By / Dec 28

On this last episode in our gender and sexuality series in The ERLC Podcast, we’re going to focus more on how pastors can address gender and sexuality. We discuss how they can shepherd their people to better understand the biblical sexual ethic and how to apply that to their daily lives. 

On The ERLC Podcast, our goal is to help you think biblically about today’s cultural issues. Throughout this series, we’ve been seeking biblical answers and practical wisdom to apply to questions of gender and sexuality swirling around in our culture, our churches, and in our hearts. It’s been a joy to explore these issues with you and spur one another on to hold fast to Christ and love our neighbors.

Joining us on today’s podcast to share how pastors can address gender and sexuality is Dr. Bart Barber and Matt McCullough.

Bart is the pastor of First Baptist Church of Farmersville, Texas and president of the Southern Baptist Convention. Bart has a B.A. from Baylor University in their University Scholars program, an M.Div. from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas, and a Ph.D. in Church History, also from Southwestern. 

You’ll also hear from Matt McCullough, pastor of Edgefield Church in Nashville, Tennessee. Before joining Edgefield, Matt helped to plant Trinity Church near Vanderbilt University and served as pastor there for 10 years. He completed a Ph.D. in American religious history. Matt and his wife are the parents of three boys.

As we discuss these important topics, you might have additional questions. We’d love to hear from you. Please e-mail us at [email protected] and let us know how you’re processing this conversation. 

The ERLC podcast is a production of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission. It is produced by Jill Waggoner, Lindsay Nicolet, and Elizabeth Bristow. Technical production is provided by Owens Productions. It is edited and mixed by Mark Owens.

By / Oct 27

In recent years, an increasing emphasis has been placed on mental health struggles, both globally and within religious communities. This shift in focus reflects a broader understanding and acceptance of mental health issues, moving beyond antiquated stigmas and toward a more compassionate and informed approach. The pastoral community is no exception to this trend, as recent data unveils a complex picture of the mental and emotional well-being of pastors and the congregations they shepherd.

A notable observation from the statistics is that a significant portion of younger pastors, under the age of 45, report struggling with mental health issues. In particular, a report by Lifeway Research reveals that 26%  of U.S. Protestant pastors overall and 46% of pastors who are under 45 say they face mental health challenges. And more than half of the church leaders have witnessed members of their congregations suffering from conditions like depression and bipolar disorder​.

Mental health struggles and COVID-19

The COVID-19 pandemic appears to have further strained the mental and emotional health of both pastors and congregants. A Barna Group study reveals that while many pastors believe they understand the immediate needs of their congregants regarding spiritual and physical well-being, there’s a lesser clarity when it comes to mental and emotional health; only 24% of pastors “definitely” understand, while 65% “somewhat” understand these needs. This lack of clear understanding indicates a potential area of growth for pastoral education and support systems​​.

The pastoral role has traditionally involved a significant amount of one-on-one discipleship, a facet of ministry that was complicated by the pandemic’s social distancing mandates. Despite the hurdles, 66% of U.S church leaders report that they are doing well at providing one-on-one discipleship, although a third of them (33%) are struggling to meet the needs for ongoing discipleship amidst the pandemic. This highlights the importance of adaptability and the potential for developing new methods of pastoral care and discipleship​​.

In the midst of addressing congregational needs, pastors themselves are not exempt from facing their own mental and spiritual challenges. Around 49% of church leaders, according to the Barna Group, find it difficult to make time for personal spiritual development, an aspect that is crucial for maintaining mental and spiritual health and effectively ministering to others. The challenge of balancing personal spiritual growth with the demands of pastoral duties underscores the necessity for creating support systems and resources for pastors​​.

The need for resources

The statistics and insights gleaned from recent studies underscore the profound need for increased awareness, education, and resources dedicated to mental health within the pastoral community and the wider church body. The complexities of mental health demand a nuanced and compassionate approach, acknowledging the unique challenges faced by pastors and congregants alike. This call for awareness is not just a matter of bettering individual lives, but enriching the collective spiritual and emotional fabric of the church community.

The survey data also suggests a pressing need for the development of robust mental health programs and resources within the church. By investing in mental health education and resources, churches can become safe havens where individuals, including pastors, can find support, understanding, and healing. This would also involve creating platforms for open discussions around mental health, breaking down existing stigmas, and promoting a culture of understanding and support.

The Church has a unique opportunity to foster a culture of understanding and support around mental health and to be a place of hope and healing. This includes equipping pastors with the necessary tools and knowledge to navigate mental health challenges, both personally and within their congregations. The narratives surrounding mental health within the church are changing, and with informed, compassionate action, there’s hope for fostering a more understanding and supportive church environment.

By / Oct 26

In recent years, there has been a spike in mental health struggles among pastors and church leaders. Dr. Mark Dance, director of pastoral wellness for Guidestone Financial Resources, has long been involved behind the scenes in what is often an unseen health epidemic. In this interview, he discusses what he has witnessed through his work and sheds lights on why mental health matters for pastors.

Elizabeth Bristow: Have you witnessed a rise in pastors struggling with mental health issues? If so, what are some of the contributing factors?

Mark Dance: I was surprised when I started serving pastors with Guidestone to find out that mental health claims have gone up 40% in the last three years. That is tangible and empirical evidence. COVID exposed some issues everyone’s familiar with, but as pastors age out and retire, younger ministers and ministry spouses are much less reluctant to talk about mental health struggles and are more willing to receive help than their predecessors.

Mental health is a comprehensive part of who we are. We are called to love God with our heart, soul, mind, and strength, so I’m encouraged, honestly, that more are getting help in this area. I’m also encouraged by organizations like the ERLC that will say, “Hey, we’re gonna talk about mental health,” because it’s important.

EB: How can a pastor’s family recognize his mental health struggle? What are some specific warning signs they should pay attention to?

MD: I can share from my own experience of pastoring for almost 30 years. Halfway through that season of pastoring churches, I found myself different and I didn’t understand why. I was in the middle of a historic relocation of a church in Arkansas, and the church was growing and thriving. But, I was avoiding people. I had lost a lot of weight. I could not make decisions. I could not sleep well, and my insomnia led to paranoia. And I did something very radical for a pastor. I asked for help. After trying self-diagnosis, I went to my family practitioner and was diagnosed with clinical depression. He told me this was a chemical issue, not a character issue. 

To answer your question, pastors have an “on button,” and we can hide things really well. I could turn that smile on, and as soon as people left, I could turn it back off and could hide from even the closest people in my life. Thankfully, my doctor and therapist led me to get the help I needed. 

The church should be a safe place to talk about mental health challenges. Pastors are often reluctant to get help because they’re helpers. Caregivers don’t like to be cared for. But it’s important to note that Paul told Timothy twice to take care of himself. The first time was in Acts 20:28, “Be on guard for yourselves and for all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has appointed you as overseers, to shepherd the church of God, which he purchased with his own blood.” This is a very intimate father-son conversation.

In 1 Timothy 4:16, Paul wrote to Timothy, “Keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching. Persist in this, for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers.” 

Self-care is not selfish, it’s strategic. Paying attention to your life means that you’re going to care for yourself. And in doing so, you care for others. And if you don’t do so, neglecting yourself will eventually lead to neglecting others. It’s important to your family and to your ministry that you be as healthy as you can be, and that you let people who are proficient in their profession help you with yours.

EB: How can we do a better job of cultivating a church culture that’s more transparent about struggles? What keeps us from doing that? 

MD: I think what keeps us from doing it is pride. Pride is really what keeps me from getting help with anything. If my marriage is in trouble, what keeps me from getting help? Pride. If I’m financially upside down or just don’t know how to do something, which most pastors don’t, pride keeps us from asking for help. We get help with our physical challenges, so why not with mental health challenges? For mental health challenges in particular, remind yourself that there are people who will help you. And the biggest opportunity is there are more and more channels for help, because the stigma is blowing away.

The greatest commandment is to love God with our heart, soul, mind and strength. We would like to make four points out of that, as if one doesn’t affect the other. Heart and soul are used interchangeably all throughout the Old and New Testaments. These spiritual decisions that we’re making are holistic. So pastors, don’t just focus on your spiritual health. Make room in your events for other parts and components of discipleship other than the traditional ones. This is a stewardship and a discipleship issue. As we model that to others, they will see that it’s not just okay to talk about mental health, but it’s advantageous to better myself, my family, and my ministry.

EB: What encourages you most right now when it comes to mental health and the church?

MD: I’m encouraged that I get to write and speak in places I never would’ve guessed. I’m encouraged by the fact that there’s an eagerness to talk about this. These are things we avoided for so long—physical health, financial health, and mental health. Nobody wants to talk about that stuff because they aren’t fun things. And yet we all have friends who are no longer in the ministry. It’s not usually because of doctrinal issues. It’s usually because of life issues such as marriage and parenting. These things matter. So the appetite to talk about this has moved from reluctance to acceptance to eagerness.

By / Oct 25

Pastors bear a great number of burdens but are often expected to do so without having any burdens of their own. The truth is: pastors are struggling, especially with their mental health. While we should have anticipated such a reality due to the spiritual nature of their work and the pressures of ministry, Dr. Kristen Kansiewicz, a licensed mental health counselor and professor, has been shedding light on churches and mental health for years.

Kansiewicz received her Ph.D. in Counselor Education from Regent University and is an assistant professor at Evangel University. Her research interests include pastors’ mental health, stigma around mental illness in the church, barriers to treatment amongst evangelical Christians, and development of Christian-specific therapeutic interventions. She developed the Church Therapy model, bringing clinical mental health services into church settings, and has provided clinical counseling services in church settings since 2005.

Below, Kansiewicz answers questions about pastors, mental health, and how we can help them thrive.

Miles Mullin: Have the number of pastors suffering from mental health challenges increased? If so, why is that?

Kristen Kansiewicz: It’s a little hard to say if the mental health challenges have increased, but in short, it’s likely that the depression rates of pastors have increased since the pandemic. Earlier studies of Methodist pastors by Duke University in 2012-2018 showed that about 40% of pastors experienced mild or worse depression (about 12-14% moderate or higher). A study I conducted on Assemblies of God pastors in 2020 had nearly identical results. 

In data collected by myself and the research team through the Charis Institute at Regent University showed that 53% of Baptist pastors were experiencing mild or worse depression, with 17.5% at moderate or moderately-severe levels. When isolating just the question on suicidal thoughts, 9.6% of the Baptist pastors had at least “several days” of thoughts of harming themselves or wishing for death. It is unclear if there are differences between these groups of pastors, or if the depression rates are increasing. Regardless, many studies have demonstrated that pastors experience high rates of depression, stress, and burnout.

MM: Are there specific types of mental health challenges common among pastors? If so, what are they? 

KK: It’s well-established that pastors experience depression, occupational stress, and burnout in high rates. There are a variety of reasons for this, some unique to pastors and some that they share with other professions. Stressors like financial strain and a lack of social support contribute to depression and burnout. In addition, congregational demands, challenges in maintaining interpersonal relationships, and confusion about job roles also contribute to pastoral well-being.

MM: How many pastors are in danger of suffering from a mental health crisis or burnout?

KK: Estimates of how many pastors there are in the United States vary, but there are an estimated 350,000 Christian churches in the U.S. and as many as 600,000 clergy members. If 14-17% of them are experiencing moderate or worse depression, then 84,000 to 102,000 are actively struggling. Keep in mind that an additional 25-35% are experience mild symptoms of depression, which expands the problem even further. 

Additionally, burnout is an experience of chronic stress and adds to the layers of complexity about what pastors are dealing with and how many are struggling. In short, it’s a significant problem.

MM: Who is in danger of pastoral burnout? What factors contribute to it? 

KK: Solo pastors are at greater risk for negative mental health outcomes, along with those who have limited social support. In my study of AG pastors, one’s number of close friends was significantly linked to both well-being and help-seeking. Those pastors who had no close friends or only one close friend were worse off and less likely to see help when compared to those who had two, three, or four+ close friends. For each friend, the numbers increase (well-being goes up, as does willingness to seek help when needed). 

In addition, those who have greater financial strain have been shown in other Duke University studies to have worse mental health outcomes. Obviously, things like family genetics and predisposition to anxiety and depression are factors as well. Pastors need to pay attention to chronic stress and social support in order to prevent burnout and/or depression.

MM: Which pastors are most poised to be resilient? And why?

KK: When we think about the things that contribute to depression and burnout, we can use those to paint a picture of the resilient pastor. A pastor with three or more close friends, who is paid a sustainable wage, and who has congregational support is going to be more resilient than those without those factors. 

Additionally, maintaining positive spiritual disciplines that are personal (not just job-related spiritual duties), keeping a weekly Sabbath, connecting with deeper purpose in the work of ministry, and using positive religious coping (i.e., deriving strength and purpose from God rather than seeing him as disapproving or disappointed in you) are all ways that pastors can increase resilience.

MM: What are pastors willing to do to address their mental health needs? What are they not willing to do?

KK: Based on my sample of 874 Assemblies of God pastors, they indicated they were most willing to use Christian self-help books, an accountability partner, professional counseling, retreats, and personal Sabbaticals in order to work on their mental health. Surprisingly, more pastors were willing to rely on secular self-help books than psychiatric medication (like an anti-depressant). 

We need to do more to help pastors decrease stigma around the use of medication for mental health needs. Modern anti-depressants are not a “quick fix” or way out of dealing with the real issues. Rather, they address the physical chemistry of the brain that is off-balance when someone is experiencing symptoms of depression. Combined with professional counseling, it is the most effective strategy for treating these symptoms. 

MM: Practically, what can be done in order to help pastors have good mental health and resilience?

KK: Denominations and ministry networks can do more to encourage and promote social engagement for their pastors. Helping pastors identify and invest in three close friends might be the single most helpful intervention to decrease depression rates. Denominations can also create podcasts, articles, and trainings on the importance of self-care and destigmatize counseling and medication. Finally, churches/church boards can ensure that their pastors are paid an adequate wage, take a dedicated day off, and have options for Sabbatical every five to seven years. 

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 / Jul 18

Social media is no longer “new.” Pastors and church leaders can no longer avoid social media as some have for the better part of a decade because they thought it was a fad that would go away. In fact, it has a greater influence in many churches today than the pastors and lay leaders themselves. This makes sense, doesn’t it? Data suggests people spend at least two hours a day on social media, but people in our churches may only spend that much time in an entire week engaging in church ministries. Of course, then, social media and the vanity fair of fancies it puts in front of our faces would be more influential to our people.

Before we explore how pastors can equip their congregations to use social media wisely, let’s admit up front pastors aren’t often very good at using it wisely themselves. So, how might pastors who have corralled their relationship with social media into some degree of maturity lead their congregations to do the same? We could explore dozens of ways, but let’s look at five.

1. Model a healthy relationship with social media

No one is expected to have a perfect relationship with social media. It’s pretty much impossible. While pastors shouldn’t feel like they have to handle social media perfectly before they can talk about it with their church members, it’s wise for pastors to evaluate their relationship with social media before they start initiating difficult conversations with church members who use social media in foolish, quarrelsome ways.

Ask fellow pastors or your spouse to evaluate your relationship with social media. Maybe you’re not starting fights and cursing people out on Facebook, but maybe you scroll Twitter too much or you’ve been quietly led astray by a YouTuber’s conspiracy theories. Ask people close to you to honestly evaluate your relationship with social media. Make improvements, and then encourage your church to do the same.

2. Study social media to better understand it yourself 

I correspond with many pastors who, by their own admission, simply don’t understand social media. They confess they have held onto the mentality that “social media is just a fad” for far too long. They now see the unmatched influence in their churches, and they don’t know what to do. Of course, the best time to start studying and learning about social media was over a decade ago, but the second-best time is now.

I recently published a book called Terms of Service that explains the evolution of the internet and how we got where we are today with social media. That may be helpful for you. But read other books, too, like The Shallows by Nicholas Carr or Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Account Right Now by Jaron Lanier. Those books, written by non-Christians, are helpful for understanding the social internet and how it influences our lives. Start with one of these, or all of them, and you’ll have a great baseline knowledge of social media.

3. Encourage embodied, personal community over virtual community 

I am grateful to God that livestream technologies have made it easier for Christians to participate in their local churches through the various waves of the COVID-19 pandemic. However, I fear there are unintentional consequences of this common grace—one being some of us may decide virtual participation in the church is preferable to embodied participation in the local church. We must not value virtual church participation as highly as embodied participation.

Seeing people face to face and in person is vastly richer than consuming sermon content on the internet. Virtual Bible studies are fine, but they’re not nearly as good as getting together with men or women in living rooms and coffee shops. As you lead your churches into an increasingly virtual future, encourage the embodied experience of the local church over the virtual consumption of Christian content. Both are valuable, but the latter cannot supplant the former. We must not let it.

4. Remind church members that social media is real life

Have you ever had a conversation with someone talking about the internet and they say something to the effect of, “Well that’s what happens on the internet, but in real life . . .” with “real life” meaning “what happens offline”?

