Surviving Ministry


How can we have a long and fruitful ministry, not just one where we survive?
There are 20,000 pastors that resign from their churches every year for lots of reasons. That is somewhere between 1500 and 1800 pastors who are stepping down from their ministry assignment. 80% of seminary graduates are not in ministry five years after graduation. The call to ministry is certainly a “Dangerous Calling,” as David Paul Tripp has written.

Pastor Ray Johnston, of Bayside Church has commented that his most important responsibility of a fast growing church is to “keep himself encouraged, because there are so many things in the ministry that are discouraging.”

Pastor Bill Hybels is famous for commenting about his past ministry when he came close to washing out, “the way we did the work of God was destroying the work of God in us.”

There are built in dynamics in many churches that bring unrealistic expectations on the pastor that lead to profound discouragement and short term ministry in one location, but that is not our focus for now. We are asking the question, “what can a pastor do, so that the love for people and the love for God increases over the long haul of ministry?”

Too few pastors finish well, just as we see very few spiritual leaders in the Bible who finished well.

I had been Executive Pastor for only a few months when I walked into the office of my Lead Pastor, who was so depressed and emotionally depleted that he was contemplating walking away from the church and from ministry. He expressed that everyone in our 2200 attendance church would be fine going to the other churches in the area.

As we talked it was clear that he was not thinking straight (you think?). However, he was not an exception among pastors, and he was a wonderful pastor with a highly tuned desire to be responsible, suck it up, with a “refuse to whine” attitude. However, he was not a miracle man, he was made of flesh and blood, with limitations, and he had nothing left in his tank as he had been carrying an impossible load of responsibility for an extended period of time, taking over from the previous pastor who had a long, fruitful and successful ministry. There were huge shoes to fill and the load of expectations and burdens of responsiblity were overwhelming and not surprisingly, it had eaten this Lead Pastor’s lunch.

There is a unique nature to the load of responsibility carried by a Lead Pastor that few understand unless they have been in that position. His schedule had been intense and his hyper-responsible personality caused him to continue to dig deeper into his emotional reserves, while finishing a challenging professional degree, before transitioning to becoming the Lead Pastor of a mega-church. Instantly there was a staff departure that left a huge hole in the ministry, with the need to recruit a new staff person and then a moral failure on staff that also brought another big hit to the Lead Pastor’s emotional tank, as well as the need to recruit another staff position. It was like a perfect storm, a recipe for taking this lead pastor to the mat with nowhere to look but up.

So I asked the Lead Pastor, “what are you doing for fun, do you have any hobbies where you can spit and kick around and just be you, without having to be ‘Walter the Wonderful?’” He said “no.” I asked if there was anything he thought would be a good hobby… And he responded, “trap shooting.” I encouraged him to pursue that, but not if he saw people’s faces on the clay pigeons… 🙂

Then I suggested that he evaluate his load of responsibility and determine the essential items that only could carry as the Lead Pastor and to delegate everything else to me as his Executive Pastor. He gave me pushback, commenting, “great! If I delegate everything to you, and I have balance in my life, how can I feel good about dumping everything on you, causing you to burn out?”

He thought he had me of course… and I appreciated his concern for my well being.  But I believe that God’s Holy Spirit spoke to my heart in that instant, because what came out of my mouth was more profound than anything I could have mustered on my own.

“If you continue to carry this load of responsibility that is killing you, then I will work harder to relieve you of your load and before long I will become like you are today, and both of us will be a mess. If you will model a balanced life, doing what God has called and gifted you to do and delegate everything else to me, then I will figure out what I absolutely need to do, what I am called and gifted to do and I will delegate everything else down the food chain. We will model what it means to live healthy, balanced, spirit filled lives that honor Jesus. People in our congregation need to know that “the joy of the Lord is our strength.”

When the Board heard about the status of our Lead Pastor they pitched in the finances to give our Lead Pastor some time away, to get on a cruise ship and spend un-interrupted time with God and his wife.

