Facing the Challenges of Pastoring With Realism and Hope
Managing our lives with wisdom and intentionality has never been more essential
Another tragic headline — “Pastor loses fight with depression and takes his own life” — sends shock waves across social media platforms. Meanwhile, other ministers quietly vacate their pulpits after burning out, breaking down, or breaching standards of morality.
What is going on? Should we anticipate such collapse in a life of calling designed by a benevolent Savior, or has pastoring in America become something apart from His design?
Over the years, I’ve worked closely with hundreds of pastors — as a member of their ranks, as a consultant helping them through their challenges, as a leader in district and national roles, and as an academic dean at Southwestern Assemblies of God University in Waxahachie, Texas.
I have often felt concern for the seeming escalation of expectation coming from a relatively new source: the leadership demands of their expanding organizations. I sometimes find myself wondering whether we have made pastoring a task that too easily exceeds human capacity.
One can hardly look away from the evidence or ignore the steady flow of stories chronicling ministry collapses. In my academic role, I hear students asking different questions than in previous years: “Can I survive as a pastor?” “If strong and respected leaders are having such problems, what will it be like for me?”
Such questions require more than an easy motivational tweet in response. Through my work with pastors, I know the struggle is greater than a polished conference culture wants to acknowledge. Yet many of us would insist that life in local church ministry remains the most rewarding path we could have taken.
It’s a calling I certainly want my students to be unafraid of pursuing. This life of service to God and His people deserves an enthusiastic “yes.” For that reason, we must be willing to confront some difficult questions and prayerfully work together toward solutions.
Why Is This Happening?
America’s largest churches are bigger today than ever before, even in denominations where total attendance is in decline. As research coordinator for the Acts 2 Initiative, I recently reported that the average church size in the Assemblies of God USA set another record in 2018, topping 155, even though the median church’s attendance declined to 67, its lowest point in more than four decades.
Simply put, though most churches aren’t growing, big churches are getting bigger at an extraordinary rate. With that growth comes even greater demands on ministers — those who are trying to keep up as well as those who are trying to catch up.
In 2018, the Assemblies of God also saw the highest level of plateaued and declining churches since such reporting began in 1980. Fully 70% of churches now fall into that category, and many pastors are scrambling to figure out why. They feel the weight of their spiritual responsibility — and the expectations of others for measurable increases in nickels, noses and notable experiences. This pressure, along with myriad other stressors ministers face, ultimately affect the mental, physical and relational health of many.
In their 2012 book Rebound From Burnout: Resilience Skills for Ministers, retired Assemblies of God missionaries Nathan Davis, a psychologist, and Beth Davis, former director of AG HealthCare Ministries (now CompassionLink), introduced their research on pastoral stress.
They used the widely accepted Holmes-Rahe stress scale, which assigns numeric stress levels to a variety of significant events, such as the death of a family member or close friend, a major illness, or marital problems. While ministers may not personally experience such struggles more frequently than others, they regularly encounter crises as they preach funerals, make hospital visits, and counsel parishioners.
As the Davises point out, ministry life frequently finds the pastor in the midst of several items on the Holmes-Rahe scale. This scale assigns a numeric stress level to a variety of significant events and suggests that the average North American lives year to year with a score of about 100 stress units from all combined stress factors.
Some of the highest stress experiences are commonplace for all pastors. Crises, death, and life-threatening illnesses can seem like a part of the regular daily schedule as pastors attempt to help their people in navigating such waters. In fact, such “vicarious exposure” to others in crises adds significantly to the minister’s stress load and often that of his or her family.
Using the Holmes-Rahe scale, the Davises suggest “each instance of vicarious stress brought on by church and community members adds 29-39 additional units of stress, depending on the depth of the minister’s friendship and intervention.” The Davises conclude that many ministers may be living with stress levels of 500-600 units.
Ministers often feel highly invested in resolving vicarious stress situations, even though such matters are beyond their control. When a minister tries to help hold a church couple’s marriage together, mediate a relational dispute, or take any other action that requires someone else to make better choices, the uncertainty only adds to the stress.
Without question, there are numerous occupations that inherently bring significant stress to those who engage them, and I wouldn’t begin to suggest that ministry life exceeds all others. Still, as the Davises insist, ministers absolutely must develop stress management skills to build greater resilience.
A 2008-16 Duke University longitudinal study of more than 1,100 United Methodist clergy discovered abnormally high rates of obesity and metabolic syndrome — risk factors for heart disease, stroke, and diabetes — among these ministers. In fact, 80% of male clergy members and 64% of female clergy members were overweight or obese.
