In a recent conversation with people involved in overseas mission, we broached the topic of those “in the field” who seek out therapy at some point for a range of issues. The comment was made that every therapist advises people to leave the field so that they can pursue their healing. The question was raised: can it be possible, good, and appropriate for folks to remain at their post, so to speak, and work out their issues in the context of a very challenging and costly ministry?
I was struck by how this question resonated with me and with various experiences I have had during the last few years. I am most certainly an advocate for seeking help and growth through counseling. In fact, if I had the money I would likely go myself! But I have seen a persistent trend and that is this: counselors who recommend removal as an essential part of the road to healing. In the situations I am familiar with, it has been primarily removal from leadership, removal from church involvement, removal from ministry. As one who is not trained in the area of mental health, I have felt unable to critique this, but I have wondered about its soundness.
I have had lots of friends receive counseling for their marriages, and I have never heard of a counselor who recommended that they remove themselves from each other so that they can pursue their wholeness as individuals (though I am sure there are examples of this and probably times where that indeed is necessary). Even though the daily life of marriage is difficult and painful, it is the journey through that, together, that is the road to healing for these folks. But for ministers in churches, that same principle does not often apply. The idea instead is that one must first get healthy before one can contribute in forms of leadership and service to the broader life of the church. The healing journey is walked alone, divorced from that relationship of finding life through giving up life for the sake of Christ and his church.
I have also seen the trend in my generation of people who “take a break” from service in the church for a host of reasons. I had good friends who, in preparation for their marriage, decided that the first year of their life together needed to be protected and so they would remove themselves from all formal ministry involvement. They quoted the Old Testament passage about husbands not going off to war in the first year of marriage. I found it a puzzling trend that I have seen repeated in other communities and contexts (did someone write a book about this popularizing the idea?).
Similarly, I see people remove themselves from ministry (or be removed) for a host of personal holiness reasons. The Bible is filled with exhortations on holiness and living a life above reproach. There is a special concern for witness and how the church and its message will be perceived. Yet the scriptures are as filled with the stories of very flawed, sinful people being used powerfully for God’s purposes. How do we reconcile that, and where do we draw the lines? Or do we just neuter the Old Testament Bible stories and make everyone heroic figures to emulate and leave out the parts of the story that make them remotely human.
Sexual sin is where I see the most consistency: it seems that if you are struggling with your sexuality in whatever way, you have no place on a leadership team or in a pulpit. But I recently saw two people who were engaged in a very significant struggle within their marriage that stayed at their ministry post WHILE receiving extensive counseling and accountability and prayer. Their ministry prospered and their marriage was healed.
I have no conclusion here, only questions. What does it mean to minister as flawed, broken people on a road, a journey, toward redemption? What does it mean to minister with transparency? Do we believe that our weakness, our creatureliness, our humanity is part of God’s methods, or do we place standards on what is good enough or healthy enough or holy enough for God to use?