Church leaders at risk

This past Sunday, if the trends were consistent, 350 churches around the country were informed that their pastor had resigned or been fired. This figure comes from a variety of sources, one of which is research done by Focus on the Family. Here’s an excerpt from a letter written by James Dobson.

“Thousands of spiritual leaders are barely hanging on from day to day. Our surveys indicated that 80 percent of pastors and 84 percent of their spouses are discouraged or are dealing with depression. More than 40 percent of pastors and 47 percent of their spouses report that they are suffering from burnout, frantic schedules and unrealistic expectations. We estimate that approximately 1,500 pastors leave their assignments each month, due to moral failure, spiritual burnout or contention within their local congregations.”

Did you catch that: 80 percent of pastors and 84 percent of their spouses are discouraged or dealing with depression! That should tell us something. Peter Drucker, the late leadership guru, once said that the four hardest jobs in America (and not necessarily in order, he added) are the president of the United States, a university president, a CEO of a hospital and … a pastor.

It’s been 15 months since I took my leave of absence from my senior pastor position. I am now serving as a pastor with a special call to work with other leaders in recovery from sexual addiction. I am still often struck by how stressed-out and unhappy I was in my years as a senior pastor. My experience in recovery has shown me that this unhappiness and stress was not primarily the byproduct of the losing battle with porn I was fighting at the time. The shame and struggle of not living in integrity were a big deal, but even without those, I came to realize that life as a pastor was not going to work for me.

Turns out I’m not alone. I keep running into former pastors who left the ministry for one reason or another, and current pastors who are struggling mightily to keep their heads above water, and their souls from shriveling. There’s something about about the way we “do church,” and/or the way pastors “do ministry” that creates dysfunction. There’s something about the expectations people have for pastors – and pastors have for themselves – that keeps them isolated, because they feel pressured to keep up the facade of having it all together.

Granted, there are many ministers out there who are doing really well, and finding fulfillment and joy in their work. God bless them. But the dirty little secret of Christendom is that many pastors are not doing well, and they are getting judgment and criticism instead of help. The more I think about this, the more sad and angry I get.

Check out these stats from an article on the ironically-named website:

  • 50% of pastors feel unable to meet the demands of the job
  • 90% feel they were inadequately trained to cope with ministry demands
  • 70% say they have a lower self-image now than when they started
  • 40% report a serious conflict with a parishioner at least once a month
  • 70% do not have someone they consider a close friend
  • 50% have considered leaving ministry in the last 3 months

There’s a great article by Dr. Dan Chun on this subject. Here are a couple excerpts:

A shocking statistic of Jimmy Lee Draper, former president of Lifeways Ministries, is that for every 20 people who go into the pastorate only one retires from the ministry. Pastors don’t make it to retirement because they are either burned out, fired, have a moral breakdown or just quit. I don’t know of any other profession where there is a 95 percent drop-off rate! (M.B. note: pastors view their work as a call from God, not “just a job,” so this high attrition rate is especially telling.)

Pastors need encouragement (statistics in the articles sidebar demonstrate why). And if no one in the church is assigned to nurture, affirm and prevent burnout for the pastor, then no one will. When they get in trouble, who can they turn to?

What do people do when they face ongoing struggles and frustrations, and don’t have outlets where they can talk about it? They get into trouble in all kinds of ways, hurting themselves, their families, and their churches. We need to do a better job of protecting and caring for our pastors.

Let’s be honest about this: churches don’t know how to care for their leaders, and leaders are profoundly uncomfortable showing their vulnerability to their followers and appearing to be “needy.” In light of this, what needs to happen is that churches encourage (and fund) their pastors’ efforts to establish a network of accountability and support for themselves. More about that later.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *