Have you ever been in a church whose pastor resigned to leave the ministry? It’s an unsettling proposition for all involved. Yet, too often, it is the congregation itself that bears the blame. The Schaeffer Institute, in a study of American clergy, has written that 1700 or so pastors leave ministry each month. They add that 50% of ministers starting out will not last 5 years. As a coach and consultant, I spend a fairly significant portion of my work with pastors who are feeling frustrated, demotivated, or even defeated. Some experience these feelings as a sense of failure. Others are discouraged by a seemingly never ending stream of complaints or criticisms. It’s not that they don’t get recognized for the things that they do well. It isn’t that the majority of feedback from the congregation is negative. Generally, it is not. But what can lead to burn-out and a sense of defeat, is when the pastor feels that there is always someone unhappy about something.

Part of the problem is simple human nature. On the one hand, we tend to take for granted the things that we like, or the things that are working for us. Our minds more often drift to what’s uncomfortable or what isn’t happening the way that we would like. On the other hand, people called to ministry are people who are, by their nature, sensitive to the needs of others and their own ability to impact people positively. As a group, they often discount compliments as doing nothing more than what they expect of themselves; while focusing on critical feedback as a sign that they are falling short of their own expectations.

I coach pastors as to how to change that kind of “stinking thinking.” His or her self-talk is important in maintaining a healthy perspective on their efforts and their work. While this is a challenge for all of us, pastors are especially vulnerable to holding unrealistically high expectations for themselves. As people who have dedicated themselves to teaching and living their faith, people in ministry can be overly sensitive to their flaws and failings. They aspire to be Christ-like. Their congregations expect the same. Pastors are often expected to have ideal marriages, perfectly well behaved children, and personalities that are above reproach (even when the reproach is trivial or petty). Living with Christ as our model is a fantastic aspiration, but it tends to be an impossible standard on a daily basis.

If the pastor stood angrily in the pulpit and challenged all sinners to leave the church, not only would the pews be empty, but the pulpit would be vacant as well. Now, that scenario is unlikely to happen, for the church is a place for sinners. The last perfect person rose to heaven thousands of years ago. Your pastor is NOT going to be the next. While we all know that intellectually, the emotional reality is different. Any place where a few hundred or a few thousand people are gathered will have a smattering of those who are prideful, self-righteous, hardhearted, perpetually angry, and/or petty. When we focus upon those individuals as proof of our ineffectiveness we are bound to be discouraged. However, doing just that can be an occupational hazard for many in ministry.

So, what’s to be done? One place to start is to consider the lives of the apostles. These are people chosen by Christ Himself to build His church and preach His word. Although He chose them Himself, even Jesus saw them as slow learners and spiritually dense at times. (Luke 24:25) They were common men, the kind we see every day. They were a lot like us. Yet, Jesus personally chose them. It is well to remember that when we are more demanding of our pastors then Jesus was. The simple truth is that pastors are simply ordinary people who have stepped up to the challenge to spread His word to His people. For pastors who are discouraged, who feel unable to constantly carry that burden, John 21:2-3 describes how after the crucifixion several of the apostles were so discouraged they left the ministry and went back to their old professions for a time. Talk about a sense of failure and inadequacy!

While I am called in to coach and counsel pastors, I am seldom called in to consult with congregations about these issues. When a pastor is struggling, it is unlikely that the congregation will step up and own its input into that situation. The pastor is on his or her own. If I were to be called in, here is what I would advise.

We might not get every member of the congregation, but if deacons, elders, and lay leaders read John MacArthur’s book, Twelve Ordinary Men, it would create a perspective in the church that would be quite healthy. It would make a great sermon series or life group topic.

  • I would ask that every congregation would have a dedicated prayer group for the pastor and the pastor’s family. Even one person focusing the power of prayer on the pastor would be helpful. Imagine if every member of the congregation rotated in and out of a group dedicated to that purpose.
  • The leadership of the church could deliberately recognize their combined duty to minister to the pastor, as opposed to sitting back and watching the pastor struggle with the issues of their particular congregation. An excellent place to start would be to have members of the pastor search committee serve as a support group to help ease the new pastor into this particular role and to serve as a source of emotional support for the first year or so.
  • I would challenge the congregation to dedicate themselves to developing a culture of grace and graciousness within their church. Not simply for the pastor’s benefit, but for the good of all who come to church hoping to experience His love and grace.
  • How much more supported would our pastors feel if a critical mass of people in the congregation committed themselves to appreciating the efforts of the pastor and the ministry staff, and chose to actively serve each other as well. A group of strangers, sitting together in a room each Sunday never will be a true community of faith. While a pastor can lead, it takes the support of all to recreate the spirit of the Kingdom here on earth.

The good news is that a church doesn’t need a consultant to express the will to care for the pastor or to live to the standards they expect of others. All that is required is an act of faith.

Dan Elash
Dan is an Episcopalian layman and has a Ph.D. from the University of Kansas. Trained as a psychologist, he has focused his career on creating value in business organizations, churches, and not-for-profits by developing the intellectual, spiritual, and human capital in individuals, teams, or across the organization as a whole. Over the past thirty-five years Dan has coached or trained thousands of executives, pastors, leadership teams, managers, and church staffs as well as lay leaders. He is a coach and a consultant for CHC.