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Leadership your course amid the forces of ministry.
Winter 1998


Beating the Pastoral Blues

I was finally honest with myself: I hated the ministry. I was tired of the lies, the pretending, the guilt, the expectations. I wanted out.

I'm sorry, God, I prayed. I gave it my best shot. I tried to do it in your power. It didn't work.

Ten years ago, full of zeal, my wife, Geri, and I had begun ministry with the vision to plant churches among the poor in New York City and around the world. Now, four children later, Geri was battle-weary and wanted a life, a marriage. So did I. Between the need to build the church and the feeling of responsibility for other people, I had little energy to parent my children and to enjoy Geri.

My spiritual foundation had finally been revealed for what it was—wood, hay, and stubble. I limped along for years. It took depression, anger, crying, and blaming myself for every mistake in the church to push me to take a three-month sabbatical. My time away from my congregation forced me to four unpleasant conclusions about myself. But realizing them was an essential step toward regaining my soul and regaining hope and joy in ministry.

I tended to lie a lot

Last night I negotiated with an associate pastor about his planting a church from one of our church plants. We spent hours exploring the real issues behind my associate's frustrations: he wanted to plant the church ahead of our timetable, and his philosophy of ministry didn't parallel ours.

I hated the meeting.

In the past, I would have told myself the meeting was going well, even though it wasn't. I would have manipulated a way for the situation to be a win/win for the pastor and our church. This time, I didn't. I was honest with him about what I felt were his shortcomings and about the fact he may have to leave the church.

This was new to me, and freeing.

In many ways, I have
been an emotional cripple.

During my time away, I'd realized that when I didn't like something, I often pretended as if I did. I saw this in my relationship with my wife. I wouldn't communicate what I really thought. I'd act sullen or withdraw when I didn't get my way. I discovered I did this even with friends. I didn't want to face the messiness of truth and their possible rejection.

I also did this with my church: I'd lie to myself, We have a great church. That is an exaggeration. Our church has some solid characteristics, but how could it be great when the senior pastor and his wife were miserable? As Eugene Peterson states powerfully in Under the Predictable Plant, all churches are full of Ninevites—sinners.

I often did not tell the truth to our staff and elders. I rarely told them what I was thinking or feeling when I knew they wouldn't like it.

In the midst of my struggle, I found myself exegeting the account of Ananias and Sapphira in Acts 5. It is the first recorded sin in the early church, and it involves lying. Neither Peter nor God appreciated their pretending to be something they were not. Perhaps they had convinced themselves they were giving everything. We don't know. One thing is clear: God hates pretending in his church. He is passionate for truth.

Although it's often painful, I'm learning to tell the truth.

I tended not to feel

In the two years leading up to my time away, I began to feel emotions I had never felt in my Christian life. This was a shock, since I perceived myself as a Christlike, meek, loving pastor.

While I relate to Robin Hood's risk-taking qualities, I also carry insecurities and a fear of responsibility. Strong on vision and task, I would let people do or say anything to me as long as they would not abandon the project. After getting run over a lot of times, I started to feel rage, hate, bitterness, depression.

Centuries ago, St. Ignatius wrote that one means through which the Lord reveals himself is in the deepest movements of our feelings.

When my wife and I started asking each other, "What do you feel like doing?" we had difficulty answering. We knew what we should and had to do, but we were unable to identify what would bring us life. We discovered that each of us guarded large, unexplored expanses of feelings toward all kinds of things. We had little skill in how to listen and express what was going on inside us.

Some people worry that if you begin to feel deeply, it will open the floodgates to sin or to become narcissistic or to leave the ministry. The truth is, some will find out they are not doing Christian ministry for the right reasons. Or they'll find out they're not properly suited for what they are doing.

After a period of disorientation, I felt freshly focused and confirmed in God's call for my life. Through this process, I discovered God was opening me up to let him in. He wanted to tackle—and the word is tackle—the mixed motivations and dark feelings inside.

