Monday, January 19, 2004

Pastoral Stress ** When can we call it quits? **

When is it okay to quit the ministry?

When a pastor begins to think about quitting he is almost always going to be consumed with guilt. You can't help but feel like you are letting God and your church down by wanting out... and in some ways that may be true. There is always a sense of calling with ministry and to face the fact that you are miserable and generally feeling like a failure is heart breaking, embarrassing and humbling. It is irrelevant whether your church is 'successful' or not... if you are miserable you will still likely feel like a failure... if you are wanting out it doesn't matter how well things are going.

The callings of God are without repentance... we know this... but we rarely understand how to apply it. When I was pastoring in Fayetteville I reached a point of extreme depression. I was unhappy and wanted out of the ministry... at the time I was ready to give it up forever. My overwhelming sense was that quitting was the equivalent of rejecting God himself... if he called me and placed me then it wasn't possible that I could stop... as I watched my church dwindle down to just a handful I preached more and more on faithfulness in the hard times... Job became relevant... sacrifice seemed to be the rule. The truth was in hindsight that in my state of mind I was not doing anybody any favors by hanging on... but that wasn't the way it seemed at the time.

The people who I sought counsel from, men of God, many of them, were generally supportive of me but their instruction was always along the lines of "Endure to the end" type messages. The deeper I sank the less relevant these counselors became. Then, while on vacation, I was introduced to Randy Knutson, a church planting coordinator with the Vineyard, who listened while I unloaded my frustrations. He asked me a simple question... "Why do you think God would ask you to do something that made you miserable?" Before I could answer with my prepackaged rebuttal he continued, "Leaders in God's Kingdom are rare... YOU are more important to the Lord than your work or your church!"

Something in me broke that moment... For the first time I felt like I had permission to stop banging my head into the wall... and the freedom was tangible... overwhelming... and I cried like a baby. And my resignation the next day began an adventure that I wouldn't trade anything for. If I had stayed on in a misguided sense of duty I would have not grown and experienced the things I have the last few years... nor would that church have had any life in it... by stepping down it opened the door for God to place someone else there who had life to give to those people.

Randy used the term one time with me of "Holy Discontent"... this is a sense of coming change... a stirring in the spirit where we begin to feel unhappy or discontented with the place we are currently serving. In retrospect I guess I would have had a hard time leaving anywhere I've ever served had things just been perfect... its the discontentment that gets us to move... to seek God and find his next assignment.

This may not be the way it works for everybody else, but I know I have seen over and over tired and burned out pastors hanging on to a tired and burned out church or ministry that sometimes I wonder if it wouldn't be better off if they just stopped the madness. For their and their family's sake as well as the church. Life is too short to spend it hating what you're doing. I can think of three such churches that I have visited within the last month or two, so this isn't a small obscure issue. And in each of those cases the people giving counsel are encouraging them to "Endure to the end"... and it makes me want to cry. I've been there and I know their cry is for someone to give them permission to quit...

We don't want to give that permission because, "What if it is God? What if he's trying to work faithfulness into this leader?" That's a good question... and I don't know the answer... but a pastor who loses his family or his sanity in the name of faithfulness is never going to learn anything... false duty is killing pastors. In an earlier posting I discussed the 1500 pastors a month leaving ministry... what if they had left earlier with a blessing? Could they have had a rest, recharged, changed venues and recovered to be even more effective than before? I think the answer is "OF COURSE"!

The keys to success in ministry include 1) The right person 2) in the right place 3) at the right time. And sometimes it takes quitting what you're doing so that God can place you in a new setting so that your effectiveness is increased.

Monday, January 12, 2004

Pastoral Stress (Addendum)

This topic has generated several comments so I thought I'd add some additional thoughts.

Other stress factors are mixed or unclear visions. I have seen numerous occasions where ministers come together to pastor a church as associates or co pastors but the vision for the kind of church they want to be is unclear or undefined. This creates much stress as the church matures since the leaders will pull against each other. This disunity is not usually aggressive or malicious but is discouraging, nevertheless. A similar issue to this is an associate to a domineering or authoritarian type senior pastor. It doesn't take long to sap the passion and joy out of serving the Kingdom when its man's Kingdom you're serving and not the Lord's.

