Overcoming Overwhelm in Ministry

I’ve noticed a theme in the lives of leaders I work with — most of whom are involved in church work: they are overwhelmed.

They are overwhelmed by the demands of church ministry, they are overwhelmed with the needs they encounter, and they are overwhelmed by the amount of information available to them. There is a virtual flood of ideas washing over them every week for how to do their work better, new conferences to go to, new programs to implement, and on and on. They struggle to manage their time, because there is a never-ending que of messages to respond to, emails to process, messages to prepare for, and problems to deal with.

To be clear: the issue of overwhelm is more than just about feeling busy. Busyness is not new … people have always felt busy. Remember that Henry David Thoreau felt so overwhelmed by the busyness of life that he needed to withdraw from the world and move into a cabin in the woods. He did this because life had become too hectic … and this was in the 1800s! This was before electricity, cars, planes, radio, television, the Internet, cell phones.

The problem of overwhelm in church ministry runs deeper than just full calendars and long to-do lists. This is a crucially important point, because if we misunderstand the problem, the solutions we try to solve it won’t work.

When it comes to pastors and other church leaders, I think there two bigger issues going on.

1. Overwhelming needs in the lives of people we serve

One is that leaders are faced with tremendous need and brokenness in the people they work with. It doesn’t matter what ministry setting we are in … we will find deep brokenness and dysfunction everywhere. We are as likely to encounter extreme sexual immorality in the sheltered rural community as we are in the city … drug abuse in the upper middle class community as in the working class community … relational brokenness and abuse in the suburb as in the urban core.

To put it mildly, the needs are overwhelming. With the dominance of our capitalist, consumer-focused, highly mobile society, family and community life has eroded, leaving huge emotional, spiritual, and economic devastation. Spiritual leaders are bombarded with challenges of addiction, sexual immorality, abuse, other family problems, clinical depression, and so much more. The needs we are faced with can feel overwhelming.

2. Overwhelming expectations from people in the church

Another issue is that there is a barrage of expectations on leaders. A leader of any kind is always held up on a pedestal, with people looking to them to save the day. When something goes wrong, peoples’ natural inclination is not to look at the wide variety of factors that caused this failure. People want a simple explanation, a scapegoat. It’s often the leader that takes the flack. They are held up on a pedestal from Monday to Thursday, so that by Friday, when something goes wrong, we can focus our attention on them and start knocking them down.

I think this tendency is even more pronounced in churches than in other positions of leadership. Churches don’t want a good, human leader … they want superman. People expect their pastor to be a very dynamic and engaging speaker, a brilliant theologian, a top-gun ‘CEO’ to carry the church forward as an organization, a comforting, nurturing personal counselor to the people of the congregation, and prophetic social critic, and a prayer warrior. The expectations go on and on.

The expectations are not only unrealistic, they are in competition with one another. Every member of a church wants something different from that church, and thus they want something different from the pastor. And because the pastor is a spiritual figure, people often forget that he or she is just normal human being with the same capabilities and limits as anyone else. People expect a pastor to be a kind of super-hero because of the nature of their work.


So pastors feel overwhelmed by the burden on them to meet the varied demands of a job that is out of control.

This is not just a “pastor” thing

This is an issue for people in any kind of spiritual leadership setting, whether on the staff of a church, serving in volunteer leadership in some capacity, or working in some other non-profit organization with a spiritual, Kingdom-of-God-building focus. There are unique pressures on pastors because of their “spiritual shepherd/caregiver” role, but beyond this, the challenges of leadership — even if it’s “informal” leadership — have never been greater. The pastor, who is overwhelmed, serves as the spiritual leader of church staff members, who are overwhelmed, trying to help support and guide church lay leaders, who are overwhelmed, meet the needs of church members and people in the community, who are overwhelmed. And this process is guided and overseen by church boards (sometimes called “elders” or “deacons”), who themselves are overwhelmed.

I don’t think this is a ‘technical’ problem. It’s not a matter of having more effective time-management systems, or efficient ways of taking in information, or streamlining our workflow. These approaches are obviously necessary steps to leading well, but the challenge is deeper than that. Every pastor has to, in their own way, come to terms with the gap between the expectations put upon them by others, and their own personal limits. This is a spiritual issue, and leaders need to come to peace with this tension. In other words, the solution is not in doing more things or doing them differently. The solution lies in a new way of being and living.

What are these new ways of being and living? I intend to explore them further in this blog, and I’m also writing about them in my book “The Not So Overwhelmed Leader.” The more I have worked on this, the more I realize that even though overwhelm might show up in pastors’ lives in unique ways, the solutions we need to implement — the new ways of thinking and living that we need to create — are applicable to everybody, clergy or not.

Here is a hint at the directions we need to go:

(1) We need to think differently about “meeting needs.” Instead of trying to be all things to all people — meeting as many of everybody’s “needs” as we possibly can — we need to narrow down our focus, deciding what we can do, what the church is intended to do, and then do a better job of strategically partnering with other organizations and people to meet the needs that we can’t. We need to be able to more confidently say, like Peter said, “I don’t have silver and gold to give to you, but what I DO have I will give to you …”

(2) We need to be more clear, calm, and settled in our own hearts. Jesus tells us that we should let our “yes” be “yes” and our “no” be “no.” It’s really hard to do that if you want everybody to like you, and if you are living in fear that if you don’t “meet everybody’s needs” that they are going to leave your church and you’ll have to close the doors. It’s surprising and sad how much of church leaders’ thinking and planning arises from anxiety and fear. If we are not settled and at peace internally, our decision-making gets muddled, and other people pick up on the stress-out vibes we project.

(3) We need to become more clear and calm about our humanity as leaders. In other words, we need to acknowledge our limitations. We don’t have an answer for everything. We don’t have super-human energy. We aren’t that interesting. We have limited skill sets … we do a good job with some things, and we’re bad at other things. This is okay. If it’s not okay for your church that you are human, then you need to find another church.

(4) We need to get better at dealing with conflict, because everybody else in our culture seems to be getting worse at it. If people are not learning how to deal with conflict, this means we’re going to have to deal with it more and more as time goes on. We will need to do more teaching about it in our church, and we’ll need to model it in our own relationships, and we’ll need to learn better how to diagnose and intervene in conflict situations.

(5) We’re going to have to get much wiser about our emotional and spiritual energy needs, as well as our physical needs, and attend to them. We will need to learn to live with a rhythm to work and rest … and especially be attentive to things that happen to us that are taxing emotionally (like, for example, conflict) … and give ourselves the space to be renewed and refreshed, so we don’t get beaten down.

These are just some of my first thoughts about “solutions.” I’ll be talking about more as time goes on. Any ideas you’d like to add?

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