We understand what you’re facing. Being a pastor is one of the toughest jobs out there. Church leaders are burning out in record numbers. However, we have great news! There is a path to more growth, more people coming to Christ, more fulfillment and less frustration.
Here’s what I told him…
Last week we told the story of the former professional golfer turned pastor who found himself asking the same question in both professions – “Is this all there is?” We went through the primary sources of pastoral burnout in that blog post. Now, as promised, here’s the rest of my conversation with that pastor, including 5 steps to revitalize his ministry and his church:
- Remember the Vision – “Think back to when it all began. The Lord gave you a clear picture of what He wanted to accomplish through your church. You probably wrote down a vision statement that involved building disciples and impacting the city and world for Christ. Maybe it was something like, ‘Leave no soul in our city untouched by the love of God’. You envisioned a church that would make a tremendous difference and be sorely missed if it ever closed its doors. Then it sounds like you got caught up in the day-to-day of running a church – personnel, factions, building projects, obligations to members and staff meetings. None of those were why you got into ministry. Somewhere along the way, those began to dominate your schedule. No leader ever intends to deviate from their mission but it happens to pastors and entrepreneurs alike. Maybe it’s not a big deal in business, but a pastor losing sight of the original vision from God is huge. Can you get back to fulfilling that initial vision? Wouldn’t that reinvigorate and get you excited again? Yes, it would rattle some cages, but you started or joined the church with that vision in mind, so refocusing everyone on it shouldn’t be a big surprise. One of your primary jobs as pastor is to protect and promote that vision, and that’s what this suggestion is all about.”
- Only Do What Contributes Directly to that Original Vision – “Can you let go of anything that distracts you from what the Lord gave you to do? Look at your calendar and see what directly relates to the vision God gave you for the church – hang on to those. See what indirectly relates and think hard about any you can offload. Then, figure out which activities don’t contribute to the vision and role God assigned you and delegate or eliminate them entirely. You’re not called to spend so much time ‘waiting on tables’. Ask other leaders and members to take greater responsibility for handling non-urgent needs of members. Most pastors try to do too much in order to accommodate every request, concerned about upsetting members if they opt out. Every leader must prioritize the strategic over the tactical. Yes, being there for members in their times of urgent need is strategic – yet impossible in a larger church. Maybe what’s more ‘strategic’ is to give others opportunities to lead in those situations. For example, if the number of weddings, funerals, and visitations prohibits you from building disciples and impacting your city for Christ – then you have to trade in good for great. The more you equip and leverage others, the more your church will grow – so you can get off the hamster wheel and make real forward progress.”
- Be Yourself – “Part of why it takes a special person to be a pastor is the need to be equally effective from the pulpit and one-on-one. Pastors are teachers but also shepherds. That means they are called to speak well yet listen better. Yet as many become better organizers and preachers, they often become worse listeners. Pastors are typically wired to be intensely relational. Yet the demands of the job and growth of churches often leave less time for personal relationships with many members. Interactions become shorter and more sporadic. In a church your size, it’s easy to slip into the position of a public persona, particularly when many members and staff are reluctant to speak frankly with the pastor. Do you miss the honesty of hanging out with close friends and hearing what’s really on their hearts? Most pastors don’t even have other pastors they can confide in. It can be lonely at the top. Other pastors begin to believe their own press. They’re the object of so much reverence and adulation that they lose touch with the vision, accepting elevation to a higher, less accessible position. Somewhere in their dark recesses they know they’re unworthy of that status and crave deeper, real relationships. Trying to be something we weren’t meant to be always eventually burns us out. It’s hard work living up to the expectations of others.”
- Define Members as the Church – “Walking on egg-shells is no way to go through life. Yet most pastors are concerned about what they say, even if it’s biblical, for fear some may be offended. Many take on too many responsibilities because members expect them to step up. Yet as we’ve contended throughout this blog series, members are the church – ‘insiders’ who are much more like employees than ‘customers’. So expectations should be reversed. Rather than overburdening pastors by putting the onus on them to care for members and run a complex institution, we should be boldly equipping and challenging members to BE the church. They should be assuming greater responsibility (and accountability) for pursuing the real ‘customer’ – the hurting and hopeless in the community where the church is planted (i.e. ‘outsiders’). Imagine how that would alleviate the burden on pastors – a less ‘codependent’ body sharing much more of the discipleship, service, administrative, evangelism, counseling, caring, etc. load. But far too many pastors are concerned about losing people to the church down the road. Therefore, far too many underutilized ‘workers’ sit idly in the pews, ready to walk away if they’re not happy with the sermon, music, demands on their time, etc. Pastors, staff and buildings do not define the church, yet that perception by most churchgoers today is a key source of pastoral burnout.”
- Rekindle Your Willingness to Take Chances – “Remember when you had nothing to lose. Often we look back on those as the ‘good old days’. When you first planted your church, you had a vision but few members or bills. You stood by that vision and knew your core group had to be fully aligned around it. You had to challenge “insiders” and get out in the community to meet people or your church would never get off the ground. Most entrepreneurs start that way too – very aware of customers’ needs and engaged in the marketplace. The trick for pastors is to maintain the same principles, external focus and fearlessness when there is something to lose. Just because there are more members and financial commitments at stake, the focus and resolve shouldn’t change. Challenging members to live out the Great Commission risks losing church ‘consumers’ – which is scary when they may be key contributors or patriarchs. Yet Jesus preached His most challenging sermon near the height of his popularity. What Jesus was left with were a few disciples who changed the world. Church growth is not always healthy. Like people, churches often need to lose some weight to get healthy. The trajectory of a thriving church is typically down before it follows the hockey stick back up. Fear of taking chances is why so many pastors never get to relive the excitement they felt back when the church first started.”
Bonus: How to Respond to Adversity
“So Jim, I already spend so much of my time dealing with internal issues. Your recommendations would spark a lot of contention and controversy within my church. People like the way things are now. No one’s complaining, but they will if I follow your suggestions.”
“Yes, there’s always calm before a storm. When challenges hit, most pastors shift their focus inward to fix problems, asserting more control. But rather than turning in, I think you should turn your attention outward. Lead by example. Get the minds of your members and leaders off of their own interests by showing them what it means to BE the church to those around them. Confronting opposition, arbitrating internal differences, upgrading products/services and increasing advertising are what business leaders typically do. Those attempts to ‘fix’ the organization distract them from truly engaging customers and seeking new opportunities. Likewise, individuals who dwell on their own issues only drive themselves deeper into a hole. The best advice for them is often to get out and serve others who may be worse off to put everything back in perspective. Yet most pastors ‘dwell’ when the going gets tough. They seek advice from ‘successful’ pastors, but most articles and books promote the same flawed model touting better internal leadership rather than redefining the church’s ‘customer’. Instead of leading more (which increases burnout), pastors should be leading less and getting out more to advance the mission in the city (which is invigorating).”
It’s Your Turn
If you’re a pastor, would these steps help alleviate any burnout you’ve been experiencing? If you’re a staff or church member, how would you feel if your pastor followed those 5 suggestions?