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Six Ways Pastors Struggle: You Are Not Alone

Pretending pastors don't struggle is a recipe for disaster.
Six Ways Pastors Struggle: You Are Not Alone
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When pastors go into ministry, we don't leave behind all of the struggles that define the human reality in which we live. Like others, we struggle with any number of things each day—interpersonal relationships, our marriages, as parents, with our health, with our self image.

And for some pastors, our struggles can go in one of two directions—either we hide them and try to deal with them in isolation, or we openly share that we, like everyone else, have a lot on our minds.

The unfortunate reality is that too many of us choose the former option. This is not necessarily because we don’t want to share, but because we either don’t know how, or we don’t feel safe. It is not easy to preach a sermon on healthy marriages even as our own is hanging from a thread. Nor is it easy to talk about the impact of sin when we are wrestling ourselves with our own addiction to porn, alcohol, technology…you pick your poison.

As a pastor, let me share six unique ways that pastors struggle. My hope is that this short list will allow both leaders and their congregations the opportunity to begin to ask, “How can we change our situation?”

First, pastors struggle with identity.

Pastors generally have three identities they need to balance: their perceived religious identity, their cultural identity, and their own identity. I remember some years back going over to a neighbor’s house. We didn’t know them well, but they knew I was a pastor. When we first came over to their house, they said it was like Jesus was visiting the house.

Well, I assure you that there is a big difference between Jesus and me! Yet because of my religious identity, this was how they perceived me. It was as though I had some kind of spiritual perfection, which is daunting to try and live up to.

As pastors, we must remind people that we aren’t the people with all the answers—we are simply there to point people to the person who does have all the answers.

Tied into our religious identity is our cultural identity. Pastors are on display, living in a fishbowl which can show the good, the bad, and the ugly. You probably have two to three times the people who attend your church on a weekly basis who are aware of who you are and your church, and they are watching. You know that, and (if you have children) so do they.

Finally, there is our own identity—the person we really are when are alone and when we are with our family.

Second, pastors struggle with community.

How do you get into community with people who either put you too high on a pedestal or watch for your every fault and failure? It is critical to find people, hopefully in your church, hopefully involving your elders and leaders, with whom you can build healthy community.

Sometimes these people are outside of your church, and that’s okay. Sometimes this can be in a cohort of other pastors and leaders. Our accountability and community can also come from church structures like our boards or ecclesiastical structures.

Someone once asked me, "Are you fully disclosed to anyone? Is there anyone to whom you are fully disclosed, other than your wife? If you don't have that, you probably don't have that close-knit community." I personally do have a couple people I am fully disclosed to and a group of people I consider close friends who speak into my life.

Pastoral ministry can sometimes elevate us out of community in a very unhelpful and unhealthy way. So we must be vigilant.

Third, pastors struggle with boundaries.

As pastors, we must remember that we cannot have a deep personal relationship with everyone in the church. We want to shepherd them to the degree that we can. If the church is larger, we will primarily shepherd them through the teaching on Sunday mornings. Or find other creative ways that fill us and utilize our gifts and passions.

But we need to have boundaries and know when to say yes and no. Many pastors feel they'll be penalized if they say no to anything. We simply can’t say yes to everything. Last week, two students at Dallas Seminary came up to me with a very focused quesiton. They said, "We just got one question for you. How do you tell people that you can't do things so that you can maintain the boundaries?"

I simply responded with, "I tell them the reason." A lot of times I'll say something like, "No, I'm so sorry. I made a commitment to Donna, my wife, that I'm going to be at this." Or I'll say, "This is actually the time when I've committed to my family." Or I'll often say, "I can't do that and keep up with the other things that I know I have to do, and still be a good husband and a good father."

Boundaries mean learning to say no. They also mean having healthy relationships. Not every relationship is a deep, abiding relationship.

Fourth, pastors struggle with accountability.

Accountability means different things to different people. If you're a pastor or a church leader, you are not accountable to everybody. You're not accountable to the internet. You're not accountable to Twitter. You're accountable to your elders.

You're accountable, if you're church has congregational polity, to your congregation. In a sense, whether your congregational or not, you're accountable to your congregation. Where I work, I am accountable to my boss, Margaret Diddams, and to a board, and then to a sub-board. I'm accountable to President Phil Ryken. I'm also accountable to the places where I partner—Moody Radio, Highpoint Church.

I don’t just have accountability, I value it.

But here's the thing: in an unhealthy world, you're accountable to everyone. In a healthy world, you have true, submitted accountability to the right people. Again, in a church, if you're a senior pastor, it is probably to a board and maybe ultimately to your church.

Believe it or not, there's a real freedom in true accountability.

Fifth, pastors struggle psychologically.

According to a Lifeway Research study, 23 percent of pastors indicated that they had struggled psychologically with 12 percent of pastors saying it was diagnosed (the other 11 saying it was undiagnosed).

Here's the challenge: you can't talk about this in a lot of settings. I have a friend who actually lost a job because of mental illness, and he said, "I want to be able to come out of the medicine cabinet, the medicine closet." There’s this sense that he can't say, "You know what? I'm taking medication because of depression."

This is one of the reasons that on Friday, December 6th, we will be gathering together Rick Warren, Ruth Haley Barton, Derwin Gray, a number of counselors, and many others to talk about depression, burnout, mental health issues, and more.

Phil Ryken, President of Wheaton College, is going to talk about how he struggled with suicidal ideation. Pastors struggle psychologically, and to acknowledge that makes a very important difference because that way we can find help and partners in the mental health community.

Finally, pastors struggle spiritually.

As pastors, it can be challenging to be seen and perceived as being the voice of God in a context. I don't want people to see me that way. Instead, I want them to see me as someone who points to the person who has all the answers.

I, too, struggle spiritually. There are times I'm not faithful in the Word. There are times when I struggle with my prayer life. In those times, I need to share that with people to whom I’m accountable.

If you're a pastor or a church leader, I want to encourage you to find boundaries, community, and accountability, and a mental health counselor if you need that. We all will struggle, but let's struggle in accordance with the teachings of the Bible, in community, in accountability, seeking to grow spiritually so as to grow in our own discipleship and our own witness.

Ed Stetzer is executive director of the Billy Graham Center.

The Exchange team assisted with this article.

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Six Ways Pastors Struggle: You Are Not Alone