I had been excited for months. This was my second trip across the globe. Just a year before, I had experienced my first time traveling halfway across the world, something I’d wanted to do my entire life. I always knew I would go, there was just something about it that had spoken to me since I was a child. And here I was, on my second journey just a year after my first. A new country. New people. A new ministry to work for. I could hardly contain myself. This was going to be awesome.
And it was. There were a lot of incredible things about that trip. The kids I got to work with, the way the ministry ran, the positive outcomes they were experiencing seemed great. At first glance I very seriously wanted to go home, announce that I was going to be with them full-time, and pack up my things. But then something happened. The director of the ministry made a comment as we were walking around the property. He said “We pour so much into these kids and try so hard to provide every opportunity for success. And 85% of them go back to living on the streets. They run away. They get on the drugs again. So don’t get attached to any of them. They’ll just break your heart.” I couldn’t believe what he was saying. The implication that he had given up on really connecting and making a difference with these kids was the opposite of what I expected to encounter. There were also several times he was grumpy and snappy with some of us throughout our time there. I didn’t expect somebody running a ministry to be so negative. I began to notice that he was negative in a jaded way. A way that comes from years of the same hard things over and over without hope of relief. Without the thought that anybody really sees and cares. And I felt bad for him. I thought back to my first trip the year before. I knew there were things bothering that missionary too. She was good about keeping it to herself, but I had sensed something wasn’t quite right. I began to wonder. I began to ask questions to myself. Why is it that these people get burned? What exactly are they burned by? Who is doing something to help this situation?
When I got back to the US I needed time to think about this. I went back to my job as a barista while continuing to be knee-deep in ministry at my church. I had worked for the church since I was about 19 years old in various ministries and positions. Sometimes it was volunteer and a lot of times it was a paid part-time job. At this church, no matter what position you had, it was taken seriously. Your life outside of the church was taken seriously. There was a whole high standard you were expected to live your life within, careful to be an example to others. I understood this. I liked it. After all, if I had younger people directly looking up to me as a mentor and an example, I better be living my life in a way that was worthy of looking up to.
As I went back to life as usual, I continued to contemplate the things that were concerning me about these ministries and these people. Before long, I began to notice something. It wasn’t just something I had picked up on in Africa. It was something I was watching and even experiencing before my very eyes right where I was. There were always so many stipulations and politics within the church that it took strategic and hard work for me not to get sucked into a jaded attitude about the whole thing. And so many staff members that I knew well were suffering from being in the thick of it. They were burning out, getting hurt and worn by things. I would often ask them about it and they would clam up and say that they shouldn’t be talking or complaining about things, that they would rather just keep their mouth shut. There was an obvious stigma about being raw and real with the struggles that ministry contains. I began wondering whether talking about it might help things. Whether having the opportunity to be brutally honest about what’s hard and why might make them feel understood and less alone. Being heard and seen can be a mighty salve to many wounds. This seemed like such a foreign idea. I didn’t see this happening among any of the places I was involved in. That worried me. I wanted to see people have relief.
Later that year, I picked up and moved to another state to work for a ministry that I really believed in. My job was to host youth groups who were going to do a missions trip in the US rather than traveling overseas. I would lead them in working with various disadvantaged groups of people. The hosting part of the job I loved. But oh, the politics and the hurdles that occurred within management! I had the most difficult time with the way things were run and it became one of the most uncomfortable situations I had ever been and lived in. I was getting jaded and worn. And I had a prominent position. I was being watched- my life under a microscope so to speak-in my new town of residence as well as from home. I knew everything I posted and said was seen by the vast array of people I had come to know all over the globe. Suddenly I was stuck in a very bad situation half a country away from home and feeling like there was no safe place to talk about it. This was a perfect example of what I had been processing about people in positions of leadership. It’s HARD.
When I finally left this position, I was burnt and seriously processing what it means to be in leadership and in ministry. I was talking this over one day with a friend who is a missionary. I was telling her that it really bothers me to see so many people suffer because they get put on these pedestals and people are expecting them to be so put together and such an example. What can they do when things are tough? Who can they talk to when everyone seems to be looking up to them? How can they talk about the hard stuff that goes on without bashing the place they work or serve? Is there a way to be open about it and receive feedback that helps, that makes them feel less alone? I was frustrated that there seemed to be no answers. And my friend looked at me and said, ” Why don’t you go to school to be a therapist?” Wait what? Where did that come from? What does that have to do with anything? Are there therapists that specialize in working with people who are leaders or in ministry? This was not on my radar. I was a college drop-out. I was going to be in missions or ministry. I just wanted to solve some of the problems that come up for people who were doing what I was going to do. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized I wanted to help. And maybe helping looked a little different than I was used to. But go to school? Could I do that? I wasn’t smart! This requires grad school, training, testing….all things I had tried hard to stay far away from. But the more I thought about it the more I knew there really was no other option. Something in me knew that this was what I was meant to do with my future. I had had these hard experiences working in the middle of these hard places and situations for years and knew what it could be like. That means I can understand when somebody speaks about the rough patches, the politics, the feeling overworked with no results, the unrealistic expectations. Yes, I have been through that. I could have empathy with understanding. I began to research. It seemed there WERE therapists specializing in leaders and those in ministry, just not a lot in my home area. I groaned. I hadn’t really wanted to stay in my hometown. There was so much out there and so many places to live that seemed more appealing. But I knew deep down that it was a need and I could do some serious good if I really worked hard.
Christine Caine-one of those speakers and authors I listen to relentlessly-talks about the darkroom. When film is being developed, the darkroom is crucial. It’s everything. Unless the film spends the full amount of time within that room, marinating in just the right chemicals and having the time to process, there won’t be a fully developed image. And how many times do we miss the fullness of who we are meant to be or how we are meant to function because we are running away from that darkroom? Often, I think. I have missed several opportunities because I ran away from the work it would take. And now. Now I am choosing to live in the darkroom, being submerged in the mix of ingredients that I need in order to be good at what I will do. Studying, growing, developing, learning, forming that clear image. It’s been one of the hard seasons. School gets intense. The dark can be lonely. I miss some of the stuff that I have had to cut out. I miss some of the freedoms I used to have that I no longer get. It feels so long and like it will never end. I spend a large portion of time afraid I won’t be good enough, that it will be too hard. I worry a lot about very specific things that I know are ahead. But it is a time filled with purpose. I know exactly where I am headed. I know why I am going through each part of the process. When I am finished I have big dreams of very specific ways I want to offer my services. I want to help spark some serious change. I want to offer relief and help others thrive and live vivacious and audacious lives rather than just surviving the days and the season they are in. In a few weeks I begin grad school. A new chapter. A new season. I’m nervous and excited all at once. Here’s to the next stepping stone in the journey.