SOS Matt Keller

Matt Keller is the lead pastor of Next Level Church in Fort Myers, FL. Next Level.  With a heart for planting, pastoring, leadership development & consulting, Matt is a leading voice in the next generation of leaders today.


My wife, Sarah, and I were exposed to serious ministry unhealth and even spiritual abuse in our early years of ministry. We saw and experienced manipulative and ugly things that seriously wounded us. Seeing those things and experiencing that at such a young age (19, 20, 21) from a spiritual leader that I was told was to be a “God-like Voice” in my life did some big damage to me and sent me down a road of some unhealthy thought patterns that threatened my marriage, my ministry and my life.

I’ll never forget the night that we were sitting in movie theater on a date and God convicted me through the message of the movie that if I didn’t begin to deal with these things, it would be my downfall. When we went to the restaurant for dessert I confessed everything to my wife and admitted that I’m not okay. I began seeing a counselor for the next, would be 8 years. It saved my marriage, my ministry and my life.

It took several years for me to unlearn so many untruths and false realities that had been spoken over me and drilled into me for so long under this particular leadership style in the church. Today, now 13 years on the other side of it, I’m more healthy, whole and ministering from a place of wholeness that I quite honestly never knew existed.  Read an excerpt below from Up the Middle:

Being Head Coach

“Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in someone else’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye?”     Jesus

Pastors are supposed to have all the answers, right?  I mean, people come to us with problems, and we help them fix those problems.  That’s what we do.  We help people, right?  The danger in that line of thinking is that we can become blind to the condition of our own hearts.  I believe Jesus once said something about a speck and a plank.  Apparently, I can’t remember too well since I’ve only been seeing out of one eye for quite sometime…

I’m not okay.

In the year 2000, while we were still living up north, I had a life-changing experience—a moment that has changed the direction of my life, my marriage, and my ministry in a profound way.  Let me explain.  My wife and I were on a date.  We had enjoyed a nice dinner and then found ourselves at the movie theater watching a movie about a couple who was struggling in their marriage.  While I sat there watching the movie, the Holy Spirit was convicting my heart about my own life and marriage.

Sarah and I had been married about three and a half years at the time, and things were great.  No kids, but our plans were heading in that direction.  We were traveling and doing national youth ministry.  We had a house, a cat, and even had a great car, but I sat in that movie theater next to my wife knowing that something in my heart wasn’t right.  Something was out of balance.   I was not okay.  I had allowed some unhealthy thought patterns and behaviors to creep into my life.  It was time to come clean.

When the movie was over, we went to a nearby restaurant for dessert.  I can remember feeling sick to my stomach as I was sitting there.  I finally just blurted it out to my wife.  “I’m not okay.  God has been convicting me all night that if I don’t deal with this stuff in my heart, it will eventually destroy our marriage, our ministry, and our potential.”  I honestly can’t remember how the remainder of the conversation went.  I know my wife was an absolute champ.  I think I remember her trying to encourage me and love me and say something hope-filled.  The truth is, I was one hurting man.  Even at the age of 24, ministry had taken its toll on me, and I wasn’t okay.

It’s okay to not be okay

Coming off our conversation, my wife and I agreed that I should begin seeing a counselor. Through the recommendation of a friend, I connected with a guy who was a Christian mental health counselor.  His name was John.  I wasn’t quite sure of what I was doing, or what I would say, but I knew that the stuff I was dealing with in my heart was producing unhealthy patterns of behavior in my life, and I needed someone to help me sort it all out.

I can remember the first few times I went to talk to this guy; I felt such shame and embarrassment.  Where I came from in ministry, pastors don’t get help.  Counselors are for the weak; pastors fix themselves.  We don’t admit we don’t know it all.  We keep quiet and we certainly don’t ask for help.  We give it.  I remember thinking, “If anyone in my ministry circle finds out I’m seeing a counselor, this could be devastating.”  But I knew I wasn’t okay, and I needed someone outside of my world to help me start going through the junk I had allowed to build up on my heart.

