In the movie, “First Reformed,” the main character played by Ethan Hawke is a pastor struggling with his own despair and self-doubt. The movie is rich with themes about theology, creation care, hope, suicide, forgiveness, opulence, church decline, and pastoral identity. (For a thoughtful review click this link: Patheos.com.)
One of the things that struck me in the movie was that Hawke’s character struggled with his burden in almost total solitude. It reminded me of something I heard a pastor say several years ago in one of my doctoral classes. In complete vulnerability, he said something like this: “I am pastor of the largest church in our district. The district looks to me for leadership and other pastors tell me they admire my ministry and often ask for advice. What they don’t know is that I am dying inside. I have no one to talk to. I can’t tell my Superintendent. Who is there for pastors like me?”
This minister is not alone. I have worked with pastors for over twenty years and I hear similar stories all the time. I remember in my own pastorate feeling isolated and overwhelmed by the emotional and spiritual energy pastoring took. It helped that I had a co-pastor, a mentor on the Presbytery staff and a group of colleagues. Still, by year four I was already experiencing the symptoms of burn out.
What can congregations do to help pastors thrive?
- Provide financial assistance for a coach, spiritual director, and pastoral counselor. Each of these offers a ministry of presence from a different perspective and with varying techniques. I have coaching clients who also have a therapist and spiritual director. Pastors may not need or want all three, but every pastor should have at least one professional with which they can process their emotions, discern God’s will, and keep accountability.
- Provide adequate compensation and benefits. Financial insecurity adds more stress to an already stressful occupation. A congregation that values its pastor should show in its budget and stewardship.
- Honor the pastor’s day off by leaving him/her alone. That means no emails, calls or texts unless it is an emergency. An emergency is a serious illness, accident or death of a member. The power going off in the church building is not an emergency for the pastor to cover.
- Provide for a Sabbatical every five to seven years. Researching, writing and preaching a sermon almost every Sunday for five years on top of all the other pastoral duties is taxing. Sabbatical gives a pastor a substantial amount of time away from day-to-day ministry to refresh, renew and study so that they can come back with new ideas, energy, and knowledge. This time apart can also be renewing for the congregation and keep the pastoral relationship thriving longer.
- Ministry is a work of the people, not just the pastor. The pastor does not need to attend, let alone lead, every committee meeting and ministry activity. If chairpersons take their responsibility seriously and are adequately resourced, they will create their own agendas and lead their meetings. The pastor needs to be present only when needed as a resource for a particular project or discussion.
- The same holds true for mission projects, congregational care, and fellowship and educational activities. Volunteers can lead projects, visit the sick and homebound, host gatherings and teach classes without the pastor. This is not to say that the pastor does not visit or attend activities. It means that the pastor should not be responsible for everything. A pastor who over-functions takes the ministry away from the people. A congregation that under-functions burns out their pastor.
- Some congregations observe October as Pastor Appreciation Month. This is a nice way to publicly acknowledge a pastor for her/his faithfulness and hard work. However, giving affirmation, and showing gratitude and care need not be relegated to just one month a year. We have all experienced the emotional high of hearing someone say, “thank you” and “you’re doing a great job.” Share a little love with your pastor on a regular basis. Invite her to dinner at your home. Send him a thank you note. It does not have to be a huge gesture. It is the little things that can make someone’s day.
- Treat the pastor as a partner in ministry. Pastors are not above congregation members or below them. All Christians are called to follow Christ and use their gifts for in God’s service. The functions may be different, but the call to discipleship is the same.
- Practice grace and forgiveness. Pastors are human and make mistakes. Many parishioners put the pastor on a pedestal. The fall from that height can be terribly damaging. Be realistic about expectations and refrain from petty complaints.
- Do hold the pastor accountable for maintaining appropriate boundaries and behaviors. Forgiveness does not mean turning a blind eye to misconduct. Studies show that the stress and exhaustion of ministry can lead to poor decision-making and succumbing to temptation. The above tips can help prevent this, but if it happens name it and deal with it directly and lovingly.
Congregations want a long and vibrant pastoral relationship. Pastors want the same thing. By working together to maintain healthy boundaries and lifestyles, pastors and congregations can thrive in ministry together.