Pace of ministry, ministry burnout, bi-vocational pastor, ministry stress, pastor's schedule
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Relentless Aspects of Pastoral Ministry

"It just keeps coming!"

“It just keeps coming. Sunday is relentless!”

I was talking with a young pastor about his preaching schedule. He was having trouble finding enough time for sermon preparation, leading to a lot of late Saturday nights. This weekly deadline cannot be missed. A pastor can’t get up on Sunday morning and say “I’ve got nothing. I just didn’t have sufficient time for preparation this week, so there won’t be a sermon today.” There have been times in my ministry when that might have been the most honest approach, but it was unacceptable. I knew, every Sunday, I had to be well prepared, and this weekly deadline created a lot of stress.

The sermon deadline isn’t the only relentless aspect of pastoral ministry. There are several things that just keep coming at a pastor, whether they’re ready or not. Allow me to list a few (in no particular order):

Meetings

Pastors are always preparing for the next meeting. Some pastors are expected to attend every board and committee meeting in the church. This unrealistic expectation really wastes a lot of the pastor’s time. Even if the pastor only has a few meetings each month, they never stop coming. The rhythms of ministry life mean that there is always another meeting to prepare for.

If these meetings are contentious, the pastor may spend large amounts of time dreading them or recovering from them (or both). I went through a period of ministry where every meeting one board member would say something critical. This went on for months. After about a year, I began to feel stressed the week before a meeting. During the meeting I was constantly waiting for the boom to drop. Following the meeting, it would take me a week to recover. When two weeks out of every month are consumed by one meeting, something’s got to give. The relentlessness of monthly meetings can be overwhelming. Feel free to take a break. Fewer meetings may actually be better for the church. Take a month or two off every year. The church will go on.

Crises

It seems like pastors are always putting out fires, solving problems, or helping someone in a crisis. Sometimes they are small: “Pastor the toilet is clogged again.” Sometimes they are huge: “My marriage is headed to a divorce, can you help us?” “My family would be better of without me.” Immediate action is required and everything else gets put on hold.

As a small-church pastor, I would get these at least once a month – sometimes three or four in a week! Running from one crisis to another will drain a pastor’s physical and emotional resources. When I had weeks like this, I would take an extra day off the next week. Rest is necessary for recovery. Without rest, the pastor’s work will diminish over time. Does your church allow your pastor the rest he needs to recover from a crisis?

Death

There is never a convenient time to grieve. Death interrupts the lives of families and even whole communities. The pastor has to step into this interruption and provide calm, caring, and stability – at a time when he may feel interrupted by grief himself. Despite the popular Hollywood portrayals, death never takes a holiday. In fact, it seems like funerals come in bunches.

When the funerals are done, does your church give your pastor space to grieve? The longer I served in one church, the deeper each death hit me. At first I was burying acquaintances. After nearly 18 years in one church, every funeral was the funeral of a friend or someone who felt like family.

Holidays

Christmas and Easter still come every year. As a pastor, I knew I had to schedule down time after those holidays. The extra services and increase in social events made my whole ministry schedule harder to maintain.

Now it seems that non-religious holidays are adding pressure to pastors as well. Memorial Day, the Fourth of July, Labor Day, Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, and other yearly celebrations like Graduations and community events can add to the pastor’s demands. Personally, I tried to keep secular holidays separate from church services, but that didn’t mean I was not expected to make an appearance or participate in an event.

Adding to the stress, these community events were often hastily planned at the last minute. So I had to plan ahead without knowing what was coming. Relentless holiday stress can be part of ministry.

Critics

When a pastor earns a critic, that person (or more often group of people) rarely stops until they get their way. Every leader has critics; it just comes with the territory. The leader who is never criticized probably isn’t really leading. Most of the time critics are expressing disappointment in their life by targeting God – and the closest representation of God is the pastor. So critics will often attack a pastor until their life situation changes. The reason for the criticism can be hard to discern. A pastor will address the critic’s concerns one week only to have them change concerns the next week. It’s like trying to hit a moving target.

When a person has a critical spirit, it’s draining on the pastor’s soul. Relentless criticism can turn into chronic traumatic stress – something that requires the help of a licensed professional counselor to work through. Don’t be afraid to ask for help in dealing with critical people.

Bills

Many pastors are underpaid. They didn’t enter ministry for the money, and every month they get reminded of this in the form of bills. The added stress of trying to stretch their income can cause pastors to struggle. This is especially true of bivocational pastors. Many of them don’t even take a day off each week – a recipe for serious burnout.

Nearly everyone struggles with monthly bills, but pastors are dependent on the generosity of others for their income. When the giving is low at the church, the pastor’s family feels the pressure.

I recently talked with the leaders of a church that is seriously understaffed. Their staff has low salary and they are working overtime but not getting paid for it. These leaders talked about how it’s hard to pay their pastors well in the depressed economy they live in. Then they went on to talk about how they are raising funds for a new building project. They didn’t see how these issues are related. Now they are looking for a new pastor. Coincidence? I don’t think so.

Spiritual Attack

Satan never stops trying to bring spiritual leaders down. Sometimes it’s more than one person can handle. This relentless attack requires that pastors have partners in ministry – someone they can lean on when they are weak. In Scripture, those who minister alone often burn out. Maybe this is why Jesus sent out his disciples in pairs. Who does your pastor have as a partner in ministry? Does your church support your pastor as much as your pastor cares for the church?

How to resolve the relentless pace of ministry

  • Get on a fixed schedule – make each week, month, and year as predictable as possible.
  • Plan ahead – Get as much work done ahead of time as possible.
  • Plan for crises and interruptions – Leave margin or open space in your schedule.
  • Schedule times for rest – Plan for times of rest, including spiritual retreats and vacation.
  • Take a regular sabbath – Every week, take 24 hours to cease from work and rest in God.
  • Be generous toward your pastor – Give to your pastor in response to God’s generosity with you.
  • Establish boundaries – Sometimes it’s okay to say no.

(M.Div. Grand Rapids Theological Seminary) is the director of The Pastor’s Soul, and pastor at First Baptist Church in Tustin, Michigan since 2001. A third-generation pastor, he grew up listening to pastors and their families talk about the realities of ministry. Now he wants to use this knowledge to bless the church. Sean is married to Amy, a poet, and freelance book editor. Together, they have one son.

4 comments on “Relentless Aspects of Pastoral Ministry

  1. Good stuff. Thank you.

  2. Amen all true!

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