By / Oct 31

Most pastors likely answer the call to ministry with great expectations of what the Lord will use them to do. And while pastoral ministry is rewarding, many pastors can often find themselves in seasons of burnout and discouragement. Pastor Mike Minter, author of Stay the Course: A Pastor’s Guide to Navigating the Restless Waters of Ministry, has had a long and faithful vocation in ministry and shares words of wisdom and encouragement to pastors walking through turbulent waters.

Elizabeth Bristow: In your experience, what happens to bring a pastor to the point of burnout?

Mike Minter: There are a number of contributing factors that conspire to bring down a pastor. Too much self reliance can be a major issue. The mentality of “I can do this by myself” or the belief that asking for help is a sign of weakness, when in fact, it is a sign of pride. It can be lonely when you’re at the top, and without strong accountability burnout occurs in a matter of time. Carrying internal secrets leads to heavy burdens, and if a pastor is struggling and has no one to turn to, he is on a path to emotional trauma.

EB: What role does accountability play in helpful discussions surrounding ministry burnout? 

MM: The Lord has made it clear that we are to bear one another’s burdens. (Gal. 6:2) We can’t do that unless we share in them. Forty-eight years ago, a pastor friend of mine came to me over lunch and said, “This ministry stuff is hard.” We had both planted churches at the same time. I thought little of his comment at the time until he had a nervous breakdown the next day and never returned to ministry. To this day, I wish I would’ve acted on his comment. Perhaps I could have helped prevent such a loss. I trust this illustration shows the need for pastoral accountability.

EB: In the book, you say the state of pastoral burnout can lead to the imploding in moral failure. What steps should be taken to prevent this from happening? At what point should pastors seek help?

MM: “Let anyone who thinks he stands take heed lest he fall” (1 Cor. 10:12). A pastor needs to seek help every day through prayer and introspection to see if he is progressing in his sanctification. If he realizes he is slipping, it is time to get help. Most pastors see themselves as specialists in giving help but often struggle to receive help. It’s crucial for pastors to take a daily inventory of their hearts to help keep them refreshed in the Spirit and stay alert to signs of moral decay.

EB: After your long and faithful career in pastoral ministry, what advice would you give to someone just starting out? 

MM: My number one piece of advice is to put away all expectations. Dreaming of having thousands come to hear you preach is like believing you will win a gold medal at the Olympics. The difference between expectations and reality is disappointment. Give your expectations to the Lord since he is the One who said he would build his Church. Secondly, seek humility above personal ability.

EB: How does today’s cultural climate, with all its vitriol and expectations, contribute to ministry burnout? 

MM: I believe the internet [can be] the greatest tool of the enemy’s attack. Social media has put many pastors in depression by reading about others who started a church in their basement a month ago and are now renting a 2,000-seat auditorium. Vitriol is not at all pleasing to Christ. I have never been on social media, and suppose it can be used for good, but I know many who have suffered at its hands. 

By / May 20

Pastors in training are often counseled by those older and more seasoned in ministry to remember, as they preach, “There’s a broken heart in every pew.” At the same time, those in the pews should remember as well, “There’s a heavy heart behind every pulpit.” 

Even in the best of times, your pastor carries a heavy spiritual weight. He’s counseling people through painful seasons. He’s visiting people in hospitals as they prepare to die. He’s pleading with people weekly to consider how their eternity hangs in the balance.

But he’s often grappling with much more. On any given week, a pastor might have to spend considerable energy navigating friction between different groups or individuals in the church. He often must bear with Monday-morning quarterbacking about the music or his preaching. He must regularly listen to grumbling about everything from the color of the carpet to what he should be spending his time on. Unfortunately, he may have to combat unhelpful power dynamics among deacons or committees at the church. All of these things place an enormous drain on the average pastor.

As such, your pastor is often a little battle-weary. Your pastor is doing the best he can, but he’s been clobbered for it more than once. Too quickly, this can leave him fearing the worst whenever someone in the church directs something his way. One way you can encourage your pastor, then, might be as simple as being intentional and conscientious with your language to avoid some common pitfalls.

Here are a few examples of language that can accidentally burden rather than bless your pastor:

Ambiguous questions: “Pastor, can we talk?”

When you ask this question, you’ll almost certainly remind your pastor of a time someone asked him that question only to ambush him. These kinds of moments leave scars and make memories that are not easily forgotten. So your pastor, when he hears this question, may instinctively wonder, “Oh no, what’s wrong?” or, “Great, what problem is going to consume me next week?”

Instead, say something like, “Pastor, can we talk sometime next week? Nothing bad, just wanted to get your counsel on ___.” Where the first question leaves your pastor fearful, the second leaves your pastor thankful for your conscientiousness. By removing the ambiguity about why you want to meet, you put your pastor in a position where he can instead look forward to it instead of entering into his time with you with trepidation. 

Not only that, but the mental energy he might have otherwise spent anticipating what it is you want to talk about, he can instead spend on getting his head around the issue you already mentioned. In turn, he’ll be of more help to you than he otherwise would have been. When you’re conscientious like this, everyone wins.

