Statistics from the United States indicate a high and increasing dropout rate in the ministry.1 Elsewhere in the world the stresses that impact ministry may vary in intensity, but the impact is widespread. Focus on the Family suggests from their investigations that 80 percent of pastors are discouraged or dealing with depression, while 40 percent suffer from burnout, frantic schedules, and unrealistic expectations.2
Those in ministry know that it can be stressful, frustrating, and just sheer hard work. The flip side shows that ministry can also be immensely enjoyable, challenging, and rewarding. The challenge, over the long term, includes learning to cope with the negatives. This process makes the difference between thriving in ministry or merely surviving and even leaving.
Under normal circumstances, we juggle the stresses of life, but at times—when a particular stress or several sources of stress combine—the warning bells start to ring. Ministry, normally rewarding and meaningful, becomes stressful and wearing. That church member who always sees the worst in everything becomes a major thorn in the side rather than the cause for mild amusement when life has balance. Rather than fading quickly from memory, church meetings become utterly draining as our emotional reserves quickly fade. Sleep, normally quick in coming, becomes a short-lived experience, further depleting emotional and physical reserves.
Here are some of my experiences in pastoral ministry, including what has kept me thriving in a calling that seems to leave increasing numbers burned out. However different your experience, I hope you may be encouraged by what I have learned. I faced a time when all five of the stresses (see below) resulting from ministry came together in one short time, and having lived to tell the tale, I am sharing why I am still in ministry today.
The stresses of ministry
Death. It may be a death in your own family, the death of someone close, or simply too many deaths in your congregation that weigh you down. Clearly, death is one of the major stressors in life regardless of a person’s occupation. By nature, ministry is a calling in which dealing with death remains as part of life.
Moving. Ministry personnel seem to have more than their share of moving. Our oldest child, seven years old, has celebrated every birthday in a different house. Besides the stress of moving, we experience new people, new houses, new doctors and dentists, new schools and shops, and more. Repeat it too frequently, and it can lead to a sense of rootlessness and a lack of belonging. While we ultimately don’t belong in this world, ministers need support networks too. God created us to be part of community, and to uproot this becomes stressful every time.
Dealing with administration. This has become one of those things that sometimes falls short of what we desire. Sometimes leaders make decisions that impact us, but we have little say. Sometimes we see the hurt infl icted on others. Sometimes particular people seem to have undue influence, while others not enough. At other times, the objective of the administration seems to clash with the objectives of the local church.
At these times being a pastor can be plain hard work. As a pastor, your ultimate loyalty is to God—but if the local church and the conference end up at loggerheads, can you maintain an impartial distance? Where should your allegiance lie? At times our system rewards those whose allegiance stays with their superiors rather than those who do what seems best for the local church. Yet for the system to be healthy, the local church must be healthy.
Death of a dream. I remember working in one conference where I had been assigned to three churches. We talked as churches and began to work together, and as a result we built positive friendships and won souls to the kingdom. Then the bombshell hit. I was being moved, an act that led to the death of the dream that we had shared with our churches.
Overwork. Ministry is one job never done. We never arrive at the point where we have visited enough people, run enough meetings, implemented enough goals, led enough Bible studies, baptized enough people, or counseled enough individuals. As a result, we can easily fall into the trap of never stopping because guilt assails us when we do. For some reason, we feel better if people admire our ceaseless work. But who are we fooling? We can never do it all. There is a time for long hours, but there is also a time to stop. We should not be slack, nor should we be seduced because colleagues are promoted as a result of overwork or a neglect of family and a total work focus.
Reasons for continuing in ministry
So what has kept me going? The beginning and end to my answer lies in Scripture, with the first verse coming out of Ephesians.
Remember your call. “Paul, an apostle of Jesus Christ by the will of God” (Eph. 1:1, KJV). Paul was an apostle, not because of his brilliance, his compassion, his personal skills, or his preaching ability, but because of God’s will. And like Paul, I am here “by the will of God.” That means He will provide me with what I need to fulfill His calling, and it means I can be myself.
I remember sitting through many ministers’ meetings early in ministry feeling utterly inadequate as person after person told us how we should engage in ministry. I would leave dejected and disheartened, wondering how I would ever get through another day. Today I enjoy ministers’ meetings because I now realize that God calls each one of us to minister in our unique way. I can learn from others and be enriched by them. My ministry occurs because of the will of God—not because of the will of local church leaders or administration.
Expectations. Highs and lows are normal. Jesus went from the height of the mountain in the presence of the Father at His transfiguration to the height of frustration with feuding disciples.3 After a busy Sabbath, adrenaline lows on Sunday can be expected—and to keep pushing without a break not only means to work contrary to God’s plan but leads to an even bigger crash later.
