Staying Out of the Statistics

A few weeks back, I wrote about the startling statistics that highlight the trends occurring in pastoral ministry today – trends that are resulting in pastors self-ejecting from, or being forced out of, their churches. In the turbulent world of church leadership, many pastors are “at-risk.”

Below are four of the top factors that put pastors in serious jeopardy, as well as a few suggestions on how to stay out of the “statistics.” I shared these at my recent presentation to the Midwest Presbytery of the Evangelical Presbyterian Church, and they reflect not only sound research but also personal experience.

1. Isolation (and loneliness). Many pastors have no real friends! The lack of significant relationships – living inside our own bubbles, with the sound of our own voice as the predominant one –  can lead to self-doubt and self-delusion. If you’re not connected to anyone, you’re not accountable to anyone.

2. Not Understanding our Limitations. We are afraid of our own humanity. We believe that by acknowledging our humanness, we will somehow deny the power of God at work in us. Most pastors enter ministry with high expectations to change, if not the world, then at least their corner of it. Yet our grasp of how that might happen exceeds our reach, and as a result, we turn inward in a dangerously negative way. We end up evaluating ourselves against ‘shoulds’ and ‘oughts’ that come from ourselves, not Jesus.

3. Lack of Good Boundaries. The best example I can give of this is the inability to say “No!” Dorothy Parker, American poet and satirist, once remarked, “That woman speaks eighteen languages, and can’t say ‘no’ in any of them.” With a sigh, pastors will often admit to this (as will their spouses). Our desire to care for others and work hard in our ministry is hijacked by the desperate need to please. As a result, our internal eye becomes fixed on how we are affirmed by the congregations we serve, rather than finding our affirmation in Christ.

4. Inattention to Self-Care. In spite of the warning to watch over ourselves first (Acts 20:28), most people in church leadership refuse to pay attention to their own needs, both spiritual and physical. The pastor’s relationship to Jesus and the Scriptures can become purely “professional,” with studies showing that 70% of pastors only spend time studying the Word when they are preparing sermons. Our significant relationships, as well as our personal health and well-being, suffer. We forget that we, too, are “in-process!”

Left unattended, these conditions begin to erode the soul, sour the attitude, and corrupt the behavior of those in church leadership. Narcissism takes over, and we begin to believe that it all depends on us. We begin to experience anger, cynicism, bitterness, emotional fatigue and the desire to control everything. The outcomes are catastrophic and almost inevitable: burnout, termination, moral failure.

The question we all want answered is, how do we stay out of the statistics? How do we minimize the conditions within our control and reduce the probability of being “at-risk”?

1. Recognize that you cannot solve it alone! Pastors need to model and practice the advice we would give anyone who is a part of the churches we serve: seek out community! I have become very fond of James 5:16, where it talks about confessing our sins/faults to one another. It is a practice we avoid like the plague in the evangelical church, yet true community cannot exist without it. Do you have a spiritual director, a mentor, or a friend who can fill this role for you? Where is a safe place for you to be totally transparent?

2. Be conscious of the fact that all ministry has a “shelf life.” I found this concept surprisingly refreshing when I came across it in David Rohrer’s book, The Sacred Wilderness of Pastoral Ministry. Taking his cue from the ministry of John the Baptist, Rohrer believes that seeing our ministry in this finite light can keep us from trying to be the center of the universe, while at the same time knowing that we have a significant role to play.

3. Be human! This is a difficult idea to keep in mind. Our inability to live within the limits of our nature is the poison that flowed to us when our first parents bought the lie. Living within those limits requires humility, but pays off big in reducing our sense of frustration. God is more interested in WHO you are, than WHAT you do!

4. Communicate, communicate, communicate. As people trained in public speaking, we are often poor personal communicators. Pastors are expected to fill an increasing amount of roles in our culture, and therefore need to enter into dialogue with our churches, fellow leaders and our spouses regarding our needs, roles and expectations.

5. Build a Rhythm. Although it should go without saying, I will say it anyway: your relationship with Jesus is the bedrock for all you are, will be and will do. Building spiritual, emotional, and physical rhythms into your life and ministry, such as the Sabbath, silence and solitude, family, and play, is one of the surest ways to stay out of the statistics. I love the “Pastoral Rule” that Peter Scazzero and the staff at New Life Fellowship implemented for building these rhythms into their life and work. Check it out at www.emotionallyhealthy.org

There is always hope for coming back if we find ourselves “at-risk,” or even “risked” and failed. It is an encouragement, however, to know that we can take a good, hard look at the conditions that currently surround us and ask, “How can I stay out of the statistics?”

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