On the Emotional Rigor of Ministry

Last week I was asked a question by one of my sisters, “Do you like your job?” I answered honestly, “Yes and no.” I like being a minister because I get to serve Christ with all of my being. It’s the greatest job on earth, but, for me, it’s also at times the worst. Honestly, the job itself isn’t difficult. The tasks I have before me each week are rather easy, but the emotional rigor of ministry is something that can be draining and take a toll.

My sister’s question arose because of a comment I had made in Wednesday Bible study. Initially, I had given her the impression that I hated what I did. I was glad that she gave me the opportunity to clarify what I meant when I had said that I’d be glad to be put out of a job. For me to not have a job as a minister would mean that sin is fully dealt with, God is among us and we Him, and that there would be no reason or call for me to go to hospitals, funeral homes, or to counsel people who are facing life issues. That, I told her, was the most difficult part of what I do because I grow to love people and hate seeing so many hurting.

Just that very day I had been to the hospital to visit a brother who learned he had diabetes only because he had to have his foot amputated as a result of complications. He was in pain, and his son was there in the room with him, notably exhausted. I visited with them and prayed with them and for them. Then, I went to another room where one of our eldest members is declining. A sweet, dear woman who had not had the easiest life but whose faith is most profound. That too was saddening to me. Then, I walked from one end of the hospital to the other to rejoice with a friend who’d had a newborn. Just minutes prior, I wept with those who wept, and now I had to flip the switch and rejoice with those who were rejoicing.

My goal, so I told her, was to be what people needed me to be in the moment they needed me. That’s why I minister—a term that means “service.” I serve because life is about others and because God has enabled and gifted me to have empathy and a listening ear for those who would need it. I told her that the happy visit of a mom and dad with their newborn couldn’t, despite how pleasant it was, erase the pain I had just left. It was on my mind though I had to put on the face of happiness for a healthy mother and baby. Then, I would go home that evening, I told her, and be husband to my wife and father to my children. I had to do all that I could to divorce the happenings and worries of the day to be for them what they needed and deserved.

I spend so much time being for others what they need, that I sometimes don’t even know how I truly feel on given occasions. As much as God has enabled me, He has also sustained me when the emotional stress of such days wear some people out. I have habits and routines to refresh myself and cope with such emotional distress so that I can stay in ministry for the long haul. However, one thing I’m not very good at is being patient when someone has an issue that is petty considering all that I see on a weekly basis—something like a Christian wanting to debate the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. Or a brother trolling my writings to set me straight on their own platform. Petty things usually receive a harsh response from me because people can be so little when there are more important things they should occupy their time doing, such as ministering.  

I told this sister of mine, who understood, that if I had the power to do so, I’d take all of these people’s pain and box it up and throw it away. Sadly, I don’t. I mentioned to her a recent grief she and her family endured at the loss of a loved one, and how that weighed on me and I hated to see them all hurt. I noticed tears well up in her eyes then. Sometimes what ministers go through in caring for others takes a toll. It can and has burned many preachers out. It can often lead to mental health issues for the minister who seems to be constantly surrounded by such things. I have learned to compartmentalize. This is what I have to do to keep moving forward. I am grateful that I can serve in this way, and I am thankful that God gives me the strength to do so each week. However, I will be glad when the time comes for the Lord to return because these pains and woes will not rue the day when He returns in all majesty and glory.  

Steven Hunter (PhD, Faulkner University) is the preaching minister for the Glendale Road Church of Christ in Murray, KY. He's also authored several books for Start2Finish, and Classically Christian explores Christianity from a church-historical perspective. Steven enjoys reading books, drinking coffee, and is a practitioner of Goshin Ryu Jujutsu—a traditional Japanese martial art.