Ed seriously considered leaving the ministry. He felt pulled by church administrators, parishioners, family, and his own unrealistic expectations. Leaving seemed the only way to avoid burnout.
Fortunately, a veteran pastor sensed Ed’s predicament, met with him to explore the role of a pastor, and helped him rearrange his priorities. Ed soon rediscovered the joys of ministry.
You may be thinking about leaving the ministry as well. Before you make that decision, think about the following concepts that make for job satisfaction.
Understand your role
Warren interviewed for a staff position in a large church. The senior pastor gave him a list of responsibilities that would be his, should he be chosen. The pastor left the room so Warren could take his time examining the list. When the pastor returned, he said to the prospective associate, “As you may have gathered, I am looking for someone to care for the minutiae of running the church.”
Running the church can be a great way to erode the pastor’s role of praying, studying, teaching, discipling, encouraging, and preaching. Church members may applaud you for chairing all the committees, working out the budget, managing church maintenance, fund-raising, improving the church sign, and eliminating the church debt. They may even brag about their hard working pastor, but their concept of a pastor’s role is wrong.
Eugene H. Peterson found that running the church can be hazardous to the role of the pastor. When he told his church leaders he was thinking of resigning, they came up with a brilliant solution. They offered to run the church while he focused on being a pastor.* They had resources for caring for the day-to-day operations of the institutional church. He enjoyed praying for and with people, encouraging, comforting, studying, preaching, and teaching.
Understanding your role and preserving it at all costs will prevent burnout and departure from a rewarding calling.
Some church leaders have adopted the world’s passion for getting things done in a hurry. They urge pastors to hurry and finish the work, and conferences and workshops are produced nonstop in an effort to hasten the Lord’s coming.
Hurry, hurry, hurry remains as an enemy of a pastor’s role. You cannot expect church members to rest in the Lord and wait patiently for Him if you are on a never-ending treadmill.
I live in chicken country. Thousands of chicks are fed growth hormones so they can be butchered at seven weeks. As a result, their bodies grow faster than their hearts, and hundreds die and are incinerated before they reach the processing plant. As with the chicken illustration, the hurry syndrome is not conducive to good spiritual health for the pastor and parishioners.
Pastors are not, necessarily, initiators. Long before a pastor makes contact with a person, God has been touching him or her. Pastors thrill at watching what God is doing. Then the pastor prays, “Lord, show me how I can fall in step with what You are doing.” Psalm 27:14 says twice, “Wait for the LORD” (NIV).
If you are faithful in your role as a pastor and trust the results with God, you will be able to shed the pressures to finish the work. Wait for the Lord and avoid the stress that can drive you from ministry.
Set your own priorities
Set your own priorities before someone else tries to set them for you. When meeting with a pastoral search committee, be clear and decisive in stating your priorities. If church administrators offer you a position, let them know what you believe to be your most important ministry initiatives. Your interviewers deserve to know your position on implementing programs generated by those who are unfamiliar with the nature of a particular church and the community demographics.
Keep your flame alive
A Methodist pastor gave me his secret for keeping his flame alive.
He scheduled time for recreation, reflection, and rejuvenation and took minivacations every month. He followed a devotional time apart from sermon preparation. Whenever he learned about a seminar that could deepen his relationship with God, he attended. Running the church keeps the wheels spinning, but it may not fan the flames of the pastor’s friendship with Jesus.
Be a wordsmith
Pastors who practice the artistry of creating word pictures for their members live for the joy of bringing the Bible alive. Turning words into memorable sermons keeps them looking forward to next week’s and next month’s masterpieces.
Since I retired, I have listened to many preachers but very few wordsmiths. I walk out of church feeling that I was handed what was thrown together at the last minute. I feel cheated. I think such preachers miss the real joy of ministry. To them, preaching has become a chore they can easily do without.
