Ministers are leaving the pastorate early, according to a new survey from LifeWay Research – and the high fallout rates are avoidable.
It's a US-based study and doesn't translate directly into the UK situation. But a lot of it resonates anecdotally with the sort of things ministers cope with wherever they are, and behind the statistics are some sad stories.
Lifeway's survey showed that 54 per cent of those who left had to deal with "significant personal attack" and that nearly half say their training didn't prepare them for it. A quarter left citing church conflict, with nearly as many mentioning "burnout". Many also cite a "change in calling".
So how can pastors stay the course? The Lifeway survey highlights issues such as better pastoral training and personal resourcing. Unquestionably these are important. But just as important might be the sort of attitude pastors bring to the task of ministry. Here are five suggestions for struggling ministers.
1. Don't worry too much about achieving things.
You are not the chief executive of a company, you are the pastor of a church. Your bottom line isn't determined by how much your church takes in offerings or by how many members or baptisms it has. It's determined by the quality of relationships within it and the quality of its witness to those outside it. Truthfulness, integrity, grace and loving kindness are the achievements that matter.
2. Don't be too hard on yourself.
While I was at theological college I was "apprenticed" to a much older minister. Once, when I'd preached what I thought was a bad sermon, I apologised to him. His words then have often comforted me since; he simply said, "Don't worry, you can't strike oil every time." We sometimes load far too many expectations on ourselves. It's not only bad for us, it's disrespectful to our congregations. They know we're only human.
3. Don't forget about God.
A wise pastor once said: "We do far more good than we think we do, and we do far less harm than we think we do." Pastors who understand that God is working not only through them but in and through other people too are less likely to buckle under the strain of ministry. God can take our loaves and fishes and feed a multitude.
4. Remember that your opponents are not your enemies.
There is a cost to ministry, and sometimes it means losing battles that you really feel you ought to have won. The closest I came to leaving ministry was a church meeting when I argued for one point of view and the church decided, by a large majority, on another. I came to see that rejecting my opinion was not the same as rejecting me. That was an example of "good disagreement". I've experienced the other kind, too, when feelings have run really high. One thing that kept me grounded might seem a little macabre, but it really worked for me: I found myself asking, "If I had to take this person's funeral, could I say good things about them and mean it?"
5. Take the long view.
I know of a minister who was trying without success to get his church to adopt a particular programme. "If they don't do it, this church will die!" he said. It had been there for 700 years and it's still going strong. Sometimes churches need pastors who will shake them up and make them change. But pastors need to be very, very sure that their projects and plans are from God. It's all too easy for us to project our own desire for recognition and success on to a congregation and to think we're serving God when we're really fulfilling our own needs.
Ministry, after all, is ministry. A pastor is not primarily a church "leader", with all the connotations of the military or the commercial world. He or she is a servant, of God and of the congregation.
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