pastor burnout

A pastor’s wife’s story

The following story was posted on August 3, 2016, on the website ThomRainer.com.

Please allow me to share my feelings about the last many yearlovedepart_couplesad_sadlove_badrelations of being a pastor’s wife. I tried on many occasions to talk to my husband about it (loneliness, neglect, wanting at least one evening a week together, lack of dating, etc.). We’ve gone to
marriage seminars, talked to mentor ministry couples, and, still, things don’t change.

He never schedules time for investing in our marriage and works all week in the office and then up all night on Saturdays getting his sermon ready. He leaves early Sunday mornings for preparations for the service and, by the time he gets home in the afternoon, he’s exhausted and definitely doesn’t feel like doing anything active or fun with the kids and me. He just wants to veg out on the couch.

When I try to talk about my feelings, I’m “complaining” and not “following the call for my life.” I’m so tired of the cycle of neglect, loneliness, rejection, and hurt that I hate going to church, don’t read my Bible anymore, and have to fight thoughts of divorce every single day. The church definitely feels like his mistress. I’m so hopeless and feel that I’m trapped. The one place I should be able to turn to, the church, is what is killing me on the inside.

If anyone has a recommendation for a fair and reasonable counselor…who is used to working discreetly with people in my and my husband’s position, I would greatly appreciate it. I’m down to my last resort before bailing.

Read my interview about “Surviving Ministry”

(Recently my publisher interviewed me about my book, Surviving Ministry: How to Weather the Storms of Church Leadership. Here’s what I had to say.)

What motivated you to write Surviving Ministry?

After being a pastor for twelve relatively tranquil years, I accepted a call that turned out to be extremely challenging. I was not a good fit for the culture of either the church or the community. Moreover, I was unprepared for the trials I would face. The church had been badly hurt by its two previous pastors. During my time there we went through crisis after crisis. Some of them were my fault; others were not. After five years I was done. I thought my days as a pastor might be over. But by God’s grace, I found a position in another church and recovered my zest for ministry. This book is a record of lessons I learned during and since those five “hurricane” years.

So you compare church conflict to a hurricane. How did you happen to land on the hurricane metaphor?

I live in Florida where hurricanes are always on people’s minds, at least from June through November. But I have personal reasons for being fascinated with Hurricane Katrina. My father grew up in New Orleans and one of my daughters lives on the Gulf coast of Mississippi. Her husband is a pastor. They accepted a call to a church in Gulfport shortly after Katrina blew through in 2005. The church had been practically destroyed, literally and figuratively, by the hurricane. When turmoil strikes a church it often comes with devastating and unexpected power, leaving piles of hurt and animosity that may or may not ever be resolved. That sounds like a hurricane to me.

What would you say are the top three lessons your hurricane experience taught you?

It’s hard to pick just three, but I would say to a pastor: (1) know yourself really
well and be comfortable in your own skin; (2) spend most of your time in the early years of ministry in a church earning the trust of your congregation; and (3) base your identity on who you are as a beloved child of God, not on your popularity or success. If I may borrow from Proverbs 31:30, success is deceptive and popularity is fleeting. Several chapters in Surviving Ministry elaborate on these principles.

In your experience, how do pastors themselves often create or contribute to ministry storms?

I can speak from both experience and observation. Pastors often act like Lone Rangers. We think we can do it all. So we wear ourselves out and alienate a number of people whose support we need when things go south. We forget that our job is not to do the ministry ourselves but to equip the saints for the work of ministry. Another way we contribute to our own burnout is failing to invest in friendship. Pastors are some of the loneliest people in America. I devote full chapters to these two topics: teamwork and friends. Another thing we pastors are prone to do is talk, lecture, or scold when we should be listening. When I look back on my five-year hurricane experience, if I’d been a better listener I’m sure some of my difficulties would have been averted.

In your book you share openly about your own church leadership crises. Do you include stories from other pastors?

Yes. While doing my research I interviewed a number of pastors in the U.S. and Canada who either were in a period of severe ministry trial or had recently emerged from one. In seven of the sixteen chapters of Surviving Ministry you will read their stories. I felt it was important to write about real pastors and real problems. To protect their identities I changed their names and the names of their locales.