Bare Encouragement: “Praying for you today.”

We are commanded to pray for those in authority over us, but often, we only think to pray for someone when we know they’re facing a tough time. It’s possible, then, that a bare statement like, “Praying for you today,” can leave your pastor thinking, “They never reach out with something like this. What’s going on? What’s wrong?” Should that be the case? Of course not. But Satan loves to twist God’s good gifts. In this sense, being intentional with our language is nothing less than an act of war against the powers who would love to turn an attempt to encourage into an occasion to fear.

Intentionality here can be as little as adding a simple prefix to your statement. “This is prompted by nothing other than gratitude. Just wanted to let you know I’m praying for you today.” When you remove the ambiguity, you choke out fear before it has the chance to take root, and you ensure the gift you intended doesn’t spoil in transit. Alternatively, you can say something like, “Pastor, I pray for you every Saturday, and today I want you to know I’m praying ____.” When you cast your language in concrete terms (e.g., I’m thankful for x, y, z; I’m praying for a, b, c), you supercharge the effect of your encouragement.

Backhanded Support: “Pastor, I know some folks really don’t like you, but I’m with you!”

If your pastor is facing opposition in the church right now, I promise you (a) he knows it, and (b) he doesn’t need to be reminded of it. In fact, he probably carries around some misplaced shame because of it. So when you point it out, it doesn’t matter what else you say, even if it’s encouragement. What the pastor hears is, “You’re toxic, and we all know it.”

Instead, focus on concrete, positive things. “Pastor, if there’s any way I can serve you this week, I just want to let you know it would be my honor. I’m grateful for you, and I’m with you.” Alternatively, “Pastor, I’m so grateful for the way you ____. God put you here in this moment to lead, and I just want you to know I’m thankful for that.” There may very well be times to discuss the opposition itself, but your encouragement will mean much more if you strip it of any landings for insecurity or shame to find footing.

If you’re “guilty” of any of these things, don’t be embarrassed. Odds are, your pastor knew what you meant and took it that way. And don’t let it dampen your efforts to encourage — quite the opposite. Instead, let it spur you on even more encouragement because you realize afresh how your pastor is human, fallen, and a sinner just like you. The New Testament is brimming with “one another” language, in part because God has designed relationships within the body of Christ to be a tool God uses to shape and form and sustain us.

Your church needs your pastor. And your pastor needs you. The encouragement you give might be the very instrument God uses to keep your pastor going and often will be remembered by him long after you even remember giving it. Well-spoken encouragement has an eternal half-life. Let’s embrace it, then, to show and share the mercy of Christ.

By / Oct 20

I became a member of Christ Church West Chester (CCWC) on March 8 of this year, the last Sunday before the COVID-19 pandemic brought our country to a halt. For churches all over the world, the inability to gather in person was—and for many, still is—an incredibly discouraging feeling. But for our church, a humble congregation just shy of 100 members in a small borough outside Philadelphia, the shutdown seemed to hit especially close to home. 

Part of the reason for this is that for many in the congregation, the church is home. Numerous members live within blocks of one another, others opt to commute to work across state lines or have relocated to the area specifically to reside near the church, and several live within a literal stone’s throw of the church building. For individuals who have set aside so many other parts of their lives in order to fully invest in the life of this family, the sudden denial of the joys of gathering on Sundays provoked a sincerely hollow feeling. 

As dispirited as the congregation was at the beginning of the shutdown, none was more crushed than our senior pastor, Raymond Johnson. Only a few weeks after celebrating his fifth anniversary leading CCWC, the bustling halls outside his office were suddenly empty, and his family’s dinner table, commonly packed with guests, was suddenly a little less full. For a pastor who wears his heart on his sleeve and whose supreme delight for his congregation is apparent, the temptation to fall into frustration and dejection must have been immense. 

Patience under pressure

The ensuing months would only be more tumultuous. Nationwide disagreements about the pandemic, racial justice, and the presidential election would engulf not only our unbelieving neighbors, but also, sadly, our churches. For pastors, the difficulties that March brought were only the beginning.

But if this season in any way caused Raymond’s joy in pastoring to decrease, he’s never once shown it. If anything, the challenges of this year have done nothing but rekindle his love for the church. As a pastoral intern, I’ve had the pleasure of working with him on a daily basis over the past couple months. Through these interactions, I can confidently attest that the behind-the-scenes Raymond, even amidst 2020’s constant distractions, setbacks, and pressures, is the same person as the Sunday morning Raymond: full of a youthful yet cultivated love for life, the Lord, and his people. 

The eagerness and joy he constantly carries himself with could lead some to wonder whether these past several months have produced any real tests or trials in his ministry at all. But such conclusions would be misinformed. In addition to the heartache caused by suspended or limited gatherings, Raymond and his fellow elders have been saddled with the unenviable pressure of attempting to simultaneously observe community health guidelines, maintain a conscientious adherence to Hebrews 10:25, and respect the multiplicity of preferences and comfort levels of the church’s congregants. 

I encourage you to find the evidences of grace in your pastor’s life during this season, and then let him know that you are thankful for all he does. 

