Storms and Standing Strong

The storms will come, and they will be ferocious, shaking the foundations of your faith and faithfulness. But you can stand strong.

Why do some ministry leaders stand strong for decades while others fall?

Consider a parable.

When the Santa Ana winds howl through Southern California, it’s a common sight to see eucalyptus trees topple over. These trees sometimes grow to a height of 150 to 200 feet but are in danger of falling due to their shallow root system.

About 90 percent of the roots of a eucalyptus tree grow in the top twelve inches of soil. As a result, the taproot of the eucalyptus must extend at least six feet into the ground for it to stand. Even with this, the tree may not withstand a strong windstorm.

In contrast, the giant redwood and sequoia trees in Northern California last for centuries— some dating back to the time of Christ.

My close friend, Dale Haskins, was the forest ranger in California’s Armstrong State Park, the sanctuary for some of the tallest trees in the world. The giant Parsons Jones tree in the park stands 310 feet in height—equivalent to a football field flipped on end. So how did this gigantic tree withstand all the storms through the centuries?

Dale shared with me their unique secret: redwoods intertwine with other redwoods—sometimes extending their roots 100 feet from the trunk. They thrive in thick groves where the roots weave together and fuse. Connected through their massive root system, they derive incredible standing strength—withstanding high winds and raging floods. Try uprooting a redwood tree, and you have to deal with all its buddies close by.

In looking over the ministry forest, moral failure and burnout are taking too many leaders down, leaving disarray and confusion for the churches they served. Followers fall away. Some never return to church. Though there are other reasons, two primary factors cause ministry leaders to fall.

1. Shallow Roots

If the root system is shallow, toppling over is inevitable.

What makes the difference between shallow or deep roots? According to Jeremiah, roots deepen when they’re by a stream. “Blessed are those who trust in the LORD and have made the LORD their hope and confidence. They are like trees planted along a riverbank, with roots that reach deep into the water. Such trees are not bothered by the heat or worried by long months of drought. Their leaves stay green, and they never stop producing fruit” (Jer. 17:7–8 NLT). Note the phrase: “roots that reach deep into the water.”

A friend told me after visiting a church and listening to a well-known pastor and popular speaker, “He was a good speaker, very entertaining, but his message seemed to be about an inch deep. There was nothing to nourish the soul.” About a year later, this well-known pastor was removed from the ministry because of moral failure.

Busyness and unrealistic expectations leave too many ministry leaders drained dry. With little time to extend their roots by the stream and drink deeply of the living God, cracks develop in their “bark”—and their “bark” develops a “bitter bite.” They become irritable, critical, cranky, difficult to work with. They live in the “shallows”—there is a noticeable lack of depth in their ministry.

Pastors have struggles and fears, discouragements, and there may be times when they feel downright cynical. When tangling with someone who is cantankerous, they struggle not to return the same. They are not beyond bitter feelings.

Pastors are shepherds, but they are also sheep. They get depleted and exhausted. Many leaders run on empty, unable to give others what has been drained from their souls.

A relentless surge to push for bigger programs and greater numbers is dangerous. Effective leadership flows from a repeated cycle of giving and refueling. Shallow roots contribute to a fall, but another root issue also leads to a potential tumble.

2. Isolated Roots

Isolation is one of the significant predictors of ministry failure.

It’s ironic. The isolated pastor is surrounded by people every day, but the relationships tend to be one-sided.

They may be highly acclaimed and respected. They may appear to have it all together, with hundreds of followers and fans hanging on their every word and snapping up their best-selling books. But the applause of the crowd and approval of people is elusive and deceptive, masking the deep need for a few loyal friends who know them well, accept them when they’re down, and speak truth into their life.

We must abandon the “pastor on the pedestal”—viewing them as nearly invincible and beyond human weakness. Only Jesus deserves to be on the pedestal.

We all have a dark side—weaknesses we’re not proud of, pain we’re reluctant to share, and our unique vulnerability to temptation.

