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Resolution: I Will Encourage My Pastorcomment (0)

January 5, 2012

By Bob Terry

True or false — the general health of ministers is worse than the general health of the American population. If you said true, then you are correct, according to a joint study done by Duke University in Durham, N.C., and Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn.

The report on the study, which appeared in Enrichment Journal, noted that the general public practices a lifestyle that is not as healthy as the lifestyle of most pastors. Yet pastors have poorer health.

The reason? Stress, pressures and conflict.  

There is more. The average percentage of depression among American males is 10 percent, the article continued. For pastors, it is 40 percent.

The reason? Stress, pressures and conflict.

One counselor described pastors as “incredible people [who] are killing themselves” with their heavy load of stress, pressures and conflict. Denial and late detection of depression only contribute to the lethal impact of this problem.

An oft-quoted study by Focus on the Family reported a more drastic picture. According to that study, 80 percent of pastors and 84 percent of pastors’ wives were discouraged or depressed.

The reason? Stress, pressures and conflict.

Consider the pastor’s schedule. Forty-two percent of full-time senior pastors reported working 60 hours a week or more, according to a 2010 LifeWay Christian Resources study. The average was 56 hours a week. Bivocational pastors, more than half of Alabama Baptist pastors, reported spending 30 hours a week on church-related activities. That was on top of their regular jobs.

Most pastors set their own schedules. They are driven to long hours by their calling to invest themselves in their ministries and the people they serve. At the same time, many do not feel they have been given permission to ever say “no.” If they do, then many are haunted by feelings of failure to their members. In addition, they are often accused of being unavailable or unapproachable when they say “no.”

Consider the pastor’s vision. Most pastors enter the ministry expecting to be used of God to grow a church numerically and build up the body of Christ spiritually. Reality is sometimes different. Out of the 300,000 estimated Protestant churches in the United States, about 50 percent of churchgoers attend the largest 10 percent of congregations — those running 350 or more in attendance. That shocking fact was reported by the National Congregations Study.

The median Protestant church in the United States has 75 regular participants in worship on Sunday morning, the study found. That means half the churches have more and half the churches have fewer.

With that information, it is not surprising that about 85 percent of all churches are either plateaued or declining numerically, according to Leadership Magazine.

The recent economic recession also has changed growth patterns. For many churches, the issue has changed from managing the growth around them as new homes are constructed or people move in to church survival as families lose their jobs and homes. Many communities are smaller today than they were formerly.

Some pastors reconcile themselves to their reality by deciding to concentrate on spiritual growth and developing a spiritually healthy congregation while still taking every opportunity to work on evangelism and church growth. When the pastor’s decision does not reflect the church members’ decision, trouble can result. Occasionally some members may recall “the good old days” and still expect a numerically growing congregation in every way.

Sometimes these members leave, choosing to go to a “growing church.” That is one reason the bigger get bigger and the smaller get smaller. For the latter congregation, leadership suffers, financial stability suffers, ministry suffers. And the pastor is left with more stress and pressures.

Consider the conflict in the church. It does not have to be open conflict. It can be the sniping emails. It can be the grudge holders, who pout for decades about a decision that did not go their way. It can be the questions and innuendos made through the various members’ informal communication patterns.

Sometimes all the blame for church problems is laid at the pastor’s feet, and people begin to whisper it is time for him to leave. Occasionally those whispers grow louder.

As the toll mounts, the pastor finally gives up. “I just can’t do this anymore,” he one day declares and joins the 1,500 other ministers who exit ministry each month. It is not surprising that the most often stated reason for leaving ministry is church conflict — “I just can’t do this anymore.”

Consider the pressures of ministry. Only the privileged few serve large growing churches, but their programs impact members of many congregations. Members ask, “Why can’t we do that?” as if they were oblivious to the amount of resources required for whatever “that” is. Members sometimes look at what noted churches are doing and conclude that their church’s ministries and pastor are not as good.

Pressures come from not only the growing churches but also media-based ministries. They come from conferences and seminars. The message is usually about what the church is not doing, what the church needs to change, rather than celebrating what the church and its pastor do right.

Discouragement and depression are not new problems for religious leaders. Elijah went into hiding after winning a showdown with the priests of Baal. Read Psalms and note David’s mood swings. The apostle Paul in 2 Corinthians 1:8–10 was so depressed he could not preach when the opportunity was before him. Paul even despaired of life itself.

Great preachers like Charles Spurgeon have been hounded by discouragement and depression. These maladies are not signs of spiritual weakness. They are signs of physical problems, relational problems and other issues. They are signs that one may need medical intervention. One in five Americans will experience significant depression requiring medication sometime in their lives, statistics say.

Pastors need an encourager. Pastors need trusted allies. Pastors need friends with whom to share their deepest feelings without fear of betrayal. Pastors need church members who fulfill the command of Galatians 6:2 to share one another’s burdens.

The pastor may not be the best at every ministry task. He may even make mistakes from time to time. But the pastor is the one called by the congregation to be God’s undershepherd for the church.

A wonderful resolution for the coming year would be to determine to be an encourager to your pastor and help him carry the burdens of stress, pressures and conflict. 

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