How many articles and blog posts have come across your computer screen recently describing the angst of pastoral leaders?
It seems nearly every author, blogger, denominational minister, coach, consultant and anyone else who serves alongside pastors and church staff persons is sounding the alarm about pastoral distress. The prevalence of these written pieces clearly indicates that pastors are struggling — many experiencing mental health issues, leadership burnout, spiritual and physical exhaustion, and some even thoughts of suicide.
Early in 2020 when this pandemic was just beginning, pastors were encouraged to practice their spiritual disciplines and effective self-care. Now that this pandemic lingers far longer than expected, while the numerous other social, political and organizational pressures increase, the storyline of pastors has shifted toward distress and angst.
As a church consultant, I’ve watched this unfolding story of pastors, there’s been a voice whispering in the back of my mind, saying, “Yes, and.”
I certainly resonate with the concerns articulated in the writings of so many I respect, yet based on our experiences with pastors during these volatile times, I believe another significant storyline is being neglected. This other pastoral storyline in no way negates the first, while also rounding out the narrative, making this response to previous articles and blogs a “yes, and” rather than a “yes, but” response.
Yes, all those descriptions are real and true, AND there’s more to the story. Pastors are distressed, AND another storyline is just as prominent. Based on our experience coaching, consulting and training with clergy from many denominations, I offer the following five observations of pastors serving in our volatile world.
First, pastors are serving with the strong awareness they are doing exactly what they are called to do. Recently I watched The Last Dance, a documentary about Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls (best player and team ever). There’s no way to absorb Michael Jordan’s story without recognizing this guy was born to play basketball. Certainly he worked excessively hard toward strengthening his skills, yet the court was his natural habitat.
“There are many pastors right now who are serving with extreme clarity, spiritually sensing they are in the right place at the right time.”
There are many pastors right now who are serving with extreme clarity, spiritually sensing they are in the right place at the right time, leading God’s people through this wilderness. No, it’s not pleasant; yet they sense this is their destiny, so to speak. They recognize that being in the right place doesn’t guarantee rainbows or unicorns, accepting reality for what it is. Nevertheless, these pastors know God has called them to serve as pastors, come what may.
Some of these pastors were on the bubble before the volatility started, unsure if they were in the right or fitting vocation. Then, the volatility provided clarity, dusting off their callings, energizing their ministries once again. Pastors are serving with a keen awareness that they are doing exactly what they are called to do.
Second, pastors are rediscovering a love for their people and church. While a calling to pastoral ministry often is an internal awareness with clarity like that described above, it is lived out incarnationally among a particular people in a specific place. The refining fires of volatility are burning away chaff, reigniting the love of pastors for their people. As they struggle together in these adverse circumstances, pastors are recognizing God’s presence in their churches with new appreciation.
I’ve heard more than one pastor describe deep respect and admiration for the disciples in their churches, telling stories of resilience and Christian love even as their people struggle to manage chaotic lives. These pastors know they are called to walk alongside this particular expression of the body of Christ for this season, in these distressful times, in this specific community.
On those days when they feel like fleeing, it’s like these pastors hear God telling them, “Don’t let them go yet, pastor, don’t let them go.” Pastors are rediscovering deep appreciation, respect and love for the people of their churches and communities.
Third, pastors are energized by the exceptional leadership challenges embedded in this volatility. “Unprecedented” is a good word for it; a word describing the confluence of events and dynamics conspiring together to present exceptional challenges for pastoral leaders.
“In this cauldron of churning toxins, pastors are rising to the occasion, discovering and employing leadership gifts and skills they didn’t even know they carried.”
In this cauldron of churning toxins, pastors are rising to the occasion, discovering and employing leadership gifts and skills they didn’t even know they carried. It’s like the two pastoral descriptions above provide a strong foundation for pastors to climb up and launch into their leadership best.
I’m reminded of Kouzes and Posner’s excellent book The Leadership Challenge published way back in 2002 wherein they describe the factors that combine for leaders do their best work. This is what’s happening now for many pastors — their leadership drive is activated, helping their churches lean forward into these moments, becoming invigorated and vibrant bodies of Christ in their communities. Pastors are energized by this opportunity to bring their leadership best to the obvious need for inspired and effective leadership in their churches.
Fourth, pastors are driven to their knees, rediscovering the sustaining power of God. Until life conspires to break us down and lay us out, the sustaining power of God is a nice theological concept sprinkled into our sermons on occasion. But when life puts us flat on the floor with no hope of resolving things on our own, then we start the spiritual journey.
Remember the prayer of surrender made famous by our Lord in the garden overlooking Jerusalem? “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet not what I want but what you want” (Matthew 26:39). So many pastors have been driven to their knees, desperate for relief and strength, finding themselves breathing this same prayer to God, surrendering their own will for the will of our God.
When willpower and human ingenuity run dry, that is when we discover the sustaining power of God. Although they don’t always feel like serving, many pastors are keenly aware of God’s strength upholding them day by day by day. Pastors are rediscovering their faith, renewing their relationships with our Lord as the volatility of our times drives them to their knees.
Fifth, pastors are serving with exceptional grit and hardiness while also serving smart, practicing life-giving self-care. I’ve frequently written about pastoral grit over the years, recognizing the tenacity of pastors who put one foot in front of the other week upon week.
To become a pastor takes some level of spiritual hardiness, moving through seminary, ordination and the church call process. Even more, once we are serving and get to see how the sausage is made, so to speak, we need grit and hardiness to press on toward the prize of the upward call of Christ Jesus. Besides, no matter what vocation one might be in, there are those days when we simply must get up and go to work (even when it’s working from home).
“The pastors who are living into all five of these descriptors may also be the pastors who are struggling mightily.”
One of the reasons many pastors are spiritually hardy in these volatile times is their smart and informed self-management. Over the last 20 years or so, self-care has become a major theme in ministry circles and even in seminary curriculum. Now we are seeing the fruits of this learning in pastors who are practicing effective and life-giving self-care. Spiritual grit and hardiness are the companions of many pastoral leaders in this season of volatility.
I could go on, but there’s just one more insight: the pastors who are living into all five of these descriptors may also be the pastors who are struggling mightily.
Any one pastor may experience weeks of exceptional spiritual highs and effective transformational ministry while considering packing it all up and moving on the next week. Many of us find ourselves living into multiple storylines as our ministries unfold in this volatile season.
I hope this article helps tell the rest of the story, recognizing the exceptional pastoral ministry God is providing for our churches even now. So many pastors are serving in such amazing innovative and life-giving ways during these volatile days. There’s no way we want to miss the telling and the living of that pastoral storyline.
Mark Tidsworth is founder and team leader for Pinnacle Leadership Associates. He has served as a pastor, new church developer, interim pastor, renewal pastor, therapist, nonprofit director, business owner, leadership coach, congregational consultant, leadership trainer and author. Ordained in the Baptist tradition, Mark is an ecumenical Christian minister based in Chapin, S.C.