A pastor told me a story about a woman in his church who posted on one of her social media accounts that she was having a rough week, explaining in some ambiguous details what was going on. Someone from the church saw the social media post, recognized it as a possible call for help, and suggested church leadership reach out to the woman to check in with her and see what the church could do to love her and come alongside her.

When a church leader who knew the woman reached out to her, the church member responded in a rather shocking way. She was offended a church leader reached out and tried to help, citing what she posted on social media. Why was the church member offended? In short, though her social media profile was public and available for the world to see, she told the church leaders, “I posted asking for encouragement from my online community, not my offline community.” The woman also expressed, “My online life is private,” and she said it shouldn’t be of concern to anyone at the church.

We forget, like the church member in distress, who we are and what we do on the internet is as much a part of our “real lives” as what we do when we’re at church or going to the grocery store. In fact, I would argue that it’s a better picture of who we reallyare than when we are at church or the grocery store because often, how we act on the internet is how we act when we think no one is looking—even though the entire world may be able to see us.

5. Establish a culture of accountability

Finally, I want to encourage pastors to establish a culture of accountability in their churches. A culture in which it’s normal, not taboo, to get together with fellow church members and talk about how we fail, sin, and need help to become more like Christ. Social media can blind us to the ways we misuse it, and we often need guides to help us navigate how to use social media in a Christlike way. A culture of accountability in the local church makes it easier to call one another out for foolish social media activity.

Social media is at the center of our culture right now. It touches everything, and it’s well past time that the church pays attention to it and how it’s affecting the church. Because of our sin, we will not stumble into a right relationship with social media. If we hope to use social media wisely and encourage church members to do the same, we need to be intentional.This article originally appeared at Lifeway research.

By / Oct 22

October is Pastor Appreciation Month. The observance originally began in 1992 as Pastor Appreciation Day, (the second Sunday in October) led by Jerry Frear, Jr., founder of Under His Wing Ministries. The name of the unofficial observance was later changed to Clergy Appreciation Day and expanded to include all of October as Clergy Appreciation Month.

In honor of ​​this observance, here are five facts you should know about American pastors.

1. There are no reliable figures on the number of pastors in America. In 2012 the Yearbook of American and Canadian Churches reported that there were 600,000 clergy serving in various denominations in the U.S. But that figure included retired clergy, chaplains in hospitals, prisons and the military, denominational executives, and ordained faculty at divinity schools and seminaries and did not include independent churches that are not connected with a denomination. The Bureau of Labor Statistics​​ underestimates the number of pastors, claiming that only 53,180 Americans are employed as clergy. (There are currently 47,000 Baptist churches in the United States and its territories.)

2. The median age of an American pastor is 57 years old, according to a 2020 survey by Faith Communities Today. Although most pastors surveyed by Barna first felt a calling to ministry in their teen or early adult years, more than half (55%) had another career before going into ministry. Roughly one-quarter (26%) remains bivocational, currently holding some other kind of (paid or unpaid) role in addition to pastoring, usually for non-financial motivations like personal fulfillment or having other outlets for their gifts.

3. Most pastors seem to value the education they received at seminary. More than three-fourths (76%) of pastors surveyed by Barna say that their seminary education was a good fit for their role. Seminaries in America are also continuing to grow. According to the Association of Theological Schools, seven seminaries—including two SBC seminaries—have generated enrollment growth consecutively over at least the past five years. The schools are Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Kentucky; Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Kansas City, Missouri; Northern Seminary in Lisle, Illinois; Shepherds Theological Seminary in Cary, North Carolina; Sioux Falls Seminary in South Dakota; Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky; and Wartburg Theological Seminary in Dubuque, Iowa. Southern’s graduate enrollment in 2015 was 2,754 and increased to 3,390 by 2020. Midwestern’s 2015 enrollment was 1,196 and more than doubled to 2,397 by last year. In the 2018–2019 academic year, SBC seminaries trained 23,818 ministers and Christian workers. 

4. A 2018 study by Lifeway Research and Guidestone found that the average compensation for a full-time senior pastor was $65,793 and the average pay compensation (salary, housing allowance, retirement benefits, etc.) was $77,979. The average compensation for a part-time senior pastor was $19,790 and the average pay compensation was $22,084. The average compensation for a bivocational senior pastor was $14,482 and the average pay compensation was $15,200. Another study of church leaders from various denominations found that about 14% of all pastors work without pay. 

