Ministry Meltdown by Bob Merritt
When ministry turns you into a monster, the answer is not to suck it up and work harder.
Something happened to me in my early 40s that confused me. The church was grow-ing by 20 percent or more each year, and we were building buildings, adding staff, and the re-quests to speak and teach outside of our church were increasing. I was invited to lead the preaching department at Bethel Theological Seminary as a permanent part-time professor; I couldn’t have scripted my life any better. Everything I was doing seemed to fit who I was. But about two years into it, I was miserable.
I didn’t see it at the time, but the demands on my life had outgrown my ability to keep up. I felt tethered to so many different people and obligations that one day I took my canoe out to a local lake in the driving rain, paddled out to the middle, and just sat there for two hours. With rain and tears streaming down my face, I looked up toward the grey sky and said out loud, “What’s wrong with me?” What confused me was that everything that I was doing was good. But doing all of it was slowly sucking the life out of me.
The cracks started showing up in harsh comments and bursts of anger toward my wife, kids, and staff. I had become a recluse at the office. I sequestered myself behind a closed door, because I had to crank out a sermon, lesson plan, or meeting agenda. Tensions between my staff and me were swept under the rug. If someone got hurt, well, as far as I was concerned, it was tough luck, suck it up, and just do your job. There was no real interaction, just get it done and don’t bother me, because I was in demand and people should understand that.
At home I was even worse. I was a brooding and angry man who reacted to the smallest slights with hurtful comments and gestures. The kids learned to stay clear and wondered qui-etly to my wife, “Why is dad like he is all the time?”
Between Laurie and me there was plenty of yelling and tears, followed by days of staying out of each other’s way. I didn’t understand why I felt or behaved that way. I thought everybody else was the problem, and that they just didn’t understand my world. I excused my behavior because “I was doing what God had led me to do.” And that was true, I was doing what God had led me to do, only I was doing too much of it.
I had a sense that something inside me was breaking. But I didn’t have the time or energy to address it. I was also too afraid to allow anyone to have access to my soul.
Emotionally, I was depleted, and it showed up in my inability to love or to laugh. Bill Hybels once said, “The way I was doing God’s work was destroying the work of God in me.” My inabil-ity to love or laugh manifested itself in a very painful way on a family trip to the North Shore on Lake Superior.
Blue Fin Bay
After four hours on the road, we unpacked our stuff at Blue Fin Bay. That’s when I discovered I had packed all the skis but no ski boots, which was just enough to tip me over the edge. My frus-tration erupted: “How can I be expected to keep track of everything? How can I be responsible for the kids’ stuff, my stuff, and everybody else’s stuff? No wonder I forget things!” I was blow-ing off steam that had built up for weeks, and my family was on the receiving end. By day three my lousy mood had pretty much ruined the whole trip, but I thought maybe a three-mile family hike to Carlton Peak along the Superior National Trail would lift our spirits. When I mentioned the hike to my family I should’ve picked up on the silence, but I guilted them into going—in the fog, in silence, in protest.
Finally, about halfway up the mountain I stopped, turned around, and began lecturing every-one about their attitude, and family vacations, and said, “Is this the thanks I get for trying to plan a fun outing?” Two of four family members started crying, and the other two were just plain mad, so we turned around – in the fog, in silence, in protest.
That afternoon it was quiet around the condo. I’d gone off to my room by myself; the others went off by themselves. But an hour later I heard a soft knock on my door, and it was my 14-year-old daughter, Meggie. She came up to my room and handed me a card that she’d made, and then without saying anything, turned and walked away.
With different colored crayons she had written on the outside: “DAD.”
On the inside it said, “I’m sorry for having a bad attitude, for ruining your time, and for being selfish. Please forgive me! Love, Megan.” She drew four little hearts near her name, and it broke my heart, because it was me who had the bad attitude.
Meg doesn’t know this, but I hung onto her note for a full year, and every time I read my Bible and wrote in my journal, I looked at Meg’s note and I was reminded over and over again, every day, for a full year, that the person who needed to change the most in my family was me. But I didn’t know how.
Moment of truth
Just as God sent the prophet Nathan to confront King David with his sin, God sent a business-man in our church, Dean Hager, to confront me. Dean respected my leadership, and so one day he wrote me a personal letter saying how God had been nudging him to find a role to play at Ea-gle Brook. One thing led to another, and after a couple years of being in a mentoring group to-gether, Dean became our church chairman.
One of the reasons Dean agreed to the role was because he wanted to help me become a bet-ter leader. As he got closer to me, he saw some of the deeper cracks, so he decided that the best way he could help me was to empower the board to help me work on my leadership skills. But when Dean dug further into it, he began hearing disturbing rumblings from staff and lay leaders about my pattern of relating.
Dean spent several months interviewing key lay leaders and staff, and always kept me abreast of what was being said, and what he thought I (and the board) should do. I knew there were some problems, but I didn’t know how serious until a board meeting in February 2004.
Dean had gained the full trust of the board and me, and he called for an executive meeting with my leadership role as the only agenda item. Dean summarized his concerns, and after 14 years of me leading our church, Dean said to the board, “The question before us tonight is this: Is Bob Merritt the one who should continue to lead us?”
