The older I get, the faster time seems to go. It marches on unabated.
2019 is half over . . . can you believe that? I’m looking forward with great optimism to the second half of 2019. I think most pastors anticipate the second half of the year with optimism, and hold the sincere belief that the next six months will be even better than the six they’ve just finished.
Pastoral ministry can be deeply fulfilling, while at the same time, extremely stressful. Here are a few stats from a study of 14,000 United States lead pastors, released in January 2017 by Barna:
- 37% of lead pastors are at medium-to-high risk for burnout
- 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’s the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do. Without a solid game plan for managing stress, the role is a magnet for burnout, anxiety, and depression. I spent twenty years in the corporate world, and although every job had its set of stresses, being a lead pastor was infinitely more stressful.
If you’re reading this post never having served in a lead pastor capacity, you might be wondering, “What makes the role so demanding?” Well, if you’ve never been in that role, it’s impossible to completely explain it . . . but let me share with you five surprising stressors many lead pastors struggle with, and then maybe you’ll understand the role a bit better.
1. Separation Anxiety
When you have people-responsibility, disengaging from work tends to be a monumental challenge. Leadership is influence, but it’s often intrusive. The apostle Paul described this stressor when he wrote: “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 to be an ongoing struggle. The underlying pressure of pastoral responsibility seemed to constantly be lurking on my doorstep.
2. Spiritual Warfare
Every Christian is a target of Satan’s hatred. His goal is to take them out, permanently. But the devil is an opportunist who understands if he takes out leaders, it will have a serious ripple effect within the congregations they lead. Jesus said: “It is written, strike the shepherd, and the sheep will be scattered.” The devil understands the exponential impact of taking down a lead pastor. Consequently, he seems to concentrate a high percentage of his attacks there. The wear and tear of this second stressor is real and often underestimated.
3. Societal Dysfunction
Our culture’s growing dysfunction has impacted the Church in a big way. The complexity, variety, and sheer number of problems pastors deal with have increased dramatically. This third stressor places tremendous strain on the pastor’s schedule and energy. Lead pastors who have a strong need to “fix” those who attend the church they lead are at even greater risk for increased stress levels, because first, God hasn’t called them to fix anybody, and second, if “fixing” is their focus, that is all they’ll ever do. It’s really a miserable way to lead.
Think 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 lead pastors. The fiscal needs in a church and the community it serves seem endless. This fourth stressor 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 what doesn’t happen at the church, you’re giving out of a misguided heart.) The financial weight of the organization can be suffocating for a lead pastor.
You read that right . . . sensitivity. Pastoral ministry is extremely personal. And sensitivity can increase a leader’s stress level. Most ministers throw themselves into their work with energy, optimism, and love for those they lead—and at times with little regard for their own personal health. When pastors are criticized unfairly, or when people leave the church for illegitimate reasons, it’s difficult not to take such actions personally. 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 leaders, elongated stress can grind their emotions into a fine powder. The result? Many wonderful, talented, and called leaders exit way before they should. And it’s a shame, because so many of these exits are preventable.
In next week’s post we’ll look at proven solutions to these five surprising stressors. You can also find these solutions in my book, Unshakable You: Five Choices of Emotionally Healthy People.
In the meantime, if you’re a pastor and feel overwhelmed today, reach out to us for help. You can contact us here. Don’t try to dig yourself out on your own.
Pastors: I’m rooting and praying for you to have an amazing second half of 2019!