Clergy contentment

Clergy contentment: An inside job

Being a pastor, what is the key to authentic contentment?

Martin Thielen, DMin, serves as senior pastor of First United Methodist Church, Cookeville, Tennessee, United States.

A familiar voice on the other end of the phone said, “Hi Martin, it’s Larry. I’m in Nashville for a few days at a conference, and I wondered if we could have lunch together.” Larry, a clergy friend, serves as senior pastor at a large church in the South. At the time of his call, I worked at the headquarters of my previous denomination. The next day we met at a Mexican restaurant and talked a long time about our work and families.

The time quickly passed, and I assumed our visit was nearly over. But then, in a rare moment of transparency and honesty, Larry shared something that caught me completely off guard. He said, “For the past several years, I’ve been struggling with a strong spirit of discontentment.” That revelation surprised me because, from my limited perspective, Larry lived a charmed life. He was an intelligent and outgoing man; he served a large and highly respected church, and because of his leadership and speaking skills, he often spoke at important events, sat on significant boards, and served as a major leader in his state’s denominational life. And yet, in spite of all his ministerial success, Larry told me he rarely felt satisfied and had no inner peace.

Concerned he might have clinical depression, he went to see a psychiatrist. However, the doctor told him he did not suffer from clinical depression and did not need antidepressant medication. Still, Larry struggled daily with restlessness and discontentment.

Larry told me that, at first, he assumed the problem was his church. He thought, If only I could get a bigger and better church, then I would be content. But Larry, then, got a bigger and better church, and it did not help. As soon as the initial excitement wore off, he felt just as discontented as before. Because the problem was not his church, Larry figured the problem must be his career. He thought he must be in the wrong profession. So he went to a top-flight career counselor, took a battery of aptitude tests, and engaged in numerous vocational interviews. But in the end, he realized the problem was not his career. In fact, he discovered he was extremely well suited for pastoral work. After extensive evaluation, Larry’s career counselor told him, “I can’t think of a better vocation for you than serving as a minister.”

My colleague finally said to me: “It’s taken several years and numerous counseling sessions, but I’ve learned something extremely important. I’ve finally figured out that the problem is not my church or my vocation; but me. I’ve learned that my restlessness and discontentment are not an external problem but an internal problem. I’ve learned that happiness is an inside job.”

In other words, happiness is within us.

Outward success is not enough

Like my friend Larry, I once believed that perceived success in ministry—including church size, salary, and status—was the key to pastoral contentment. So I worked hard to be successful. I pastored a big church and then a bigger one. I got on the clergy speaking circuit. I earned a doctoral degree. I published a lot of articles and books. I accepted a highly visible, national, denominational job. At one point I even served as senior pastor at a megachurch. However, career “success” did not bring the fulfillment and happiness that it promised. Although I enjoyed my work, climbing the ecclesiastical ladder added no measurable increase to my personal or professional happiness and, in fact, sometimes even detracted from it.

Take, for example, my tenure at the megachurch. It was the largest church of my denomination in my state and one of the largest in the nation. It represented the pinnacle of my career—an extremely high-status and high-salary job. The church enjoyed exceptional facilities, a massive staff, a huge membership, and impressive ministries and programs. The job even came with a car. I had “arrived” in my profession.

Ironically, I did not like the job. The shift from a pastoral role to more of a CEO role was difficult. The daily complexities of leading a huge organization exhausted me. The expectations to be an ideal preacher, leader, and pastor felt impossible to fulfill. Conflict, inevitable in all congregations, grew exponentially with size and took away much of the joy of ministry. Finally, the relentless criticism that comes from being in such a public and high-profile job took a toll on me. It did not take long in that setting for me to realize that I enjoyed smaller, lower-status, and lower-paying pastorates far more than I did the megachurch. I vividly learned through that experience that ministry “success” factors like status, size, staff, and salary have virtually no bearing on life satisfaction and well-being.

Larry’s and my experiences are not unique. Through the years I have known many clergy who learned, often the hard way, that external ministerial circumstances, such as church size and status, are not the keys to pastoral contentment. For example, a few years ago, I met a newly retired minister, named Richard, with an interesting story to tell.

Richard’s story

At age 25 Richard graduated from seminary, and his bishop appointed him to a small rural church with a small salary. However, he and his wife loved the congregation, the people loved them in return, and it proved a wonderful pastoral experience. This story continued for the next 20 years. Richard served several other churches, all small congregations with small salaries. But he loved his work and felt grateful to be a pastor. However, when he turned 45, he began to pay close attention to the back section of his state denominational journal. That is where they listed all of the pastors and their salaries in his conference, from the highest to the lowest. Richard noticed that his salary fell slightly below the midpoint range. So, he began to look at those above him. The more he looked, the worse he felt. He saw one man who made a higher salary and thought to himself: I’ve been in ministry longer than he has. Why does he have a better appointment? He saw another name and thought, I’m a better preacher than he is, so why do I make less money? This ritual went on for five years. Every year when the new journal came out, Richard turned to the back section, compared where he was on the salary and status scale, and became more and more bitter.

