The Slow Leak

To finish well and not ruin your life and ministry, you must consistently identify and repair the slow leaks of the soul. 

I shared an extra sleeping pad with a friend on a recent backpacking trip. The pad didn’t have any prior issues and blew up fine that night. However, my friend woke up on a deflated mattress.

None of us saw the small unidentifiable hole that caused the slow leak. But it was there. Overnight, this tiny leak collapsed the cushion entirely between my friend and the ground. This mishap led to a cold night and a sore back—not the trip my friend envisioned. 

"The root of every moral failing is a small puncture in the heart and soul of that person."
Justin McKay

I believe this is what we’re witnessing with story after story of pastoral scandals – slow leaks. No one wakes up and says to themselves, “This is the day I ruin my life and ministry.” The root of every moral failing is a small puncture in the heart and soul of that person. Aware of the injury or not, the damage is often left untreated, resulting in a spiritual hole that grows larger and larger. Soon, the leader finds himself center stage of a crisis or moral failure. Once a slow and untouched drip, the leak is now a gushing hydrant.

I’ve seen this up close, unfortunately. Fresh out of college, I never imagined sitting across from my childhood mentor and hearing him confess an affair and his despondency toward Jesus. But what made that encounter even more stinging was that years before this, two other spiritual influences in my life, the evangelist and worship leader from the camp where I gave my life to Christ, had both admitted to very shameful affairs. Their failures rattled me. 

I asked my mentor what went wrong. How could you do this to your life? Like the faulty mattress I had shared on my trip, he was unaware he had a slow leak in his soul. He traced it to a wound he experienced at a former church. Not dealt with healthily, that wound carried over to his next ministry assignment. Now a lead pastor of a church plant, he’s overworked, exhausted, and suffering problems at home. All of that ripped his small wound into a larger one. 

He described what leaked out as God’s active presence in his life. Over time he said he drifted from desiring scripture and prayer altogether. Even worse, being filled and led by the Holy Spirit were all distant experiences for him. His life and ministry became out of control. Afraid of sharing any of it with his elders, he quietly suffered and destroyed his life alone. He lost everything. 

But as he autopsied his life before me, he pleaded in a less so eloquent way, “Justin, deal with your junk.” In other words, identify and repair the slow leaks. 

The tragedy of these tragedies is that we often see them as public disgraces unrelated to ourselves. However, each of these tragedies is relevant to us. They remind us that we, too, can be susceptible to ruining our lives if we fail to address the junk in our lives. Sometimes our wounds go all the way back to our childhood and family dynamics. But often, the punctures that are the most destructive are happening in real-time. The staff departures, the miscarriage, and the nasty, biting comment by your best friend are the kind of darts that start the leak. 

"Each of these tragedies is relevant to us. They remind us that we, too, can be susceptible to ruining our lives if we fail to address the junk in our lives."

I want to share a four-step process for identifying the leaks and patching them before they ruin everything. 

Step one: Take a moment to stop and identify any possible wounds, hurts, disappointments, or sinful habits. One exercise that I love doing is drawing a linear line that represents my last year. On the line, mark each event of that year, placing it above the line if it was a joy or below the line if it was a burden. The experiences below the line are all potential spots for a leak. Don’t hold back, be specific. 

Step two: Grieve your year’s or your life’s low points. These wounds fester and don’t heal because we fail to grieve and see them for what they are. Hurts hurt! There’s a mentality that ministry leaders are immune from harm because we’re leaders. False. I believe that because of a leader’s high ownership of the organization and people, they’re more likely to be hurt. And when leaders do get beat up, the tendency is to say, “That’s just leadership.” 

It is definitely a part of leading. But you won’t lead long if you don’t address and nurse those cuts. Some of these low points will only be between you and Jesus. He certainly knows the emotions of betrayal and being wounded by another. Other situations might require you to share your hurts with the offender. Whatever it is, grieve the losses. If you don’t, they’ll overtake you. 

"Pastors and ministry leaders are exceptionally skilled at providing ministry for others, not so much for themselves."

Step three: Allow God to minister to you before you begin ministering to others. Pastors and ministry leaders are exceptionally skilled at providing ministry for others, not so much for themselves. It reminds me of the story of the baker who was so busy baking bread for other people that he died of starvation. The irony is he was around the very thing that would have kept him alive. And yet, don’t we often do the same thing?

We’re great at scheduling and planning devotionals, sermons, and spiritual retreats for others. But how often do we apply the same energy we have for ministry for others into ministry unto ourselves? The remedy for ourselves lies in what we do daily as ministry leaders, but somehow we fail to integrate it into our lives. The fastest way to ruin a life is when the minister allows himself to stop being ministered to by God. 

Step four: Create a rule of life that prepares you to be ready to patch up your leaks. The truth is once you find healing from your wounds, you will likely be on the receiving end of something hurtful again. As long as we interact with people, we should expect disappointment. Some things I would suggest are:

  • Journaling: This spiritual discipline is a space to process your emotions. The best part is the pen and paper don’t talk back! Not only that, science has shown journaling routinely does temper the intensities of your emotions. 
  • Confession: Find someone you trust to share your struggles. Confessing fears, sins, and doubts are incredibly difficult as leaders because we fear others will use our vulnerabilities against us. However, we can’t let that fear stop us from experiencing personal freedom. Find a trusted friend for confession.
  • Sabbath: Observe the Sabbath often and well. Your day off is not your Sabbath, though. Make sure to complete all your to do’s so that this day is full of rest, enjoyment with family, and worship. A tip for this is to get out of town for the day. Returning from being out of town often gives you a fresh vision and newfound grace toward your city and community. 
  • Be direct: This will terrorize some, but some reading this need to start speaking plainly and directly toward others. Whether confronting someone about setting boundaries or simply being more direct with your “no’s”, establishing a new rule of being open and honest is vital to guard yourself against unnecessary wounds.

You can finish well, friend. The ability to identify wounds and be healed by God’s grace is what the gospel is purposed to do. Its power is for you, too, not just for the people you lead! 

Are you feeling the burn?

Pastors and Ministry Leaders, you are not alone.

We have Regional Directors and Convention Staff who are here to help. They are seasoned ministry leaders who understand the unique challenges of ministry. They can help you develop a plan, find resources, and build teams to help you avoid or recover from burnout. Ministry is demanding at every level. Every minister needs someone.



Related articles