Leading for the Long Term
How to journey and finish well in ministry
If you go on the internet and type “pastor burnout,” you’ll find that, apparently, being a pastor means that you are miserable, you want to quit but can’t, and all your friends are gone and people hate you. But thankfully, this isn’t the case; those doomsday stats are fake news and not from a real research project.
Statistically, about 1 percent of pastors drop out of ministry per year, and 93 percent of Protestant pastors strongly agree that they “feel privileged to be a pastor.” And, nearly 8 in 10 pastors (79 percent) disagree with the statement, “Being in ministry has had a negative effect on my family.”
Of course, we know that the job can be hard sometimes. Pastors recognize the stresses associated with their jobs, but they are much more resilient than today’s culture gives them credit for.
The common thread is the same truth that initially saved us: the gospel.
I became a pastor when I was 21. Over nearly 30 years of ministry, I have seen a lot of washouts, burnouts and blowouts, and I have a genuine desire to care for leaders and help them avoid the pitfalls I have seen many friends experience.
I see four major reasons why pastors struggle to finish well, and I want to offer four practical insights on leading for the long term. If you want to last in ministry, care for your character, manage your measurements, grow in the gaps, and fight for the physical.
1. Care for Your Character
It seems that the most common ways pastors are taken out is around issues of character. When we talk about character, we are referring to the distinctive nature and quality of a person’s heart. I am the interim teaching pastor at Moody Church in Chicago, so I read a lot of D.L. Moody these days. Moody describes character as “what you are in the dark.” We can’t fake it, assume it or contrive it. The subtlety and inevitability of character are why it is both so important and such a major weakness for many leaders.
You can avoid a crisis of character by being aware of your weaknesses and guarding where you might fail. Manage stress and pressure by relying on a support team of godly people who can help you carry the load. Build relationships with mentors. And, if needed, seek out counseling and psychological help.
I currently have three or four people who speak directly into my life, and I have had to work toward that. Humility, teachability and honest personal assessment are the inoculations against most leadership character flaws. If you can do the hard work of self-evaluation on the front end, it will benefit and protect your ministry for the long haul. God can and does redeem a leader’s shortfalls for His glory. But gone unchecked, a pastor can have serious character failings as a result of unresolved emotional and psychological wounds.
The first step for long-term ministry: care for your character.
2. Manage Your Measurements
Two more roadblocks that threaten to keep pastors from finishing the course are discouragement and unrealistic expectations of ministry. Whatever you measure as success, you will strive toward that — and either celebrate when you reach it or mourn when you fall short. The stories and people you listen to shape and reinforce your metrics of success. So, what happens if you are in a stuck or stagnant church, then you go and listen to your heroes who are tearing it up? You will likely assume your ministry will eventually become just like the models you are trying to emulate. Such unrealistic expectations lead to discouragement and demoralization. This can keep pastors from staying the course for the long term.
A few years ago, I was speaking at Saddleback. I was on the stage with eight other leaders who had significant ministries. They had all planted or started churches that had grown to somewhere between 5,000 and 20,000 in attendance — every one of them … except me. The old Sesame Street rhyme “one of these things is not like the others” was ringing in my ears, and I felt out of place. I also felt an obligation to speak to the typical church pastor, who leads a church, on average, of less than 100 people.
Choosing my words carefully so not to offend my host and friend Rick Warren, I got up and said: “Listen, this is not real. My fear for you is that you’re going to think that this is what you’re going to experience and that God hasn’t blessed you if you don’t. This is an unrealistic depiction of an experience you are never going to have that distracts you from the real and glorious thing. It can be ministry pornography for you.”
Unfortunately, unrealistic expectations discourage pastors immensely. I think a lot of pastors look to their pastoral heroes in unhealthy ways. They see disproportionate, sometimes freakishly abnormal, successes that are highlighted, promoted and celebrated day after day at conferences and in books and magazines. It’s not normal, and it’s not helpful.
The solution is to engage with realistic expectations. See your church for what it is, and avoid the comparison trap that kills your joy. Also, see yourself for who you are, and choose the right mentors. Jesus values the faithful, consistent and joyful pastor who labors for the gospel.
Managing your measurements is a great step toward journeying well in ministry.
3. Grow in Your Gaps
Pastors lose momentum and impact on the field of ministry when they fail to remain lifelong learners. It is difficult even to pastor a church and maintain a semblance of a family life and healthy rhythms of work and rest, much less devote time to mentally stimulating and challenging mental growth. But when a pastor neglects to read and grow, what replaces ongoing education are complacency and stagnation, which will give birth to a lack of humility and other character issues.
Most pastors are not natural leaders; they are natural carers and teachers. It can be tempting to avoid scenarios and situations that highlight gaps, but failing to work on those areas that need improving can stagnate good pastors. Over the long haul of a ministry, those gaps can fester into bigger and bigger problems that ultimately limit longevity.
That’s where lifelong learning comes in.
Let me illustrate. I’m not a natural leader. I wasn’t the captain of my football team; I was the guy the football team beat up when they lost. But I’ve been leaning into my weaknesses for 30 years, working on growing my leadership and management skills. Have I arrived? Is it easy? No, but I feel that I have ministered more effectively because I tried to confront my weaknesses head on and intentionally placed myself in positions to grow. I did that by reading and learning. Leaders are readers.
So, find areas of weakness and lean into them. Work on them, grow in them, because healthy pastors who last the long haul become better leaders over time. They don’t excuse shortcomings; they learn through them.
Growing in your gaps will produce the longevity in ministry we hope and pray toward.
4. Fight for the Physical
Pastors get taken out too soon when they neglect their bodies. As we mentioned earlier, pastors have drive, passion and compassion that expose them to certain character flaws, and this is one that I have personally experienced and seen throughout my years in ministry. The neglect of self at the altar of ministry has shipwrecked many wonderful pastors who simply didn’t have the ability to last the long haul physically.
Now, I recognize this may seem hypocritical since I have struggled, and continue to struggle, with my weight, but the Lord is convicting me to be more disciplined and careful with my body. I not only have a ministry, but also a wife and children I want to pastor well into my 80s, and that will not happen without the gospel continuing to work on my own health as well. So, I include this because it is true, not because I’ve lived up to it. I am reminding myself of this truth as I write. I imagine many of you needed that reminder as well, so let’s do it together.
Pastors who fight for their physical bodies can finish well and finish late.
As we see, the common thread to journeying and finishing well in ministry is the same truth that initially saved us: the gospel. The Good News of Jesus compels us to be proactive, fight for character, run from idolatry, prepare for difficulty, grow in gratefulness and value our entire personhood. Those are all gospel issues.
As we do these things, disciplining ourselves for the purpose of godliness, God will help us stay the course so we can journey and finish well in ministry.