Every New Year’s Day for me brings with it a sense of a fresh start, rekindled hope, and renewed faith. I think most pastors anticipate the new year with optimism, and hold the sincere belief that the year ahead will be even better than the one they’ve just finished.
Unfortunately, hope, faith, and optimism, while important, by themselves aren’t enough to deal with the challenges pastoring presents. Pastoral ministry can be deeply fulfilling, while at the same time extremely stressful. Here’s a few stats from a study of 14,000 United States lead pastors, released in January 2017 by Barna:
- 37% are at medium-to-high risk for burnout
- 43% of their marriages are at medium-to-high risk
- 40% don’t find ministry work energizing
- 66% have no deep personal relationships
Being a lead pastor might not be the hardest thing to do in the world, but it is the hardest thing I’ve ever done. Without a solid game plan for managing stress, the role sets a leader up for burnout, anxiety, and depression.
If you’re reading this post and have never served in a lead pastor capacity, you might be wondering, “What makes the role so demanding?” Let me share with you five common stressors many lead pastors struggle with:
When you have people-responsibility, disengaging from work tends to be a monumental challenge. Leadership is influence, but it is often intrusive. The apostle Paul referenced this reality in 2 Corinthians 11:28: “Besides everything else, I face daily the pressure of my concern for all the churches.” (NIV) When I was a lead pastor, disconnecting from work proved next to impossible for me. The underlying pressure of pastoral responsibility was always there.
Every Christian battles with Satan periodically. But the devil is an opportunist who understands if he takes out a leader, he most likely will devastate a significant number of that leader’s congregation. Jesus said in Mark 14:27: “It is written, strike the shepherd, and the sheep will be scattered.” The devil knows this principle. Consequently, he seems to concentrate a high percentage of his attacks on leadership. The wear and tear of sustained spiritual attack is real and often underestimated.
Our culture’s growing dysfunction has spilled over into the Church. The complexity, variety, and sheer number of problems pastors deal with are increasing dramatically. This dynamic places tremendous strain on the pastor’s schedule and energy. A lead pastor who has a strong need to “fix” those who attend his church often finds himself overwhelmed by a flood of people problems, and correspondingly, increased stress levels.
Think for a moment about the strain of balancing your budget at home. Then multiply it exponentially and you get an idea of the financial stress hovering over a significant number of pastors. The fiscal needs in a church and the community it serves seem endless. Monetary pressure felt by the pastor can lead to less than candid conversations with church members due to fear that speaking the truth will offend the very people who “pay the bills.” By the way, if you give generously to your church with the expectation it gives you some measure of control over what happens at the church (or doesn’t happen), you are giving out of a misguided heart.
You read that right . . . sensitivity. Pastoral ministry is extremely personal. Most ministers throw themselves into the work with energy, optimism, and love for those they lead—and at times with little regard for their own personal health. When they are criticized unfairly, or when people abandon ship for illegitimate reasons, it’s difficult not to take such actions personally. I’m not making an argument for touchiness here. Pastoral ministry requires a somewhat thick skin. But thick skin does not eliminate the personal element.
Obviously I could list more than five stressors most pastors struggle with, but I think the message is clear enough: Pastoring—especially lead pastoring—is a challenging call. While some measure of stress is actually good for a leader, elongated stress can pound his or her emotions into a fine powder. In next week’s post we’ll look at proven solutions to these five common stressors.
In the meantime, if you’re a pastor and feel overwhelmed, reach out for help. Don’t try to dig yourself out on your own. If you’re a churchgoer: pray for your pastors. Remember they are works-in-progress just like you, and deal with similar emotions, fears, and temptations as you do.
Pastors: I’m rooting and praying for you in 2018!
P.S. I have exciting news to share with you—our newest book—Putting the Good in Goodbye: A Healthy Conversation About the Comings & Goings of Church People—ships today, January 4th! I coauthored the book with my friend and colleague Jim Wiegand. Putting the Good in Goodbye introduces five key behaviors which help pastors process, in a healthier way, the departures of people from their church.