I tended to die to the wrong things

In the desire to serve Christ, I died to the joys of intimacy with my wife and children. At soccer games with my girls, my mind was usually focused on a problem in the church. Weeks turned into months. Months into years. Now years were turning into a decade: I had died to the joys of parenting and marriage for more than ten years.

The day before I started my time away from the church, my wife and I met with Julio and Leonor, who had come to Christ under our ministry. Now, they were the senior pastors of the Spanish congregation at New Life.

In their early years of leadership, they were vivacious, excited Christians. Now, seven years later, they were exhausted, feeling guilty about neglecting their two children. They felt overwhelmed with what was in front of them. After listening to them for three hours, I felt ashamed. Julio and Leonor were the products of our ministry. They were just like their teachers.

Geri and I asked their forgiveness.

We learned a basic but important lesson—the degree to which you love yourself corresponds to the degree to which you love others. Caring for ourselves was difficult for us to do without feeling guilty. We unwittingly thought that dying to ourselves for the sake of the gospel meant dying to marital intimacy and joy in life. We had died to something God had never intended we die to.

While away from the church, I took up drawing and watering our grass. I began to love being present moment by moment in the wonder of life, sitting on the porch holding my wife's hand, taking my 5-year-old on a date for ice cream. Even now, as I think about the future, I'd like to play in a basketball league, to write, to take a community-college art course.

Losing my life for Christ is taking on a different meaning for me. I now see it is possible to win the whole world for God and lose my own soul (Mk. 8:36). In many ways, I have been an emotional cripple. Slowly, I'm learning to delight in my wife and children. Slowly, I'm learning to see every person as a human being, not as a task. Slowly, I am discovering the joy of creation. Slowly, I am discovering life.

I tended to have loose boundaries

My wife and I entered the ministry with a strong commitment to relationships and cell groups. Sacrificial, intentional decisions were made to create community. The problem, however, was that we sacrificed our separateness as individuals, as a couple, and as a separate family within the larger church family.

In Boundaries, Henry Cloud and John Townsend define boundaries as a property line: "A boundary shows me where I end and someone else begins, leading to a sense of ownership." Geri and I had to discover that we needed more sharply defined boundaries.

Years ago, Geri and I bought a two-family house in Queens. A few years later, our good friends bought the two-family house to which ours was attached. We were excited about building community—four families next to each other. Other families from the church were considering moving into the neighborhood.

After our fourth child, however, we were out of space. For Geri, who was home-schooling at the time, the house was a ball and chain: crowded streets, a baby in our bedroom, having to whisper in the bathroom so friends on the second floor wouldn't hear us, a major highway less than a hundred yards from our door. Geri's desire for space and greenery made her an oddity in our small community.

We hadn't seriously considered moving because of the social pressure we felt. If we moved to another, more spacious part of Queens (there aren't many), or, God forbid, to the suburbs, we thought our friends would feel a sense of betrayal.

After our fourth baby, we had little choice. A newborn and the pressure created by our living situation finally drove me to break ranks with our friends and say, "We're moving." Our friends were hurt deeply. I had created the culture of togetherness and now was pulling out. While our friends eventually came to accept our decision, the process was painful.

Geri and I learned that for a variety of complex reasons—people's need to control, their unrealistic expectations, and our guilt and anger—Christian leadership is emotionally hazardous. For us to be effective long-term required that Geri and I clearly know who we are and who we are not. Otherwise, others would make that decision for us.

Healthy courage

Almost two years have passed since our time away from the church. It has been some of the best time of our lives. I've enjoyed our marriage and my work as pastor as never before. Most important, I think I love God and others better.

As I reread this article, I am embarrassed about the way I lived, but I thank God for his mercy. Today I take off two days a week from the church, limiting my hours. New Life Fellowship is actually becoming a healthier place. And I enjoy waking up each day. I've finally become convinced that it is possible to lead a healthy, vibrant church and live a sane, joyful life.

But what it takes, more than I'd imagined, is courage.

Pete Scazzero is pastor of New Life Fellowship in Elmhurst, New York

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