Since boyhood, I was an admirer of H. M. S. Richards Sr., and I considered him a student and master at word pictures. I attended the Lectureship on Biblical Preaching named in his honor in 1957. Pastor Richards upheld the role of the pastor, and he told us that if we can write it, we can preach it. Writing requires thinking and research, guards against slipshod preaching, and creates a desire to preach the rest of your life.
Once writing the sermon has been completed on paper, it needs to be written on the heart of the preacher. A complete manuscript or notes taken to the pulpit will be a guide for an organized presentation. Pastors gifted with an excellent memory may preach without a manuscript or notes. This is admirable as long as the pastor does not ramble.
The church I attend shares a pastor with two other churches. When he cannot be present, other members fill the pulpit. They have a natural ability for public speaking, but the pastor wisely tutors them in preaching God’s Word. The youngest speaker often seeks a critique from the others.
Jesus was a Master Wordsmith. His parables were not meant to answer all the questions, but His hearers went away processing what they heard. They could not forget the thought-provoking pictures he painted with words. He did not use big words. Small words, like small brushstrokes on a canvas, have proved to be in demand for centuries.
Love your family
When church members and activities gobble up most of the pastor’s time, his or her family suffers, and home life is no longer a blessing. This can be a reason why some pastors leave. Pastors who build and enjoy happy families will not be eager to leave the ministry. Their families will stand behind them as they set good priorities.
In our family, we laughed about our weekly days away from church. We went on excursions come rain or shine. One day we took a picnic lunch and badminton equipment to Sleeping Giant State Park in Connecticut. The rain was coming down in torrents, but we were under a shelter. We were the only people in the park. A ranger could not believe we were serious about enjoying the day. He came to the shelter on the pretense of emptying the trash cans although he really came to see this silly family up close.
A pastor and his or her family are living sermons for the congregation. The greatest mission of the pastor centers around the mission of the home. Church members often live in upheaval, and therefore they need to have a model. They need to be invited to the pastor’s home to see lives lived in a Christian environment.
Avoid solitary ministry syndrome
Most Seventh-day Adventist pastors work alone unless they are part of a multiple pastor staff. This creates a problem that the church has failed to address. Loneliness in the workplace is a reality in the church.
I presented a seminar on clergy loneliness at a ministers’ retreat. I could not convince them to talk about their loneliness in the seminar time, but in the evening some would seek me out and talk about it. One pastor told me he was lonely and knew of two ministers who had left because of the lack of camaraderie. Clergy loneliness filters down to clergy spouses. I know because I spent five days at a camp meeting listening to heartbreaking stories of spousal loneliness.
I have spoken to church administrators about the solitary-ministry syndrome, but solo pastorates have not decreased. Well-qualified pastors are being lost to the denomination because the problem is not being addressed.
Here are a few ideas you can implement to avoid loneliness. Join the ministerial alliance in your area. If you have more than one church, join the alliance in both places. The pastors of other faiths are grateful to have a close friendship with clergy of other faiths. Plan social times with other pastors who live and/or work near you. Exchange pulpits and special programs. When we were pastoring in Michigan, pastors and their families in one area planned several picnics every year.
I developed a close friendship with a pastor of a denomination different from my own. He became as close as a brother to me. We shared book titles, personal problems, and I conducted several seminars in his church. We swapped stories about church polity and congregational idiosyncrasies. It feels good to laugh together. A Catholic priest taught at a nursing school in Kalamazoo, Michigan. Because he invited me to teach his class on death and dying, our relationship developed into a rewarding relationship.
Use your creativity to avoid the solitary-ministry syndrome. If you wait for church administrators to address the problem, you may find yourself leaving the ministry due to loneliness.
Be prepared for some difficult people
I can remember a few times when I gave serious consideration to leaving the ministry. A church deacon grabbed me by the lapels and said, “I hate you.” I was shaking in my shoes. With time I became aware of factors that led to his anger, but initially I questioned whether being a pastor was worth the stress. Another church member backed me into a corner and angrily accused me of ruining the church. After he left, I spent a half hour gaining my composure.
