If you believe various news reports, American pastors are quitting the church in droves. I’ve seen some studies that claim as many as 1500 ministers are leaving the ministry every month. That number has never settled well with me, since almost every pastor I know is faithful and true to his calling. In fact, most of the pastors I know—even the ones in difficult churches—are determined to remain in their vocation. Considering the challenges facing pastors today, their faithfulness is a tribute to a deeper level of commitment than they’re usually given credit for.
Ed Stetzer is a guru of modern American church trends and wrote last week of what’s actually going on among pastors. His conclusions are way more encouraging than many of the other studies floating around. Here’s what he says:
It appears that being a pastor will almost kill you, everyone is quitting, and those who stay in the ministry wish they could get out.
At least that’s what I hear at conferences, on Twitter, and on the interwebs.
The problem—it’s not true and the false report is hurting pastors and the reputation of the church and ministry.
Pastors are not quitting in droves, but bad stats are certainly spreading in droves.
Stetzer later in the article points to a more accurate study that shows 93% of all Protestant ministers “strongly agree” with the statement, “I feel privileged to be a pastor.” That study is in line with what I know in my own heart as well as what I sense in the hearts of my friends in ministry.
Stetzer’s piece made me think about the factors that help pastors stay the course, remain in our place of service and do the Kingdom work we’ve been called to do. After thirty plus years of local church ministry, here are a few things that have mattered to me. I think they may be common factors for all of us who stay long term in our vocation:
- Tend to your family first. All ministry is a balancing act between family and church. Many pastors don’t do a good job of managing that and I know of many pastors who tragically lost their children through the course of their ministries. By “lost” I mean two things. First, their children were alienated from their dads through the course of growing up by the unceasing demands of ministry or by the kinds of personal hypocrisy that often creep into pastor’s home lives. Second, many pastor’s children leave the church or the faith altogether because of what they experienced growing up in the pressures of a pastor’s home. Pastor’s wives have an even deeper struggle and are the under-valued treasure of any effective ministry. Pastors who take the time to love their wives and rear their children may not be able to fulfill all their congregation’s expectations but at the end of the day they’ll be more at peace with their own lives.
- Pay attention to your own soul. Local congregations pull their pastors in a thousand different directions with opportunities, needs, cries for help, problems and tasks. If we don’t invest significant time and effort tending to our own relationship with Jesus, we’ll lose the spiritual vitality essential to any effective ministry. The time we choose to pray instead of squeezing in one more committee meeting is time well spent, even if it upsets some people.
- Beware of the institution. All churches—along with whatever denominational structure they’re a part of—have an institutional side. Buildings must be paid for. Organizations must be tended to. Budgets have to be watched over. Staff needs to be supervised. Strategies must be developed. All those are legitimate institutional concerns. But institutions are merely the platform for the Holy Spirit to do his work. When we elevate institutional needs over Holy Spirit directions we not only lose sight of our true calling, we also mislead our people. The hard truth we must communicate to them (and understand ourselves!) is that the institution—which is easy to quantify, understand and control—has no real spiritual authority. Only the Holy Spirit—who doesn’t yield to quantitative analysis—provides the vitality and authority for ministry.
- Preach your own sermons. The trend today for many pastors is to preach sermons from other pastors. There are many excellent preachers today, and so many of them publish their sermons that it’s the easiest thing in the world for a busy pastor to simply download a sermon from someone else and preach it as though it’s his own. While many people see nothing wrong with the practice, it errs in two essential ways. First, it robs the congregation of a fresh word from God through their pastor. That’s a fundamental responsibility and privilege of every pastor as well as a fundamental expectation and need of every congregation. Second, it robs the pastor of the discipline of digging into God’s Word every day. Nothing so keeps a pastor on track as spending the best of his time preparing the weekly sermon for his own people.
- Love God more than you love your congregation. Another way of getting at the same principle would be to say, “Fear God more than you fear your congregation.” The issue is one of alignment. If we as pastors are properly aligned in our own value system, our real allegiance isn’t to the people who pay our salaries but to the God who called us into ministry to begin with. That’s a hard equation for many pastors; but once we solve it, our ministries move into a new dimension characterized by peace, vitality, love and patience. Pastors who love (and fear!) God more than anything else are able to stay long term in their ministries and fulfill their calling.