Life for a pastor and his/her family has become more stressful than ever before. Peter Drucker, an organization guru, said, “The four more difficult jobs in America are in no particular order: president of the U.S., university president, hospital CEO and pastor.”1
Back in 2015, Lifeway research demonstrated that 1 in 4 pastors were dealing with mental health issues.2 This was before the pandemic, before the disappearance of our members from our churches, before January 6, before the war in Ukraine and before rising inflation in the U.S.
Ministry is taking place under mounting social, political, theological, congregational and family tensions, uncertainties and conflict that are creating harmful stress in our lives. To all these external factors, we need to add the internal realities:
- A distorted sense of self
- Lack of limits and boundaries
- Lack of friends and mentors which causes isolation
- Lack of satisfactory family relationships, including marriages
- Lack of honesty and transparency with self and others
- Feeling inadequate
- Feeling guilt or shame or both
- Absence of balance in ministry
Ministerial life is complicated to say the least, and the issues plaguing our psyche are many. God’s grace sustains us. However, we have a part to play in attaining and sustaining a fit mind, body and soul to fulfill the personal, family and ministry privileges and responsibilities God has called us to.
- Seek soul renewal. Generations of sin have left us broken. Isaiah reminds us that our heads are sick and our hearts are broken (Is. 1:5–6). If we don’t understand or accept this harsh reality, it is likely we haven’t figured out how much of what we think, feel, do or say is the result of our brokenness. We need to identify and acknowledge our true condition in order to pray and seek genuine healing. As a pastor, I need to realize that Jesus came for me, that salvation is something I need. I must also recognize that the question Jesus asked Bartimaeus in Mark 10:51, “What do you want me to do for you?" is a question not only for the blind Bartimaeus, but also for me.
- Recalibrate your thinking patterns. We must realize that the way we perceive life is impacted and shaped by our early life experiences. Recent studies are showing the devastating physiological and psychological effects of maternal anxiety and depression during pregnancy and after birth on the baby’s developing brain. The stress experienced by and between our parents — emotional and physical neglect and abuse, abandonment, pain and losses — distort the way we experience ourselves and others. Our perceptions, which shape our thinking, which in turn affect our emotions, will impact our behaviors. When our perceptions are faulty, it affects how we listen, how we communicate, how we relate to others and even how we relate to God. Indeed, our whole experience of life will be faulty. We need healing, a recalibrated perception and a renewing of our thinking (Rom. 12:2). John 3:8 reminds us that, “For this purpose the Son of God was manifested, that He might destroy the works of the devil." Jesus confronts us with our past not to judge us, but to reveal to us our desperate need for a Messiah who alone can provide the living water that will satiate our deep soul thirst.
- Be a part of community. We are dying of loneliness. The medical establishment has indicated that loneliness negatively impacts our cardiovascular system and as much as smoking 15 cigarettes a day.3 We were wired by God for connection with Him and with others. We need friends. We need to create and maintain healthy relationships. People who are connected emotionally to others are better adjusted, happier and more productive. Seek out a small group to belong to. Yes you, pastor. You may have to create a small group — possibly of fellow pastors in your area who are also needing a safe community. Jesus created the first Christian small group when He invited John and James to “come and see” (John 1:38). That was the beginning of the Christian church — a gathering of broken individuals united by hope, faith and love. We pastors will benefit from belonging to a community where we can be reminded that we are humans too — a place where we can enjoy growing in faith, love and compassion with ourselves and towards others.
- Find healthy outlets for stress. Matt Brown, author of Awakening and founder of Think Eternity, reminds us, "We are often slow to realize we need a break or are living at an unhealthy pace. As stress builds and work hurls at us at a consistently overwhelming pace, we can find ourselves exhausted, discouraged and not able to fully process pain or rejection. We need healthy, soul-renewing outlets for the daily stresses of spiritual leadership; otherwise, we make ourselves vulnerable to unhealthy, soul-destroying outlets. Enjoying godly friends with whom we can process life, ministry and our pain in prayer, scheduling and protecting regular exercise, vacations and replenishing days off will go a long way in combating daily stressors. Additionally, decluttering, simplifying life, eating healthy-nutritious food, deep breathing, drinking enough water, healthy sleeping habits etc. will also support sustainable health and well-being."4
- Embody what you want people to imitate. As a leader, I cannot effectively coach others to go where I have not yet gone. We need to invite people to where we are. Dave Ferguson recently asked a significant question in the 5 Leadership Questions podcast: “If everyone else lived the way I’m living, would we accomplish the mission?”Ibid
Living authentic, Spirit-fueled lives that reflect our core missional values, experiencing daily healing, growth and maturity in Jesus, and being congruent with our faith and calling to make disciples will generate energy, passion and joy so we can live out our mission-focused calling and purpose, notwithstanding the challenging rigors of spiritual leadership.
3 Julianne Holt-Lunstad, Brigham Young University, April 2015