Seattle area Pastor, Eugene Cho, recently wrote a blog post entitled “death by ministry” in which he explored the dangerous statics surrounding pastoral ministry. Cho shared with readers many alarming statistics as well as the joys that surround this unique calling. The statistics Cho presented in his blog are an echoing of the numerous articles surfacing lately regarding pastoral burnout and the unhealthy lifestyle many pastors have succumbed too. The New York Times ran an article in early August discussing these dangers including the fact that “Members of the clergy now suffer from obesity, hypertension and depression at rates higher than most Americans. In the last decade, their use of antidepressants has risen, while their life expectancy has fallen.”1 The startling finds leave me asking the question, does it have to be this way?
As I read the statics I was deeply saddened by the 50% divorce rate among pastors and 40% of pastors surveyed whom confessed they participated in an extra-marital affair. Divorce and affairs are just a few of the dangers pastors are dealing with these days. I believe one of the issues surrounding pastors is too many neglect setting boundaries and are workaholics. The list of dangers for pastors that I believe are directly affected by working too many hours are the following; Pastoral burning out, leaving the ministry, divorce, a lack of close friends, insufficient time with your spouse and family, a stress-related crisis, depression, and a lack of time with Jesus outside of writing your sermons. All of these things I strongly believe are preventative if pastors would begin to set more boundaries and work less. Yes we are called to do our job well, but when I choose to enter into a marriage and raise a family, I also am called to care for my family and not just financially provide for them.
As a pastor one is called to care for others, to shepherd them, and help them deal with issues in their own lives. However I believe that in the midst of caring for others, pastors have often lost sight of how to care for themselves. I have witnessed many pastors who are indeed overworked by the churches they serve, but I have also seen many pastors who knowingly choose to overwork themselves, neglecting the God given need for a sabbath. The Sabbath is a perfect example of an area that we too often neglected as we pursue our ministry calling. The Sabbath is a Biblically based way that we are called to live, in order to allow God to use us for his good. In Exodus chapter 16 Moses states “This is what the Lord commanded: “Tomorrow is to be a day of rest, a holy Sabbath to the Lord.””2 Pastors, counselors, teachers, doctors, mechanics, etc. we all NEED a Sabbath.
Recently I was reading the winter 2010 issue of Leadership, in which Rob Bell, founding pastor of Mars Hill Bible Church, was interviewed on his unique communication skills. Throughout the article he expresses his opinion as to what it takes to be a pastor and he speaks to the importance of caring for oneself by stating;
"The other part is sustainability. That’s an important word for me. Some pastors think about how to survive the next five years. The better question to ask is, how are we going to thrive? How do we construct a rhythm and pace of life that ensures five years from now we’ll have more passion, more energy, and we will be filled with new and fresh ideas about life in God’s world?"3
In the same article Rob Bell goes on to encourage those he mentors to “take a Sabbath to remind yourself that you’re not a machine, you’re a human”4 To often we forget the fact that we need to care for ourselves, so we can in turn be better pastors to our churches. The sabbath is just one example of a way in which pastors can begin to better care for themselves.
We as a church and as employees of the church need to come alongside pastors and support them as they set boundaries in their ministry. I have witnessed pressure from pastors who are trying to instill a work ethic in a younger generation encouraging them to often work 50+ hours a week. We have seen how this turns out and I am not sorry that I desire to protect my relationship with Christ, my marriage, and my family more than I desire to please my church. My hope and prayer is that as pastors begin to take a stand to lead healthy lifestyles churches will realize the value in these choices and support them out of respect to how we were created by God to live.
My aim is that you will not be discouraged by the statistics regarding pastoral ministry, but rather you would find a reassurance in the fact that things can and should change. Remember to clear space in your life to pursue God, to spend time with your spouse and your children, and may you be reenergized to help lead those around you. I want to close with a quote from Rob Bell in his book Velvet Elvis;
"Jesus wants to heal our souls, wants to give us the shalom of God. And so we have to stop. We have to slow down. We have to sit still and stare out the window and let the engine come to an idle. We have to listen to what our inner voice is saying."5
2 NIV Bible, Exodus 16:23
3 Leadership Journal, Winter 2010 Tying the Clouds Together p. 31
4 Leadership Journal, Winter 2010 Tying the Clouds Together p. 31
5 Bell, Rob, Velvet Elvis, Zondervan 2005