There’s a lot of data out there saying that pastors are not doing well.
In fact, in the past several years, there’s been data going around insinuating that pastors are miserable, depressed, and ready to leave their positions of ministry altogether.
Truth be told, the data initially came from official sounding places and sources; these websites insinuated that pastors were leaving the ministry in droves to the tune of 1,500 pastors per month. Data collected by these sites also suggested that 77% of pastors surveyed felt they did not have a good marriage, 75% felt unqualified and poorly trained to lead, and 72% said that they only studied the Bible when preparing for sermons or lessons.
There’s no hiding the truth—these figures are pretty bad.
I talked to David Kinnaman, President of Barna Group, and we called these the “pastor doomsday stats.” They’re pretty jarring and they are often cited as coming from Barna.
They did not come from Barna Research.
Or from Fuller Seminary or Focus on the Family (two other often-cited sources).
So, since the data was hard to pin down, we did a LifeWay Research study in September of 2015 and surveyed senior pastors. We sought to investigate the claims made by these “doomsday” stats.
What we found at LifeWay Research based on the data we collected was that these stats were actually quite wrong. As a matter of fact, the assertions made were far from true. According to the results of LifeWay’s survey, a tiny fraction of pastors are leaving the pulpit each year.
The reality is that most pastors are happy in their ministry—they’re engaging and ministering to their congregations with great success and fruitfulness.
This is good news for churches across the country, of course, but it’s also good news for our pastors. The month of October is actually Pastor Appreciation Month, so, it’s good to know that the vast majority of us will still have our pastor with us come the end of the month.
But, to clarify, even the 1% of pastors who are leaving their positions every year aren’t necessarily doing so out of a hatred for their churches or the ministry in general.
Scott McConnell, LifeWay Research’s Executive Director, explained it liked this: “Pastors are not leaving the ministry in droves.” But, he adds, “This [pastoring] is a brutal job…The problem isn’t that pastors are quitting—the problem is that pastors have a challenging work environment.”
McConnell is right—in many cases, pastors are finding themselves overwhelmed by the daily stressors and burdens of the work that they do. Just think about how your own pastor works and serves your congregation on a daily basis; it’s a large responsibility!
As a part of that same 2015 study, LifeWay Research found some more things out about pastor’s daily duties.
They discovered that 84% of pastors say that they’re on call 24 hours a day; the time commitment alone is more substantial than most can imagine. The position requires them to deal with a lot of tense situations and difficult conversations—so much so that 80% of pastors expect some sort of conflict in their church.
Unfortunately, 54% find their role as pastor is frequently overwhelming and another 48% would say that they often feel that the demands of ministry are more than they can handle.
Being a pastor, it’s clear, can be tough. It’s a job that, done well, contributes to the flourishing of whole churches and communities. Done poorly—and without proper support from the congregation—it can quickly lead to burn out.
Understanding this, it’s important that we work to care for our pastors not just during Pastor Appreciation Month, but year round. Here are some practical things to consider as we do this:
First, understand that pastors are, first and foremost, human beings.
God has placed our pastors in strategic positions of leadership, this is true. But that doesn’t mean that they’re perfect or that they’ve got it all figured out. In many cases, pastors struggle periodically with discouragement, doubt, and the many of the other hard seasons of life that plague us all.
Sometimes in churches, pastors are elevated to positions of unreasonable authority treated almost as if they were celebrities—untouched by the daily toils of life. This pastor “celebrity culture” is all too common in congregations today and is, I would argue, simply unhealthy.
This month, we should remind ourselves to try not to place unreasonable expectations on the person leading our church.
It’s not healthy for our pastors nor is it, I might add, healthy for us.
Second, understand that, in many cases, your pastor has a family, too.
Pastors don’t just feel a certain burden to care for their congregations, they also feel a burden to care for other individuals in their life—namely, their families. When we consider the stress that pastoral leadership positions so often place on a pastor’s family, we remember that pastors, like all of us, feel pulled in many different directions.
According to data collected in the same 2015 LifeWay Research study, 35% of pastors say the demands of ministry prevent them from spending time with their family.
We don’t want to force our pastors to choose between their church family and their immediate family. This month, we should find ways to support our pastors as they care for not only the congregation, but their spouses and children as well.
Third, let me share a message to all pastors: Thank you.
Thank you for all the work you do for your church and communities. The ways you care for the congregation, church staff, and countless others is important. So, in honor of Pastor Appreciation Month, thank you.
When the job gets stressful—and trust me, it will—remember that we serve a God of plentiful harvests. We are all, each of us, workers in his field. As Paul reminds us in 1 Corinthians 3:7: “So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God, who makes things grow.”
God wants to use us to do his work, but the burden isn’t on us to ‘save the world’ or produce all the results we long to see. Ultimately, we are the workers, he is our sovereign God; only he can make things grow.
Ed Stetzer holds the Billy Graham Distinguished Chair of Church, Mission, and Evangelism at Wheaton College, serves as Dean of the School of Mission, Ministry, and Leadership at Wheaton College, is executive director of the Billy Graham Center, and publishes church leadership resources through Mission Group.