No church member should be allowed to drive pastors from the ministry. I believe the role of church administrators should include being advocates for pastors who are being tormented. They should meet with the church in question and spell out their expectations of civil behavior. If necessary, they should confront the offender individually. Pastors need to know they have advocates.
Most churches are respectful and kind to pastors. One pastor of five churches is welcomed like royalty when he comes to each church, and the members provide lodging and meals. Parents ask him to counsel their children about their schoolwork. Newly married couples report their progress and seek his help for difficult decisions. The members await his arrival for baptisms and baby dedications. His arrival composes a joyful homecoming.
Find a shoulder to lean on
I became acquainted with the pastors of a megachurch in Texas. Their church board hires a counselor to meet with the pastors individually on a regular basis. The counselor never reports to the church board. This provides a safe haven for pastors who may need help in dealing with personal, personnel, or congregational problems.
The Seventh-day Adventist Church has traditionally elected ministerial directors. These men have not had the exclusive role of supporting clergy for, in many cases, most of their time involves evangelism coordination and personnel selection. If the church wants to be serious about maintaining the health of pastors and their families, professional people should be hired to make that their exclusive responsibility.
A professional shoulder to lean on would prevent highly qualified pastors from leaving parish ministry for secular work or other branches of church-related endeavors.
Master your craft
Pastors are ordained to preach just as Jesus came preaching. Once a pastor masters the craft of preaching, he or she can rise above any negative aspects of the calling by God’s grace. My heart rejoices when I hear a pastor say, “I love to preach.” When a pastor spends half or more of each week in study, research, writing, and memorizing, preaching becomes the thrill that keeps away thoughts of leaving the ministry.
Mastering the craft of preaching requires the proper tools. Years ago, this required investing a small fortune on books. Access to tools has become cheaper in our age of technology.
A preacher can be compared to a gourmet cook, insisting on fresh ingredients for sermons. One of my sources was my involvement with the community. I became involved with the ministerial association, hospice, food banks, health seminars, and lay counseling services. In addition to sharing God’s love, I gained rich sermon material. My community experience kept me from bookish preaching, and this also set an example for church members.
Preaching means conveying the good news that comes from Scripture. Sermons should be full of Scripture, which results in congregations bringing their Bibles to church. Bibles should be placed in pew racks for those who do not bring a Bible.
Congregational reading of Scripture during the sermon has been made easier by projecting texts on a screen—an excellent way of making people in the pews participants in worship.
Master preachers do not shout with angry voices and facial expressions. They do not spend precious time attempting to be humorous. As Jesus did, the preacher makes his or her listeners think and also brings hope, comfort, and encouragement to people.
Samuel Chadwick, an English preacher, said that whenever the pastor steps into the pulpit he or she should speak as one broken to those who are broken.
Sermon preparation done prayerfully and sermon delivery bathed in the presence of the Spirit is exciting. As you see God touching hearts week after week, you become addicted to preaching. You want to do it in and out of season.
Ed discovered that he could not pattern his style of ministry after a model promoted by his church administration or some published successful minister. He, fortunately, realized that pastoral ministry is different for every pastor. When he created his own style, thoughts of leaving ministry no longer lurked in his mind.
Our son asked me, “Daddy, what would you think if I decided to become a minister?”
I told him, “If you can be imaginative, creative, innovative, and true to the person you are, I’d be happy with your decision.” That has been my advice to many young men and women contemplating ministry as a life work.
Unrewarding ministry compares to moving into a house with the kitchen too cramped, the bedrooms too small, and the living room and dining areas not conducive to entertaining guests. You never feel at home.
Designing your own house or totally renovating the house you bought results in a different story. You personalize the living spaces. You move into your house. You feel at home. You want to stay.
* Eugene H. Peterson, Subversive Spirituality (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1997), 217.