These constraints, coupled also with increasing political tensions, have often led Raymond to the feeling that there is no right move he can make, but a million wrong ones. Such conditions can, if one is not careful, sow seeds of bitterness, anger, and resentment. But he has remained patient and resolute, leaning not on his own understanding, but the Lord’s.

The joy of the Lord

It is precisely this dependence upon the Lord—the confidence to lead courageously and faithfully while at the same time praying, “Thy will be done,” that has allowed Raymond to maintain the same joy pastoring virtually and socially distanced as in normal settings. It is a humble dependence that recognizes his shortcomings. He is constantly asking for ways he can improve his teaching, seeking counsel for the best way to handle sticky situations, quickly repenting for sins committed, and most importantly, going boldly before God in prayer. It is clear that Raymond sees himself as nothing more than a servant of the Almighty, a job title that brings him unrivaled delight.

This joy is an infectious one he is not content keeping to himself. It is not uncommon for him to interrupt work days by rounding up the office for a spontaneous hymn-sing. He is always inviting guests over for dinner or to spend time with his family of seven (each of which shares his fun-loving personality) in the neighborhood park. And each time he ends his conversations with, “I love you, and I’m glad you’re here,” he genuinely means it. 

Raymond’s joy is born out of a love for the Lord and his Word, something that is evident in his eagerness to delve into rich conversations on theology, personal devotion, politics, and similar topics. But at the same time, it is a happiness that refuses to take life too seriously. He recognizes that the Christian life is no monastic or ascetic experience, but one lived in delight in the good gifts God has given us in Christ. Our most memorable moments are indeed the lighthearted ones: putting him in his place on the basketball court, picking him up after a bike crash that left him with a giant hole in the backside of his pants, and pranks around the office. Raymond’s delight in Christ is evident not merely in the way he preaches on Sundays, but in his love of life itself.

The unprecedented events of this year have made things difficult for every member of our church, but our pastor has reminded us through word and deed that the joy of the Lord is our strength. For a time as tumultuous as this one, there are perhaps no perfect answers on how to encourage and exhort a discouraged, anxious, and frustrated congregation, and pastors will likely find themselves failing over and over again. But despite his shortcomings, Raymond’s constant joy has been the firmest reassurance of the Lord’s steadfast love a church could ask for. I encourage you to find the evidences of grace in your pastor’s life during this season, and then let him know that you are thankful for all he does. 

By / Oct 15

Ronnie Floyd, president and CEO of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Executive Committee, has a personal word for pastors during the pandemic.

By / Jul 9

I believe 2 Timothy 4:2 has taken on a new meaning for most of us this year. Pastors are leading their churches in a way they never have before. I have often joked that I missed the seminary class on “Pastoring through Pandemics,” but this really is unchartered territory for our professors as well. Most ministers I have spoken with are exhausted, noting that they have had to work harder during this time than at any other point in ministry. I can attest this is certainly true for me, and I believe ultimately, I will be a better pastor because of it.

What is most striking is how quickly this all transpired; almost overnight, the way we have been doing ministry had to adapt and change. We went from pastoring the local church gathered to pastoring the local church scattered; and primarily virtually. This time has certainly felt out of season. Most of us are searching for and discovering new ways to minister to the flock entrusted to us.

I want to encourage you by sharing some things we have done this season that are different, but have served to make me a more effective pastor. It is easy to focus on the negative during this time, but it is essential to focus on the things we can control. We must remember that God is still on his throne in this season, and he is in control. Instead of asking why God has allowed this to happen, maybe we should seek to see how God wants to grow us as this happens. Here are three areas where we have done new things during the pandemic that have become blessings. 

1. Becoming better communicators 

One of the ways my people have affirmed experiencing stronger leadership is through better communication during the pandemic. One of the first decisions I made for our staff was that we needed to be in constant communication with our membership. We did not want what them to be guessing about what we would do next. Instead, we have had them walk alongside us at this time. This process is something I thought we were already doing well, but honestly, we have found it’s an area where we could have been doing a lot better. Our people have appreciated the extra effort from the staff, and in particular from me as their pastor.

We have been doing a few different things to communicate better. First, we have been putting out weekly articles from different pastors on staff to encourage and challenge our people. These are short and are designed to be devotional. It gives our people a chance to hear from the staff, especially those who do not get a lot of stage time. 

A second thing we have been doing is sending out regular emails detailing the needs of our church, ways we can pray and meet others’ needs, and letting people know what the next week will look like for the church. As restrictions were being loosened and we were formulating a plan to regather, we developed a 10-question survey for our church. They were able to hear what our plan was and give us their expectations for coming back together.

Instead of asking why God has allowed this to happen, maybe we should seek to see how God wants to grow us as this happens.

Our people have said they appreciate being genuinely heard and regularly hearing from their pastor. When things get back to normal, we will continue to build upon these new ideas to communicate clearly, competently, and consistently with our church.

