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For The Wounded Leader

by Murray Kingwell

“Mental health has escalated more rapidly than all other health professions in North America. The demand for mental health services has increased 100 per cent in the last five years.”
Most good sermons have three topics, so I want to look at three major aspects that create an environment which can lead to the wounding of a leader. The three ingredients in the recipe for leadership wounding are offence, cultural changes, and the effects of stress.

When I see younger leaders who are coming into leadership, I often give them the following admonition: “One of the most important things in ministry is your ability to forgive.” You may be able to preach well or be a great administrator, but the moment you are unable to forgive, your ministry is often over. Some may limp along in ministry if they are unable to forgive, but it will not be fulfilling. Jesus told us we must forgive our enemy and bless him. Jesus also told us to leave our sacrifice (or long hours of pastoral work) at the altar and go and forgive our brother first before He would hear our prayers. John Wesley said that without believing prayer, a ministry is powerless.

A wounded leader is often wounded because someone has offended him or her and they can’t let it go. Paul the Apostle saw unfair treatment in ministry and said, “... why do ye not rather suffer yourselves to be defrauded?” (1 Corinthians 6:7, KJV). Jesus told His disciples that the norm was to be persecuted, so expect it. The reality is that ministry will bring wounds, and the truth is that we are all wounded leaders. If you pastor long enough, you will face the controlling board member. There will be the group that does not like the pastor. The lady who does not think you are spiritual will be in one of your churches.

Cultural changes
Cultural shifts have also placed increased pressure on leaders. Moses Znaimer, editor of the magazine Zoomer, noted that the musicians and cultural changers of the 1960s taught that no one over the age of 35 should be trusted.” They reasoned that those over 35 caused all the problems in society. Znaimer also noted that since we, the social reformers, are all retiring, no one trusts us. He coined the term “Zoomer” versus the Boomer generation to try to change the negative concept of aging. The cultural shift led to a disrespect for authority figures: politicians, business executives, pastors, etc. Due to this cultural shift, it is harder to hold a position of authority. Respect is no longer automatically given to leaders or pastors today.

Here are the (U.S.) statistics that pastors face today:

  • 25% will be forced out of a church or fired at least once
  • 90% feel inadequately trained to meet ministry demands
  • 80% believe that ministry negatively affects their families
  • 45% have experienced burnout or depression to the extent that they needed to take a leave of absence
  • 40% have a serious conflict with a church member once a month
  • 20% have had an affair while in ministry
  • 37% admit that porn is a current struggle
  • 70% do not have someone who is a close friend.

I sit on Focus on the Family’s committee for pastoral care. One of the number one calls on the pastors call line is pastors’ wives who are lonely – 80 per cent feel lonely as their busy husbands try to save the world. Schedules can choke out the rhythm of family life. Your wife should be your greatest advocate in ministry, so make sure she knows she is number one in your life.

A number of years ago, my wife came up with the concept of “I love you nights.” These were to occur at the end of the workweek on Friday evenings. Each of us would buy the other a small but meaningful item to let the other know we were thinking of them. I was counselling at the old 100 Huntley Street in downtown Toronto at the time. There was an amazing dollar store on the corner of Bloor and Yonge Streets, and an incredible Jewish bakery nearby as well. This made for lovely evenings with tea and baklava.

Vacations, getaways, coffee dates, exercise, and sabbaticals all rejuvenate our mind and body. I encourage many I counsel to have some form of “favourable anticipation.” When I ask most people in counselling about something they are favourably anticipating, they usually look at me with a blank stare. If we know something good is coming, we can face much more stress for the time being.

Exercise has proven to be more effective than any antidepressant. I heard one well-known preacher say that his doctor recommends two hours of exercise to burn off the stress hormones secreted from preaching one sermon. When I was pastoring a church, I went home after preaching for a Sunday afternoon nap. The best thing to do after preaching an energetic sermon would have been a lengthy walk (although I still have a nap—ha!).

Mental health has escalated more rapidly than all other health professions in North America. The demand for mental health services has increased 100 per cent in the last five years. One third of all Americans have experienced at least one psychiatric illness. On top of this, 40 per cent of us will be in psychotherapy at some point in our lives. In just six years, psychiatric hospitals for juveniles have tripled in number. A 1991 survey by the Centers for Disease Control revealed that of 11,000 students surveyed in 50 states, 27 per cent had seriously considered suicide. As the futurist Alvin Toffler wrote, “If we look around us, we find widespread evidence of psychological breakdown.”1 Stress is having serious adverse affects on the quality of life in our families, work environments and churches.

Dr. Richard A. Swenson is one of the teaching doctors at an Illinois hospital. He recognized that the doctoral students were overworked and overstressed. In his book Margin, he describes how modern life has worn the busy badge of honour, and how we have taken the margins out of life. Dr. Swenson noticed that a book reads and flows better with margins. If you take the margins out of a book and cram as many words as possible on one page, a book would lose its ebb and flow and be difficult to read. Leaders need to make sure they have margins in their lives or they will suffer the consequences of burnout.

One sign of burnout is increased irritability. When leaders push the time boundary, they will be more irritable in the home environment. Another sign of burnout is social isolation. It becomes increasingly more difficult to contact family and close friends. At this point, we start to dread the phone ringing. It has been my experience that not many Christian leaders relish the idea of a home visit with friends for fun. This is a sign of burnout.

Dr. Archibald Hart works with doctoral candidates at Fuller Theological Seminary. He states that the average person who commutes 1.5 hours a day in Los Angeles secretes more stress hormones in one commute than the average farmer in the 17th century produced in an entire year. No wonder so many people are tired and stressed out!

The stress we are battered with in our society is like the cares of this life that Jesus warned would choke out the Word of God in our lives. Is this why the love of many could grow cold in the end times?

Stress demands downtime to heal. However, many of us cannot deal with silence, quiet or solitude in order to heal. When we are healing from stress, the brain will hold back dopamine for the next round of stress. This creates feelings of dullness and, at times, even mild depression. That is why Elijah was depressed after the great victory over the prophets of Baal. During these downtimes our culture bemoans any feelings of being bored. The very thought of boredom is almost intolerable today. Our technological devices cry out for us to visit Twitter and Facebook, play a rousing high adrenaline movie, listen to loud music, or turn to one of a myriad of devices for stimulation. All of this causes us to enter into the stress cycle again—before we’ve had time to heal from the previous bout of stress. The term “crackberry” jokingly refers to the addictive nature of our technological devices. I am currently working on another book entitled The Pleasure Trap to document the effects of technology and stress.

Stress builds on stress for years, and eventually the leader breaks down. Post traumatic stress disorder occurs when an event happens that is too big to handle because we do not have the reserves of rest and margins. At this point, all the previous stressful events take on an accumulative effect and come back to haunt us. The time we take to rest, play or go on a sabbatical are not a waste of time. These very things are necessary to ensure long-term ministry. Many viable avenues of healing are available. For those of us who are leaders, it is important to maintain healthy margins, to cultivate a spirit that is quick to forgive, and to enjoy the positive motivation that comes from favourable anticipation. Above all, let us look daily to Jesus, our wonderful Counsellor.
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REV. MURRAY KINGWELL—B.Th., MTS., OACCPP, Psychological associate with Dr. Dan Dalton [psychologist] & Associates;
Exec. Dir.—Family Life Ministries (
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