Note from CM: Randy Thompson is one of our faithful readers and commenters. Randy and his wife Jill have served churches in New England for over twenty years and are now running a retreat in New Hampshire called Forest Haven where they minister to other ministers. Today’s post will help you understand why they feel this is such a need in the church today.
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If It Seems Like Your Pastor Is Crazy…
by Randy Thompson
If it seems like your pastor might be crazy, it may well be that the poor soul really is.
Todd Rhoades’ website reports that “70% of pastors say they have a lower self-image now than when they started.” 80% report that ministry has had a negative impact on their families, and 50% say they would leave the ministry if they could.
Barnabas Ministries reports that at least 19,000 congregations experience serious conflict every year, 98% of which are interpersonal in nature, and 85% of which are over issues of control.
Pastor Bob seems paranoid?
He may need to be: In a 2009 survey of 2000 pastors, Focus on the Family found that 24% of those surveyed went through a forced termination. (What’s the deal with these private elders meetings, and what really did happen when Pastor Bob left his last church, anyway?)
Pastor Linda seems frustrated and angry?
She may have good reason to be: Citing a Barna study, Barnabas Ministries reports that churches expect their pastor to be competent in 16 different areas, which is way beyond anyone’s capabilities, unless you’re Superman or Gandalf the Wizard. (It’s too bad that Pastor Linda is such a good preacher, so involved in the community, and so good with the kids. She’s a lousy administrator, doesn’t spend enough time calling on people and having nice pastoral chats, and doesn’t communicate the church’s cleaning needs to the janitorial service. So, the Shadow Search Committee secretly forms, aka the Board of Deacons’ Assault Force Delta.)
Pastor Dave seems grumpy and withdrawn?
He may be clinically depressed. 50% of pastors, more or less, deal with depression and burn-out. Depending on whom you believe, between 61% and 70% of pastors say they have no close friends. (And, if he tells the Board of Elders about feeling depressed, Pastor Dave may have even more reason to be depressed, and burned-out, too, because, well, being depressed isn’t “spiritual.” Hmmm. Maybe that’s why he’s so good at funerals.)
Second year in a row the church didn’t grow?
It’s time to “encourage” Pastor Ellen to update her profile, even though the church hasn’t grown for the past twenty years and the past ten pastors).
Pastor Bill seems to be spending a lot of time comforting the recently divorced church organist?
Don’t be overly surprised: 33% of clergy report crossing appropriate sexual boundaries and 20% report having extramarital affairs. (You really don’t need further comment here, do you?)
Lest I be accused of being negative and cynical, both of which I am very capable of being, consider the “10 Reasons Pastors Quit” post I found a couple weeks ago on Todd Rhoades’ website, a “Top Ten” list that’s a far cry from David Letterman. The list:
- Moral Failure
- Financial Pressure
- Burnout (90% of the pastors report working between 55 to 75 hours per week)
- Physical Health
- Marriage/Family Problems (80% of pastors believe pastoral ministry has negatively affected their families)
- Too Busy/Driven
Yikes! What happened to the idealistic seminarians who marched bravely off to the ministry with visions of “Acts” in their minds as real as the sugar plums dancing in the heads of children waiting for St. Nick? Why do 1500 minister leave the ministry every month? With such glorious visions of the Kingdom coming, why does ministry end for so many as a Bataan death march of the soul?
I’d like to suggest some reasons.
For starters, what churches say they want and what they actually want are often two very different things, and the pastor is caught in the middle. Most search committees will tell pastoral candidates that their church wants to grow numerically and spiritually. In the interview process, the church’s governing board will say “Amen” to what the search committee has told the candidates. Excited by the opportunity of being a change-maker, the new pastor begins a new ministry, eager to make changes. Unfortunately, “change” is an abstract idea for the church, and not a practical, real-life thing. Everybody loves “change” but not when it means that the order of service, church by-laws, and the church’s lack of outreach must actually be different from what they are now. Good old First Church (founded in 1756), where the average age of the membership is 63, tells the new pastor, “we want to attract young people.” The new pastor, especially if he is young, takes them seriously, and introduces contemporary music. The howls of protest begin the first Sunday morning the congregation sees someone stand up with a guitar. Out of nowhere, the church’s concern becomes its “heritage,” even though the church has been stagnant, aging, and shrinking for a decade. The truth is, they like it that way, but won’t admit it.