The poet Mary Oliver wrote, “Do you know that the heart has a dungeon? Bring light! Bring light!”

The human heart harbors many secrets—deep feelings of inadequacy, lurking lust, woundedness, and disappointment. When the storm hits and the tempter attacks, isolated pastors have no one to turn to or help them stand. Often, they can’t share their pain with the congregation, the board, or staff. After all, they’re supposed to be strong—even invincible. So, they isolate lest someone sees their cracks.

Without someone to share the inner turmoil, personal disappointments, and inevitable tensions of the ministry, temptation beckons and invades, taking down the leader who has every conviction to the contrary. With few exceptions, moral indiscretion is preceded by relational isolation, and rarely is this identified as the cause.

There is a solution. With a close confidant, a leader can bring to light hidden wounds, bitterness, and lurking temptations before they metastasize into ministry-threatening cancer.

How many pastors are going it alone? Far too many. If every one of the 100,000 or more Christ-centered, Bible-loving pastors in America had a shepherd, a confidant, a trusted friend, we’d see far fewer flameouts and a great deal more fruit for the kingdom. We’d march rather than limp. There’d be less shame and more spiritual success.

Joanne and I meet monthly with four other pastoral couples to share two things: a meal and our lives. It’s not a Bible study, though the Bible is woven into everything we share. It’s not a prayer group, though we pray for each other. It’s life sharing. Support for each other.

Encouragement. It’s a safe place to talk about what’s heavy on our hearts. During our time together, we’ve worked through the loss of employment, end-of-life issues, depression, church conflict, back problems, eye surgeries, asthma, children issues, coronavirus, loss of a home, grieving ministry loss, and more. We laugh more than we cry—but we do shed tears. And it’s okay to shed tears and acknowledge being lower than a whale’s belly. So, what’s happening?

We’re extending our roots, growing deeper by the stream and wider as we get entangled in each other’s life. Together we’re stronger.

Storms on the Horizon

As leaders, our roots had better be deep and strong because the storms will come—discouragement, criticism, opposition, sickness, betrayal, personal failure. Like a category four or five hurricane, the storms can rip apart our foundation and leave a path of destruction. God allows it to sharpen his servant, but Satan seeks to destroy us.

If God is using you, Satan has an imaginary bull’s eye target on your chest. He studies your weaknesses, aiming to take you down. You are engaged in a going-for-the-jugular, life-and-death fight to the finish.

For nearly 40 years, I served as a senior pastor. I often felt like a failure, and I feared others would discover what I knew about myself. And I acknowledge going it alone during many of those years.

I had no one to turn to. I cried in solitude, internalized fuming anger, tried to bandage my own wounds, struggled with bouts of depression, and frequently asked God why there was no one to care for me. Desperately I needed a close confidant, a shepherd with an arm around me, a friend to breathe encouragement in my loneliness.

Thank God there were exceptions when I had a like-minded friend who spoke truth into my life. Let me mention one of several: Pastor Avery Powers. This relationship was like Jonathan and David, deep love and respect between two men. I knew he wanted the best for me, but he wasn’t afraid to tell me what I needed to hear. A small faction in the church worked tirelessly to undermine my leadership. They wanted me and others on the staff gone. Nearly every week, Avery and I met, sharing our lives. He propped me up when I was ready to quit, and he ran interference with those who wanted to tan my hide.

The storms will come, and they will be ferocious, shaking the foundations of your faith and faithfulness. Count on it.

Stand strong—like the giant redwoods. Deepen your roots daily beside the stream of living water and extend your roots in deep, authentic relationships.

And do more than survive, thrive!

This kind of failure is what Dave and Joanne Beckwith are committed to preventing through Standing Stone Ministry. Their shepherds are trained, veteran pastors and missionaries who provide safe, confidential, and caring relationships.

This is an excerpt from God Meetings: Build Healthy Leadership and Prevent Ministry Shipwreck, by Dave & Joanne Beckwith.

(Photo by Jan Helebrant | Flickr)


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