Earlier this year, American megachurch pastor Pete Wilson resigned from his position at Nashville’s Cross Point Church, telling his 7,000 strong congregation he was “tired and broken”. The 42-year-old pastor added, “Leaders who lead on empty don’t lead well and for some time now I’ve been leading on empty.”
Sadly, this is not an isolated incident. It is estimated that some 1,500 pastors leave pastoral ministry each month in the USA, many due to burnout. UK statistics are harder to come by, but I myself have come to the edge of burnout more than once. And I’m not the only one.
Different types of work have varied pressures, and church leaders are not the only ones who feel squeezed. But there are some pressures that pastors frequently feel. There is never a measurable end to their work with people, and people (you and me included!) can sometimes be very draining. Our ministers probably work more unsocial hours than many of us. While there are lazy pastors, in my experience there are more overworking ones, deeply conscious of their responsibilities to watch over the men and women under their care. They certainly work more than one day a week (!) – it’s more usually six, and it sometimes drifts unhealthily up towards seven.
All this presents a serious challenge to congregations. Are we helping our pastors to keep going for the long haul in ministry, or are we hindering them? It is a wonderful blessing to have a good church leader who watches over us, prays for us and teaches us the good news. It’s so easy to undervalue them.
In scripture we are told that “The elders who direct the affairs of the church well are worthy of double honour, especially those whose work is preaching and teaching”. Paul compares such elders to hardworking oxen treading out the grain – a realistic but unflattering metaphor (1 Timothy 5:17-18)!
It is a wonderful blessing to have a good pastor
What does it mean to treat good, hard-working pastors with “double honour”? How can we make their work “a joy, not a burden” (Hebrews 13:17)? Good leaders do better with good church members, and good church members thrive under good leadership. It does us no good to have a pastor collapse, so if only for our own self-interest, we need to look after them. Here are five ways we can take seriously our responsibility to make our pastors’ lives a joy and not a life-sapping burden:
1. Value them…
Honour means value. To give “double honour” means to show them you genuinely value them for who they are and what they do. The world will not value them. The world – perhaps including non-Christian wider family – will not understand the worth of what they do. Some have come from senior, responsible jobs that the world counts significant. Now, when they are asked at a party what they do, eyes glaze over as their questioner looks over their shoulder to find someone more interesting with whom to speak. And it hurts.
Show them you grasp how much benefit you get from their leadership, prayers and preaching. Look out for every opportunity to thank them when their ministry has blessed you.
Don’t take them for granted. Tell them you are praying – not just in general, but for this Sunday’s sermon or some upcoming ministry engagement of which you have read about in the church prayer diary. Ask them how it went. Express appreciation. Not to flatter them, but to encourage them to keep on being hard-working oxen treading out the grain.
2. …But don’t make celebrities of them
Value is not the same as flattery. We want to say, “I thank God for you; thank you for being a blessing to me in this way.” We don’t want to say, “Wow! You are impressive! What a star pastor! You are up there with the big names on the Christian internet!” This will only feed the worldly culture of celebrity, which is a cruel slave driver. The moment your church leader derives worth and identity from the praise of people, they are on the downward slope towards burnout. You want them to be secure in Christ and to let them know that your thanks are because they have been faithful – especially when that faithfulness has been quiet and away from the public eye.
3. Be realistic in financial and practical support
The concrete ways you show them you grasp the value of what they do is how you support them financially and in practical ways.
When a congregation tells their pastor they value the ministry, but neglect to support the pastor financially, their lack of practical action undermines their warm words and show them up as empty talk.
A warning to pastors
If you are a pastor reading this, you need to heed a biblical warning. Don’t ever think ‘that godliness is a means to financial gain’ (1 Timothy 6:5), but be ‘eager to serve’ (1 Peter 5:2), whatever the cost to you. Do all you can to bring the gospel to men and women, even if you get nothing in return (1 Corinthians 9:1-18). Serve your congregation wholeheartedly
What communicates to you – if you are in employment – that your employer values you? It’s not just their words or formal assessments, but what they pay you and what perks they give you. A well-paid job says, “This work is important; we really do value you.” If you’re in a position to decide how much remuneration your pastor will receive, ask yourself what a hardworking family breadwinner in your area might reasonably be expected to earn; then put together a package for your pastor which is comparable to this. Take into account:
Housing – either house the minister and family or make sure they have enough to rent or begin to buy a house in your area.
