How Can We Help Pastors Thrive?
An excerpt from “Resilient Ministry”
by Bob Burns, Tasha D. Chapman, Donald C. Guthrie
Ministry leadership is a tough but highly rewarding job. Many pastors love the challenge, but most find it much more difficult than they had anticipated. Some wonder what they have gotten themselves into. Like a recent seminary graduate who shared with dismay, “I never expected the church to be like this.”
Or a pastor of 18 years who confided, “My experience in the ministry has been good. But I question whether I can subject my wife and family to this much longer.”
Statistics on the dropout rate of ministers vary.1 But it is clear that conditions of ministry have changed in the past few decades and that too many local church ministers leave as a result.2
Lily Endowment, Inc., an Indiana-based foundation concerned about the health of the church, has been exploring this question of pastoral resilience for years. In one of its initiatives, called Sustaining Pastoral Excellence, the endowment invested over $84 million to support 63 projects that explore what it takes to thrive in ministry. We coordinated one of these grants, running research and facilitating continuing education for pastors.
What is pastoral excellence?
One of our Lilly-funded programs was called the Pastors Summit.3 At political summits, heads of state gather for several days to survey and collaborate on complex challenges. In a similar way, our summits were designed to be an emotionally safe place where pastors could share the difficulties of vocational ministry life.
“I may be a pastor, but I’m an inch deep. My life is filled with incessant activity and little prayer.”
As one summit pastor shared with his cohort:
Most people in our church have a life that is like a stool with three legs. They’ve got their spiritual life, their professional life and their family life. If one of these legs wobbles, they’ve got two others they can lean on. For us, those three things can merge into one leg. You’re sitting on a one-legged stool, and it takes a lot more concentration and energy. It’s a lot more exhausting.
After seven years of studying our summit participants—their personal lives, marriages, families and ministries—we learned a lot about what it takes to survive and thrive in ministry. Our discoveries focused around five primary themes for leadership resilience in fruitful ministry, each of which is dependent upon the others.
Theme 1: spiritual formation
When was the last time you heard someone ask pastors how they were doing in their walk with the Lord? Isn’t it self-evident that pastors are attending to their spiritual formation?
Sadly, the answer is no. One summit pastor bluntly shared:
Look, I may be a pastor, but I’m an inch deep. My life is filled with incessant activity and little prayer. “Contemplation” is foreign in my vocabulary and nonexistent in my life.
As paid leaders, pastors are not looked at as fellow saints in the process of sanctification.
Another important aspect of spiritual formation is that spiritual maturity involves both the personal and interpersonal. Pastors, like all believers, need to be involved in personal aspects of Christian growth like worship, prayer and Bible study. At the same time, all Christians need one another. Jesus and the apostles never tired of stressing this need for community.4
As paid leaders in the congregation, however, pastors are rarely appreciated as persons with interests and relational needs. They are not looked at as fellow saints in the process of sanctification. As a result, pastors tend to be slow in opening up and sharing their lives with others. By so doing, they fail to grow spiritually.
Again, the themes all weave together: isolation is bad self-care and poor leadership as well.
Theme 2: self-care
The idea of self-care involves the pursuit of physical, mental and emotional health. Self-care may initially sound selfish, yet in truth, responsible self-care is actually a way to deny oneself. Self-denying self-care may include getting to bed on time, saying no to work by setting aside periods of Sabbath and sabbatical, getting responsible exercise, and eating a balanced diet.
“When I was in seminary, I didn’t know that pastoring is dealing with people and all their messiness.”
At one summit, we addressed areas of interest outside of work. One person responded:
I don’t know that there’s much I could talk about other than what I do functionally as a pastor and what’s going on in the life of the church. That’s a scary revelation to make.
We are not suggesting that all of the pastors in our study were one-dimensional workaholics. However, pastors can easily become so absorbed in their ministries that they fail to maintain a healthy equilibrium.
Theme 3: emotional and cultural intelligence
Emotional intelligence. Consider these statements from pastors in our summits:
Well, you learn to play a game, to put on a mask, which then becomes a way you handle a lot of issues. You’re suddenly the holy man that has to put on the holiness aura and have it all together. And that’s going to come back and wipe you out. Wiped me out.
When I was in seminary, I was taught how to preach and how to exegete the Scriptures. I wasn’t taught how to exegete people… . I didn’t know that pastoring is dealing with people and all their messiness.
These statements illustrate common pastoral challenges in the two sides of emotional intelligence (EQ, named in like manner to IQ for intelligence quotient): EQ-self and EQ-others.
EQ-self is the ability to proactively manage one’s own emotions. EQ-others concerns the ability to appropriately respond to the emotions of others.5 Without this capacity, we tend to disregard others (whether we know it or not) while we push our own agendas.