5. Relatively few pastors give up on pastoral ministry. A survey of pastors of evangelical and historically black churches found an estimated 13% of senior pastors in 2005 had left the pastorate ten years later for reasons other than death or retirement. Two percent shifted to non-ministry jobs, and 5% stayed in ministry 1% one percent a year.

By / Oct 21

One day a couple of years ago, I walked outside to my mailbox and found that a package had been delivered. It contained a copy of Every Moment Holy, a collection of liturgies for attending to the presence of God in everyday life, by Douglas Kaine McKelvey and Ned Bustard. The volume contains prayers for everything from washing windows to consuming media to saying goodbye. This book has now become like a little companion to me, offering words of solace, inspiration, and edification when I need them. It was sent to me by my pastor, Dean, who has a special knack for sourcing books for the people he knows well. I suppose it makes sense that a pastor would be well suited to offer life-giving words to the people he tends to, and I have been a happy recipient of this generous gesture more than once. 

How pastoring is like keeping bees

Presently, it is Pastor Appreciation Month, and this little leather-bound book is helping me reflect in gratitude for my own pastor (for reasons more than his gift-giving skills). Inside, there is an entry entitled, “A Liturgy for the Keeping of Bees.” Often we liken the pastor’s call to his church to the shepherd’s call to tend his flock, and the Bible gives us plenty of imagery throughout its pages to draw these comparisons. After all, pastors who shepherd well do so by imaging the Good Shepherd, Christ, whom we encounter in the Scriptures. And yet for some reason, this October, I have been thinking about how maybe in some ways, pastoring is also a little like keeping bees.

As church members we often function much like a beehive, moving as the liturgy says bees do, “full of buzz and bumbling about.” Our lives are busy and industrious, and in varying degrees of faithfulness, we are on a mission. Day in and day out we labor, ideally unto the Lord but sometimes for lesser glories, and we need someone to keep an eye on us. We are delicate. We need to be kept, and we flourish when we are being faithfully tended and directed toward that for which we were made. We too can be “a small comedy of creatures . . . with our bright and varied stripes.” And, like bees, we live within “a nature now fallen and hostile,” seeking defense from that which threatens to overtake us and subvert our purposes. 

A faithful beekeeper serves the bees by tending to them, nurturing them toward flourishing so that others might enjoy the fruits of their labors and so that God might be praised for his wonderful work in creation. A beekeeper exercises dominion in cruciform, working on behalf of those he has taken into his care. And while we are much more complex beings than bees, we who follow Jesus and love his Church find ourselves in the care of pastors who devote their time, energy, expertise, stewardship, and love to us. Like bees that “harvest in the blooms” of flowers planted for their benefit, we feast on rich nectar of gospel truth and learn to thrive in spaces cultivated for our good, to give us a taste of creation as God intended. You could say that we are all being raised to live well in the kingdom. All the while, it is the beekeeper’s joy to see that his hive grows and prospers and to share the abundance of what they make together with others.

What do I appreciate about my pastor?

Speaking of abundance, what first brought my attention to this particular prayer and eventually to this metaphor was a conversation with Dean, my pastor. He had read the liturgy for beekeeping and shared it with a local coffee shop barista whom he had befriended. The barista was not a follower of Jesus, but she was a beekeeper. Dean made the connection between a vocation she pursued and how walking in that very calling reflected her status as an image-bearer of God. He offered her something more, a glimpse into truth that transcends, and deeper meaning for her life. He pointed out to her that God cares about bees and beekeepers.

I would say that this example portrays the essence of who Dean is — one who takes the time to get to know someone well by listening, taking interest, and learning to speak his or her language. He does this out of love for the people God has placed in his path. He is not perfect, but he is a man changed by the gospel, and that is evident in the way he shares Jesus, along with liturgies and laughter, with beekeeping baristas. Because he is a good pastor, he calls all the members of his church to walk in this way with him. 

So what do I appreciate about my pastor? Many things, but almost none as much as his faithful presence and wholehearted commitment to the people he knows God has entrusted to him. He does not simply keep us organized around a common mission; he feeds us with truth and works tirelessly to ensure that we have a place to gather, grow, and prepare to go out from. Even when the work is tedious, even when we swarm and sometimes sting, when conditions aren’t ideal and when he’s too tired to tend to us, he suits up and serves for the good of what is being built. He too knows and receives his place in God’s kingdom. 

How should we respond in gratitude?

How should we respond in gratitude to such faithful pastors who keep us well? 