Or then there’s the matter of antagonists in the church. Churches, because they’re supposed to be about loving your neighbor, put up with behavior that would get you kicked out of most other institutions. There are many unhappy, bitter and mean-spirited people in churches, which too often give them free reign to vent their unhappiness, with the pastor on the receiving end of it. Easy to offend, these folks can make a pastor’s life hell, and I’m not overstating the case. In a small church, two or three of these folks can make life so difficult for a pastor that they move on to another church, or leave the ministry altogether. Because the rest of the people in the church are heavily invested in being “nice,” they try to be as nice to the antagonist as they are to the pastor, which leaves the pastor under perennial attack. If you think this problem is overstated, consider the many books and articles that address this issue, such as “Clergy Killers,” “Antagonists in the Church,” and “When Sheep Attack.”
And don’t think it’s just the pastor on the receiving end of these attacks. The spouse, usually the wife, has to watch her husband get pounded and come home with the life sucked out of him, and she begins to wonder why on earth they’re wasting their life in the ministry. And then there’s the pastor’s kids. . . They too can become a source of conflict and attack. The church’s religious police can be just as zealous as those in Saudi Arabia when it comes to music they don’t like, movies they don’t approve of, and clothes they consider immodest. (Imagine, if you will, how your daughter’s tattoo would be viewed in many fundamentalist churches?)
Also, imagine what it’s like to be the pastor of a church of 300 members, which is another way of saying you have 300 bosses. I personally know one former pastor, now in nursing home administration, who told me he could no longer take having so many bosses with so many conflicting priorities, hobby-horse issues, and agendas, all of which are presented as “God’s will” for the church. He’s now happier out of the ministry than he was in it.
Or imagine what it’s like to be the sole pastor of this church, and be expected regularly to preach sermons so clever and powerful that even the middle-schoolers listen, to offer counsel so wise it impresses God, to skillfully plan and lead mission trips to exotic locales, to write blogs read by thousands and quoted in the local papers, to nit-pick a budget down to the penny, to know when it’s time to reconfigure the endowment portfolio, to read cultural trends as well as the market research people at Pepsi-Cola, and to stay current with the denominational publications, theological developments, politics and what’s on the current best seller list so that no one else in the church has to. Oh yes, and you need to be compassionate, a good listener, and be willing to drop everything whenever anyone stops by to see you. (Don’t expect anyone to inquire about the health of your relationship with God.)
The problem is, churches want their pastors to be Superman or Wonder Woman, and typically pastors aren’t. The ones who are super heroes pastor mega-churches and write books. They become the standard for what it is to be a successful pastor. The little-guy pastors can’t help but see themselves as failures in comparison. They read John Maxwell’s books on leadership, and discover they’re not John Maxwell. They read about the big, successful churches where, apparently, life is beautiful all the time and where everyone is happy, but then have to go to a leadership meeting dominated by their antagonist(s).
Sadly, many pastors feel they have to act like they’re super heroes, and their ministry becomes a role they play. Even more sadly, congregations rather like this. The pastor pretends to be everything they want him to be, and the congregation pretends that is true. The church wants a role model, and the last thing they want is for their pastor to be a real person. In this world, the ideal pastor is like Rev. Lovejoy on “The Simpsons,” who has mastered ecclesiastical vocal inflections to perfection. He knows just when to raise his voice, and just when to lower it—presumably for the greatest spiritual effect. (A real life example: I had a friend, years ago, a Baptist pastor, who was a perfectly normal person in real life, a good guy, in fact. But, when he got up in front of his congregation, he turned into some odd church creature, oozing earnestness, compassion, and just the right vocal inflections to make you think he saw too many Hollywood movies like “Elmer Gantry.”)
The temptation for the church is to make their pastor into something he or she isn’t, and the temptation for the pastor is to play that role to keep everyone happy. Unfortunately, reality regularly exposes this little conspiracy for the unreality it is, and everybody ends up frustrated and (very) unhappy. When that happens, it isn’t the church that gets fired and is forced to move away, it’s the pastor.
So, if you’ve ever had a pastor you thought was a jerk, don’t blame him, at least not entirely. You may well have been part of the conspiracy.
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If there are pastors who read this and are in need of healing, rest, and time away from ministry, a terrific resource for finding help is the CareGivers Forum (click the “Directory” page).
Also, check out Forest Haven, our Christian retreat that provides a rural, quiet place of healing hospitality and spiritual refreshment for Christian ministers and missionaries, and their spouses, who need time away from their responsibilities to draw closer to God. (See also our Facebook page).