Cultural intelligence. CQ involves an awareness of ethnic, geographical, socioeconomic, educational and generational differences and the implications of these differences on one’s perspective and behavior.
Theme 4: marriage and family
To sustain the stresses in ministry, pastors need to focus on spiritual and relational health with their spouse, children and extended family. But the challenges are significant. Who hasn’t heard stories of spouses who felt they were in competition with the church? Or of children who share bitterly about being a “PK” (pastor’s kid)?
Some pastors are so focused on others that they fail to be aware of how their spouses are doing. One pastor stated simply, “My family gets the scraps.”
Since Jesus taught that the world will know we are His disciples by the love we demonstrate toward one another, then the first place this should be visible is in the home (John 13:35).
One of the most significant lessons we learned early in the Pastors Summit research was the strategic role that spouses have in sustaining their pastor-partners in the work of ministry.
Theme 5: leadership and management
None of the first four themes describe the ministry tasks of leading worship, preaching, teaching and congregational oversight.6 Of those four tasks, the last—which we renamed leadership and management—stood out as critical for survival in the long haul and is the least discussed in the pre-professional training of theological seminary.
Pastors are generally surprised by how much leadership and management is involved in their work. And they must learn it on the job.
In general, business and professional literature describes leadership as seeking adaptive and constructive change, while management provides order and consistency to organizations.7 We describe leadership responsibilities as poetry and management tasks as plumbing.
As churches grow, leadership and management responsibilities are often separated into distinct roles. But as leaders of smaller businesses and churches know, they will always have both leadership and management obligations, even if they don’t feel gifted for the work. As one summit pastor explained:
What’s my perfect job description? Preach, teach and spend time with my staff and elders. I’m so busy managing that I feel guilty doing relational things. I have this vision where I could maintain these close relationships and still keep the church moving forward if I had this guy —my own Ed McMahon—doing the stuff prohibiting me from doing what I want to do.
Once pastors come to grips with the fact that the ministry requires them to lead and manage, they must learn to navigate the political realities of ministry—negotiating with others, choosing among conflicting wants and interests, developing trust, locating support and opposition, timing actions sensitively, and knowing the informal and formal organizational sources of influence and action.8
The responsibilities of pastoral life are continual. The pace and demands of ministry can be relentless, often pushing even the most dedicated pastors to question their calls and evaluate their lives.
It is time for all of us in the church to raise our understanding of ministry demands, review our expectations and make plans for building resilient pastoral excellence.
1 If you Google the phrase pastors leaving ministry, multiple websites declare that 1,500 pastors are leaving the ministry every month. From what we can identify, these “statistics” have been taken from magazines and articles, not studies developed from reliable research methods. ↩
2 Dean R Hoge and Jacqueline E. Wenger, Pastors in Transition: Why clergy leave local church ministry (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2005), p. xi. ↩
3 Our book, Resilient Ministry, is based on seven years of research, which focused on gathering pastors and their spouses into peer cohorts that met repeatedly in multiday retreats called Pastors Summits. To choose pastors for the summit, we asked trusted colleagues about pastors who exhibited fruitfulness in ministry. Over a six-year period, we carefully selected and worked with 23 pastors in the Pastors Summit, representing 26 states. Gathering in small groups, each cohort met together three times a year, often with their spouses, during each two-year program. There we facilitated heartfelt discussions about the challenges of vocational ministry. This book presents the summary and analysis of those discussions along with actual words of real pastors, serving in real congregations and facing real-life issues. Although the cohort research was limited to the majority demographic of married male pastors and their wives, we believe the findings are relevant enough to help foster resilience for all those in vocational ministry. ↩
4 See the many references to “one another” in Scripture, such as John 13:34-35, Ephesians 5:21 and Hebrews 10:24-25. ↩
5 Daniel Goleman, Richard Boyatzis and Annie McKee, Primal Leadership: Realizing the power of emotional intelligence (Boston: Harvard Business School Press, 2002), pg. 30. ↩
6 Jackson W. Carroll, God’s Potters: Pastoral leadership and the shaping of congregations (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2006), pp. 98, 106. ↩
7 Robert Banks and Bernice Ledbetter, Reviewing Leadership: A Christian evaluation of current approaches (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2004), pp. 17-19. ↩
8 John Forester, Planning in the Face of Power (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989). ↩
Taken from Resilient Ministry by Bob Burns, Tasha D. Chapman and Donald C. Guthrie. Copyright (c) 2013 by Bob Burns, Tasha D. Chapman and Donald Guthrie. Used by permission of InterVarsity Press, P.O. Box 1400, Downers Grove, IL 60515 USA.
Bob Burns serves as senior associate pastor and head of staff at Central Presbyterian Church in St. Louis, Missouri. Tasha Chapman serves Covenant Theological Seminary as dean of academic services and adjunct professor of educational ministries. Donald Guthrie is professor of educational ministries at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School.