By Jeff Brumley
Travis Collins was a pastor for three decades, but it was only in the last 10 years of his pulpit ministry that he became disturbed by the rate of burnout among fellow preachers — especially the younger ones.
“The dropout rate is alarming among new ministers,” said Collins, director of mission advancement and Virginia regional coordinator for Fresh Expressions U.S., which seeks to create new faith communities capable of engaging a postmodern culture. Fresh Expressions U.S. is coordinated by the Baptist General Association of Virginia’s Executive Board.
“Some statistics show that half will drop out of vocational ministry … within their first five years,” said Collins, former senior pastor at Bon Air Baptist Church in Richmond, Va.
So rather than just worry about it and watch the downward trend continue, Collins decided to combine research he’s gathered over three decades of ministry with up-to-date data and put it all down on paper.
The result is a new book — For Ministers About to Start … or About to Give Up, published by TCPBooks.
The 153-page text presents readers with disturbing statistics, warns against “saboteur” church members and highlights the dangers of little or no exercise and poor eating and sleeping habits — and a variety of other ministerial pitfalls.
It also offers solutions that, if heeded, Collins and others say will help pastors keep their head regardless of present circumstances.
Collins said he also wrote the book because he can identify with the struggles pastors experience in their ministries.
He encountered two brushes with burnout in his career, including a more recent one that had him eyeing the door.
But he hung on and emerged from that gloomy season to see some of the most rewarding ministry experiences of his career as a pulpit minister. And his last year at Bon Air before joining Fresh Expressions was even better in terms of attendance, giving and other measurements of success.
Statistics show that his experience is becoming less and less the norm.
“The research is both alarming and consistent,” he writes in the book, adding that:
• 28 percent of ministers report being “forcefully terminated.”
• 33 percent say being in ministry is “an outright hazard” to their families.
• 75 percent experience “severe stress causing anguish, worry, bewilderment, anger, depression, fear and alienation” during their careers.
• Ministers join doctors and attorneys among those with the highest rates of addiction and suicide.
Collins said he wants to convince pastors currently in those dark places not to quit before the miracle happens.
“Because I stayed, the last year at Bon Air was one of the best and I would have missed that if I had left too early,” Collins said. “I don’t want people to walk away too early because you might miss the best years of your ministry.”
Wondering what to do
Being a pastor has never been an easy job, but relatively new dynamics — a postmodern and post-Christian society, a rise of incivility and a decrease in loyalties, to name a few — have increased the sense of isolation, and even persecution, among ministers.
Adding to the stress of church leadership nowadays are hot-button social issues dividing congregations, Collins said.
“Pastors didn’t have, a decade ago, divisive issues like the ordination of gays and same-sex marriage,” he said.
Meanwhile, many churches — especially more moderate ones — are insisting on “collaborative and cooperative leadership” styles that effectively complicate senior pastors’ ability to make decisions and set the direction of the congregation.
“I think we have forced pastors to simply call meetings where we sing Kumbaya and everybody wonders what to do instead of issuing a clear call,” Collins said.
“We may be undermining the spiritual authority of the pastor.”
‘Take difficulties in stride’
Whatever the external challenges, most of the work pastors can do to weather these storms is internal.
“Ministers have to own our part in how difficult this is,” Collins said. “When I hear that a pastor was terminated, I don’t automatically assume it was the church’s fault.”
Developing emotional intelligence is key to successfully navigating both the external factors, such as culture, impacting the church and also the internal dynamics, he writes.
Internally, emotional intelligence helps ministers not to become overly attached to unhealthy members by trying to fix them. It also helps to not take so personally gossip and other attacks against policies and strategies at the church.
A section of the book deals extensively with self-care, including sabbaticals and other ways to maintain physical and emotional health.
“It helps you take difficulties in stride and helps you understand what’s going on in the system of the church and what’s going on inside you,” Collins said. “It makes you far more likely to weather the storms and guide the ship skillfully.”
‘On the way out’
But there is also an issue larger than either the pastor or the congregation when it comes to finding a long-term fix to burnout or other daunting issues facing the church, Collins said.
“We owe it to ourselves to ask, is our church the kind of church that Jesus envisioned?” he said. “Or did he envision the machine that the church has become with all its organizational demands, facilities demands, with all its overhead?”
The church is exploding in African and Asia, where congregations are simple and relational.
“There is no model of the church that is trouble free, but the machinery that has become the church might be on the way out.”