First, let us live well in their care. May we participate in the life of the church, busy ourselves with the right things, and follow the ones guiding us to do what we were meant to do. May we also show up faithfully and labor fervently to harvest and share the abundant goodness of the gospel with those around us. Let us not grow weary or get off task, but bless our leaders by joining in purposeful service with them. 

Second, let us remember that pastors are also God’s creatures. They need to be kept, tended to, and pastored themselves. Even if we do not fill the role of pastor to pastors, may we encourage ours by praying, speaking uplifting words, inquiring of their wellbeing, and serving them as we are able. Let us be the ones they thank God for in their prayers.  

Finally, may we trust our pastors when they have proven to be trustworthy. Rather than rejecting their care or demanding it on our terms, let us humbly entrust ourselves to their leadership. As many voices clamor for our attention, we would do well to listen to the ones that proclaim words of life and truth to us over and over again. When our pastors are people who love God’s Word and his Church, let us join them and participate with joy in the life of the kingdom as we enjoy God’s presence together. 

As the liturgy reads, “Together may our co-labors resound to [God’s] praise and glory.” To the pastors who keep their churches well, thank you and bless you.

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 / May 19

It hasn’t been a great year for pastors. I don’t have stats, but it doesn’t take hard data for us to imagine the level at which pastoral job boards and search organizations have been bombarded this year with overwhelming inquiries from frazzled pastors looking to get out and get on to something new. If that’s you, let me begin by saying two things: 

It’s OK. And Jesus understands completely. 

So, here’s a word: Pastor, you probably need to quit. But before you quit your current ministry, there might be some other things you should try quitting first. 

1 Quit saying “I know the last year has been hard, BUT . . .” 

It’s probably better to say, “The last year has been hard, period.” You are on the back end of a bitter year, and it’s understandable that your desire is to stop the bleeding and move on to some healing. But don’t miss this unprecedented place that God has lovingly and sovereignly placed you. I wonder what he’ll do? You should pause long enough to let yourself wonder that, too. 

Blessed is the man who remains steadfast under trial, for when he has stood the test he will receive the crown of life, which God has promised to those who love him (James 1:12). 

2. Quit being so productive. 

I get it. There’s a mad scramble to get things back to the way things were. People have left, budgets have diminished, and the questions of what to do and where to go are nagging at you endlessly. But maybe instead of working so hard to get your church out of the valley it’s in, you should see if there’s something God wants you to notice that’s only visible when you’re in a valley. Don’t miss something glorious that God in his grace has slowed you down this last year to see. 

But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things, but one thing is necessary. Mary has chosen the good portion, which will not be taken away from her” (Luke 10:41,42).

3. Quit being so hard on yourself. 

It’s a sad thing to have less compassion on yourself than Jesus does. When he looks at you, he sees his beloved. He sees his faithful undershepherd. He doesn’t expect you to accomplish what only he can accomplish. For he knows our frame; he remembers that we are dust (Ps. 103:14). 

Allow yourself to be known and remembered by God in this complex moment of your pastoral life.

4. Quit thinking you’re the only one. 

We can so easily slide into self-pity during seasons of exhaustion. We can forget that what we’re experiencing is not unusual for a pastor, or a Christian. Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you (1 Pet. 4:12). 

It’s that irritable sense of surprise that can keep us disgruntled, and worse yet, disenchanted, which leads to cynicism. Pray that God would open you up to the plight of other pastors right now, because they may be thinking they’re the only ones.

5. Quit looking at everybody else. 

Pastors are all over the map right now in how they’re processing COVID, getting Sunday gatherings back in place, and finding how to best serve their people as vaccination numbers increase and restrictions are being lifted. To begin comparing your pace and your methods with other churches in different contexts than yours is probably not a healthy direction for your mind. Who you are and where you are is unique, so look to God to do something uniquely merciful and compassionate in the context of your life, church, and community as the coming days unfold. 

Behold, as the eyes of servants look to the hand of their master, as the eyes of a maidservant to the hand of her mistress, so our eyes look to the Lord our God, till he has mercy upon us (Ps. 123:2).

I could likely go on and on, but I wonder how your perspective might change if you took some time to reflect on these five points (so we’re clear, not those five points) and pray how God might help relieve you of some of the stress and anxiety they have brought upon you? It may be that God is using COVID to transition you to another ministry. It could also be that God is using COVID to tether you to the ministry you’re already in, but with much more depth of heart, renewal of mind, and restoration of soul.

This article originally appeared here