Guest Blogger: Jason Helopoulos
Statistics regarding pastors are not encouraging. The Francis Schaeffer Institute of Church Leadership Development reports that 35-40% of ministers last less than 5 years in the ministry. Many statistics show that 60-80% of those who enter the ministry will no longer be laboring in the ministry 10 years later. Whether these statistics are right or not, it is clear that there are struggles with persevering in the ministry. I would suggest that the reasons below are the greatest struggles to perseverance in the ministry (though you are welcome to add others in the comments). As we consider each, I want to offer a little encouragement to young pastors and aspiring seminarians:
Conflict: This is arguably one of the biggest surprises to young pastors. Conflict happens in the church; and it happens all the time. Those in ministry will often be called upon to mediate conflict, navigate the waters of a conflict, and are regularly the target of much conflict. Pastors will find that there are hateful, petty, arrogant, rude, brooding, and discontent people in their congregations. Unfortunately, and coming as a surprise to many pastors, is the fact that the unconverted don’t tend to cause the majority of conflict; it is the converted who often launch the hardest persecutions. As William Still one said, “They want their part of the Gospel or their emphasis, usually that which they wrongly think does not touch them, call upon them, or challenge them.” It is also the true that pastors are often the source of conflict themselves. Sin, errors in judgment, and mistakes in leadership can cause firestorms.
Encouragement: When pastors are engaged in conflict, they must search their own hearts to see if their passions are out of control (James 4:1-2). Has sin had a way with them? This must be their first and foremost concern. However, most pastors will find that a great deal of conflict in the church will not be a result of their own personal sin. To survive, a pastor must not carry every burden and conflict. There are times to “let go” and move on. Thick skin and a tender heart are good traits for a pastor. You must teach without fear the whole counsel of God, stand by your convictions, and be winsome; but let the chips fall no matter who may be offended.
Discouragement: What a foe this can be. It can drain zeal and the very life out of ministry. Pastors may labor for years and see very little fruit (1 Corinthians 3:2). Yet, they are called to continued labor. People under your care may continually disappoint. Where you thought progress had been made, there can be a sudden and awful turn to sin with no remorse, repentance, or seeming conviction. You can begin to doubt your own effectiveness, gifts, and even calling.
Encouragement: Look for little glimmers of God’s work and grace. We often miss the small encouragements He sends our way, because we are complaining about not seeing more. Be thankful for every blessing. And continue to allow yourself to be surprised by peoples’ actions and sins. Don’t become cynical. Read good biographies of saints, who labored long and hard for the good of the Kingdom. Find a Barnabus (“Son of Encouragement”) or two (Acts 4:36), who will talk you off the ledge and feed your soul. Lastly, don’t forget that our work is spiritual and the world’s measuring stick is not our measuring stick.
Suffering: This is real and not to be dismissed. We all know that suffering is part of the Christians life (Matthew 10:38; 16:24) and it is often the case that pastors experience this in great measure. This can come in forms as various as persecution, financial hardship, and family trials related to ministry.
Encouragement: Be aware of the persecuted Church and regularly pray for it. It will keep your mind and heart steadied when persecution comes. Expect to suffer and prepare your family for suffering. And when the suffering comes, plead with God that you might grow to see it as a privilege to suffer for the sake of Christ (Philippians 1:27-30). Continue to look to the example of others in church history and to the cross as you seek to persevere.
Burnout: This may be the number one reason pastors give for why they left the ministry. The hours can be long, the phone calls can be late, the concern for others can be unending, there are no three-day weekends, and the vacations can be few. The job can be spiritually, emotionally, and spiritually tiring. In addition, too many men complicate the situation by keeping the candle burning at both ends. The result is that they tend to be exhausted in a few years.
Encouragement: Have a Sabbath each week–keep it, safeguard it, and enjoy it. Don’t feel like you have to be at every event and minister to every person. You aren’t omnipresent or omniscient, so don’t act like it. Take vacations with your family. The men who brag about not using all their vacation days are not super-spiritual, they are super-foolish. Take breaks from email. Schedule regular private retreats where you can spend time alone with the Lord in prayer. Schedule a couple of days every quarter or twice a year. Find people that encourage, refresh, and feed you. I am always on the lookout for a Philemon (Phil. 1:7), who refreshed the souls of those around him. The benefit of these people cannot be overestimated.
Cares of the World: Business, family, money, position, prestige, and ease can be like the Sirens in Greek Mythology. Their cry can be loud and enticing. And when entertained, they can devour.
Encouragement: Consider Demas as a ready warning (Colossians 4:14; 2 Timothy 4:10; Philemon 1:24). None of us are ever beyond these temptations. Recognize where you are most easily seduced, pray with your wife regularly about it, and let your fellow elders know.
Loneliness: The pastorate can be a very lonely place. Everyone in the church knows you (for some pastors, everyone in the community knows you), yet no one “knows” you. Pastors can stumble into the habit of thinking they are above or outside the body of Christ. Pastors can fall into the temptation of thinking that they no longer need others ministering to them. And when this happens, ministry becomes very lonely (and deadly).
Encouragement: Let people know your need of them (Titus 3:12). Don’t be shy about asking for their help, support, love, and friendship. Be willing to allow others to minister to you (Philippians 2:19-29). This requires showing weakness and not pretending to have all the answers all the time. Find someone to pray with regularly–another pastor, elder, lay-leader, or friend. Someone you can share struggles with. A person who will be thrilled to hear about your life, ministry, and will strongly encourage you. Trust your wife, nurture your marriage, and allow her to have a full-view into your soul.
Moral Failure: This is too often the cause for pastors leaving the ministry. Lying, slothfulness, adultery, and coveting tend to lead the list. Nothing is more devastating to the Kingdom or the local church. A pastor’s sin has the potential of touching and affecting a myriad of lives. One fall and an entire church or even an entire community can be discouraged from Christ.
Encouragement: Don’t be busy about Kingdom work and forget Kingdom life. Rise early to pray (Mark 1:35). Refuse to turn in for bed on Saturday night until you are affected with the sermon you will preach Sunday morning. Allow others the freedom to confront you! Your own personal holiness, by God’s grace and according to the work of the Spirit, must be your greatest pursuit. Know and believe what Robert Murray Mc’Cheyne said, “My people’s greatest need is my own personal holiness.” Without a holy pastor they will be like “sheep without a shepherd.” As William Still said, “It is the godly character which is the real pastor, or is the basis of him.”
Perseverance in the ministry will always be a challenge. And in many ways it should be. This itself is a blessing. However, it seems that each year we lose a lot of good men due to one of the reasons above. We should know these trials to ministry, seek to actively combat them, and discuss them with every seminarian and young pastor. Who knows, there may be a few more that persevere as a result. And what a blessing that would be for the Church.