Despite the narrow demographic sample, the Duke study is one of the largest to focus on the fitness of U.S. ministers. Church leaders are often so busy serving the congregation they neglect their physical health, which can affect other areas of their lives.
The researchers asked participants to rate their life satisfaction across several areas, including material and physical well-being, relationships, community involvement, personal accomplishment and development, and recreation. Respondents who did not exercise regularly had life satisfaction scores lower than those of average Americans.
People who fail to practice self-care have a harder time caring for others. It’s a simple principle, but one that is easy for pastors to overlook.
While pastors generally report good relations with family and friends, ministry life can also strain relationships. The pastor’s marriage and family relationships bring strength and refuge, so ministers must guard their homes from the onslaught of unrealistic expectations that can dominate these relationships.
In February 2017, Barna reported the leading factor that pushes pastors into the relational high-risk category is that “ministry at their current church has been difficult for their family.” Recent stories reveal high levels of family brokenness among pastors who are breaking down. Such trauma has certainly not overtaken every pastor’s home, but coping skills and healthy family dynamics are critical for all ministry families.
From my observations as I travel and talk with ministers, it seems the quality and character of relationships with key leaders in the church also affect the emotional health of pastors. Pastor-deacon dynamics play a major role in both leader satisfaction and burnout risk. Where such connections are not healthy, emotional stress for ministers continues to escalate.
An Informal Survey
So how are we doing in the Assemblies of God? I recently conducted an informal survey of 35 national and district leaders, evangelists, and others who travel extensively throughout the pastoral community. Though just 35 respondents participated, it’s worth noting that the district leaders represented in the survey oversee more than one-quarter of the Fellowship’s 13,000 U.S. congregations, and the national executives bring an even broader perspective.
Noteworthy among the results is the belief that pastors are making a better effort to care for themselves physically than they did 10 years ago. More than half of these leaders agreed that physical fitness is on the rise, while only a handful felt they had seen a decline in this area.
One leader noted that pastors are joining the cultural trend toward more trips to the gym. Another mentioned there seems to be a rise in fundraising efforts that include physical activity, such as long bike rides or even triathlon-type events. One leader said, “Pastors who spend time with their people are often doing so through physical activity.”
People who fail to practice self-care have a harder time caring for others.
If pastors are prioritizing their physical care, the same cannot be said for managing their emotional and mental health. When asked if pastors are handling stress more effectively, most provided a definitive “no.” Given the reasons for rising stress levels already enumerated, this result, however informal, should generate concern.
Availability of resources may help account for the difference between efforts toward greater physical health versus emotional health. After all, gym memberships are often more affordable than counseling appointments. And even though some high-profile ministers have acknowledged their own use of mental health counseling and encouraged ministry friends to do likewise, the stigma often persists.
Only two of 35 respondents felt that pastoral families have fewer difficulties today than they did a decade ago. Nearly two-thirds disagreed that such difficulties are diminishing. Given the challenges already mentioned, it shouldn’t be surprising that ministry life isn’t getting easier. If ministers aren’t caring effectively for their own emotional health, their resources for leading their families are likely diminished as well.
Less than half of our traveling friends believe pastors are more consistently taking a “day off” each week. Given that many of these leaders are encouraging such pastors toward self-care, this is disappointing. It’s worth noting that older ministers — even some district leaders themselves — acknowledge failure to establish such a practice, admitting that their work habits were formed in an era where self-care was not as commonly expected.
When asked if church conflict is declining, the clear answer is also “no.” Twice as many took this position as those who suggested that conflict had lessened over the past decade. It seems that no arena of possible relief for pastor stress levels is within easy reach.
What Can We Do?
Some ministers have demonstrated a strong resistance to the suggestion that self-care is urgent. Perhaps some believe the nature of their work or level of commitment brings an immunity to such struggles. But it seems that more are willing to face their need as the years progress. As one ministry student recently asked me, “How many pastors have to commit suicide before someone changes something?”
Better, perhaps, than sounding alarm bells, we would likely benefit from the practical strategies of those who overcome these hazards with joy and a strong sense of purpose. It may be that one or two of the following choices can right the ship for a struggling pastor. At least, we can know that there are others who have found hope in these choices.
1. Prioritize family relationships. Most pastors seek a balance between home and church life, but it often feels more like a game of tug of war for the pastor’s time. The congregation pulls in one direction, and the pastor’s spouse and children suffer rope burns on the other side.
Competition between the church and the pastor’s family will never produce real winners. Every investment a pastor makes in family relationships provides greater strength and health for congregational work. When the pastor’s family is healthy, it’s a win for everyone.
2. Redistribute the work of ministry. One question every pastor should consider is, How much congregational weight is on my shoulders?