Over a period of several months, John began to help me unpack a lot of the baggage that had been building up in my life for the last couple of decades:  stuff from childhood, teen years, and ministry.  Basically, things I had seen, experienced, and internalized, instead of processing and letting go.  By about the sixth month, I began to realize that even as a pastor, it was okay to not be okay.  I was beginning to see the world through a different lens:  a lens that was clearer and brighter than anything I had been taught before.  I was beginning to move in the direction of personal wholeness, and it felt great.  I was beginning to do ministry, marriage, and life from a foundation of wholeness in my heart.  This was a new concept for me:  a concept I didn’t even know was possible.

I went to John every month for two and a half years until we moved to Florida in 2002.  I haven’t seen or talked to him since.  I’d like to.  I’d like to tell him what a difference he made in my life, marriage, and ministry.  I’d thank him for his courage to get up in my business for two and a half years.   It was the beginning of my road to wholeness.

I’m not there yet

When we moved to Florida to start the church in 2002, I didn’t find a counselor for over a year.  But as the pressures of trying to figure out how to plant a church kept piling on, I began to realize I wasn’t all the way there yet in my pursuit of wholeness.  I hadn’t reached a place of wholeness I was satisfied with; therefore, I began to pursue someone else that could take me further.

My search (and God) led me to a guy named Mark.  I have to admit that Mark’s influence has literally changed my life.  He’s one of the smartest and toughest question-askers I’ve ever met.  Mark has taught me so much about who I am, who I’m not, and what true success in life is all about.  I can truly say that I don’t think I would be in ministry today if it weren’t for the presence of two men who have worked behind the scenes in my life for nearly a decade now: My counselors John and Mark.

I still see a counselor every month.  Having someone in my life who couldn’t care less, and couldn’t care more has been one of the best investments I’ve ever made in my life, my marriage, and my ministry.  I never knew it could be this good.  As pastors, we must understand that it is okay to admit when we’re not okay.  If that’s you, get help.  Take action.  Your ministry depends on it.

Are you okay?

My hope in sharing my story with you is to give you permission to take an honest look at your life.  Too many pastors have spent too long faking out the entire world (including themselves), attempting to convince everyone that they’re okay.  They’ve hidden behind big wood desks and big wood pulpits.  My heart’s desire is that something in my story would inspire you to have the courage to face yourself.

The up-the-middle church reality requires us to face many obstacles:  starting whole organizations, moving across the country, taking on demons, and facing the gates of hell, but I contend that for many of us, the biggest obstacle we’ll ever face is ourselves.  Having the courage to face who we really are, where we’ve really come from, and all that we’ve went through is by far the largest giant we’ll ever have to face.

Have you faced yourself?

The only way for your church to become everything God wants for it to be is when you start with the courage to face yourself.  If your stomach is in knots right now as you read this, then you’re not okay.  You’re not weak; you’re just not okay.  And that’s okay.  It’s okay for you to admit you’re not okay.

I challenge you to have the courage to tell somebody.  Seek out a mental health counselor who knows how God created the human brain and body to work.  They can give you insight into why you are the way you are.  You’ll be a better husband, father, pastor, leader, and friend.  I can truly say there is no greater feeling than to pastor and lead people from a foundation of wholeness in my heart.  It could be the most important thing you ever do.  Perhaps it’s time to go up-the-middle into your heart?

A Word about Accountability

Pastoring an up-the-middle church can be one of the loneliest places on the planet.  And if we’re being honest, accountability can be really hard to come by.  The bottom line is this:  We need accountability.  It is a non-negotiable for an up-the-middle pastor.  Our lives are just too difficult, and the pressure is just too great not to have someone in your life that you can be absolutely truthful and honest with.

The reality for each of us is this:  We are only as accountable as we want to be.  The choice is ours.  We can live bound, or we can live free.  We can live whole, or we can live a dual reality.  I want to challenge you to do whatever it takes to get accountable with someone as soon as possible.  There’s too much at stake not to.

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