Was there a common thread that ran through all their stories?

Their situations were quite different. But if there was a common thread, it was the simple fact that church ministry is difficult. I think many of us pastors believe leading a church should not be hard. We think, if we just love people, preach biblical sermons, and pray, our churches will grow and people will love us. But this is a seriously deficient view of both the pastorate and human sin. In chapters one and two of Surviving Ministry I address the problem of pastoral idealism. The fact is, we are broken people working with broken people. Pastors need to expect hurricanes. Then perhaps we wouldn’t be so devastated by them.

Who are you hoping will read your book?

Ministers of the gospel are obviously my target audience, especially those who are suffering, considering jumping ship, feeling like a failure, and needing some practical guidance. But I suggest that every pastor read this book. We are most exposed to a ministry hurricane when we think we are invincible. Many churches are just one bad decision away from turmoil. Plus, you never know when a “well-intentioned dragon” will cause trouble in your congregation. I also think this book should be required reading for seminary students. Elders, deacons, and other church leaders would be doing their pastors a favor by reading this book and encouraging them to heed its advice.

What’s your last word to a pastor out there whose church is being blown apart by conflict?

Don’t give up hope. God is proud of you. Believe the gospel. “Weeping may tarry for the night, but joy comes with the morning” (Ps 30:5, ESV).

Read an excerpt of “Surviving Ministry”

My book, Surviving Ministry: How to Weather the Storms of Church Leadership, was recently publishePrintd and is available in both paperback and Kindle. Get it directly from the publisher for 20% off the retail price, or from Amazon, CBD, etc.

To get a feel for the book, click on this link:
Surviving Ministry Excerpt

Used with Permission of Wipf and Stock Publishers

You’ve got a friend?

two-men-talkingAccording to some researchers, about seventy percent of pastors say they have no close friends.[1] A 2009 Lilly Endowment study of three Christian denominations found that most pastors lack strong friendships with other pastors. 

Are you surprised by this? I’m not. I’ve lost count of the number of ministers who have told me they are lonely. They have many acquaintances and colleagues—but friends? Not so much. Most of our social interactions are about what we call “ministry.” When we are with people we are in charge and on the clock. They are looking to us for leadership, direction, or support, not friendship. When we meet with someone it’s usually because we are helping solve a problem, telling someone what to do, collaborating on an event, or explaining Christian truth, not enjoying one another.

Besides, pastors are like all human beings: we fear intimacy. We will find excuses not to pursue community. And studying the Bible, coming up with a constant stream of creative sermons and talks, and maintaining a quality devotional life require many hours of isolation. While most adults can put a cap on the number of people in their social circle, pastors must be friendly all the time to everybody.

Furthermore, choosing people with whom to build a friendship is always a risky venture, but especially for pastors. Church members can be jealous when they perceive they are not in their pastor’s inner circle. This was an issue at a church I once served as associate pastor. Several congregants confided in me that they felt second-class because they weren’t in the senior pastor’s cadre of favorite people. Pastors occupy dual roles with those they call friends. They are both “over” them as their spiritual leader and “beside” them as their friend—a difficult tension to maintain. “No matter how hard a leader wishes to be a regular person, it is just not possible,” writes Dan Allender.[2]

I admit that pursuing friendship with people in the church is fraught with risk and uncertainty. But I will argue that it’s worth the gamble. We who lead the church need the church. Paul David Tripp writes, “[I]f Christ is the head of his body, then everything else is just body, including the pastor, and therefore the pastor needs what the body has been designed to deliver.”[3] And let me add that those of us who are married need a friend who is not our spouse. A key element in my recovery from ministry burnout was having a handful of male friends with whom to walk through the fire. They were members of my church. My wife and I were in a small group consisting of six other people. That small group was our lifeline.

