Posted on : Saturday October 16, 2010

Dear Counselor,
My husband and I have been in ministry for five years.  While we have had many blessed days in ministry, more recently as we have tried to make some changes the church just seems toxic and I worry about its impact on our family.  How can we learn to survive in such an environment?
—“Learning to Survive”

Dear “Learning to Survive,”
I began to address your concern in the last two issues by introducing an approach from a workshop I did with ministers’ spouses entitled, “Building an Immune System to the M1N1STR1 Virus.” Using the metaphor of a virus, we found that a virus in ministry is any source of stress, conflict, negativity or irritation.  Viruses are always present. Viruses only reproduce and take over when there is a “host” cell. With an immune system, viruses are hardly noticed. Prayer is a way of building an immune system, and we looked broadly at various ways of praying in Part 1 and more specific forms of prayer in Part 2.

As a third and final response to your question, I would point out that another way of building an immune system is by having an awareness of the three families that are always present in any ministry situation: the Church family, the family that we currently live with, and our family of origin where we grew up.

Patterns of relationships that were established in our growing up years tend to get repeated in our marital relationships and in our church families. Every relationship in each of these families can give us clues to our “unfinished business” or our “growing edges” where God is still working with us on our journey of sanctification.

If we can shift from being reactive to being curious when our buttons are pushed, we begin to learn a lot about ourselves and, in the meantime, build an immune system that makes us less open to a “virus” in the church system.

As well, we can begin to be curious about the dynamics that are being brought to the surface for others. Not that we move to “diagnose” them, but move to understand that even in their attacks on us, God is trying to bring to light their unfinished business, if only someone will respond with curiosity rather than with reactive emotions.

Being curious about our own history, the history of others, and the history of the church’s own past patterns, allows us to step back and not absorb toxic comments.

It also allows us to observe signs of anxiety in the church (such as secret meetings, sabotage, black and white thinking, triangling, over-focus on the clergy, etc.) which are indicators of some kind of “disease” that needs to be openly and non-anxiously addressed.

If the key leadership can have such a curious approach, no “virus” can exist for long.

To remain curious, however, often takes a power greater than our own will-power. Hence, we move back to the suggestions in Part 1 and Part 2 of these articles for a life of deep prayer.

—Tom Rodgerson

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