Upon his return he highlighted the following conclusions:

  • I need time alone, because I am an introvert, who is not replenished by people (60+% of lead pastors are introverts)
  • I need to pay attention to my emotional gauge. When depleted, the emotions say, “make me feel good, pay attention to me,” and there is an moral connection of temptation that comes from an emotionally depleted tank. I falsely thought that if I was spiritually strong and physically strong, I was invincible, and I failed to understand that an empty emotional tank could take me out.
  • I maintained a false assumption – that “those who love God have great energy for God,” a famous quote from J.I. Packer. I have limits to my energy and my emotions. My energy and emotions must be managed and guarded. I need to manage my schedule, in order to manage my limited energy, keep my emotional tank full.”
  • I need a healthy hobby: shooting clay pigeons requires full focused attention on the target. My mind is always working and this hobby forces me to take my mind off of all the concerns back at the office.
  • I failed to heed the previous pastor’s advice – “I should have taken more time off.”
  • My wife was also nearing the end of her rope, because she was trying to take the load off of my back as well. She was experiencing a great deal of confusion about how we got into such a scary place, and how to prevent it from happening again. The stress cracks were not just showing at work, but at home as well and something needed to change.
  • When taking the five week break, there was a genuine fear that at the end, what if the problem isn’t fixed? In fact it wasn’t until the end of week four that I began to feel that I could come back and still be the Lead Pastor. The break was over the Christmas season and even hearing Christmas music on the radio brought feelings of guilt for taking a break during this strategic time in church life. At the same time there were feelings of anger and resentment for not being able to enjoy the Christmas season with the staff and with the family.

My Lessons for Surviving in Ministry

burnoutchurch_thumbI am the only one who can prioritize my life and determine what I am called and gifted to do in ministry. I need to lean into my strengths and delegate everything else. I need to release control and feelings of hyper-responsibility that prevent me from entrusting ministry to others. Surviving in ministry starts with me and I need to take the initiative to pump the brakes, and create margins in my life, making fewer and finer commitments that will make a big difference in my emotional and spiritual health in life and ministry.

I will choose to experience a balanced, overflowing, joyful, spirit filled Christian life as my most important ministry to the congregation. When Jesus said, “my burden is light and well fitting,” he was headed into his most intense season of ministry leading to the cross. Jesus was busy, but never hurried. What was so budensome to the people he was addressing at the time? It was the religion of that day that was crushing the spiritual life out of the people, and Jesus came to set the prisoners free from legalism and the load of expectations layed on them by the Pharisees.

Dallas Willard’s addresses this by saying, “The most important thing in your life, is not what you do; it’s who you become. That’s what you will take into eternity. You are an unceasing spiritual being with an eternal destiny in God’s great universe.”[1]

John Ortberg met with Dallas Willard expressing the burden that most pastors feel, “I told him that I felt frustrated because the people at the church I served were not changing more . I asked him what I needed to do to help our church experience greater levels of spiritual growth. Long pause … “You must arrange your days so that you are experiencing deep contentment, joy, and confidence in your everyday life with God.”[2]

Dallas Willard’s comments and the life he modeled inspires me to realize that my primary responsibility to my spouse, my family, my church and my friends is to be filled to overflowing with the fullness of Jesus every day. I must seek the fruit of the Spirit by confessing my sin, my weakness and my need for Jesus to provide me with His “rivers of living water,” as His Spirit lives the abundant, fruitful Christian life through this cracked pot.
It sounds counter-intuitive, maybe even narcissistic, but my pastor, William E. Yaeger said, “whatever is good for you is good for the church.” Now I am understanding the underlying message, that I need to do whatever it takes to create an environment in my life where my heart for God and my heart for people is getting bigger and bigger over time, and no one else can do that for me. It is the life that Jesus modeled and it is a life that He is calling me to live and it includes a burden to carry, but it is light and well fitting.

Jesus was busy, but he was not in a hurry.  He promised us a burden that is light and well fitting and His time on earth was a model for us of work and rest, time with people and then time alone to receive from the Father what He needed and to receive his marching orders. Jesus finished His work on earth. There were still plenty of needs on this planet, but His assignment was complete when He died and was resurrected from the grave.  He came to set the captives free, and even we pastors need to claim that promise of freedom even in the midst of the demands of a busy ministry.

[1]:Ortberg, John (2014–04–22). Soul Keeping: Caring For the Most Important Part of You (p. 23). Zondervan. Kindle Edition.

[2]: Ortberg, John (2014–04–22 Soul Keeping: Caring For the Most Important Part of You pp. 88–89. Zondervan. Kindle Edition.

Posted by sblubeck