Our Complicated Relationship with Church-Work

Last month I had lunch with a ministry leader—I get to see her in-person only a couple of times a year, so it was so good catching up. We lost track of time; for almost four hours we talked about life, ministry, faith, and everything in-between. We were well into the conversation when she said something that struck me deeply, something we don’t talk about often but probably should. We know we’re called into ministry, she said, “but I wasn’t ready for this work (in the church) to hurt so much, to have such a negative effect on my faith some days.” This kicked off a long thread in our conversation. All too often, when someone asks me what it’s like to work in the church, my answer is: “It’s complicated.” I sound like a teenager describing her relationship status on social media.

My ministry friend shared her own struggle to be authentic in a church world that often judges leaders for not living up to expectations. For example, if we extend our love and care for someone who doesn’t always “play by the Christian rules,” we are guilty by association. If they don’t believe, then maybe we don’t really believe. And if we have adult children who are not actively practicing their faith, what does that say about us? It’s exhausting to worry about what others think, and yet that’s human nature…

How Our Humanness Infects Our Mission
At our best, as ministry leaders, we serve others as we serve the mission of Jesus. But because we are human, not divine, it’s complicated. We might have colleague issues. We might turn our workplace, or our community, into an “us” vs. “them” battle. We might fight too much for the opportunity to be “right,” or push our own agenda. We all have our weaknesses.

And sometimes we respond with complacency or indifference to new ideas or new energy—we hang onto “But we’ve always done it this way.” Even if we haven’t responded this way, we’ve seen others who have, and it breaks our heart. Unless we’re lucky (or wearing blinders) we’ve seen a leader abusing their power. No matter the ministry, the denomination, or even the geographic situation, this work isn’t always a “taste of heaven.”

So, how do we nurture hope and perseverance? Or better yet, as church leaders, how do we continue to growour faith, and grow a more intimate relationship with Jesus, when we witness what church looks like “behind the scenes”?

The Permission We Need
I’ve been thinking about this a lot since that lunch with my colleague. Many years ago, after a difficult time, and a lot of soul-searching, I realized that I had to give myself permission to leave at any time. Staying in ministry would have to be a constant examination of conscience, a prayer asking God if I was still following his call. I think of the Thomas Merton prayer that begins, “The fact that I think I’m following you and your will does not mean that I’m actually doing so…” I know the work of ministry is not worth losing my faith.

So annually (usually in the summer), I take an audit, an inventory, of where my faith is at in that moment.

  • Do I still believe in what I do, and more importantly, in the God I profess?
  • Is my prayer life deep or dry?
  • What do my sabbath practices look like?
  • What am I doing to grow in my faith?
  • And most important, how have I surrounded myself with people who support me on the path of faith? (Just read the stories of spiritual friendships in Scripture and in church tradition to remember the importance of this practice of accompaniment.)

Where We Find Hope
Last weekend I had dinner with another friend who’s worked in ministry for more than three decades. He said: “I’m getting asked this question a lot lately, and I’d love to hear your answer – Where are you finding hope/seeing new life in the church?” I answered honestly – “Some days I find hope easily, some days not so much. But when I do find it, I find it in the people.”

It’s people—not programs or institutions or systems or structures—that rekindle our calling. Ministry is hard. But I have the privilege of being surrounded by people whose faith leads me further on the journey. I find hope in people—like these two friends who are giving everything to follow their calling as servants, courageously investing themselves in the Lord’s mission. These are people who offer their suffering up in prayers so sincere that it inspires me to do the same. They are people who freely witness to the God who is at work in their lives. They are people whose stories inspire me, especially when they advocate for those who live on the margins, those who’ve been forgotten by others in their life.

As believers we are called to community for so many reasons, chief among them our need for the companionship of others to grow in our faith. We can’t do it alone. When I find life (or faith, church, ministry, prayer) difficult, friends in my community challenge me forward.

A Summer Audit
This summer, consider auditing where you are in your spiritual life—in your faithful and faith-filled practices. You might want to renew a prayer practice. Perhaps you need a retreat. Or maybe you’ll find, like I often do, that you need to more spend time with those who inspire your faith, more time with friends who challenge you to grow on your faith journey, and who ask, “How is your soul, today?”

If you’re craving help in your journey toward a healthier, more sustainable path in ministry, please reach out to connect with me, or with one of our other Vibrant Faith Ministry Leadership Coaches—just click HERE to get started.



Denise Utter, M.A., is a freelance consultant, writer, and a speaker—she’s been coaching with Vibrant Faith since 2018. She has worked in ministry and education for 30 years. Denise loves to inspire ministry leaders to reimagine faith formation, put families at the center of faith, and provide innovative approaches to faith formation.




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