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.

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