This week the General Board of our church sponsored a conference on stress in the ministry. It’s over a decade ago since a committee of the General Assembly reported a survey in which over 20% of ministers surveyed said that the work of the Christian ministry had become a real struggle and a burden due to excessive levels of stress. Apparently the situation has deteriorated in the intervening years, and many more feel under pressure.
Stress means that some ministers feel like giving up the ministry altogether. A few years ago I was involved in a project sponsored by the Lilly Endowment called Sustaining Pastoral Excellence in which resources were made available to churches and seminaries in North America to address the increasing rate of drop-out from the Christian ministry. The statistics for North America are alarming.
Most Protestant pastors make their greatest impact in a church between the 5th and 14th years of their pastorate in that location. Yet, the average length of a pastorate is less than five years.
• 70% of pastors do not have a close friend, confidant, or mentor.
• 50% – 60% of church planters close the plant and the effort dies.
• 90% say their Bible School/Seminary Training did not prepare them for what they face day-to-day in the church.
• Only 10% finish the race and reach age 65 as a pastor.
• Two-thirds say their congregation has been in conflict in the past 2 years.
• 80% of pastors’ spouses with their spouse would choose another profession.
• Nationally 1,500 pastors leave the ministry each month due to burnout, moral failure, or conflict in the church. That’s 18,000 per year!
• 1 out of every 4 of those who left reported they were motivated by conflict with the denomination or a “belief that church headquarters was not supportive.”
• 50% of those who begin in the ministry leave after their first pastorate in less than 5 years never to return to ministry though they felt called.
I don’t believe the situation here is as bad as that in North America. However, one of the major reasons for ministers taking time off, or dropping out of the ministry altogether, is the stress caused by the demands made on their time, conflicting expectations between the minister and the congregation, the impact which the demands of ministry have on home and family life, as well as situations of conflict with elders and members of the congregation. This inevitably has an effect on the life of the local congregation. The simple fact is that churches and congregations are healthy and flourish when they are served by a healthy and unstressed minister.
At our conference we reflected on how Kirk Sessions, Presbyteries and the General Assembly can take action to prevent stress in the ministry and to support those who are under great pressure. I believe that we need to take some important steps in how we organise ourselves as congregations and as a denomination, and in how we do our business, so that ministers function in an efficient, healthy, and God-honouring way.
Sometimes the stress level in the ministry is a result of the minister’s inability to manage his own workload. I confess that I am a recovering Pharisee who has often desired the approval and applause of my congregation, and in order to receive that approval I have over-worked to meet the expectations of the congregation. The antidote is to remind myself on a daily basis that I am not received or accepted by God on the basis of my performance or personal productivity, but on the basis of the performance and obedience of my Saviour, Jesus Christ. The applause and approbation of others can be so addictive, but it is the approbation of God which really matters, and that is given to me freely by grace because of Christ. Understanding that simple yet profound truth of the Gospel has enabled me to work hard, but not to be stressed out when I don’t get everything done that I had planned to do. For me, it is an on-going struggle.
The work of the Christian ministry will never be a stress-free zone. There is an evil Force that targets those in ministry and which has a vested interest in de-railing them. But, as that report of ten years ago pointed out, “while ministers recognise that there is some stress that goes with the privilege of being ministers of the Gospel, at no time are they bereft of God’s mercy and grace in Christ”.