25 listopadu, 2014

The Beauty and the Curse of Full-time Ministry

In 2014 the Fuller Institute, Barna Institute and the Pastoral Care Institute published statistics regarding pastors. Here are some of the numbers: 90% of pastors work between 55 and 75 hours a week, 80% believe their pastoral ministry has negatively affected their families, 95% do not pray regularly with their spouses, 90% feel that the schools where they studied did not adequately prepare them for ministry, 90% claimed that the ministry was completely different than what they had expected before they entered the ministry, 50% would leave the ministry if they thought they could find other another job, 70% have no close friends…(see more at  http://www.pastoralcareinc.com/statistics/)

They are not very encouraging statistics, although I did choose only some of them. Certainly we cannot read into them how it is in individual denominations, and so it would be misleading to try to apply the statistics to “your” denomination or church, or to judge your pastor in light of the statistics. Someone could say that they are only statistics from the USA and that it is better over here. I don’t know… I have been grappling with the problems associated with pastoral ministry for a long while, and from whatever standpoint you look at it, I think it is safe to say that we all would agree that pastoral ministry brings not only joy, but also more than one worry and a lot of stress. As with all statistics, even here we must seek the answer to how to interpret the statistics. At first glance, it seems clear. Being in the ministry (whether as a priest, pastor, minister, preacher) can sometimes feel like walking through a minefield. It is a risky venture.

The statistics can be read in another light, however: What kind of people become pastors or full-time Christian workers? If so many are failing, is not the problem, perhaps, that many are recruited to positions for which they are not qualified, and that is the reason they end up as they are? There is no easy answer to this question, although certain clues are there. The work of a pastor falls in the category of so-called “helping professions”. That is, a profession in which, on the one hand, there is the beautiful goal of helping others, and on the other hand, a never-ending feeling that the work is never finished. Helping professions carry within themselves a certain risk that has recently been well written about in great detail in academic publications. There is a certain risk that these professions draw not only capable people of strong character, but also people who are greatly unbalanced themselves—people who, usually unconsciously, try to solve their own problems by beginning to help others. Czech author A. Green, a leading Catholic friar, captures such cases in his quip: “When I cannot reform myself, I start to reform the monastery” (i.e., others).

What risks are involved with helping others? There are immediately several. In one way, you gain power and influence over others; then comes the feeling of being irreplaceable. In some fields (for example, in the church or in Christian organizations) there is also a freedom bordering on complete unaccountability concerning the work involved and how time is spent, which for some is a very enticing prospect. Another “bonus” and false motivation can be that you don’t have to deal with the unending tension between work and ministry, and sometimes you can be tempted by (at least in the church and in parachurch organizations) the opportunity to become a leader relatively quickly, without having to show any fundamental leadership abilities. It is also enticing to have others listen to you. Sometimes introverts are drawn to helping professions, because it helps certain deficits which often accompany having an introverted personality. Lastly, there is also the danger of exhibitionism, most of all to those who preach, lecture and lead, and the danger to some of being drawn into very close relationships with those of the opposite gender. NONE of these risks that I have mentioned has to be true for everyone. NONE of these represents the general character of pastors or those in ministry. I am simply pointing out certain possible risks for those who take on such work. How does this relate to the above-mentioned statistics? It relates in that the problems of pastors correlate not only to how difficult their work is, but also to what kind of people are taking on that work. If the wrong type of person becomes a pastor, it is not a surprise that his work will eventually overtake him; that he cannot meet the expectations which are placed on him. The result is stress, various addictions, etc…—see. the statistics.

Now we come to the next fundamental question, which is: What are the criteria in the selection of pastors? Certainly in the Bible there are specific criteria, where Scripture clearly gives preference to character over abilities. It gives very wise criteria, which cannot be easily pushed aside. Every denomination, and probably every mission organization, has certain criteria, by which they choose their candidates. Judging by the statistics, either their criteria are inadequate or the position of a pastor is too difficult, or perhaps another possibility exists: the mechanisms in place to help pastors survive are too ineffective.

I myself have always been against feeling sorry for pastors, especially when I see how difficult a position many have in secular work. At the same time, I do believe that pastors do not have it easy. So what is there to do? How does one prevent burnout? The constant sense of being overwhelmed, falling behind and stressed?

I will try to point out a few solutions. Many pastors experience loneliness; I can relate. Their work is solitary in many ways; sometimes they are even “alone in a crowd”, and loneliness can sometimes lead to depression. It is necessary for pastors to actively seek out friends; to not hide behind the cliché that pastors cannot have normal relationships with people, because no one understands them. Others do/do not understand us in the same way we understand others. Jesus and Paul had deep friendships; why would the same not be true for pastors?

Another stress factor can be the feeling that one’s effort is not adequate in getting results: when things are going wrong, the fault lies with the pastor; when things are going well, it is because of God’s blessing… A person sometimes needs to see results, however, and maybe even hear that it is worth it, that his/her work has meaning and purpose. Not everyone is strong enough to endure only on the knowledge that one’s treasure is being stored up in heaven. That is why it is important for a pastor to have someone around who can encourage him/her.

An additional stress factor among many pastors is their lifestyle. A lot could be written about this subject, but sitting, drinking too much coffee and eating too much food, along with often resolving conflicts, having little exercise and unclear work hours…these just do not build one up. When we read the New Testament, we see that Jesus as well as Paul did manual labor, spent most of their time outdoors and walked a lot. Today we would say they “lived a healthy lifestyle”—basically, they weren’t sedentary.     

Another problem, which we actually see in the statistics, is that many pastors do not feel adequately prepared for their ministry. Let me give a personal example. I graduated from three different schools, two of them theological schools. But then I came in contact with the reality of the church…suddenly you are called on to bury someone who has committed suicide, solve psychological problems you didn’t even know existed, someone threatens to kill you, you learn about domestic violence and don’t know what you can and cannot tell the police, you counsel people going through divorce, you are blamed because someone has left the church because of you, you don’t know many computer programs, without which today you cannot get anything done, you give a series of sermons on which you have diligently prepared and several Sundays in a row no one prays after the sermon (in our church denomination, it is customary for people to pray aloud after the sermon), sometimes someone even falls asleep, you publish an article like this one and are accused of trying to slander someone, someone threatens to sue you because you supposedly said something about him/her at some point, you give a ride to someone from the church who has almost drank himself to death, you are a part of the splitting up of the church, etc… I am not complaining. In fact, I have chosen only the worst to present. There are and have been many wonderful things I have experienced which outweigh the bad. My theological school, however, basically did not prepare me for what I just described. I don’t blame the school, and neither do I think that I failed to pay attention during classes on practical theology. But for me to hold up under similar things without stress, I can either become cynical, which I don’t want, or I can turn them all over to the Lord and allow others to help bear the burden. At the same time, I am learning to live not only for these and similar things. Once you focus only on the described areas, the whole church begins to look bleak and stress is not far away. You cannot allow that. In addition, because of the changing nature of the world we live in, it is practically a given that pastors must seek new sources of inspiration. The school you graduated from just doesn’t suffice.

One thought in conclusion. As we consider the frequent exodus of many pastors from active ministry and the many warning factors contained in these statistics, it is perhaps worth rethinking the process of hiring pastoral candidates as well as seeking how to apply a system of supervision within the framework of the church. It is surely a huge challenge. Our day and age will see more and more complicated questions and challenges put forth, and it is therefore even more important for individual denominations to have in their leadership not only people who are godly, but also people who are called and who are in the right place.

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