With only 10% of pastors who start the ministry, finish the ministry, 78% of pastors feel they have no close friends, we have a crisis and it is only going to get worse.
Author’s Note: This was written and scheduled before the shutdowns, God’s Heart recognizes that we are all now in the same boat and feeling the isolation. We love you and miss you all!
Ministry is not meant to be done alone and yet, 70% of pastors in America today struggle with depression and with it, 78% severe loneliness causes by a lack of close friends. This is according to Lifeway Research conducted by Thom Rainer. Every other week, it seems, we are hearing story after story about pastors burning out, pastors committing suicide, pastors getting into extra marital affairs, pastors leaving the faith altogether. The number of pastors I know who are either unhealthy, no longer pastors (some are no longer Christians) or in need of extended respite has gone up exponentially over the years. Along with that, it seems more and more Christian College and Ministry Preparation organizations like them (including seminaries) are having a harder time finding pastoral candidates and my own conference is recruiting simply because we do not have the pastors in the “pipeline” to fill our pulpits. Take my Alma Mater where, the year after I graduated boasted the largest ministry and biblical studies prep enrollment in the modern era. Just six years later they had no new recruits in this year’s incoming class. Pastoral Ministry, they are realizing, is either unpopular or downright dangerous, given the above statistics, it is likely the latter.
Now, before I go on, I want to make a disclaimer, this is not a cry for help, this is not me trying to get attention. I am writing this for my brothers who cannot> I am writing this because up until now I am relatively unscathed. I have been a pastor a total of 2 years (1.5 at my first ministry and 9.5 months at this one). I do not have 30 years of heartache, criticism and loneliness that many of my brothers do. It is something I want to find a way to avoid, as much as possible, including protecting my family from the pains and hurts that often come from Pastoral Ministry. Paul Borthwick once told our Missiology class in Seminary that missionaries experience up to a 600 on the psychological pressure scale, the average persons stress level is around 100. When asked about Pastors he said it was about 500-600 as well. Sustaining 500-600 for a long period of time is supposed to kill a person and yet, our pastors and missionaries operate on these levels from week to week. So, I am writing this as a youngling, maybe I can be dismissed as naïve. However, keep in mind, I grew up in a pastor’s household (I am a PK) and I married a PK. For that reason I have now lived on both sides of the pastoral health coin and between my wife and I we have 50+ years of pastoral family experience between us (wow, we’re not even 30 yet).
One of the ideas they are teaching us in our seminary pastoral ministry classes, at least at Gordon-Conwell was that we should teach our people what our job consists of. The old joke about pastors only working one hour or day a week comes to mind as a common misconception about what pastors do. Though most of our congregations do not actually think this is true, whenever we do talk about the pressures related to our jobs. I recently listened to a sermon from Good News Community Church in Ogunboji IA. From a pastor who was stepping down entitled: “The Sermon most pastors should not preach.” Talking about pastoral health is considered Taboo in some church circles and we are facing a reckoning because of that. It is a topic that needs to be discussed in greater detail and at greater lengths and not just in our own little pastoral huddles but in front of our congregations. The reason is both complicated and simple, the health of the pastors will help determine the health of the Church. When a Pastor feels unsupported and isolated, the congregation will suffer because of it. When the pastor feels attacked by His flock, he will attack back. An unhealthy pastor almost always leads to an unhealthy church. Churches should not only want healthy pastors, they should be going to the same lengths the pastor goes to for them, to keep him healthy.
Do you see what is being said here? Churches, your pastor needs you! In fact, scripture gives us a corrective towards the role of our shepherds. First, it is the pastor or teaching elder who carries on the teachings of the Apostles. He or she is responsible for apostolic succession defined as the passing down of the teachings to future generations. The pastor preaches the word of God, it is their primary focus and should take up most of their time. In small settings the pastor is also responsible for the care of the flock, but they cannot and should never be the sole person expected to care for the flock. In Acts 6 when the Hellenist Widows were being overlooked in the daily distribution the Apostles, who understood their primary concern was to tend to the preaching of the Word, selected a Deaconate, a word which literally means servant or minister. Now, in congregations of 20-40 it is common for the pastor to do both works and usually they are able, however once you get above 40 it becomes more difficult to care for everyone and every need. But I want you to notice that the Deacons were not called to bring matters to the Apostles so they could take care of it, they were empowered by the Apostles to Minister. The Deaconate served the Apostles by freeing them up to do the work of the Word and Sacrament while they took care of the on the ground needs. That does not mean that the Apostles were not involved in the care of souls, on the contrary, the Apostles still made visits and showed Pastoral concerns (read any of Paul’s letters) for the physical and spiritual well-being of their flocks, but they also had deacons who served them by serving their flock so they could be devoted to the word of God. Since scripture knows nothing of a non-spiritual leader in the Body of Christ we must continue in the care for our shut-ins and sick and in prison, however, we also must remember that our pastors cannot and should not be expected to do the full work of the church alone and if they are, something has gone wrong.
