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5 Dangerous Paths for Ministers Under Pressure

How quickly our conversations can go from theoretical to all-too-real.
I spent a rewarding Wednesday in Tennessee recently on a retreat with 45 ministers and staff members thinking through the unique and profound pressures of ministry in the 21st century.

We agreed that, while it is not an easy task, it is unquestionably a delight to be used by God for the good of the kingdom.

We talked about self-care and pledged to be good stewards of our lives and ministries together.

Twenty-four hours later, on Thursday, I received the devastating phone call that a friend and fellow pastor in another church in another state had taken his life.

What was theory and marginally important to one group in one setting became primary and haunting to an entire congregation and family in another.

My own grief was intense. Watching from afar as an entire community agonized together and tried to make sense of the unthinkable was dark and sad beyond words.

Ministers get a significant amount of attention these days when people discuss difficult leadership roles. They should.

While everyone wrestles with some degree of career frustration, clergy are increasingly identified as especially prone to struggle.

Earlier this year, Forbes magazine ranked the role of clergy as number five in their annual list of toughest leadership roles.

The sources of this increasing stress are numerous. When asked, I usually start by referring to two pressing realities for most clergy: one internal and one external.

First, the vast majority of ministers serve in a down cycle of congregational metrics.

Congregational attendance and giving is trending lower for nearly 90 percent of churches in the United States.

The internal pressure that clergy generate upon themselves to reverse this is unrelenting and exhausting.

Second, externally, our culture’s loss of civility and public trust is not limited to politics.

Violating the admonishment of Romans 12:2, our local churches are conforming themselves to our culture’s steady stream of verbal brutality, harsh and demeaning criticism, and unrelenting character bashing.

Rather than stand as an alternative to the worldly standards of the day, we often walk in lockstep with the most strident and unpleasant role models.

Take these two pressures and add each minister’s own emotional struggles, shortcomings and blind spots, and you have the recipe for a toxic stew of frustration and washout.

No wonder 50 percent of seminary graduates who enter ministry exit ministry within their first five years.

No wonder only one in 10 clergy who enter local church ministry will retire from ministry.

The material I presented to my friends on Wednesday attempted to deepen our understanding of that well-used idea of “burn-out” among clergy.

I think our conversation merits consideration from all congregations and clergy who wrestle with bearing the heavenly treasure in our “earthen vessels” (2 Corinthians 4:7)

Perhaps the warning signs of ministerial struggle are easier understood if we consider these ways of describing it:

1. Burn-out is when a minister runs low on spiritual and emotional fuel.

Generally, the powering down happens gradually and is accompanied by lethargy, discouragement and self-doubt. Often it is exacerbated by a significant life stage or events in other areas of life, especially family.

2. Brown-out is when a minister experiences a dramatic power failure.

Rather than coming on gradually, this crisis often occurs amid a time of high demand and high expectation, both internal and external. Physical illness is often the first indicator of the issue, though the cause is usually much deeper than the presenting symptoms.

3. Flame-out is a way to describe the sad set of events that take place when a minister, in a very public way, ends his or her ministry.

Often, the offense is criminal, sexual or violent in nature and ensures that the individual will no longer remain in ministry. These acts are inherently self-destructive and leave behind much collateral damage.

4. Act-out is a way of referring to those times when clergy create a public spectacle or provoke a confrontation that invites conflict.

These self-centered acts often are subconscious and reveal unresolved issues in the congregational system, life of the minister or both.

5. Drop-out refers to those ministers who walk away from the faith out of their own personal struggles and spiritual wrestling.

Working out their doubts and struggles in the pulpit creates many ancillary issues and wreaks havoc upon the congregation.

Over my 40 years of ministry, I have served under or with ministers who fit each of these five descriptions.

Interestingly, as a pastor, I have pastored many laity who fit each of these descriptions as well.

Perhaps that is the ultimate irony. What afflicts clergy is no different than what every person in the pew encounters.

Please, let’s share the journey and take care of one another. We need more Wednesdays and fewer Thursdays.

Bill Wilson is president of the Center for Healthy Churches in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. You can follow him on Twitter @BillWilson1028 and the center @ChurchHealthy.