2. More intentional pastoral care

Our hospitals quickly stopped allowing visitors, which created a unique challenge for how to visit the sick. This meant that the way we did pastoral care would be different. One thing we did was assign every pastor on staff a list of 125 church members to call each week and check on. Each pastor makes sure they update the members they call with any new developments, asks what their needs are, and asks for prayer requests before praying with them. They also take notes on their conversation to share with the staff. We have found that we are getting to know our people better because of this intentional time. Coupled with that, we discovered that for many of our members, especially those who live alone, this is a time they really look forward to. We plan to keep an updated list of our membership for our pastors to call each month to speak and pray with our people.

This has also been a season where I have been doing a lot of handwritten notes. Members who have had birthdays, anniversaries, loss of loved ones and employment, and other experiences are not going through the normal process of celebration and grieving. Taking the time to write our members to rejoice with them or mourn with them has been so well received. This is another new thing I plan to keep doing every week as a part of my ministry. I have always said, “No one wants to know what you know until they know you care about them.” This is a great way to show your people you care about them.

We also implemented three teams among our deacon body to serve our church in this unique time. These teams will go grocery shopping for our more vulnerable members, pick up prescriptions for our elderly members, and help them with any other needs they may have. Our deacons have also helped some of our members learn how to use the technology needed to watch our services so they can stay connected to our church. There is no way this could have all fallen on the pastoral team, and I am thankful area deacons took on this challenge to be servants to our body. 

3. Refining my preaching skills

One of the most challenging things about this season is preaching to a video camera in an empty room. This is much more difficult to me than preaching to a room full of people. Early on, we decided that we record our service on Thursday and then release them live on multiple platforms on Sunday morning. This means that I have had the unfortunate privilege of watching myself preach each week for two months. It’s like I’m sitting through homiletics all over again. 

As awkward as it is to watch yourself preach, I do believe this can help you become a better preacher. Do not waste this opportunity to refine your preaching. I have been able to watch myself and ask questions like: Did I communicate that properly? How could I have said that better? I also have been able to critique how clear I have made the gospel in my messages and how I can do so with more clarity next time. In terms of cadence, tone, and eye contact, I have seen areas of growth over our seven weeks online. 

 Most importantly, hold fast to the gospel and use this as a season to grow as a pastor, leaning heavily on the goodness and grace of Jesus to bless your efforts and build his Church. 

This has also reminded me how utterly dependent my preaching is upon God. Speaking to a camera and pleading with people to repent and believe is in vain if it’s powerless preaching. I have spent more time praying over my sermons than at any other point I can remember. This is another thing I will continue to do. In addition to praying, I have been reading Francis Grimke’s Meditation on Preaching as a devotion as I prepare each week. I do not know who will see our video each week, but I do know what they hear has been prayed over deeply by someone who knows his words don’t save—only God’s power does. Determine to get the gospel in people’s ears, and trust God to get it into their hearts.

Our plan going forward

As great as these improvements and ideas have been, we still long to gather together again. As this article is being penned, we are in the process of regathering as a church. As I mentioned earlier, we have listened to our people as we have come up with our plan. The decision to regather, at least to me, is much more difficult than the decision to cancel. Part of becoming a better leader is leaning on the wisdom of those around you. Therefore, we created an ad hoc committee consisting of doctors in our church and key lay leaders to help us make our decisions. They have been instrumental in developing the plan for our church coming back together.

But, make sure you write your plans in pencil, not pen. Your people will not fault you for being overly cautious during this time and adjusting plans based on this changing situation. Most importantly, hold fast to the gospel and use this as a season to grow as a pastor, leaning heavily on the goodness and grace of Jesus to bless your efforts and build his Church.

By / Jul 7

Many pastors are in the midst of an identity crisis. As the importance of religion in the American psyche wanes, along with the unique experience of a global pandemic, churches are experiencing a corresponding decrease in attendance, baptisms, and budgets. Too many pastors find themselves scrambling to apply the secrets of secular business to the local church. Christian publishers have responded by publishing innumerable books each promising a “silver bullet,” multipoint plan that will fix all the issues in the local church. While there is indeed value in strategic planning and discipleship models, many pastors, myself included, have bought the book and tried the plan only to learn that ministry is not reducible to a multistep process. In this setting, Herold Senkbeil’s The Care of Souls: Cultivating a Pastor’s Heart is a breath of fresh air.

Developing a pastoral habitus

In The Care of Souls, Senkbeil (M.Div. and STM, Concordia Theological Seminary) combines lessons he learned watching his father work on the family farm with over three decades of pastoral experience to provide practical advice to pastors. Senkbeil argues that pastors need to develop a pastoral habitus. Senkbeil defines a habitus as “a pastoral temperament or character worked by the Holy Spirit through his means” (17). Seminaries cannot teach a habitus, nor can a pastor develop a habitus by reading the newest book on pastoral ministry. Pastors refine a pastoral habitus through years spent patiently walking with the church in faithful ministry. Through the failures and successes of his ministry, the pastor slowly develops his habitus.

Senkbeil’s concept of a pastoral habitus is promising. The rigidity of silver-bullet solutions to local church woes is why most multistep plans fall far short of their lofty goals. What works in my church in the Cajun country of Louisiana would almost certainly be an abject failure in a large urban church. Senkbeil’s habitus has much more flexibility. Instead of offering a one-size-fits-all approach, Senkbeil encourages pastors to be faithful to their calling while acknowledging that pastors fulfill their calling in countless ways. The ultimate goal is faithfulness; however, faithfulness can look different in different settings.

