What were you doing on March 12, 2020? That day I spoke at a pastor luncheon in Wewoka, Oklahoma. They surprised me by singing Happy Birthday as the server brought a giant piece of cheesecake. An even bigger surprise that day was the news that COVID-19 had become an official pandemic. Of course, the pastors in that room had no idea what that meant or how it would affect our lives and ministries.
Two years later, we are still pastoring through this pandemic and still wondering how to do it well. I still cannot answer a lot of COVID questions, but I do want to try to help you address the important question every pastor needs to be asking right now, “How am I doing?”
Your health and the health of your church are intrinsically connected, so please take this question seriously. In addition to my new role as the Director of Pastoral Wellness for Guidestone Financial Resources, I am also wrapping up an interim pastorate in Tulsa. Whether you are pastoring bi-vocationally like me, or full time as I did for 27 years, the weight of a pastor’s call has grown heavier over the last couple of years. I would like to ask five questions to help you assess your personal condition.
1. Are you still committed to your call?
In two separate surveys, Lifeway Research found that only about 1 percent abandon the pulpit each year. Although numerous pundits predicted our tribe would bail during this pandemic, the actual rate of attrition did not change significantly during the pandemic. I think these pundits dramatically underestimated the faithfulness of the called, as well as the faithfulness of the One who called them. I realize that we have not experienced all of the fallout of COVID-19 just yet, but historically pastors are not quitters. “And let us not be weary in well doing; for in due season we shall reap, if we faint not.” (Gal. 6:9 KJV
2. Are you experiencing ministry fatigue?
In January, Lifeway Research released the findings of their “Greatest Needs of Pastors” study. Fifty-four percent said their ministry is frequently overwhelming, and 48 percent often feel the demands of ministry are more than they can handle. I am not surprised that half of the 2,000 pastors interviewed are overwhelmed, but I am somewhat surprised that the other half are not overwhelmed. The ministry has often been demanding and exhausting for me, but I still love it!
After two years of unrelenting pressure from the toxic politics and this stupid pandemic, widespread fatigue is to be expected. Ministry fatigue is that slow burn that you feel after an extended season of difficult ministry. This is typically a temporary season, and should not surprise those of us who are called to “be ready in season and out of season” (2 Tim. 4:2).
If fatigue sets in or goes indefinitely unchecked, it can easily lead to chronic burnout or clinical depression. I was there a dozen years ago, sought clinical help, and got healthy again. One important way to check your pulse is by checking your calendar to assess whether you have been consistently obeying the Sabbath. I found it telling that the same pastors who said they were experiencing stress: 63 percent, also said they are struggling to consistently take a Sabbath: 64 percent. A stunning 84 percent say they’re on call 24/7, which is both poor theology and ecclesiology. Sabbath simply means to stop. It is posed as both a gift and a command, and at one time was enforced by the death penalty. You are welcome…
“Pastors don’t get into trouble because they forget they are pastors, but because they forget they are persons.” Dr. Archibald Hart
3. Are you conflicted about your vision?
How many hours have you invested in the last two years making ministry plans, only to have them completely changed or scrapped altogether? Add to this the unpredictability of members’ attendance and service. Not only are we conflicted about vision, but our members seem to be conflicted about … well, everything: masks, politics, schools, CRT, SBC, CDC, NFL, NBA… Ok, you get the point. 80 percent of pastors said they expect conflict in their church. My question for you is, how are YOU doing? Be careful not to allow the loudest voices in your church to crowd your calendar or your head-space. You have some control over the conversations you weigh into online, on campus, or even at home.
4. Are you isolated from other pastors?
Pastors identified among their greatest needs were friendships: 69 percent; fellowship with other pastors: 64 percent. I was concerned about isolation at the beginning of the pandemic, back when we all had to shelter in place or cancel our minister gatherings. Today, I am more concerned about us being isolated in a crowd. Three in four pastors say they would be interested in getting advice or guidance on the issues they are facing from other pastors who have already been through those problems. Similar numbers (74 percent) would like to hear from those who understand churches like theirs.
5. Are you optimistic about the future?
Based on anecdotal evidence (observed, not proven), I believe pastors and ministry leaders are still placing their hope primarily in Jesus. Trials often reveal, and even strengthen, our faith because they provide opportunities for growth. I’ve heard preachers say, “You cannot have both faith and fear,” which always sounds unrealistic and unbiblical to me. This false dichotomy can quickly be absolved by the Psalms, as well as throughout Scripture. Our faith does not completely remove all of our fears, rather it emboldens us to face those fears with a peace that surpasses all understanding. For two years we have walked our people through the valley of the shadow of death, and it has worn us down.
Fortunately, our Shepherd is still aptly armed with a rod and a staff. Perhaps our greatest challenge is to devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word (Acts 6:4). The Pastor Needs study revealed that most pastors are struggling to stay consistent in personal prayer: 72 percent; in confessing and repenting from personal sin: 61 percent; and in Bible reading not related to a sermon or teaching preparation: 68 percent. All pastors know that soul care is important, but how many of us will consider it to be imperative?
Take a moment to check your spiritual pulse by asking God to reveal whether you are loving Him daily and intimately with all of your heart, soul, mind, and strength. Then make whatever adjustments you need to put your first love first. God’s presence is my good. I have made the Lord God my refuge, so I can tell about all you do (Psalms 73:28 CSB)