I was so stunned I couldn’t speak. To have that question raised shook me to the core. I real-ized that these eight elders held my fate in their hands, and at that moment I knew I had some serious flaws that I had to overcome or I’d lose everything I’d worked so hard for.
The Fred factor
The consensus that night was that I was still the guy they wanted to lead our church, but it came with a condition: that I would enter a year-long intervention with Fred, a leadership coach who works with CEOs throughout the country. The year would be filled with numerous one-on-one interviews with Fred, taking personality profiles, and conducting several group interventions between the board and me.
Fred and his assistant interviewed all my family members, most of my staff, and all of my closest friends with a series of 60 questions that essentially asked, “What’s good about Bob, and what’s bad about Bob?” The candid responses were recorded in a 200-page document that Fred and his assistant read back to me, word for word, during a two-day intervention.
When my leadership team asked me what that was like, the phrase “It felt like a leadership vasectomy” came out of my mouth. I felt completely exposed. And snipped.
For two solid days I sat and listened while Fred read statements like: “Bob overlooks relationships and lacks interpersonal skills in working with people.” “Bob doesn’t listen well.” “Bob doesn’t manage his staff. There’s no love. He’s unapproachable.” “Bob speaks before he thinks.” “Bob has a love problem.” “I know that Bob cares, but he’s not gifted in showing it.”
For two days I heard how people didn’t think I cared about them, and how I’d been dismissive and hurtful toward them. I heard repeatedly that I needed to manage my mouth, and measure my words and body language carefully. My colleagues and friends said some affirming things about my teaching and leadership, but what I learned is that those things get lost and don’t matter if I’m a jerk.
What really nailed me was when I heard these words from my son, David: “My dad is angry a lot.” When Fred read those words to me, he looked up from the page and just let them sink into my soul. I had to look away. After several seconds of silence, Fred offered some loving words of counsel and solace, but I was unable to hear him. I couldn’t get past the raw emotion I was feeling.
Instead of love, laughter, and kindness, my son was experiencing anger from me. It wrecked me. Never in my life had I become so convicted over how flawed I had become.
When you hear the same themes repeated over and over again from a variety of people who’ve experienced what it’s like to be on the other side of you, it gets your attention. You can hear the same themes from your kids or spouse, but you tend to blow it off, because you assume they’re just ticked off at something or they are being hyper critical. You hear it, but you dismiss it.
But when person after person says, “Bob doesn’t listen well,” or “Bob uses hurtful words a lot,” or “I don’t feel like I could ever approach Bob with honest feedback,” you realize you have some issues. It became clear that it wasn’t very pleasant to be on the other side of Bob Merritt. Fred put the mirror up to my face, and for the first time I saw the ugly cracks.
It broke me.
And it was the beginning of my new life.
Part of what confused me was that I had been successful doing what I had always done, and behaving the way I’d always behaved. Why was I running into so many problems now?
I learned a vital leadership lesson: what got you where you are, won’t get you to where you need to go. Instead of leading a church of 300, it was now much larger. Instead of leading three staff, it was now exponentially more. What worked before wouldn’t work anymore; the landscape had changed. And when the landscape changes, you have to change with it. The number of people depending on my leadership had multiplied, which meant that my leadership had to grow in order for the church and my life to go forward.
Talent isn’t enough
I always thought that as long as I delivered the goods, that was good enough. As long as I taught well, led well, and didn’t screw up, that’s all that was required. But I learned that being a competent teacher and leader isn’t enough. People expected me to be loving. Imagine that! They wanted me to be approachable and interested in their lives. They actually wanted to have some sort of relationship with me.
I began seeing that talent can only take you so far. I was getting A’s on the talent side, but F’s on the relationship side. Fred and others were telling me that if I didn’t start getting some C’s and B’s on the relationship side, I could take my talent and go find another job. I was on the verge of losing my staff, because instead of feeling encouraged and empowered by me, they felt devalued and defeated. What’s worse is that my staff had begun to adopt some of my bad habits, because the leader sets the tone and the example.
If I could improve the relational side of the equation, the possibilities for influence and achievement would multiply, because then we’d be doing things as a team. And a good team always outperforms individual talent – always.
“Nobody had the courage or permission to confront me with the ugly truth.”
Part of the reason I failed to see the value in teaming up with other people was that for so many years I led solo, and it seemed like everything depended on me. I had to pay my way through school, get my papers written, recruit volunteer youth leaders, plan the youth retreat, arrange for the bus, and even drive the bus. When I got my first full-time job as a pastor in Falun, Wisconsin, I had no staff, so in addition to writing messages and finding musicians, I put together the weekly bulletin, photocopied it, and ran the copies through the folding machine. I did everything but hand them out on Sunday morning. For the first 20 years, I had some volunteer help, but I carried the mother lode, and it seemed like people were happy to let me carry it.
But then things started to grow and become complex. There were more programs, proc-esses, and meetings; more worship services, Bible studies, and small group functions.