Ephesians 4 offers more than just a clear picture of a pastor’s unique assignment. The passage also demonstrates the uniqueness (not superiority) of this calling. The pastor’s role is to build up the body of Christ by equipping members for works of service. The congregation forms the front line, and the pastor’s true work is in supply. Today’s ministry model often positions the pastor as the entire army, with everyone else watching from a safe distance.
It seems apparent that the only way a pastor’s job description can become realistic is if he or she focuses more on the Ephesians 4 assignment. That will also require deacons and other designers of pastoral expectations to get on board with the more biblical idea. Therefore, the question of a health crisis among pastors becomes theirs to answer too.
3. Share the vision. Pastors sometimes struggle to find partners in their ministry efforts because they invite people to join them too far downstream — after the vision and direction are established and the decisions are made. Any true sense of partnership between the pastor and people is likely dependent on the pastor’s willingness to involve others in these initial stages.
According to Barna, 6 in 10 pastors say they are “primarily responsible for setting the vision and direction of the church.” Even when this responsibility plays to the pastor’s personal strengths, sharing the responsibility makes it easier to share the load.
People who help dream the dream are far more likely to engage the necessary steps to fulfill it. They have a greater sense of buy-in from the beginning. Those who do not contribute to the “why” won’t be as interested in taking the necessary steps to reach the “what.” Getting more people involved requires sharing vision planning with a wider circle of leaders.
4. Find ministry friends. Supportive relationships with people who understand the challenges of ministry life can be a quality source of emotional fuel.
In recent years, many districts and ministry organizations have recognized this and reorganized their efforts around the relational needs of ministers. Structures once designed for administrative functions have given way to relational cohorts or friendship circles to provide much-needed connection for pastors.
Unfortunately, pastors don’t always take advantage of the available opportunities and resources. Busyness may be to blame. The social demands of the pastorate consume much of a pastor’s relational energy. Yet there is no substitute for the friendship of others in ministry.
Age-old competitive fears keep some ministers from relying on one another. Cohorts and gatherings can trigger insecurities. However, leaders who participated in the informal survey say pastors who are intentionally building relationships with other pastors are reaping real benefits.
5. Take a day off. Many pastors still aren’t scheduling a consistent day off. Some argue they are wired differently, insisting they benefit more from a couple of afternoons of rest each week. While this may seem like a practical alternative, it misses the point. Human beings need a sabbath.
God designed the Sabbath for more than just rest. Like tithing and fasting, it demonstrates and develops our dependence on Him.
People have needs seven days a week, and many pastors find themselves justifying an equally demanding pace to help them. At the same time, some congregations struggle to embrace or understand that pastors need a day off. Certainly, this is part of the problem.
One way to convey a pastor’s need for rest is to label that day of disengaging such responsibility as a “family day.” This informs people of an important and necessary focus in their pastor’s life and how such a day is being spent.
Even older saints whose generation seldom thought a day off was appropriate for a pastor will acknowledge that a regular day to invest in family each week is a good idea. Vacations renamed as “family getaways” or “family trips” can also help a congregation reconsider those interrupting phone calls.
6. Find an outlet. Fun activities or hobbies can provide another means of emotional and mental rest. Outside interests are among the first things many pastors give up in response to the time demands of ministry life. Some have even forgotten how to engage such relaxing moments.
One minister told me, “When it has been months since you’ve had any time to yourself, you’re not going to be very good at things like hobbies and fun.”
Nevertheless, finding avenues for decompressing mentally and emotionally can help maintain emotional health and cultivate a positive self-image. Including family members in those activities can also be a great way to make memories together.
7. Be willing to seek help. Without question, seeking counsel for mental and emotional health needs must become an option ministers choose to engage. Fears and stigmas continue to keep many from taking steps toward healing, despite increased awareness, encouragement, and availability.
The best way to initiate change is to live it out. We can show others by example that it is OK to ask for help. This generation and future generations of ministers will grow stronger as a result.
Through loving relationships, sabbath priorities and the promise of His presence, God has provided what is needed for the work to which He calls us, but it seems evident that today’s ministers must more effectively engage these provisions and be willing to acknowledge their growing need for help.
I love the local church and the joy of engaging its potential. A journey through these hardships shouldn’t steer us from our calling any more than a walk through the ICU would convince us to give up on life. Still, we can’t afford to look away, for there are lessons we can learn from every broken story.
Most pastors view ministry as a blessing, but that doesn’t mean it is always easy. Managing our lives and limits with wisdom and intentionality has never been more essential.This article originally appeared in the January/February 2020 edition of Influence magazine.