How to Be Resilient and Last a Lifetime in Ministry

At Heritage Counseling Center, we see Church leaders as Frontliners in the work of the Gospel. Pastors and their families work every day with emotional, relational, financial and spiritual stress. This work has unique challenges. The pay is usually less or even far less than a typical wage in the community served. The work is personal—very personal. The work is almost always thought of as 24/7—even vacations are not off limits to an interrupting call or demand. The work all too often interrupts or even precludes substantial family and marriage bonding. Yet…the Work is important with eternal consequences. It comes with a Call—what many pastors see as a mandate in life. Working with people is more energy demanding and difficult to detach from; certainly not something you can simply toggle off. We say Frontlines because that is the place where casualties pile up. It is also the place where the line moves with everlasting significance.  

A bible in a church pulpit overlooking the church

All pastors, all Church leaders fear being relegated to statistic status—a name with the proverbial asterisk next to it. A few stats I read recently motivate me to continue with what we do which is to partner with Church leaders. The hope is to prevent a few more asterisks. 

  • 70% of pastors report they have a  lower self-image now  than when they first started. 
  • 70%  of pastors do not have someone they consider to be a close friend. 
  • 27% of pastors report not having anyone to turn to for help in a crisis situation. 
  • 34% of pastors wrestle with the temptation of pornography or visits pornographic sites.  
  • 57%  of pastors feel fulfilled but yet discouraged, stressed, and fatigued.  
  • 84% of pastors desire to have close fellowship with someone they can trust and confide with. 
  • 30% of churches have no documentation clearly outlining what the church expects of their pastor. 
  • 1 out of every 10 pastors will actually retire as a pastor.  

Pastoralcareinc.com 

That last one, is a concern for all of us. “Many denominations are reporting an ‘Empty Pulpit Crisis’.  They do not have a shortage of ministers but have a shortage of ministers desiring to fill the role of a pastor.” Combine this concern with the fact that only one in ten pastors actually retire as a pastor and you might worry about the leadership vacuum that might only escalate without some adjustments. This begs the question: how does one develop resiliency and sustainability in ministry? That is a question for the ages! How do you last? How do you last AND remain strong? 

I realize a short article is not going to give you all you need to have that bounce back capability and grow old enough to become Pastor Emeritus. That is why Heritage Counseling Center is having a special focus this year to assist all Church leaders, moreover pastors in becoming more resilient with staying power. We really do consider ourselves partners in ministry in a supportive role. For now, here are some ideas to bolster resiliency and sustainability amongst Church leaders. 

Work at being whole people. People who are less than whole tend to become even more diminished in relationships. They also can be diminishing to others. I first heard this concept from Henry Cloud—ironically while he was speaking at Willow Creek Church. The idea that when a couple gets married where scripture teaches the two shall become one is a multiplication concept not addition. One times one equals one, however a half times a half equals only a quarter. If you enter into a relationship less than whole, the result is less not more wholeness for you and the other person(s). Of course, we are all diminished on some levels, so I am not talking perfection but as a principle.  

Typically, a pastor along with his/her spouse not only desire that oneness with each other but then in a different way, there is a hope for strong and healthy relationships with the ones you serve. Again, if you begin this work from a ‘less than’ state, it is more likely the work itself will reduce you and the quality of your life at home and at Church. This is not to say you cannot be effective from a less than state. God uses weakness in amazing and powerful ways. Thus, the focus on developing resiliency here. 

I would say a whole person might be defined as being fully alive—including a full range of emotions without being dominated by them or denying them, in all areas of one’s life: spiritually, cognitively and relationally.  

Perhaps this is a heart of flesh rather than a heart of stone. A heart of flesh is flexible, certainly vulnerable, but most certainly resilient. It is also responsive and aware, intuitive and innovative, undivided and has margin. A hardened heart is cold, brittle, inflexible and most certainly not resilient—once injured, always injured, divided and over-margined. An impenetrable heart is by definition overly defended. A product of wholeness on the other hand is resiliency and endurance.  

Certain emotions are especially tough to cope with: fear, conflict, worry, boredom, stress, rejection, abandonment, disapproval…you get the idea. These feelings can become so intense they are hard to live with; moreover painful. At times one might take intentional steps to avoid them or control life events in order to minimize feeling them. This would be a strategic error. All of these feelings were created in you for godly reasons—to keep your fleshy heart…flesh.  

But life is painful and at times, so painful! Pain leads us to flinch and protect so we don’t feel it. The problem with taking this approach to life pain is that it doesn’t heal pain but rather maintains and/or fuels it.  When pain is dominating your thoughts and prayers to the detriment of the rest of your life components, you are operating from a diminished state. Again, you can be an effective minister from this place, but it is less likely you will sustain that ministry.  

One could attempt to escape from this pain in various ways, but the pain doesn’t really subside. It’s kind of like a hip replacement surgery. After surgery (I have heard), the goal is to begin moving. The patient is given pain meds so he can start moving asap, even an hour after surgery. This to restore range of motion and prevent atrophy. After the pain meds wear off however, the temptation is to focus on managing pain through avoidance and minimizing movement. I’m not a doctor but my understanding is eventually scar tissue builds up leading to less and less ability to move (and continued pain despite the effort to avoid). 

With all of this in mind, it seems necessary to develop an ability to live and move through the pain (i.e. any of the above listed emotions) with little effort to avoid or overly control life events that might push too hard on the inflammation. How does one do that?   

For now, just start with noticing how you live (or don’t live) and move (or don’t move) through your painful feelings. Identify how you avoid them? Identify how you attempt to control life events and perhaps even people in order to prevent feeling anything like fear, disappointment, failure, rejection, etc. What are the specific activators to your anxiety about any of these painful feelings? This could be people, places, events or even thoughts and ideas. Some people micro-manage, some check out of relationships into a temporary virtual relationship via porn or online gaming, some drink or get high, some rage, some appease, some clean and clean and clean, some daydream…a lot. What do you do? Where do you go? To whom do you go? Whom do you avoid? 

I have a couple more parts to this article. Part two will have a unique take on mindfulness and part three will give a perspective on what healthy proximity looks like in ministry and family relationships.  This whole three-part article is to help you become more resilient and develop a ministry you can sustain. 

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