In my current pastorate I have two friends in the church with whom I meet regularly for confession, affirmation, and encouragement. I get together at least monthly with a pastor in a nearby community; he and I have been friends since our seminary days when we lived in neighboring apartments. I also have a good friend who lives 100 miles away. We text or email each other almost every day for encouragement and accountability. My wife and I belong to a small group where I can take off the pastor mask and experience true community. I play racquetball with a couple of church friends several times a week.

I say all that just to encourage you: It’s possible to be a pastor and have friends. But it requires intentionality, time, and money. The cost of not having friends is far greater.

I worry about pastors who choose not to pursue friendship. Allender says, “A leader with no close friends is a leader who is prone to swing between hiding and manipulating.”[4] Without a friend one must find unhealthy ways of coping with the pain of living. Sinful habits and toxic attitudes grow in the soil of isolation.

How about you. What’s been your experience of friendship in ministry?

 

[1]. Wilson, Michael T. and Brad Hoffman, Preventing Ministry Failure. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Books, 2007, p. 31, quoted in J. R. Briggs, Fail: Finding Hope and Grace in the Midst of Ministry Failure. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Books, 2014, p. 47.

[2]. Allender, Dan B. Leading with a Limp: Turning Your Struggles into Strengths. Colorado Springs, CO: Waterbrook, 2006, p. 109.

[3]. Tripp, Paul David. Dangerous Calling: Confronting the Unique Challenges of Pastoral Ministry. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2012, p. 88.

[4]. Allender, 114.

Accept being ordinary

Brené Brown writes, “We seem to measure the value of people’s contributions (and sometimes their entire lives) by their level of public recognition. In other words, worth is measured by fame and fortune. Our culture is quick to dismiss quiet, ordinary, hardworking men and women. In many instances, we equate ordinary with boring or, even more dangerous, ordinary has become synonymous with meaningless.” (Brené Brown, I Thought It Was Just Me (but it isn’t): Telling the Truth About Perfectionism, Inadequacy, and Power. New York: Penguin / Gotham Books, 2007, 204–205)

Ask for Help

Our church recently started a coed cycling club. Every Saturday morning a dozen or so of us meet in the church parking lot, hop on our road bikes, and go for a ride of twenty-five or thirty miles. It’s turning out to be a good o46b2cb4b1ed8cf35_draftingutreach, as several non-churchgoers have joined our little band. I’m learning how important it is to stay in a line and cycle as close as possible to the bike in front of me. This is called drafting. Each cyclist creates a vortex, or a low pressure area, that pulls the cyclist behind him or her forward. It is far easier to be behind someone and get in his or her draft, than to be alone or out in front. “Cyclists who are part of the group can save up to forty percent in energy expenditures over a cyclist who is not drafting with the group,” says⁠ scientist Paul Doherty.

In like fashion, your ministry will be easier, and a lot more fun, when you ask for and receive the help of other people.

In many ministers of the gospel (and in my own heart) there is a prideful resistance to receiving help from others. We want to be superheroes who rescue our poor parishioners in distress—and, incidentally, receive their adulation. It’s our way of building a record and earning righteousness apart from Christ. Depending on other people indicates weakness. And weakness, say⁠1 Michigan psychologists Dane Ver Merris and Bert van Hoek, is what many pastors are loath to reveal:

Ministers are understandably reluctant to admit shortcomings on the psychological tests we use. Instead, pastors view themselves as highly principled, moral, and virtuous. Test instruments are quite good at detecting this defensiveness, and the pastors we have counseled often have been reluctant to admit even minor flaws or emotional discomfort—even to the point of threatening the validity of the test results. Rather than be surprised (or unduly troubled) by pastors’ strong tendency to be defensive, those who are in a position to help must simply acknowledge the strong pressure pastors feel to make a polished presentation of themselves in spite of their obvious and genuine struggles.

Ver Merris and van Hoek’s observations come from years of working with burned out pastors. They go on to say that emotionally healthy pastors “accept criticism with grace, have a realistic notion of their own worth, [and] value positive interpersonal relationships….” In other words, resisting the Lone Ranger mentality is key to effective pastoral ministry.