One of the claims of the ancient Roman Church is that Peter and Paul had two different styles of leadership, Paul believed in a plurality of leaders and Peter believed in one sole leader. I do not think scripture supports such a split, Peter’s letters and indeed his own life seem to revolve around a plurality of leaders and he acknowledges that churches have multiple under shepherds (1 Peter 5:1) it just is not the primary concern of his letter and so does not get the treatment it does within Pauline letters that deal with specific corrections to churches in specific situations. In Acts we see Peter and Paul operating within a plurality leadership structure, Elders, Overseers, Presbyters, Deacons. Again, Pastors are not excused from the care aspect of the ministry, but they should not be the only ones doing it and members should not expect pastors to do all of the visitations and all of the care.
We also have a problem in how we talk to and about pastors. That is, we would say something to a pastor that we would never say to someone else, we will make criticisms of spiritual leaders that we would not make to someone else. We hold pastors to an impossible standard of perfection and when they do not meet it, they are met with criticism and a disrespect normally only reserved for our political opponents on Facebook. If this seems like an overstatement, I have seen it and heard it firsthand in my own father’s life and have even experienced a little bit of it myself in my short ministry. I got called a “Disrespectful stupid kid” by an older member of my first church because we had a contemporary Sunday and all the Deacons and myself wore jeans and a Polo. We had even informed the church the previous two weeks and the man had plenty of time to prepare for the Sunday. Halfway through the second song the man grabbed his wife by the hand and stormed out. This kind of behavior is something we should expect to see at a pre-school, among kids who have never known any better or been taught any better. Not the behavior we should expect to see from men and women who have been Christians for 40+ years. Thom Rainer recalls the story of a young pastor who came across a woman praying in the sanctuary “against the new young pastor (him) who had brought Satan’s music into the church.” Pastors are regularly triangulated, that is, when someone says: “Someone told me” or “People are mad” when they do something that someone does not like. We get to be roast preacher by person who just shook our hands and thanked us for the sermon. This is although many of our church by-laws ban clandestine parking lot meetings and gossip. As a Pastor we have to forgive the people that hurt us, but we also need to pray for and exhort those who hurt us to be better, to grow to maturity in Christ so that they are producing the fruit of the Spirit, which, by the way, we need to produce too.
On a personal level, Paul instructs Timothy, his emissary to Ephesus, to make sure that he was taking care of himself (1 Tim 4). This is because Timothy is filling the role of an Apostle, setting back in order what the false teachers had torn asunder (1 Tim 1:5). Paul understood that unhealthy and immature leaders were the reason that the church at Ephesus was a mess and so he wanted his emissary to be healthy himself as a model of the life found in Christ. Timothy is to: “Let no one despise you for your youth, but set the believers and example in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith, in purity.” (4:12). Further, Timothy was to “Keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching. Persist in this, for by doing so you will save both yourself and your hearers.” (4:16). Admittedly, when I taught Master Classes on 1st Timothy in 2013 and 2018 these were the hardest passages to teach on, they seem self-serving, but if pastors are going to teach the full council of scripture, we must teach our congregations to honor the full council, and that includes the passages about our health and responsibility. Our congregations do not need to just know how to relate to the world as Christians, they need to know how to relate to one another and we are included in that “one another.” Perhaps we need more sermons on Pastoral Health, not less, more sermons on 1st Timothy 4:11-16, not less. Timothy’s example was meant to bring a broken and unfaithful church back to saving faith in Christ, how can we do that if our congregations are allowed to treat us like we are sub human?
