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Being a Pastor: A Perilous Profession, Part 1

Like each of us, pastors are people with needs, capacities, and limitations. These capacities are not limitless despite pressures and messages to the contrary.
Being a Pastor: A Perilous Profession, Part 1
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Relationships are central to the gospel.

God pursuing and reconciling relationship with and for us is the biblical story. Our responding to God and living in community with each other is central to the Christian life.

Pastors often take the lead in this process. Pastors have multiple relational responsibilities to their families, congregations, and communities. And like each of us, pastors are people with needs, capacities, and limitations. These capacities are not limitless despite pressures and messages to the contrary.

As church members, we acknowledge that we expect a lot from our pastors. They are there to be shepherds, to lead, to care, and to guide. What we tend to forget is that they are also human beings who have relational, emotional, and spiritual needs that should be meet in community. The question that arises is, “Are we listening to our pastors and their needs?”

Dietrich Bonhoeffer explored the needs we have in Christian community in his book Life Together. He challenges us to develop the art of listening:

The first service that one owes to others in the fellowship consists in listening to them. Just as love to God begins with listening to His Word, so the beginning of love for the brethren is learning to listen to them. It is God’s love for us that He not only gives us His Word but also lends us His ear.

So, it is His work that we do for our brother when we learn to listen to him. Christians, especially ministers, so often think they must always contribute something when they are in the company of others, that this is the one service they have to render. They forget that listening can be a greater service than speaking.

Many people are looking for an ear that will listen. They do not find it among Christians, because these Christians are talking where they should be listening. But he who can no longer listen to his brother will soon be no longer listening to God either; he will be doing nothing but prattle in the presence of God too.

This is the beginning of the death of the spiritual life, and in the end there is nothing left but spiritual chatter and clerical condescension arrayed in pious words. One who cannot listen long and patiently will presently be talking beside the point and be never really speaking to others, albeit he be not conscious of it. Anyone who thinks that his time is too valuable to spend keeping quiet will eventually have no time for God and his brother, but only for himself and for his own follies.

We want pastors to experience having their needs listened to and receiving margin to spend time quietly before God and joyfully in the community in which he has placed them.

In addition to the personal need, this receiving by pastors can be an important spiritual modeling to their communities. However, there are many challenges to this aspect of living a Christ-centered life in the 21stcentury.

Technology, transience due to career, position in the church, and a culture of pressure and anxiety lead people to isolate or seek their only social support from their church and pastoral leadership, further increasing the demands and gobbling up the scarce and sacred margins of our pastors.

Stress and Response

The work of a pastor is truly varied, demanding, wonderful, and at times, very stressful. This work places demands upon physical, cognitive, emotional, spiritual, and relational resources which can result in significant distress.

Distress is associated with a number of very obvious and well documented negative health outcomes related to sleep, blood pressure, heart disease, and cerebrovascular disease.

Additionally, there are well documented effects upon mood and relationships, with stress related burnout resulting in increased avoidance and isolation, which may further exacerbate the original distress.

This, is turn, may result in increased irritability/emotional reactivity, isolation, compassion fatigue, physical fatigue, anxiety/worry, avoidance patterns, relational difficulties and suicidal feelings.

In addition to these more obvious emotional effects, there are also the more subtle impacts of stress upon cognitive performance.

Under too much stress we do not perform as well cognitively. This may result in poorer decision making and reduced creativity, which will likely further exacerbate the original distress.

This impact upon cognitive performance is particularly relevant when tasks are not over-learned or well-practiced. Stress has a particularly potent negative impact when performing complicated tasks that are not part of one’s everyday routine.

Given the broad nature of a pastor’s work and responsibilities (i.e., teacher, executive, counselor, friend, marketer, advocate…), there are many tasks that by virtue of these varied responsibilities are not routine and cannot become over learned or “well-practiced.”

These tasks are often pushed to a later time (which continues the gobbling up of even more cognitive resources). This avoidance likely further exacerbates the original distress, often leading to burnout.

The power of this type of avoidant distraction can be increasingly forceful under times of stress. In one of its most damaging forms, stress-inspired avoidance results in increased risk for pursuit of damaging relational patterns including inappropriate relationship (emotional, sexual affairs), substance abuse, domineering leadership stance, and other damaging behavioral and relational patterns.

When burdened by stressful thoughts, it becomes difficult to put our best foot forward, demonstrating our true capabilities allowing us to make our best decisions.

Furthermore, difficulties associated with stress and related decrements in performance may result in further feelings of burnout, inadequacy, and shame. This becomes a vicious cycle – especially if our response is simply to try harder and pull harder on those bootstraps in isolation. This never works for long.

One needs to know the warning signs and look for ways to activate support and self-care and to discern a clearer alignment with God’s sustainable calling. Tomorrow we will address warning signs and how pastors can move forward.

David J. Van Dyke, PhD, LMFT is an associate professor and director of the Marriage & Family Therapy master’s program at Wheaton College. He and his wife, Tara, own and run With U Parenting to provide family support and training for life’s biggest transitions.

Ben Pyykkonen, PhD is a clinical psychologist/neuropsychologist, associate professor, and director of the doctoral program in Clinical Psychology at Wheaton College. He is also a practicing clinician and director of neuropsychology at Meier Clinics of Wheaton.

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Being a Pastor: A Perilous Profession, Part 1