By Jeff Matas
You have probably seen a version of this meme:
The church is experiencing a post-pandemic phenomenon known as “The Great Pastor Resignation.” Pastors are resigning in surprising numbers, not to go to another church, but to leave ministry all together. Years ago, it was unheard of for pastors to walk away from pastoral ministry because of burnout and stress. A lot has changed since then. I personally know pastors that have walked away from ministry. They did it to save their marriage from the strain and stress, to save their physical and mental health, to save their family.
In March 2022, Barna in a national survey found that 42% of pastors considered quitting. The top five reasons were:
- The stress of the job: 55%
- Feeling lonely and isolated: 43%
- Current political divisions: 38%
- Unhappy with the impact of ministry on family: 29%
- Pessimistic about the future of the church: 29%
In August, a Presbyterian pastor—Alexander Lang—wrote an article that went viral entitled “Departure: Why I Left the Church.” He quotes the Barna study and gives a very honest and vulnerable account of leaving pastoral ministry and the church he served as senior pastor for 10 years. He says the main reasons he is leaving are the top two reasons cited in the Barna report. Being a pastor, he says, is “like being a parent” where you are responsible for caring for the lives of the people in your congregation. I don’t know if I would use the “parent” analogy, but I get what he is saying. Being a pastor is like being a trusted member of a very large family. You are the one that hears all the intimate details. You are the one that gets the text or call to help mediate and counsel relational struggles like breaks in friendships, parenting issues, and marital struggles. You walk with people through the toughest stuff imaginable. You see things. You hear things. You are intimately part of people’s lives in a way that—I think—is unique. You are there for it all.
You also deal with the heartbreak of people leaving the church, many doing so without even a phone call or text. No matter how you are wired as a pastor, it hurts. I hear pastors processing the departure of people from their church by saying, “I counseled them back from the brink of divorce. I was there when they lost their child. I officiated their wedding. I was there in the emergency room.” And they leave the church without a word. They’re gone.
Most of what Lang writes about deals with unrealistic expectations that pastors face. We are expected to be an incredible communicator, CEO, counselor, fundraiser, HR director, master of ceremonies, and a pillar of virtue. So often the source of stress is not from striving to be faithful to our calling but dealing with the expectations of those in the pew. Years ago, it was commonplace during a pastoral search for the search team to survey the congregation to learn what the church wanted in their next pastor. The benefit of a congregational survey is often not the results but the simple engagement of the church in the search process. When search teams look at the results, what they often find is that the church is looking for a pastor that doesn’t exist. The church is looking for a pastor to have a young family, but with the seasoning and experience of someone much older. They need to be a great communicator and visionary yet enjoy administrative tasks. They need to be a catalytic leader but keep everyone happy in the church. They need to operate like a chaplain and regularly visit congregants yet spend lots of time in the Word of God, in research, and preparation for sermons. They need to make the congregation a priority, but also be there for their spouse and family.
Pastors, I want you to listen to what I’m about to say. You are not meant to go through ministry alone. God could have designed it so that all you need to survive and thrive in pastoral ministry is you and God, but He didn’t. We are wired to be relational, not just to have a relationship with God, but with each other. For you to fully experience the strength, encouragement, and power of God, you need others in the body of Christ. For pastors, that means building essential relationships with fellow pastors. Isolation is just below stress as the primary factor in pastors walking away from ministry, and I would argue that isolation plays a key role in fueling stress.
When I am contacted by pastors that are buckling under the stress and unrealistic expectations of ministry, I ask them if they are in vital relationships with other pastors. Nearly all the time, the answer is no. They are disconnected, alone, and isolated. A great avenue to healthy relationships, strength, resiliency, and support for pastors is Indiana Ministries’ Thrive network. There you can find support, mentorship, friendship, allyship, and real resources to enable you to thrive in ministry. Thrive hosts retreats, cohorts, mentorships, and provides individualized resources to pastors. You don’t have to wait until you are thread-bare to reach out to Thrive. Thrive is there for every credentialed pastor in Indiana. It has the resources and relationships you need as you follow your call to pastoral ministry.
Ministry is hard, it was never designed to be easy. Paul in 2 Timothy 2, writes to his young protégé Timothy and describes ministry using the metaphors of battle, the struggle of sports, and the frustration of farming. None of which imply comfort and ease. We need each other. For the sake of your ministry, your family, your marriage, your mental and physical health, invest in relationships with other pastors.
To learn more about Thrive, click here!