Now, not every church falls into this trap, there are pastor loving churches out there. One of the goals Rachel and I have in our current ministry is to turn the generosity shown to us back towards our town. We have also been blessed to have formed a friendship with two families our age and our older Church Family praises God for that. They are not perfect, we have had some bumps in the road as I learn how to communicate with a church again (interesting how seminary numbs those senses) and learn to slow down and smell the roses of small town church life. The biblical standard for all church leaders is high, overseers, elders and deacons, but the standard of Christianity (Jesus Christ himself) is so high the only way we can attain that standard is through Him. That is how it is supposed to be, how God meant it since He put Abraham to sleep on that mountainside and took the full weight of the covenant upon His own shoulders. We as pastors need to expect more from our congregational leaders and from our congregations and they need to similarly expect more from us. We have failed in our discipleship if we have a lot of Christians in our pews with a faith so fragile and conscious so weak they cannot do the work God has put before them and they disappear when things get tough.
But Church members, we need you as well. We need you to come and talk to us when you have a concern, that is one of the reasons we keep office hours. But also need you to pray through your words and handle the conversation in a manner that is healthy and mature, and which builds up and does not tear down. We need you to stop saying: “Someone said” or “People are talking” because those phrases are unhelpful and pull us into a relational triangle that is extremely unhealthy. We need you to step up and serve when asked, to be a part of the body of Christ and care for one another. Churches should not consist of one man or woman doing all the work, that is not the church, instead we are members one of another (1 Cor 14:12-26) and should be “devoted to one another in family love, honoring one another as better than ourselves” (Rom 12:10). We should also: “have the same mind as Christ who…humbled himself to death.” (Phil 2:5-11). We should be a community “Devoted to the teaching of the apostles, the breaking of bread and the prayers…having everything in common” (Acts 2:42-47). That includes Pastors, lay people and everyone else in between.
Finally, we need you to stand up for us among yourselves and stand up for our wives and kids. My wife has been shocked at how many pastors’ wives no longer believe because of either 1. the way their husbands have been treated and 2. Because their husband has neglected to “manage his own household well” (1 Tim 3:1-11) and the busyness of ministry (some pastors report working 80-90 hours a week). I know too many Pastors kids who have left the faith altogether because of how their parents were treated by church members. Their response is: “If the people in the pews are not going to live out scripture, then I want nothing to do with Christianity.” We are servants of you, but we are also servants of Christ. Servant, however, cannot mean dehumanized slave who bows to members every whim and gets yelled out for every misstep. We need to stop infantilizing each other, pastors to their congregations and congregations to pastors. To claim the grace of God all day while we treat others gracelessly is to not actually know the grace of God.
So, what do we do? First of all, when your pastor sets a life-flow schedule like the one I have, do not mock it, do everything you can to make sure he can make it work. Pastors set a life-flow schedule and make sure your church is aware of it. When I arrived here in Buffalo Center I set out what a normal week would look like. A typical week would start with visitations on Monday (do this, it helps you deal with the usual Monday depression) and then I am in the office Tuesday and Wednesday with a text study with area pastors on Tuesday mornings. I am off on Thursday, then I hold office hours Friday and Saturday morning. Then I get up early to pray on Sunday Mornings and open up the church and prepare for the service. During those office hours I am usually preparing my sermon. General wisdom says that if you preach a 25-minute sermon you should spent about 25 hours preparing for it. Tuesday morning is devoted to preparing the text in the Greek or Hebrew, the afternoon is devoted to further study, commentary work or extra biblical reading. Wednesday is more of the same, finishing any textual work that needs done. The afternoon is for preparing for a church meeting, if we have one that night and more sermon study. I am in the office from 8-5 and after 5, unless I have a meeting, I shut it all down and go spend time with my wife and daughter. This pattern and rhythm of life will give you about 45-50 hours a week worth of work that includes the time you spend praying for your congregation (an important part of your ministry). On weeks when you have funerals you will work a lot more hours and you may not get your day off and weeks you have meetings and hospitality expectations (my wife and I try to invite visitors over for coffee/tea and dessert or a meal when they attend church) add to this, but can be seen as times when your ministry and family intersect.
The bottom line, ministry should not be a death sentence. We should not be burning out pastors if we are living as the body of Christ, no one should be burned out, we should all have all our needs, physical, spiritual and emotional, met through Christ and through the Body of Christ. We are interdependent and need to live in this manner because it is the example scripture has given us. We should not have 10% retention rate for pastors, and we should not have 70% of our pastors fighting depression and 78% of our pastors battling severe loneliness. Nobody should have to suffer these things within the body of Christ, if they are, pastor or lay person, the body is suffering from it.
Pastors then, take care of yourselves, and congregations, take care of your pastors. You may find that by allowing them to care for themselves and by caring for them. They are in a much better position to care for and love each of you as the shepherd God has placed before you to lead you further into Christ.
I write this because we love you in Christ.