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I will never forget the look on my doctor’s face as she looked up from reading the EKG on that December Friday morning.

“Dale,” she said, “You have a major problem!” I sat in disbelief as we looked over the printout. The graph result that was supposed to go up was actually going down. This news set into motion a whirlwind of activity. An appointment with the cardiologist the following Tuesday resulted in a heart cath on Friday to put in a stent. However, my heart was so blocked up that having a stent installed was not an option. Stents won’t work when you are blocked 100% in one artery and 90% in three others! The only option was quadruple bypass surgery.

So I had heart surgery on December 22 and spent Christmas Day in CCU. It all happened so fast. The heart surgeon told me my condition was known as the “widow-maker.” People who have this just die instead of having a heart attack.

“I lived every day not wanting to let Jesus down! My morning prayers always included one of these statements, ‘Jesus, please don’t let me die without fulfilling my purpose.’”

All of the doctors involved in my situation had a difficult time identifying the source of my condition. Rarely does a 53-year-old have a condition so extreme. There is no heart disease in my family history. I never smoked and am not severely overweight (Even though I could stand to lose twenty pounds!). The surgeon finally told me his assessment:

“Your condition developed because of high blood pressure brought about by the constant stress that you live in every day.”

In other words, the stress of being in the ministry for thirty five years almost killed me!

Good Stress vs. Bad Stress

Living under constant stress was not a new revelation to me. I have known for many years the toll that ministry takes on you. The effects of bad stress are obvious. However, I had reasoned that good stress was acceptable and a part of the job. My surgeon quickly set me straight in his office one afternoon.

“Dale, stress, whether brought about by good times or bad, has the same effect on your health.”

Stress is a killer! It is really that simple.

I can trace my stress to always wanting to have my father’s approval. I grew up working with my dad who was a home contractor. Our relationship is best described as mutual respect, sensed but not said. My father was very proud of me, and he would often brag on me to others. However, he would never affirm me verbally. So I worked harder trying to get him to say something. But he never did. Over time, I began to develop the same unhealthy relationship with my Heavenly Father.

Proverbs tells us,

Unrelenting disappointment leaves you heartsick, but a sudden good break can turn life around.” Prov. 13:12 MSG

Through the ups and downs of ministry, an issue had developed in my heart that had caused me to live daily in stress. This issue was living under the weight of performance. Simply put, I lived every day not wanting to let Jesus down! My morning prayers always included one of these statements, “Jesus, please don’t let me die without fulfilling my purpose.” Or, “Jesus, please don’t come back until I accomplish what You created me to do.”

“I was reminded that Jesus didn’t come to earth in order to keep score on my performance. He actually came to give me an abundant life. Ministry was never intended to be done in my own strength and ability.”

I had grown up hearing youth pastors say that you will reach your entire high school for Jesus if you are really sold out! And the revival evangelist would remind me that I had certain people to reach who would go to hell if I did not lead them to Jesus. The biggest stress creator for me happened when the speaker would say, “You don’t want to let Jesus down. You must strive to hear Him say, ‘Well, done, good and faithful servant!’” Get the picture? I lived for fifty years thinking that the salvation of entire segments of the population depended on me reaching them! So I never felt like I was doing enough to merit affirmation from my Heavenly Father.

The Tweet From Heaven

The reality of how unhealthy my life had become was brought to light a few years ago when I heard a teaching by Bob Hamp entitled, “The Problem Jesus Came To Solve.” I was reminded that Jesus didn’t come to earth in order to keep score on my performance. He actually came to give me an abundant life! Ministry was never intended to be done in my own strength and ability. The greatest priority in ministry is to allow the life of Jesus flow through me instead of having ministry overwhelm me.

It was while I was beginning to understand this that my friend Shane Duffey made a statement on Twitter one afternoon. He said, “You can’t let God down because you’re not holding Him up!”

This tweet went straight to my heart. That day I began to release the stress of ministry and change the focus of my prayer from what I could accomplish for Jesus to what He could do through me as I abide in Him. I finally realized that Jesus was not keeping score on my performance. What a relief!

Cutting the Ministry Stress

In case you have developed a heart issue like me, I want to give you four things that I have learned to help remove the stress from ministry:

  1. I must honor the Sabbath every week

    I know you are very busy and extremely important. But you are not busier or more important than God. He took a day for sabbath in creation to model for us how to live. It is not nearly as important when you sabbath as it is that you actually build sabbath in your life every week.

  2. I must take care of my physical body. 

    There is no crown if Heaven for the leader who gets there early because he/she didn’t take care themselves. I must exercise, eat right, get enough sleep, and have some fun on a weekly basis. I have to find ways to have fun every week.

  3. I must prioritize my family over my ministry. 

    I grew up hearing ministry leaders say that you put God first, then your ministry and finally your family. NOTHING IS FURTHER FROM THE TRUTH! Too many ministry leaders sacrifice their families on the altar of ministry as though God is pleased! He’s not! In fact, 1 Timothy 3:4 – 5 tells us that running our own home well is a qualification of being a pastor.

  4. I must allow the Holy Spirit to work through me to be effective. 

    God created me. God called me. God commissioned me. So wouldn’t it be only reasonable to believe that He requires me to be connected to Him to accomplish His will through my life? I must develop a life of constant communion with the Father through the Holy Spirit to live in a stress-free environment.  

Ephesians 3:20-21 reminds me that He is able to do exceedingly and abundantly above everything I can ask or think according to the power that works IN me.

Surgery was required in order for me to have a healthy heart: physical surgery AND spiritual surgery. Please don’t allow the stress of ministry life to rob you of the joy of your calling. He called you to partner with Him, not to perform for Him!

Tony Morgan

Tony is the Founder and Lead Strategist of The Unstuck Group. Started in 2009, The Unstuck Group has served 500 churches throughout the United States and several countries around the world. Previously, Tony served on the senior leadership teams of three rapidly growing churches including NewSpring Church in South Carolina. He has five published books including, The Unstuck Church, and, with Amy Anderson, he hosts The Unstuck Church Podcast which has thousands of listeners each month.

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