Tending the Shepherds: Helping Ministers to Thrive

by Chris Adams, Ph.D.

I love pastors. I always have, even before becoming one myself. My parents have been in the music ministry for more than 50 years, which provided a unique training ground for me, as we visited hundreds of pastors’ homes from across many denominations. In doing so, I underwent a kind of seminary training by osmosis—witnessing the deep joys of ministry as well as the sacrifices and difficulties. My paternal grandfather, also a pastor, mainly served small, “clergy-killing” congregations in New England. He set aside the opportunity to inherit the family dairy, and went back to Harvard University for his Master of Divinity. He served faithfully, preaching with depth and excellence and providing remarkable pastoral care. And it cost him dearly.

One particular congregation refused to install heat in the old, drafty parsonage in the middle of a harsh New England winter. My father remembers an old man from one church who would regularly come by the parsonage unannounced just to yell at my grandfather for no good reason. The salary in the early years barely put the family at the poverty level, and my grandfather, at times, would pick up an extra job just to make ends meet.

In those days, no one talked or wrote about clergy health. My grandfather was forced into an early retirement due to a major heart attack in his early 50s—a second one took his life just a decade later. My father recalls my grandfather lying in a hospital bed, grieving as he came to terms with the reality that he would no longer be able to serve full time in pastoral leadership due to his health. He said to my father, “Take care of yourself…you are no good to the Kingdom of God lying flat on your back like this.”

In a recent email exchange, one of my favorite pastors described the joys and challenges of pastoral ministry:“People have no idea how draining pastoral ministry can be. We change hats constantly. Tomorrow, I will grieve with a family as I conduct a funeral, and right after, rejoice with a couple as I perform their wedding. At the hospital, a pastor celebrates with a couple at the arrival of their newborn and then weeps with a family in the ICU, where their loved one is terminal—again, all in the same afternoon—and then returns to the church to do premarital counseling for lovebirds and marriage counseling for a couple who can’t stand each other any longer. We deal every day with the poor and needy in the Church who need financial assistance, and then move into a meeting with highly successful, driven leaders who feel we need to be more of a CEO than a shepherd. We pray for people and carry their burdens, only to have them decide to go to another church and never even say good-bye. We deal with families confronting adultery, alcohol abuse, and many other sins. We are expected to preach well, counsel well, lead the building of a new church, represent the church in our community, cast a great vision, disciple new believers, and meet with several committees who all believe their ministry is the most significant. Every time the phone rings, we wonder if it’s a crisis, or if they just want to get a cup of coffee. And all of this occurs in the first week of the month. What’s coming next week?”

I know this pastor well and can attest to his deep affect for his vocation, like most pastors. Far too many pastors do not take adequate care of themselves. We now know that ministry leaders are at significantly higher risk than those in many other professions for cardiovascular disease, heart attack, stroke, and diabetes. Research verifies that ministry leadership represents a very complex and stressful endeavor, and pastors often do not recognize the sources of stress or its impact on their overall health. Ministry is an adrenaline-demanding profession in which clergy constantly overtax their stress hormones without realizing they are doing so. Consequently, chronically elevated stress hormones, combined with a lack of exercise, unhealthy diet, and sleep deprivation, contribute to health risks such as high blood pressure, high blood sugar, high cholesterol, and obesity. Clergy health research reveals that many, if not most, of the health difficulties pastors experience can be prevented if pastors and congregations pay attention to some basic things. They must live lives of discipline—engage in regular exercise, learn to manage their adrenaline, pay attention to proper nutrition, and get an average of seven to nine hours of sleep per night. Absent of these measures, pastors will not be able to care for anyone else at some point.

Despite the fact that this historically challenging job grows more stressful every day in the current cultural climate, pastors maintain a sense of fulfillment in their role while simultaneously experiencing emotional, relational, and physical suffering. Moreover, many flourish in the midst of the complexity and stress of ministry leadership. Flourishing in Ministry, a recent study out of the University of Notre Dame, explores the practices and conditions that appear to promote flourishing in ministry—studying healthy pastors to learn how they construct and sustain a positive pastoral identity and serve with longevity and joy.

