Dr. Penny N. Freeman, LPC, Copyright 2018
First published by Harvest USA
As a 20-something on staff with Young Life, my supervisor gave me a six-page form to fill out that asked me hard questions about life and ministry. The questions were frighteningly personal and, I feared, would expose me as a ministry fraud.
I waited until the last minute to hand it in, confident I was going to be fired. My big reveal? I didn’t have devotions every day. I struggled with depressing feelings. And God didn’t always make sense to me in moments that were hard or disappointing.
My wise supervisor sat me down, listened, and assured me my job and future with Young Life was secure, but she wanted to help me develop and grow. There was a sigh of relief when I found out I was safe under her care. Later that year, at a regional retreat for female staff, I found out that I was not alone. The sharing revealed:
- We all struggled to believe the gospel when hard events were happening in our lives.
- Ministry was rewarding but tended to create loneliness.
- Praying felt difficult to practice.
- We all often lost our tempers.
- We all struggled with “imposter syndrome” and wondered about leaving ministry for “secular” jobs.
- Most women had a counselor or “safe relationship”.
This was the important lesson learned for going forward in ministry: Ministry leaders needed a safe space to be honest about their hearts, their struggles, and their fears.
So, who shepherds the shepherdesses?
Women are working hard in many thriving churches and parachurch ministries as leaders, pastors’ wives, and other support staff, and we should care about their hearts and souls.
As a female leader, I have been equipped for ministry by the multiple mentors and caregivers who have poured into my life over forty years. Here are some simple ways people have discipled and shepherded me, enabling me to both function more productively and flourish in ministry.
1. Ministry leaders need to practice self-care. Women who are in ministry rarely take care of themselves or have avenues to do so. While caring intentionally for others, many times they run on fumes themselves. Moreover, most live on shoe-string budgets and rarely have the income to pay for things that might encourage their care. One concrete way to care for a woman in ministry would be to encourage regular time to herself. Self-care for caretakers should not be optional. Burnout is a real thing. Invest in your female staff members and volunteers by providing movie passes, personal rest days where she can go away and reflect and rest, and any multiple ways she can step away from ministry to do something fun.. Although these things may not be or seem very “spiritual” in nature, they help women gain and maintain a sense of health, enjoyment, and value for self and others.
2. Ministry leaders need safe listeners. Text or call your ministry leader routinely and ask her how you can pray for her. Some of my best supporters are folks I can simply text “PRAY” to, knowing they are safe enough that I don’t have to explain all the details; they know the details of my life well enough to pray.
Spend time to earn her trust and let her unburden her heart on her own terms. Safe listening sometimes means no advice, no judgment, and no well-intentioned prying questions for more information. Just listen and validate your friend’s experience (you can validate her experience without agreeing with everything she says). Finally, be a “vault” listener. What she says stays in the vault (never gets repeated). You are a trusted source of confidence.
Being a safe listener is the only way she will come to you with deeply personal struggles, especially ones that are ones involving her sexuality. She may have a husband who she discovers is looking at porn; she might be struggling with that herself. Sexual issues and ministry are an explosive combination! Too many struggles stay hidden until they blow up, for reasons of shame and fear of losing one’s job. Being a safe listener invites others to ask for help, and communicates that you will stick with her for her good.
3. Ministry leaders need hard conversations. Our marriages, our kids, and our hearts are targets for the enemy. If ministry leaders fall hard, we potentially take a lot of folks down with us.
If you are a trusted friend, be willing to have hard conversations. Where is she tempted to compromise her biblical values or moral integrity? Is she living within her budget? Is she spending time on Facebook scrolling for old relationships because of marital disappointment? Is she gossiping on the phone about people who have hurt her or looking at sites she shouldn’t? Is she dealing with emotional or physical abuse in her relationships?
By all means ask these questions. And don’t be shocked if your ministry friend has far more in her life than you can shoulder; invite her to glean wisdom from others, and from professional counselors in your area. Help her with the cost if she needs it.
4. Ministry leaders need encouragement. Most women ministry leaders walk around with a secret critic in their heads that renders null-and-void any praise they receive. But when they are affirmed in their character, God’s gifting in them, or how their ministry makes a difference in your eyes, they feel encouraged.
Send her to a conference or seminar where she will be fed spiritually and emotionally. Remind her that her relationship with God is more significant than what she accomplishes. Tell her what you see God doing in her, that she is his daughter and reflects him more every day.
These, then, are some concrete ways to watch over the hearts of those women who bear the mantle of gospel ministry. We need to thoughtfully and proactively support these women as they continue assisting others in growth and sanctification.
Dr. Penny N. Freeman, LPC, is on staff with ServingLeaders and Parakaleo, a ministry to church-planter wives. Penny was the first paid women’s staff at Harvest USA 28 years ago.