Is it possible to lead a church and care for your soul?

While I believe it is, like a lot of church leaders, I’ve learned that it doesn’t come naturally.

My experience is that the system church leaders find themselves in, often puts taking care of your soul at odds with all the ‘ministry stuff’ that just needs to get done.

Here’s my story.

After working as a campus pastor and University Chaplain for 10 years, Elizabeth and I led a team of Cornell students (and one recent Cornell graduate) to plant a church in Ithaca, NY.

It was an exciting time, and I was getting to do a lot of exciting stuff.

My first clue that something was wrong happened early in the life of our church plant, when my four-year old daughter left a note on my desk. It read:

When are you going to be nice again?
Love, Hannah”

Yeah. Ouch.

So I made an effort to be nice again…to have fun with my kids. The problem was that church planting made a lot of demands. (More accurately, I felt a lot of demands and pressure, and gave in to them.)

The thing was, meeting those demands worked! Well, it worked for helping our church to grow.

A few years into planting, and I had an organisation to run. With a business administration degree in my back pocket, and a ‘pastor as CEO’ model to follow, I felt that I was finally playing to my strengths. So much that I’d learned began to fall into place.

The next several years, something began to gnaw at me.

One of the regular speakers at our denominational conferences began asking the question, ‘How is your soul.’

I didn’t know what to do with that question.

Thankfully the question was usually only asked during one of the sessions, and the rest of the conference would be about “Taking the next hill for Jesus.”

But the soul question nagged at me.

When I’d get back home to Ithaca, and the pressures and stresses of leading a growing church hit, I did what I knew how to do. I got in CEO mode and planned how we were going to take the next hill.

And the answer to that ‘soul’ question became, “I have no idea.” And more importantly “I have no idea how to even begin to think about that.”

But our church was growing. Pastors in our area were coming to me to ask how we were doing what we were doing, because we were the only growing church in our area. I began having opportunities to coach other pastors outside of Ithaca. Again, it was exciting.

Then 2009 happened.

That year a series of personal crises made it so that this soul question could no longer be shoved into the background. I needed to deal with it.

It was a long painful process. But through it, I learned a lot. Or at least I learned a new set of questions that I needed to be wrestling with.

In the midst of that I began to realise that I could no longer lead the church I’d built the way I’d led it up to that point.

I began to share with the leaders at our church what I was wrestling with. They were fully supportive, and together we began to look at what this all meant for the future of our church the Ithaca Vineyard.

About a year into this process I learned that the future of ‘our’ church, did not involve me. And so that process we began, ended when my family and I, and the key leaders of our church began to sense God calling my family to Dublin to plant a church here.

There’s a part of me that knows it would have been a difficult transition for me, for our leaders and for our church in Ithaca had we stayed. I’m not sure it would have been fair to them to have to go through that.

While the call to Dublin felt a bit out of the blue at first, it has made more sense over time.

Because of what we’d experienced those last three years in Ithaca, Elizabeth and I decided to take our first one or two years in Dublin to wait. Rather than jump right into church planting we were going to listen and learn. And in the midst of that, try to build a solid foundation so we can begin this new adventure of starting churches here in Ireland…but at the same time…and more importantly, make sure we are taking care of our souls.

This past July marked the end of that two-year period.

As those two years come to a close, we are beginning a new season in our time here in Dublin.

I’m excited about what’s ahead. And I’m still wrestling with those questions that I was asking in Ithaca. I’m still trying to figure out what it looks like to lead a growing, vibrant, high-impact church, while at the same time caring for my soul.

Since this journey began for me about five years ago, I’ve met many other pastors and church leaders wrestling with similar questions. My hope is that this space can be a place where that dialogue can continue.

I hope you’ll join me.

So, anyways…how is your soul?


(*the image in this post is the outside of the garden wall in St. Anne’s Park. it is a place we like to walk and explore new paths.)