Another issue that separates pastors from ministry is their own sin issues. An unfortunate reality is that many of the issues that infect our culture infect our churches and our pastors. The pressure to hide sin is always high but in a person who has influence in large part due to a perceived godly lifestyle this pressure is enormous. This can create an environment where a pastor, in order to keep his job, will refrain from confession of sin. This is obviously counter to the word of God, which clearly states that confession is our route to healing. A pastor who is continuing to minister with a hidden life he is trying to maintain is destined for collapse. Realizing that pastor's are people first and pastor's second they, like most other people, are susceptible to vices during times of stress. When pressure builds most people turn to "comfort areas" for relief. And if a past "comfort" involved addictive behavior it is easy to return to the addiction.

Friday, January 9, 2004

Pastoral Stress

According to a recent study I read more than 1500 pastors each month are expected to leave the ministry permanently over the next few years. That is an astonishing figure but it isn't difficult to understand why.

Most people go into ministry for all the right reasons... they love people and they love God. If that were the only requirement to be a considered an effective pastor then you would have little fallout. But the pressures on a pastor today are almost incomprehensible.

Financial: Although its not a widely recognized fact, most pastors in the U.S. are bi-vocational... they hold an outside job. The huge majority of churches in America are under 100 people and do not have the budget necessary to support a fulltime pastor. This split duty the pastor carries is a strong demotivator... they are working the equivalent of 2 fulltime jobs. Those that go fulltime in smaller churches are generally under-employed and have no staff to assist them.

Appreciation: There was a time when the pastor was considered with the highest respect. I remember growing up that it was special to have the pastor's family come over after church for dinner. They were respected and given much appreciation. Today's move toward 'casual' churches with less separation between the clergy and the laity has caused at least one unfortunate side-affect... in general the pastor is not as highly regarded as he once was. Our church growing up took special offerings for Pastor's Appreciation Month or Christmas... I have pastored in staff roles in 3 churches for 7 years and have never yet had anyone show us courtesy and appreciation in that fashion. Nor do I know a small church pastor who has... this is a cultural reality... the pastor does not have the respect and esteem he once did.

Expectations: The current culture applauds itself for its 'inquisitive mind'... its debating of details. In a congregation of 200 it is virtually impossible to deliver a 30 minute sermon that doesn't provoke a portion of the congregation to debate the theology, scholarship or merit of the opinion of the speaker. And there are usually a handful that consider it their duty to critique and dissect every word and bring it to your attention. In every church I have had at least one person who came every week to critique my sermons. It isn't done usually with malice, but as the response of individualism to authority. Healthy questioning is appropriate but constant requirements to 'proof' every statement becomes a burden that is exhausting.

Faith is a very personal thing and everybody has a fairly clear understanding of what they expect from their pastor. Being all things to all people is not something most people are capable of, but as a pastor we certainly try. Expectations regarding relational issues are often unrealistic. I recently heard of a local church who fired their pastor because he didn't visit enough people each week. Otherwise he is a fine preacher and administrator. This type of thing is a prime example of divergent expectations... although it is important to be real and accessible, it is not reasonable to expect a pastor to build relationship with every individual in his church.

Failure: In our culture failure and success of pastor's is usually defined by church size and growth. We all say the right things like size isn't important, depth and quality are important, but the reality is that when a pastor asks another pastor how his church is doing what he is really asking is how many people are attending. Today more people are mobile than ever before... families do not stay in one place as long as they used to. Bert Waggoner told me one time that we must think of our church as a river, not as a lake. This is absolutely true... people come and go and the dynamics of a constantly changing church creates stress.

All of these things and dozens more create an environment that is exhausting and stressful. When I first thought about entering the ministry I approached my mentor and asked him what he thought. His reply was "If you can do anything else, do that." It is not a career choice... there are easier ways to make a living. It is a calling and those who know the call understand that if its in you its hard to quit. I have left ministry once thinking it was forever but I couldn't get away... the passion inside me would not allow it. But the sabbatical... the break was healing and refreshing.

I have my doubts about whether or not the 1500 a month leaving ministry will stay out of ministry forever. Many will return to their calling because they have no choice. But the healing of rest will make them more affective.