1 https://paulvanderklay.wordpress.com/2010/11/19/how-pastors-struggle/

Ben’s Story

The struggles of missionaries on the foreign field are less recognized and understood than those of church pastors, but they are just as real. Most of us put missionaries on a pedestal and view them as super-Christians. But they are not spared the difficulties that plague pastors in the States. Here is the story of one missionary couple I’ll call Ben and Marlene (not their real names). 

Ben Sloan, his wife Marlene, and their three children were finally in Mali, West Africa. Approved as missionaries by their denomination’s mission board, their path here had not been an easy one. Months of training in the States had been interrupted when their daughter was diagnosed with an anxiety disorder known as selective mutism. She had to have several months of Couplecounseling in another city. Then, just when they thought everything was taken care of, their supervisors in Mali were sent back to the US to recover from burnout. Ben and Marlene had to live in Senegal for two months, where they didn’t speak the language and felt all alone.

Now in Mali, Ben and Marlene immersed themselves in French and Bambara language training. Their kids went to a school for missionary children. For a while, the Sloans loved being in Mali. Not only could they share Christ with the Malians; they met friendly missionaries whose homes were always open to each other. “We would throw mattresses on the floor and have sleepovers for each other’s kids,” Ben says. “You didn’t even think about it.”

But as time went on, Ben realized that relationships with other missionaries went only so deep. There was a kind of competitiveness among the missionaries. Instead of someone asking, “How are you doing?” the questions were always, “How many villages have you visited? How many people have you shared Christ with?” Mission work seemed to be all about results. Ben and Marlene missed their church back home, where pastors and friends formed a support system. Here in Mali that support system was missing. There was support for the physical difficulties of living in Mali, where (for example) the power would often go off for an entire day. But Ben and Marlene felt alone spiritually. They had no one to help address the spiritual impact of living in a third-world country without church community. Sundays offered no respite; that was the day all the missionaries scattered to the villages for Bible storytelling. Ben says he and Marlene learned to suffer in silence. He coped with the lack of community by simply persevering. “That’s what I felt I had to do: give, give, give, and never receive. I wasn’t happy, but I had to keep going for Jesus.” In time Ben concluded that the more miserable and lonely he was, the more he must be doing the work of the Lord.

When war broke out in Mali in 2012, the Sloan family had to relocate to Berkina Faso. Ben became an emotional mess. He would cry easily, get angry and depressed, and fight with Marlene. They two argued a lot. Marlene didn’t understand what was happening to Ben; he didn’t understand it himself. All he knew is that he felt very alone.

A death in Marlene’s family sent the Sloans back to the US. They ended up staying for almost a year. They thought things would improve between them, but they didn’t. They could have reached out and asked for help; they could have gone to counseling. But they were too embarrassed.

Continuing turmoil in Mali led the mission board to send the Sloans to Botswana instead. “As soon as we stepped off the plane, we knew we didn’t belong there,” Ben says. “We hated it from day one.” Fights between Ben and Marlene escalated. Ben continued to feel depressed, lonely, and angry. They stuck it out for two years in Botswana. But at last they notified their mission board that things were bad. “We need help,” Ben said. They went to South Africa for an intensive month of counseling and then returned to the States for good.

While still fragile, things are now going well for the Sloan family. Ben and Marlene are in counseling. Ben is discovering how much identity issues were behind his anger and depression. Marlene has found a full-time job and Ben is considering a youth pastor position. Ben looks back on their years in Africa with gratitude: “I never would have learned these lessons any other way. It was painful but I’m glad I went through it. I’m learning a new way to live, a new way to view myself. I am someone God is redeeming, not just using. I’m a work in progress.”

He’s also learned the value of genuine community. “The church needs to be a place where you don’t have to put on a happy face and act like everything’s fine when it’s not. Things are going to happen in ministry. You need a place to go where you can suffer out loud.”

Brent’s Story

It seemed like such a great idea.

FailureBrent and Mario (not their real names), both in their late twenties, had been friends for the past fifteen years. They both loved the Lord and desired to see the gospel spread in their part of the city. They had talked and prayed about the idea with their wives for a long time. So what if they didn’t have the funding or oversight of a denomination. So what if they had no church planting experience! They were best of friends. They had teaching and preaching gifts. They could plant a church together, no sweat.