A pastoral habitus begins with understanding who a pastor is and what a pastor should be doing. The pastor is, first and foremost, a servant of Christ. As a servant, the pastor’s highest aspirations are faithfulness and obedience. Senkbeil uses the apt example of a sheepdog and shepherd to illustrate this point. Pastors are to God what sheepdogs are to shepherds. The sheepdog does not know everything that the shepherd is planning. The sheepdog merely does what the shepherd has taught it to do. Likewise, as pastors, we are not privy to all of God’s plans. Indeed, his ways are often inscrutable. He is truly a God of surprises. Our highest goal is to be faithful servants of God our King.

God’s command to pastors is simple and yet complex. God has called pastors to lead Christians closer to himself. On one hand, this charge simplifies ministry greatly. Pastors and congregations have seemingly illimitable ideas of what a pastor ought to be doing. At times, serving as a pastor can feel like being the CEO of a small corporation! In this setting, having the single goal of leading people to know and love Christ is refreshingly simple.

On the other hand, the call to lead people closer to God is incredibly complex. As Senkbeil recognizes, pastors lead people closer to God in many different ways. Pastors will find Senkbeil’s view of Scripture refreshing. Senkbeil argues that one of the ways pastors lead people closer to God is by rightly applying the Word of God to everyday experience. When sitting by a hospital bed, a pastor can lead a person closer to God by comforting them with Scripture. Likewise, pastors can lead people closer to God by helping people understand their identity in light of Christ. In Christ, they are a new creation and have been given victory over sin, and pastors can help people embrace this view of themselves. 

Senkbeil also stresses the importance of the pastor’s spiritual standing. Indeed, pastors ignore their spiritual standing at their own peril. Senkbeil argues that too often pastors focus on the external problems in their church without realizing that most external problems have an internal, spiritual root. As God’s missionaries, pastors and their families are the target of demonic attention and hatred. To lead people closer to God, pastors must have a healthy devotional life full of Scripture and prayer. Indeed, Senkbeil argues that all pastors need a pastor to hold them accountable. 

Leading people closer to God while remaining personally devoted to the faith is a multifaceted undertaking that cannot be succinctly described in a single book. The complexity of God’s simple call on the pastor’s life is why pastors need a pastoral habitus. Senkbeil’s book is refreshingly different from most books on pastoral ministry precisely because he never provides a blueprint for how to establish a pastoral habitus. Such blueprints are simply too rigid to withstand the demands of the pastorate. Instead, Senkbeil provides the basic building blocks. By being faithful to God and their church, any pastor can develop a pastoral habitus tailored to their specific context, and Senkbeil’s book is a welcome companion along the way.

By / May 28

When the COVID-19 affects began in early March, nationwide mental health needs dramatically increased. The Disaster Distress Helpline, a resource for people experiencing a mental health crisis, saw an 891% increase when comparing March 2019 to March 2020. Prescriptions for anxiety increased by 34% in one month, and online therapy company Talkspace reported a 65% increase in clients from February to early May.  

Concurrently, the demands on churches and ministries experienced a similar increase, resulting from the explosion of community-based needs due to job losses, food insecurity, and COVID-19 itself, as well as the rapid shift from in-person to online church services and groups.   

As the nation’s mental health has suffered under the weight of COVID-19, it’s important to remember that pastors and ministry leaders are human. The personal emotional and mental health of ministry leaders is regularly and severely stretched, even when times are good. Prior to COVID-19, 23% of Protestant pastors surveyed said they had personally struggled with some form of mental illness. And unfortunately, ministry leaders are not immune to deaths by suicide, as seen with the recent tragic losses of pastors Darrin Patrick and Jarrid Wilson.  

Working at Key Ministry provides a front-row seat to the mental and emotional health needs of people across the country, in part because our founder and president, Dr. Steve Grcevich, is a practicing child and adolescent psychiatrist. But we also have insight into the mental health needs of church leaders through the ministry network we’ve built over the last 18 years.  

By mid-March, when COVID-19 was upending everything from sporting events to school schedules to tax-filing deadlines, we were very concerned about the side impacts of so much isolation, restriction, loss, and unwelcome change, and how churches would respond. As churches shifted how they deliver ministry, much of our work over the past 10 weeks has been focused on equipping churches and ministry leaders to meet mental health needs, both in their communities and their own personal needs.  

We’ve created original content to address specific mental health concerns for individuals, parents, and ministry leaders. And significant new resources have been developed by other organizations to help pastors take care of their churches and themselves like and Liquid Church in metro New York City, New York, developed a mental health support guide for their own ministry team called “Put Your Own Mask On First” that is available as a free download.   

But we fear that many pastors are not getting the message or are afraid that admitting their own mental health needs will result in losing their position in the ministry. With the overwhelming number of resources and support options now available, it is more important than ever for denominational and associational leaders to provide regular emotional and mental health guidance to their pastors, through the COVID-19 crisis and beyond. Pastors will listen to the leadership of those in authority over them personally and over their churches.