Time off— the Sabbath principle. Even Jesus took time out. Ministry is about people, people are about relationships, and relationships take time. In Jesus’ life we see that there were times when the crowd was ready, primed, and waiting, and Jesus simply headed for the hills.4 If Jesus was not “driven” according to the desires of the crowd, we should no more be driven by that need either, whatever it is.
In fact, the principle had its beginning in Genesis and is annunciated clearly in Exodus 20. Six days are for work, but the seventh is a day of rest. As a minister, I have often been involved in preaching, teaching, counseling, problem solving, and driving long distances on Sabbath. While there is much I am able to do to maintain the blessing inherent in the day, it cannot be described as a day of rest any more than it was a day of rest for the Old Testament priests. Take a day off a week, and like a marathon runner, you will learn to pace yourself so that you will run the race of ministry and life to its conclusion, and you will get more done. Take a day a week, and you will arrive at the end of the year still committed to your calling rather than worn out, washed up, and ready to crash.
In my college years I worked in a factory during its shutdown time— cleaning, painting, repairing, whatever. The first year we worked on Boxing Day,5 New Year’s Day, and every day except Christmas and Sabbath, all from early morning until late evening. The next year we were given time off for the public holidays; we were also given a short Sunday work day—and something amazing happened. More work was achieved than in the previous shutdown.
Likewise in ministry—less can be more. Take off one day a week and be amazed how much more you can achieve. For me the family benefit has become significant because when a funeral or something similar occurs and I miss my day off, the result becomes noticeable in the behavior of my children.
We should have other interests and outlets—be they working in the garden, restoring cars, working with wood, photography, or whatever—something that has a beginning and end that we can point to and say with satisfaction, “I did that!”
Saying “No.” This is hard to learn. As ministers we want to do all that we can for others. However, we cannot do everything, and learning to prioritize makes the difference between aimless busyness and a ministry that makes a difference.
Learn from mistakes. If we do something that obviously doesn’t work, it shouldn’t be a reason to castigate ourselves. Rather, we should learn from that experience and not repeat the mistake. A wise man once said that we learn more from our mistakes than from our successes. However, we first have to be willing to recognize a mistake and make the requisite adjustments.
Find a friend. Somewhere, somehow, sometime, you have to find a friend or a mentor. This person needs to be someone with whom you can unload without fear of censure or recrimination.
That person may or may not be local and can be of any age or profession. For me it has been my father—now a retired pastor—and another pastor in a neighboring parish.
Exercise. We are holistic beings whose physical well-being impacts our emotional and spiritual lives. Regular exercise helps keep negativity at bay and life on an even keel.
Keep focused on Jesus. In my teens I learned the lesson the hard way. I looked more and more at the church and those who composed the church, both laity and leadership, and became increasingly disappointed. I have had to learn and relearn that lesson. Cynicism becomes the inevitable by-product of focusing on people. Cynicism will suck the life out of your spiritual life almost overnight, leaving you spiritually withered and dying. When your supervisor speaks in anger or seems to make bad decisions, realize that the leadership team is not perfect. When I focus on Christ, the “shock-and-horror” response to an inept administration—or sinful church members—becomes muted because my focus stays on bigger and better things. My focus is on Jesus! “Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God” (Heb. 12:2, NIV).
Ministry can take many shapes and forms, but to have a calling in which you experience the high points of life’s major milestones with other people, see the excitement of lives changed by Jesus, as well as sharing people’s most desperate times—I wouldn’t have it any other way. We can and must learn to cope with the negatives and maintain a living connection with the Lord of the work. For what shall it profit a minister if he wins the whole world but loses his own soul?6
1 James Dobson, “The Titanic. The Church. What They Have in Common.” Dr. Dobson’s Newsletter, August 1998 www.family.org/docstudy/newsletters/a0002430.cfm. This article indicated that an estimated fifteen hundred pastors leave their assignments each month due to moral failure, spiritual burnout, or contention within their local congregations.
3 See Luke 9:28–45. Verse 41 illustrates Jesus’ frustration with His disciples whose argument over who is the greatest takes full flower from verse 46.
4 In John 12 the crowds had declared Jesus the Messiah, and then in verse 36 John simply states, “Jesus left and hid himself from them” (NIV). In Matthew 14:13 Jesus seeks to withdraw from the crowds after hearing of John the Baptist’s death. Also, in John 6:15, the crowd who seeks to forcibly make Jesus king fails to fi nd Him as He “withdrew again to a mountain by himself” (NIV).
5 Boxing Day is the day after Christmas and is observed as a holiday in various parts of the world.
6 Almost a complete quote of Mark 8:36.