ministry thrived under her direction.

The downside: The ministry's growth has been matched by an increase in problems with parents and team members. "I'll never forget just being floored as one of my nursery volunteers got in my face, screaming at me at the top of her lungs because we had a mouse in the building," says Paula.

Despite her love for the kids, years of full-time work at part-time pay, critical parents, and a job that's evolved into an unmanageable beast have slowly worn her down.

And Paula admits she's silently struggled with something else: "When things are going well, I'm 'the children's director,' " she says, "but when they aren't, I'm 'the pastor's wife.' " 

Paula says she's demoralized and experiencing a personal crisis, even though she still loves ministering to children. She's considering quitting, taking a lower-level position, or continuing on while trying to work through the problems.

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