As the nation’s mental health has suffered under the weight of COVID-19, it’s important to remember that pastors and ministry leaders are human. The personal emotional and mental health of ministry leaders is regularly and severely stretched, even when times are good.  

Here are a few things that we encourage denominational and associational leaders to do in order to take care of the shepherds who take care of the rest of us:  

1. Provide free online therapy services designed for pastors. Many pastors have accountability partners, but ministry leaders also need access to skilled therapists who understand the importance of their role in their communities. While accountability relationships are necessary and helpful, a therapist serves a different role and is a neutral third party. A skilled therapist is a critical resource to help pastors process the weight of the grief being experienced in many communities. Pastors are particularly susceptible to secondary trauma; this was an issue even before all of the COVID-19 affects. 

2. Develop an online pastor’s retreat. Virtual retreats and conferences have been developed for women’s and special needs ministries and can serve as a structure or template for developing other events. The purpose of a retreat would be to refresh and revive pastors to continue meeting the shifting COVID-19 demands. If an event is strongly recommended from leaders in denominations and associations, the pastor might be more likely to commit to the time required to participate.

3. Weekly three-step guidance from denominational or regional church leadership. In one of our webinars, Pastor Brad Hoefs of Fresh Hope for Mental Health mentioned that weekly, brief action steps from trusted sources that address the specific needs of a denomination or geographic region would be extremely helpful.

For example, three-step guidance in mid-March would have been focused on taking ministry online. For now, the guidance could be focused on how to prioritize reopening. Future guidance may address emerging social issues, such as significant unemployment, food insecurity, and partnering with other local churches to meet community needs. Such guidance can also include simple steps for pastors to strengthen personal mental health or recognize when it’s time to seek professional help.  

4. Personal contact. Key Ministry interacts with and supports a large network of special needs ministry leaders and parents. The most challenging part of the COVID-19 stay-at-home orders has been maintaining contact with special needs families while ministry leaders and volunteers are not able to interact with families in person. But possibly the biggest success we’ve seen is the impact of regular, personal contact. Individuals and families receiving regular phone calls or other contacts from ministry leaders or volunteers are extremely grateful for the support and the effort made. If a denomination is organized by region, it’s worth the time and effort for the leaders to contact each pastor on a regular basis by phone or with a short video call, perhaps just to listen. 

Our shepherds need to be as healthy as possible—for themselves, their families, and for those that they serve. With Barna reporting that many pastors are feeling tired, overwhelmed, and lonely, it’s never been more important to support pastor mental health.  

By / Apr 7

Ben Mandrell shares some of the challenges that pastors face as they minister in a post-Christian context. 

By / Nov 26

A quaint story circulated among Methodists describes a young pastor fresh out of seminary who had just begun his first pastorate. As he drove up to the small church he noticed an old tree blocking the side doors into the building. In his exuberance he cut the tree down to show the congregation his decisive leadership. Unfortunately, no one told him that they believed that John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, had planted it hundreds of years earlier. He had one of the shortest pastorates on record after that.[1]

Even if this story is somewhat dubious, it captures what often happens in a new ministry when a new pastor is blind to potential pitfalls. Here are seven common pitfalls a pastor to a new church should seek to avoid.

Pitfall #1 – Cookie cutter: Thinking what worked before will work now.

“It’s a mistake to believe that you will be successful in your new job by continuing to do what you did in your previous job, only more so.”[2] This pitfall reflects a “one-size-fits-all” approach to ministry. Such thinking not only could be a mismatch for the church, but could stifle learning new ways to do ministry crucial to your continued growth.

Sometimes this pitfall shows up when we realize we’re talking too much about our previous ministry and our successes there. An occasional reference to your former ministry is fine. But when it becomes commonplace, your staff, volunteers, and people in the church may hear you imply that your prior ministry was better than your current one.

Pitfall #2 – Smartie-pants: Assuming you know all the answers.

I still remember an embarrassing conversation with a leader in my first church where I was lead pastor. We disagreed on an issue, and I recall saying, “I’m usually right on most things.” When I think back on that statement I cringe at the egotism I conveyed with that comment. I had failed to remember that Proverbs 16:18 warns that pride comes before a fall.

While not throwing caution to the wind, great leaders and churches must take bold steps of faith.

If those around you sense that you have all the answers, you’ll alienate them. Liz Wiseman, author of Multipliers: How the Best Leaders Make Everyone Smarter, calls these leaders “accidental diminishers,” leaders who in giving all the answers actually squelch ideas in others.[3] When that happens, others may withhold important information you need to know in your new leadership role. Getting correct feedback is crucial to successful onboarding, even if it’s not what you want to hear. A know-it-all attitude can stifle opposing perspectives you need to hear as a new leader. And failing to seek input from others can also convey a smartie-pants attitude. You don’t know what you don’t know, and you will never know it unless you intentionally seek out hidden information. 

Pitfall #3 – Failure to recognize the former leader’s lingering influence.