So the two found space for rent in a well-traveled part of the city. They contacted other friends who promised to help get the church off the ground. They spread the word and started up a worship service. People came. It looked like this thing would take off. Mario and Brent split up the preaching. Mario, ever the entrepreneur, set his sights on strong, steady growth. Brent, the artistic one, valued strong relationships in the church. It seemed like a complementary team.

But soon, in Brent’s words, “things got strange” between him and Mario. Brent sensed a rift growing between him and his friend. Then one day about six months in, Mario announced, “This is how it’s going to be, Brent. I’m going to be the lead pastor. I’ve been to seminary and you haven’t. I know how to raise funds. You really need more training. So I’m going to get paid by the church and you’re not. I need your help as a volunteer but you’ll need to keep your day job.”

Brent was astonished. Mario had figured all this out without ever talking to Brent. He’d even put together an advisory team that agreed with Mario’s plan. Brent didn’t like it, but he didn’t want to fight his friend. Maybe Mario was right. Maybe Brent did need more training. So he took Mario’s advice and enrolled in a nearby seminary. He continued serving the church in a variety of ways.

Months went by, and Mario hired an associate pastor. Again, Brent had no idea this was happening. The two friends stopped talking altogether. Brent says, “It was painful. Something was way off.”

One day “Terry,” the associate pastor, gave Brent a call. “We need to talk,” he said. “Mario has been plagiarizing other people’s sermons. And it’s been going on for a long time.”

“No way!” Brent said. But Terry got together with Brent and showed him example after example of Mario’s plagiarism. Brent and Terry knew they needed to confront Mario. “It was the worst meeting I’ve ever experienced,” Brent says. Mario was hostile, angry, unwilling to admit his sin. Instead of repenting, he said he would just resign his post and leave the church. Brent and Terry met with the elders and told them what Mario had been doing and how he’d reacted. Hoping for damage control, the elders explained to the congregation that Mario was going to resign for “philosophical differences.” But people knew better. Something more serious had come between two good friends.

The little church was now two years old and without a lead pastor. Because Brent had been there from the beginning, he was asked to step up and lead the church. But one after another, disillusioned people left the church. Even the core group, Brent’s closest friends, decided it was time to go. Brent did his best for the next three years, but attendance and giving went steadily downhill. Outreach efforts went nowhere. The church was down to forty people. It felt like a house church meeting in a big building. Brent grew more and more exhausted. He was working, going to seminary, and trying to lift up a sinking ship all at the same time. Some days he came home so discouraged he wished he were dead. Fortunately his marriage and family were healthy, but his church was a goner.

Brent prayed, “Lord, I feel like a total failure. Is this really what you intend for this church? Do you want it to die—and crush me in the process? I thought this is what I was created to do. Was I wrong?”

How to encourage your pastor

Much is written about how vulnerable pastors are to criticism by church members. But apart from an annual reminder of Pastor Appreciation Month (what’s that, you say?), little is said about the incredible power church members have to encourage and sustain their pastors.

That’s why I want to share an email that a member of my church sent to me and my colleagues this morning. The subject line read “Praying for You,” and the message was,

Good Morning, Gentlemen.
As I was reading this morning, the last lines of 2 Thessalonians 1 immediately made me think of you…and so I prayed for each of you: “To this end we always pray for you, that our God may make you worthy of His calling and may fulfill every resolve for good and every work of faith by His power, so that the name of our Lord Jesus may be glorified in you, and you in Him, according to the grace of our God and the Lord Jesus Christ.” 
May you continue to see God being glorified before you so that you are more and more amazed at His love, power, goodness, grace and fall more in love with Him.
I am truly thankful for the ways you’ve impacted my life.
Thank you for following Him.
I have a “Keepers” folder in my email program. That email went into that folder so I can look at it again and again to fend off discouragement. It made my day…no, my week!
Church member, if you’re reading this, know that a brief email or text of appreciation and prayer can put spring back in the step of your pastor. Don’t underestimate the power of your encouraging words.