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Vocational Ministry Takes Toll on Many Ministers

The church is my people, and in the depth of my being I believe the church is the best hope for the world.

I gladly take my place in the imperfect, idiosyncratic, international family called the church. I also know that serving her is not for the faint of heart.

A lot of the folks who start out optimistically in ministry will spend most of their vocational lives selling shoes, real estate or retirement plans.

Lots of newly called ministers decide at the outset to serve in some ministry role other than on staff of an existing church. They’ve heard too many bad stories from those who’ve been there.

What ministers do is hard. New studies seem to be coming out monthly noting the crisis of hurt and burnout among vocational ministers. The research is both alarming and consistent.

Pastors’ waistlines and blood pressures are also higher than the average citizen’s. Certainly, some of that comes from a surprising shortage of self-discipline and a shameful lack of self-care.

We’ve got to own that, but some of our health problems are certainly a result of the stress of the job.

So is the fact that depression is becoming a widespread curse of vocational ministry and the life expectancy of ministers is falling.

Pastor-types always have had our problems. A desire to please everybody – a common trait among ministers – never has served us well.

Projection onto the pastor of congregants’ anger at parents or God or bad bosses also has forever been an occupational hazard.

Moral failures of ministers might get more press in recent years, but they aren’t new.

And bullies who can’t get away with intimidation at work always have found the church to be an easy place to push people around.

Those issues aren’t of recent origin. But something’s different nowadays.

In her article, “Clergy Compassion Fatigue,” Sheri Ferguson noted that “radical changes in our society over the past 50 years have fundamentally redefined the very nature of what it means to be in ministry.”

Ministers are beat up, fed up and ready to give up. Ministers have been shot down, dragged down, put down, cut down, worn down and beaten down. Like never before, it seems.

I was able to enjoy the role of pastor, enjoy years of fruitfulness and then respond prayerfully and deliberately, not react impulsively, to the new call when it came.

My ability to make a calm and confident decision came largely from the work of the spirit via Acts 20:28.

Following my brush with burnout and my flirtation with flame-out, I have a passion for fellow vocational ministers that I didn’t have before.

I have a large and tender spot in my chest cavity for pastors now. I know that what you and others do is not easy.

When I hear another story of an embattled pastor or church staff member, and I hear those stories increasingly often, I literally have a visceral reaction now.

In days gone by, when I heard about a minister under pressure I’d think, “Bummer.” Now I get a sick feeling in my stomach.

I write, then, not as a disinterested academician. I write as one whose pain is a clear memory.

Yet I write as one now who is healthy and strong and confident. And as one who hurts for those who are not.

In my new role, I am having conversations with multiple congregations and multiple ministers every week.

And the more I learn, the more I realize how hard vocational ministry is and how badly the church needs good, servant leaders who are living out a biblical model for that ministry.

It’s simply not helpful for ministers to carp about how uncooperative and inflexible our congregations are, for example, unless we are simultaneously admitting our ineptness at navigating change.

And I am not sympathetic when I hear ministers who’ve been terminated demonize the congregation without also owning up to their own contributions to the painful situation.

Rare is the minister who is a completely innocent party in a church brouhaha. We are often part of the problem.

Truth is, there are some vocational ministers with significant issues. If there is a dysfunction in the church, it might be centered in the church office.

Not every criticism of ministers is valid, of course. However, a good dose of the criticism, at least the criticism that has come my way over the years, has been warranted.

I love ministers, and I don’t mean to bash members of the ministerial fraternity. I simply want to warn all of us against automatically jumping to the conclusion that we are innocent victims of ruthless congregations.

Some of us who are in trouble at our churches haven’t “kept watch over” ourselves. We are not always the guiltless prey of cold-hearted troublemakers.

Travis Collins is director of mission advancement and Virginia regional coordinator with Fresh Expressions US, a ministry of the Virginia Baptist Mission Board. He is also coordinator of the Center for Healthy Churches’ regional center in Virginia and previously served as pastor of Bon Air Baptist Church in Richmond, Virginia.

Editor’s note: This article is adapted from his book, “For Ministers About to Start … Or About to Give Up,” which is available here. Collins was an interviewee in EthicsDaily.com’s faith and prisons documentary, “Through the Door.”