Often people will fondly remember the former pastor whose place you just filled, if he was well-liked. Failure to realize the former leader’s influence is a potential pitfall you want to avoid. Seek out insight from members about the former pastor’s strengths, weaknesses, and leadership style. However, avoid giving the perception that you want this information to boost how others view you or that you are criticizing what he did. Rather, communicate to those you ask that such insight can help you serve the church better.

Pitfall #4 – Blindsided: Failure to clarify expectations or prepare for surprises.

Here I use “expectations” to refer to what [those you report to] expect from you. If you aren’t clear on their expectations, even if you think you are performing well in the early days, you may be in for a surprise disappointment. 

In the pre-hiring phase, the better you understand your job description and unwritten expectations, the less unmet expectations will blindside you. Get answers to your questions for anything unclear. Talk to [those you report to] to further clarify what they want. And after you begin, continue dialoguing with them to make sure you continue to understand and meet what they expect. Prioritize healthy communication with them.

Another way to avoid surprises is to avoid setting expectations too high. Guard against making lofty promises you can’t keep. It’s better to under promise and over perform. Yet, don’t set expectations too low because you may lose the support of some of your high-performing people if they sense you are playing it safe by setting them low. 

You will face surprises in those first few months. Clarify expectations early to minimize them. When they come, don’t panic. And when your enthusiasm and the church’s enthusiasm wanes after a few months, which is inevitable when the “new’’wears off, don’t be thrown by that dip. Manage your response with God’s power. 

Pitfall #5 – Fire, ready, aim: Overemphasizing quick results.

Sometimes a new leader feels both a compulsion to do something quickly to prove his worth or takes too much responsibility for the ministry’s success. It’s natural to both want your church to believe they made the right choice and to put your stamp on the ministry. But trying to make a mark too soon without adequate information and buy-in may turn what seems like early wins into losses. Unless you have clearly defined reality and are listening well, acting too soon in big ways may send you down the wrong path. If you act too soon by focusing on tactics or move in multiple directions at once simply to create movement, you can confuse others about what’s truly important. Should this happen, you may be saying yes to good ideas at the expense of the best ideas. I recommend that new leaders prioritize spending time with key influencers just to listen. 

You’ll want to show visible movement during your first six months without wrecking things or losing support. And you’ll want to balance being with others with doing ministry tasks. As Abraham Lincoln, America’s 16th president, said in his inaugural address as the U.S. was sharply divided over slavery, “Nothing valuable can be lost by taking time.”[4]

Pitfall #6 – Scaredy-cat: Risk aversion 

Minimizing risk and maximizing safety can become an unhealthy trait for leaders. J. Oswald Sanders, who authored the book Spiritual Leadership, quoted a Christian leader who noted, “The frontiers of the kingdom of God were never advanced by men and women of caution.”[5] Great churches can’t play it safe, huddle and cuddle, strive for safety and security, nor guarantee comfort and convenience. While not throwing caution to the wind, great leaders and churches must take bold steps of faith.

Pitfall #7 – People pleaser: Saying Yes to too many things. 

Bad stuff happens to leaders who say Yes to too many things. You can lose control of your calendar. You can work too many hours. Your family can suffer. Stress can become toxic. And ultimately, your walk with Christ and your leadership can suffer.

Saying Yes is easy, and saying No is hard because when we say, No, we almost always disappoint somebody else. And when we disappoint another, at least for a few moments, his or her disapproving comments or facial expressions can make us feel rejected. And rejection actually hurts because social pain registers in our brain in the same place where physical pain registers.[6] Sensing another’s disappointment in us actually feels bad. That’s why we try to avoid it.

During your first six months it’s important to avoid adding unnecessary commitments to your already full schedule. Remind yourself that you don’t have to say Yes to every invitation or new ministry idea even though each request may initially sound good. Learn how to say No gracefully. This self leadership skill is perhaps one of the most important ones to help you manage your margins early on.

You may want to add other pitfalls to this list, but these seven cover some of the biggest pitfalls to avoid in a new church role.

Adapted from “Every Pastor’s First 180 Days: How to Start and Stay Strong in a New Church Job” by Dr. Charles Stone, Lead Pastor at WestPark Church, London, Ontario, Canada. 


  1. ^ Angie Best-Boss, Surviving Your First Year as Pastor: What Seminary Couldn’t Teach You (Valley Forge, PA: Judson Press, 1999), pp xi-xii.
  2. ^  Ibid, Kindle e-book loc. 353.
  3. ^ “ARE YOU AN ACCIDENTAL DIMINISHER? |,” accessed April 29, 2016,
  4. ^ “Inaugural Addresses of the Presidents of the United States : from George Washington 1789 to George Bush 1989,” Text, accessed April 18, 2016,
  5. ^ J. Oswald Sanders, Spiritual Leadership: Principles of Excellence For Every Believer, New edition (Chicago, IL: Moody Publishers, 2007), Kindle ebook loc 2820.
  6. ^ Naomi I. Eisenberger, “Social Pain and the Brain: Controversies, Questions, and Where to Go from Here,” Annual Review of Psychology 66 (January 3, 2015): 601–29, doi:10.1146/annurev-psych-010213-115146.
By / Oct 8

Two weeks ago, 30-year-old pastor and mental health advocate Jarrid Wilson took his own life, prompting many to consider why a vivacious young man with a thriving ministry and two small children would do think the world better without him. 

