What does it take for pastors to survive and thrive in ministry?

This was the key question asked in an eight-year study funded by the Lilly Endowment that I had the privilege to coordinate through Covenant, Reformed, and Westminster Seminaries. 

Why is this question important? Because many indicators—from personal stories quietly shared between friends to sophisticated research projects—all point to the fact that staying in pastoral ministry for the long haul can be tough sledding.

In God’s economy, pastoral ministry is not better than other vocations. But it is different. One pastor in our study explained, “Most people in our church have a life that is like a stool with three legs. They’ve got their spiritual life, their professional life, and their family life. If one of these legs wobbles, they have two others they can lean on. For us, those three things can merge into one leg. You’re sitting on a one-legged stool, and it takes a lot more concentration and energy. It’s a lot more exhausting.”

After hundreds of hours of meeting with pastors and their spouses, then working through the data, our research team identified five primary themes for fruitful ministry, which are shared in the book Resilient Ministry. While these themes aren’t the holy grail of ministry survival, my co-authors and I believe each one plays an important role in pastoral resilience.

The themes are (1) spiritual formation, (2) self-care, (3) emotional and cultural intelligence, (4) marriage and family, and (5) leadership and management. Although we wrote two chapters on each theme, I will simply introduce you to each one, highlighting a few ideas to consider.

1. Spiritual Formation

Spiritual formation involves both personal and interpersonal growth as a follower of Jesus. Most assume that people in vocational ministry take ample time to nurture the gospel in their souls, as well as maintain accountable relationships and other disciplines. But the pastors in our study shared how they had to manage jobs that were taxing, fast-paced, and unrelenting. This could lead to substituting church work for involvement in spiritual formation.

At the same time, after interviewing most of our pastors, one of our researchers concluded that their devotional practices directly correlated with their preparedness and ability to face difficult situations and trials.

2. Self-Care

Proper self-care is simply responsible stewardship of the life one has to serve others—what Paul meant by running the race in such a way as to win the prize. This includes taking care of yourself mentally, emotionally, socially and physically. For example, one study identified 76 percent of clergy as either overweight or obese, compared to 61 percent of the general population. 

A critical aspect of self-care in ministry is identifying safe, trustworthy relationships. Relationships in the church overlap all kinds of boundaries. For example, one day you may be counseling an elder about his sexual temptations; a few days later he is setting your salary. As one pastor put it, “Who can I talk to without any fear of how it might affect me or others?”

3. Emotional and Cultural Intelligence

Emotional and cultural intelligence reflects the capacity to understand oneself and others. Over the past several months it has been instructive to read and watch how Christians have responded to the problems in Ferguson, Missouri. Much of these responses reflect EQ (understanding and responding to emotion) and CQ (the ability to understand and adapt to cultural conditions).

It has been encouraging to read Justin Taylor’s blog and Ed Stetzer’s series in Christianity Today, as well as watch congregations like South City Fellowship in St. Louis respond to this crisis with thoughtfulness and action. The capacity of pastors to manage their feelings and responses in such challenging contexts shapes and forms their ministries as well as the message they send to a watching world.

4. Marriage and Family

There is a strong tendency among pastors to make an idol of ministry success. A sad outcome of this idol is seen in the comment of one pastor’s wife, who shared, “I think the heart of the issue is actually as a pastor you have two wives. You have your wife at home and your wife that is the church. Often that second wife dominates.”

Most of the pastors in our study ended up talking with their spouses about the need to place boundaries on the demands of ministry in order to responsibly care for their families. As one pastor said, “I’m challenged to minister to my spouse in the same ways that I minister to my flock. My family gets the scraps.”

5. Leadership and Management

Pastoral ministry demands a wide variety of varying job responsibilities. However, studies dating back to the 1950s show that pastors are surprised by the number of leadership and management tasks involved in their work.

One of the most important things pastors must learn under this theme is to manage conflict. While conflict fits into leadership and management, it involves all of the other themes. Remember that our researcher found a direct correlation between pastors’ devotional lives and how they handled difficulties.

An earlier study we referenced determined that Presbyterian pastors had higher rates of conflict with their congregations than pastors from other denominations. The reasons for such conflict were not primarily theological. Rather, they came from issues involving emotional and cultural intelligence, such as leadership style, financial decisions, and leading change. Conflict is natural and normal in relationships. How that conflict is handled makes all the difference.

So, besides recommending that you read our book, and others such as Paul Tripp’s Dangerous Calling and Clay Werner’s On the Brink, where do you go with all of this counsel? I’d recommend beginning a conversation with a friend or two. Talk about how these themes affect you. And what you plan to do about it.