A recent job analysis suggests that the range of core competencies needed in pastoral ministry is broader, creating role overload and role strain. Many continued on page 16 continued from page 15 pastors carry around an invisible burden of inadequacy, as they are painfully aware that it is not possible to have well-developed competencies in all areas. Research indicates that flourishing pastors cultivate self-awareness and self-acceptance, know their top strengths, and configure their role and ministry team around them. Developing financial literacy skills also promotes flourishing in pastors.

One of my family’s heroes was a pastor who planted a church in an urban area and pastored there for 50 years. He was my grandfather’s best friend, and they got together regularly to share about the joys and challenges of ministry. By the time he retired, his congregation was a thriving, multicultural church of more than 1,500 people, many of whom he had personally led to Christ. He was a man of prayer and a civil rights leader who modeled a heart for compassion and social justice in his community. I asked him once how he managed such an amazing leadership accomplishment. His response to me was unexpected. He simply said, “Date night.” From the time the church was very small, he told the congregation that Tuesday night was the night he reserved for time with his wife and family, and he was not to be bothered. There was great wisdom in these words. He put his family first. He spent time with friends. He had boundaries. He said no.

Research shows that pastors uniquely experience chronic interpersonal stress, including frequent, unsolicited criticism and conflict, often resulting in a profound experience of isolation. The cumulative effect of these emotional and relational hazards contributes to concerning rates of depression and burnout. Learning to create healthy boundaries with others, manage conflict, and be assertive appear to be central to pastoral leadership competencies. Limiting a ministry work week to 50-60 hours on average, practicing true Sabbath and other contemplative spiritual practices, and developing a hobby also sustain pastors. Contemplative practices such as solitude, silence, Lectio Divina, listening prayer, and others may be most helpful for pastors because they do not involve an element of religious performance; rather, they involve receiving from the Lord in a deeply personal way. Contemplative spiritual disciplines are also important because cultivating a sense of participating with what God is already doing in the process of ministry promotes flourishing in ministry over the long haul (as opposed to seeing the results of ministry as resting on one’s own efforts). Ministry leaders must cultivate deep connections with other clergy, make their own marriage and family (or close friendships, if unmarried) a priority, and have at least one close, personal friendship outside their congregation. Pastors need a place to simply be a person.

Congregations can also help. Having realistic expectations, creating healthy feedback loops in a church, and implementing a healthy church discipline process can take some of the unwarranted, unfair criticism off the pastor. Supporting (and even requiring) self-care habits, sabbaticals, and vacations can be incredibly helpful to a pastor. Treat the pastor as a person, not a role.

Azusa Pacific addresses these issues head on by investing in the support of ministry leaders. In his recent address to staff and faculty, President Jon R. Wallace, DBA, reminded everyone that “APU exists to serve the Church” and has been a training ground for Christian leaders since its inception in 1899. As part of that ongoing mission, this year APU announced the launch of the Center for Vocational Ministry, which cultivates resilience in ministry students and leaders through formational resources. Recognizing that the ministerial preparation process often neglects the personal aspect of pastoral formation, the center provides a variety of research-informed resources to enable ministry students and leaders to flourish over the lifespan of their ministry. My grandfather would never have dreamed of the opportunities his grandson has to participate with God in the development and support of pastors and ministry leaders. I only hope to serve with as much faithfulness and integrity as he did—taking care of myself along the way.

APU’s Center for Vocational Ministry, a participating Thrivent Choice organization, may receive designated funds from Thrivent Financial customers. Visit thrivent.com/thriventchoice and designate Azusa Pacific University for Choice Dollars®.

For more information about the Center for Vocational Ministry apu.edu/cvm (626) 387-5749

  • Chris Adams, Ph.D., a third-generation pastor, is an associate professor in Azusa Pacific Seminary and founding executive director of the Center for Vocational Ministry. chrisadams@apu.edu

  • Originally published in the Winter '16 issue of APU Life. Download the PDF or view all issues.

  • More APU Articles