In short, there were more people, and I had never learned how to lead people, because I never really had to. I mostly did my own thing without people. When I had to enlist the help of others, I did. But if I would happen to lose my temper or cut people off, most of them let it go and attributed it to my youthful immaturity. Nobody had the courage or permission to confront me with the ugly truth. That’s what landed me in front of Fred.
Was change possible?
The question that haunted me was could I change? Marcus Buckingham raises the question, “How much of a person can you change?” His response is “Not much.” You are who you are. And that’s true. Much of who we are is hardwired into us.
But all of us pick up some additional junk along the way. We pick up weird ways of relating from our parents, siblings, friends, and TV that become habitual and hurtful. The goal was to identify the flaws that were a product of my own sin and selfishness and deal with them. The goal was to become aware of, and correct, my destructive patterns.
For example, Fred’s data revealed that my body language and facial expressions were often dismissive and belittling to people, so I lost credibility with board members, architects, staff, and other leaders without even knowing it. I learned that my mood swings were potent. I unknowingly violated basic leadership rules like “Praise in public, admonish in private.” I had a habit of admonishing in public and not giving much praise at all. This diminished my leadership and staff morale.
These are the things that Dean and Fred began to teach me, and to which they held me accountable. I still slip up, especially when I’m depleted, and I have ongoing tune-ups with Fred, because lifelong patterns are hard to overcome. But letting a professional counselor probe around in my life saved my career, renewed my marriage, blessed my kids, and has caused our church to surge to new heights.
Permission to breathe
One of the things Fred said that I had to do immediately was resign my teaching role at Bethel Seminary. When he evaluated my life, he wondered why I hadn’t collapsed already. He told me that no human being could sustain the pace that I was keeping without doing severe damage to their soul and relationships.
Why did I need to have a professional tell me that? Part of it was that I was filling a genuine need that Bethel had in the preaching department, and it seemed to be working. I was able to add value to young preachers, and what could be more honorable than that? Again, how could something so good be so wrong?
The other part is that you don’t know where the wall is until you hit it. Burnout was new territory for me. So I kept adding more roles and responsibilities, thinking they were invigorating, because I didn’t know my limits. Eventually, however, I found myself in a position where the demands exceeded my ability to meet them. But I didn’t know how to get out of it. I felt like stepping down would be letting people down.
Fred gave me the permission I needed to resign, and that single decision probably saved my career. After three years of being away from Bethel, I agreed to go back and teach a one-week intensive preaching class. I was breathing again.
I learned the importance of having a Fred. Someone who has access to your life and has permission to give you honest feedback about your flaws. Proverbs 12:15 says, “The way of a fool seems right to him, but a wise person listens to advice.” For about 30 years I’d been that fool. Listening to Fred was the wisest thing I’d done.
The difference maker
When I started seeing Fred, I told him that I was afraid I might not be able to change. Fred has seen hundreds of CEO types, and he says the success rate is around 40 percent. The other 60 percent continue to stumble and often end up losing their jobs and families. He said the difference is humility. Those who turn the corner and take their leadership and lives to a new level are those who are humble enough to receive feedback and take it seriously.
James 4:10 says, “Humble yourself in the sight of the Lord, and he will lift you up.” It’s not the prideful and self-assured that God raises up; it’s the humble.
So if you’re worn out or confused; if you’re afraid and somewhat paranoid about what others are saying or thinking about you; if you’re angry, feeling alone, and misunderstood, I urge you to ask this vital question: Am I humble enough to address the cracks?
A second chance
A year after Fred started digging around in my life, our family went up to the North Shore again. It was day three, a crystal clear morning, blue sky, a foot of fresh snow had fallen over-night, seven degrees. It’d been a good three days; I made sure of it. We were just hanging out by the fire when Meg came up to me and said, “Hey Dad, wanna take a hike to Carlton Peak?”
My wife looked up from her novel and smiled. This was a gift from God, and I knew it. This was Meg’s way of forgiving me for what happened the year before. For a full year I’d carried that failure in my heart, and I knew that God was giving me a second chance. It was just me and Meg; dad and daughter.
It was a postcard morning. The cold sun sparkled off the fresh snow, and when we stepped out of the truck our boots disappeared in white powder.
We cut our own path up through the spruce trees with branches sagging with new snow. Inching our way around the steep boulders near the summit, we reached Carlton Peak about an hour later with rosy cheeks and coats unzipped. We looked out over miles of pure white that cascaded into the deep blue expanse of Lake Superior.
There are certain moments in life that God gives that can’t be captured in print. This was one of them. Meg and I stood on that peak, and neither of us could say a word. I reached over and hugged her with both arms, and she returned the hug. That was our moment, a God moment that can never be repeated. We drank it in with pure joy and gratitude.
Then we dared each other to slide down 100-foot drop offs. We held hands and slid on our butts spraying snow and laughing like a couple of third graders. I should be dead.
Thanks to God and Fred, I’m more alive today than I think I’ve ever been.
Bob Merritt is pastor of Eagle Brook Church in White Bear Lake, Minnesota.
Copyright © 2012 by the author or Christianity Today/Leadership Journal.
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