By now, Richard was 50 years old. All the gratitude and joy he had known earlier in his ministry disappeared. He became a jealous, bitter, joyless, and resentful man. One night, when his wife and son left for an overnight trip, Richard had a profound spiritual experience. For the first time in several years, he looked in the mirror and saw what he had become, and he did not like what he saw. That night, during his evening prayer, he confessed his bitterness and resentment and begged God to forgive him. He then walked to his desk, picked up his conference journal, tore out the salary section, and burned it in the wood-burning stove.

Richard then made a promise to God that he would once again be grateful for his pastoral appointment. And he made good on that promise. From that day forward, for the next 15 years before his retirement, Richard constantly thanked God for the great privilege of proclaiming the gospel, administering the sacraments, caring for people, and leading his congregation—regardless of the church’s size. He decided to quit complaining about what he did not have and began expressing gratitude for what he did have, and it made a huge difference. He told me, “Even with the struggles—and I’ve had plenty—the past fifteen years have been the best years of my life.”

Learning to be content

Although the circumstances of our pastoral experiences have been different, Larry, Richard, and I have all learned an important lesson. We have learned that pastoral contentment does not come from external circumstances.

All of which raises the important and obvious question—if ministerial “success” does not make clergy happy, what does? The answer is simple: the factors that make pastors happy are the same factors that make everybody happy. And those factors have almost nothing to do with external circumstances like affluence, accomplishments, or appearance. Instead, personal contentment and well-being are overwhelmingly, in the words of my friend Richard, “an inside job.”

Over the past several years, I have done a lot of reading about what makes people happy, not because happiness has become the ultimate goal of Christianity. It does not rate up there with the prophet’s call for justice, the great commandment, or advancement of the kingdom of God. But the quest for authentic contentment, which every heart longs for and every person seeks—including clergy—leads us to significant Christian themes, including relationships, generosity, service, forgiveness, gratitude, and faith.

In recent decades, leading experts in the field of happiness research called “positive psychology” have learned that contentment is indeed an inside job. Through intensive research, psychologists have learned that external circumstances like career success, income, net worth, health, popularity, fame, beautiful homes, education levels, IQ, and personal appearance account for only about 10 percent of a person’s happiness. The other 90 percent is fairly evenly split between two factors: genetics, which we cannot control; and attitudes and behaviors, which we can. For an excellent overview of this research, see Sonja Lyubomirsky’s book, The How of Happiness.* Psychologists have discovered at least ten factors that are under our control, which lead to authentic happiness. What I find especially compelling is that all ten of those happiness traits are taught in the Bible, and they are also confirmed by experience. So when it comes to overall life contentment—science, experience, and Scripture all converge into complete agreement. The following ten attitudes and behaviors make people content. Contented people • know that external circumstances do not determine happiness (Eccl. 2);

• use trials as growth opportunities (James 1:2–4; Rom. 5:3–5; 2 Cor. 12:8–10);

• cultivate optimism (Phil. 4:8);

• focus on the present (Matt. 6:34; Ps. 118:24; Jer. 29:4–7; Eccl. 9:7–10);

• practice forgiveness (Luke 6:37; Eph. 4:32; Col. 3:13; Matt. 18:21, 22; Mark 11:25);

• practice generosity (Prov. 11:24, 25; Acts 20:35; Prov. 14:21; 1 Tim. 6:18);

• nurture relationships (Eccl. 4:9, 10; John 11:5);

• express gratitude (1 Thess. 5:18, Ps. 57; Phil. 1:3);

• care for their bodies (1 Cor. 6:19, 20, 1 Kings 19);

• care for their souls (Eccl. 12:1, 13). 

The implications for clergy are clear. Pastors who want to experience contentment need to quit focusing on external factors like membership, attendance, budget, facilities, staff size, and salary. Instead, they need to focus on internal factors like practicing generosity, expressing gratitude, and nurturing relationships.

After several decades in pastoral ministry, I have finally learned that career “success” has virtually no impact on pastoral contentment. The size of my congregation, the amount of my salary, the number of people employed on our church staff, and my status in the denomination do not promote a sense of well-being in my life. They never have, and they never will. Instead, love of God and neighbor, serving others, building relationships, caring for my body, nurturing my soul, and constantly expressing gratitude are the building blocks of a contented life.

Joy in my life

These days, the things that bring me personal joy include playing with my two- year-old granddaughter; having lunch with a friend; spending a quiet evening with my wife; connecting with my clergy support group; reading an engaging book; serving others; keeping a gratitude journal; practicing generosity with my time, money, and love; and being part of a community of faith. Some of the things that bring me professional joy include preaching a helpful sermon, anointing and praying for the sick, baptizing, burying the dead, leading worship, offering Holy Communion, building long-term relationships among the congregation, welcoming new people into the faith community, and providing the best leadership I possibly can for my church. At this stage in life, I have learned that my misguided youthful ambitions concerning ministerial “success” have faded. Instead, I have learned that happiness truly comes from within.

A few months ago I went on a clergy retreat. During one of the sessions, our presenter asked each participant to write down on paper a brief statement of our self-identity. I wrote: I am a . . .

• husband,

• father,

• grandfather,

• friend,

• pastor,

• author,

• beloved child of God. And it is more than enough.


* Sonja Lyubomirsky, The How of Happiness (New York: Penguin Books, 2008).

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Martin Thielen, DMin, serves as senior pastor of First United Methodist Church, Cookeville, Tennessee, United States.

November 2016

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