He’s not alone. Last year, pastor Andrew Stoecklein of Inland Hills Church in California died by suicide. He was also a young father of three, who had preached a sermon on depression just 12 days prior to his death. 

Faith has proved to be a solace to many church attenders, contributing to lower rates of suicide and higher rates of happiness, so it’s difficult to reconcile how a visible and engaged church leader isn’t among the saved. No easy answers exist, but there are a few telltale signs to examine in order to effectively grapple with how Wilson and other faith leaders came to such a point of desperation. 

Hard aspects of the pastoral life 

Mental illness, like depression that Wilson openly suffered from, is unquestionably the main component, but other aspects of the pastoral life contribute to why these leaders ultimately succumb to suicide. 

Pastoring is one of the most high-pressure jobs in the nation. According to the Soul Shepherding Institute, an organization that exists to care for the mental well-being of pastoral leadership, 90% of pastors work 55-75 hours a week and 75% report feeling “highly stressed” on any given week. Most are managing family life with the demands of pastoral care, which usually comes with an unending stream of requests and responsibilities. 

Most see a pastor at work on Sunday morning, but preaching is merely a fraction of their full scope of work. Pastors are also working with youth ministries, speaking at community events, meeting with individual congregants, leading a staff, crafting a church vision, officiating weddings, preaching at funerals, and helping specific ministries inside the church stay afloat. The time for personal devotion, reflection, or self-care is minimal, if even present.  

The day of his death, Wilson preached at the funeral of a woman who had died by suicide. He was also at the helm of Anthem of Hope, an organization he founded to provide guidance and fight mental health stigma within the Christian community. He was 18 months into a new pastoral job at Harvest church, had written several books, and had a thriving online presence. 

The pressure to succeed and appear like he was handling his mental illness was presumably higher than ever. Because people followed his honest tweets and encouraging online messages, it was easy to assume Wilson had the mental and spiritual support he needed. In reality, most pastors aren’t adequately cared for in this way.

“As a lead pastor, I can count on my hand how many times people have asked me [how I was doing with anxiety and depression],” said Shelter Cove Community Church Pastor Jeremy Oldenburger said in an online video posted days after he learned of Wilson’s death. 

According to LifeWay Research, only 41% of pastors nationwide have received training to assist someone dealing with suicidal thoughts. I didn’t find any numbers on how many have been trained to deal with their own suicidal ideations—and that is extremely concerning. It might seem that one who spends his life helping others would know how to help himself, but a life in faith leadership demands a shiny external facade.

Rick and Kay Warren of Saddleback Church lost their son to suicide in 2013. Kay wrote this in the Washington Post after learning of a pastor’s suicide in 2017: “Who would pastor the pastor? The same spiritual leader who had been there for thousands of church members over the decades now wrestled in secret, feeling despondent, hopeless and utterly defeated.”

Pastors don’t get into their profession for the income. They often refer to their positions—not as jobs—but, supernatural “callings.” They are in the business of soul saving. Any perceived personal weakness could potentially damage that noble, ultimate goal. This is antithetical to the gospel message that we are all imperfect sinners in need of saving—and certainly not responsible for “saving” anyone. Pastors, however, are not immune to worldly ills, including an outsized desire to succeed or struggles with depression. 

The Clergy Health Initiative at Duke Divinity School found that pastors experience depression at rates double that of the general population—and yet the resources available to them specifically are few. 

“We are surrounded daily by people’s trials, pain and suffering—and if you aren’t taking care of yourself, over time—you can get numb, tired and weary, “ said one pastor I spoke with. “There’s this expectation that the pastor has it all together and it almost comes across as a weakness—and it’s difficult for [us] to find outlets to say, ‘I’m not doing well.’”

Additionally, admitting to struggles with mental health may cause fear of potential job loss or reputation downfall. That fear has valid roots. According to 2015 LifeWay Research, evangelicals are far more judgmental about suicide than the population at large with 44% saying they think suicide is selfish, as compared to 36% nationally. 

Lastly, faith is by no means the only pathway to hope and healing for those who struggle. The Suicide Prevention Hotline may not pray with callers, but they are there for everyone who needs them. Sadly, pastors may feel uncomfortable attending non-faith-based support groups or seeking outside counsel because they fear being found out or manifest guilt that their faith isn’t enough. But, more awareness about the pressures of depression and anxiety among faith leaders, better resources aimed specifically toward them, and destigmatizing mental healthcare for this demographic will go a long way. Perhaps efforts of this kind would have been the safety net Jarrid Wilson needed to prevent his tragic end.

“People think that we, as pastors, are above the pain and struggles of everyday life. . . at the end of the day, we are just people like you,” said Harvest Church lead pastor Greg Laurie at a memorial service for Wilson last week. 

Maybe that message is one to remember as congregants enter houses of worship this Sunday.