Salary – what will they need to sustain a reasonable standard of living that will enable them to live neither in luxury nor in continual financial stress?
Utilities – if the pastor’s home is also used as a workplace, and perhaps a church office, you should consider giving towards utilities (water, gas, electricity, internet, mobile phone etc).
Books and digital resources – you should expect your church leader to study. But these resources are expensive, so allow a realistic amount as a ministry expense.
Pension – it is a scandal when men and women in Bible-teaching ministries for a lifetime have no possible provision for pension income. What provision do you expect to be possible for yourself? Make sure something comparable is in place.
How pastors can protect themselves from burnout
Sometimes God calls us to burn out in zeal for Jesus Christ and his gospel. That has been the case for countless Christians down the ages, and supremely for the martyrs. But not all burnout is unavoidable. Some of it comes as the bitter fruit of our own pride, when we fail to take a regular day off (thinking we don’t need it), when we burn the candle at both ends (thinking we can get away with too little sleep, month after month), when we neglect the God-given means of refreshing our bodies and souls. Safeguard yourself against needless burnout by:
? Guarding one full day off each week carefully; this is all too frequently neglected.
? Making sure your regular routine allows enough time for healthy sleep. If there is a regular late evening meeting, make sure there’s not an early morning one the next day.
? Maintain healthy long-term friendships.
? Prioritise activities which energise you and put a new spring in your step.
4. Support their families
If a pastor is married, make sure both of the ministry couple know – through your words and practical deeds – that each of their roles, including the one who helps and supports, is deeply appreciated. Remember that your pastor’s family responsibilities will be a higher priority under God than their role as your pastor. There may be times when your own demands as members of the church need to take a definite (and perhaps painful) second place to the urgent and important needs of the pastor’s family.
5. Keep them lovingly accountable
There is nothing like having good, faithful Christian friends who watch over us, ask us the hard questions and keeps us up to the mark in Christian zeal and Christ-like living. I thank God for a number, over the years, who have been prayer partners and with whom I have been able to be deeply honest and vulnerable. Remember that your pastors need this kind of loving accountability as much as anyone else. Some will prefer to have this from close friends within the church (perhaps two or three of the non-pastoral senior members of the church); others will find this accountability from others outside the church.
Someone needs to ask them if they are sleeping well, if they’re looking after their family, if they are guarding their weekly day off and if they’re getting rest and refreshment. The shared leadership of the church must act, if they are not, to make it possible for them to do these things, and to exhort them to do them if they are unwilling.
The best and the worst of times
It is a sad and destructive thing to watch a church destroy its leader by disobeying these clear Bible commands. Such a church does not deserve a pastor. From time to time I am asked to help a church find a new leader, but it becomes clear from their past history they have a track record of destroying them. This may be by bitter conflicts, or by unreasonable and unrealistic expectations of when the pastor will be available to see people, or to visit. Sometimes it comes from lamentably inadequate financial support or inappropriate housing. Or from a constant drip of destructive criticism. Some are just thoughtless about making provision for necessary ministry expenses, so that a staff member feels bad about any spending of the church’s money. Whatever the causes, how terrible, both for the wounded ministers and for the whole church.
But how wonderful to see a church supporting their pastors! Several have mentioned lovely babysitters who have become good friends of their families; another spoke of a creative Christmas hamper as a special thank you after a painful and sad year in family life. Let it be our concern that positive testimonies will be given by our pastors and their families about the way we value them.
Christopher Ash has served as an assistant pastor, as a pastor leading a church plant, and as director of the Proclamation Trust’s Cornhill Training Course in London, UK. He is now writer-in-residence at Tyndale House in Cambridge and is the author of several books including Zeal without Burnout (The Good Book Company)