What were you doing on March 12, 2020? I spoke at a pastor luncheon in Wewoka, Oklahoma that day, and they surprised me by singing “Happy Birthday” as the server brought out a giant piece of cheesecake. An even bigger surprise that day was news that COVID-19 had become an official pandemic.
Of course, the pastors in that room had no idea what that meant or how it would affect our lives and ministries. Two years later, we are still pastoring through this pandemic and still wondering how to do it well.
Navigating COVID and its effects on our world and our churches is difficult, but ministry difficulties aren’t new nor are they limited to COVID. So pastor, how are you doing? Your health and the health of your church are intrinsically connected, so please take this question seriously.
Whether you are pastoring bivocationally like me, or full time as I did for 27 years, the weight of a pastor’s call has grown even heavier over the last couple of years.
Here are five questions every pastor needs to ask right now to assess their condition amid the challenges of ministry.
1. Am I still committed to my call?
A 2021 Lifeway Research report found only about 1% of pastors abandon the pulpit each year. Although numerous pundits predicted our tribe would bail during this pandemic, the actual rate of attrition has not changed significantly during the pandemic. I think these pundits dramatically underestimated the faithfulness of the called, as well as the faithfulness of the One who called them. I realize we have not yet experienced all of the fallout of COVID, but historically, pastors are not quitters.
“Let us not get tired of doing good, for we will reap at the proper time if we don’t give up,” (Galatians 6:9, CSB).
2. Am I experiencing ministry fatigue?
Lifeway Research found 54% of pastors say their ministry is frequently overwhelming, and 48% often feel the demands of ministry are more than they can handle.
I’m not surprised that half the pastors interviewed are overwhelmed, but I am surprised the other half are not overwhelmed. Ministry has often been demanding and exhausting for me, but I still love it. After two years of unrelenting pressure from toxic politics and the pandemic, widespread fatigue is to be expected.
Ministry fatigue is that slow burn you feel after an extended season of difficult ministry. This is typically a temporary season and should not surprise those of us who are called to “be ready in season and out of season” (2 Timothy 4:2). If fatigue sets in or goes indefinitely unchecked, it can quickly lead to chronic burnout or clinical depression. That was me 12 years ago before I sought clinical help and got healthy again.
One important way to check your pulse is to check your calendar and assess whether you have been consistently obeying the Sabbath. I found it telling that the Greatest Needs of Pastors study found 63% of pastors say they’re experiencing stress, and 64% say they’re struggling to consistently take a Sabbath.
A stunning 84% of pastors say they’re on call 24/7, according to a 2021 report from Lifeway Research. This reveals both poor theology and ecclesiology. Sabbath simply means “to stop” for the purpose of resting. It’s posed as both a gift and a command, and at one time was enforced by the death penalty (Exodus 31:15).
Dr. Archibald Hart wrote, “Pastors don’t get into trouble because they forget they are pastors. They get into trouble because they forget they are persons.”
3. Am I conflicted about my vision?
Over the past two years, how many hours have you invested in making ministry plans only to have them changed or scrapped altogether? Add to this the unpredictability of members’ attendance and service as most pastors in the Greatest Needs of Pastors study say developing leaders and volunteers is an issue they need to address in their churches (77%).
Not only are we conflicted about vision, but our members seem to be conflicted about … well, everything. In fact, 80% of pastors say they expect conflict in their church.
So how are you doing? Be careful to not allow the loudest voices in your church to crowd your calendar or your head-space. You have some control over the conversations you weigh in online, on campus, or even at home.
4. Am I isolated from other pastors?
Pastors identified the need for friendships (69%) and fellowship with other pastors (64%) among their greatest needs. I was concerned about isolation at the beginning of the pandemic when we had to shelter in place and cancel ministry gatherings. Today, I am more concerned about pastors being isolated in a crowd.
The Greatest Needs of Pastors study found 3 in 4 say they would be interested in getting advice or guidance on the issues they are facing from other pastors who have already been through those problems. Similar numbers (74%) would like to hear from those who understand churches like theirs. But the relationship has to start somewhere.
5. Am I looking at the future through a lense of faith?
Based on anecdotal evidence, I believe pastors and ministry leaders are still consistently placing their hope in Jesus. Trials often reveal and even strengthen our faith because they provide opportunities for growth.
It always sounds unrealistic and unbiblical to me when I hear preachers say that you can’t have both faith and fear. This false dichotomy can quickly be absolved by reading the Psalms and the rest of Scripture. Our faith does not completely remove all our fears. Rather, it emboldens us to face those fears with a peace that surpasses all understanding (Philippians 4:7).
Ministry has always been difficult. It was difficult before COVID. It’s difficult now. It will still be difficult when the COVID coast is completely clear. But for two years, we have walked our people through the valley of the shadow of death, and it has worn us down.
Fortunately, our Shepherd is still aptly armed with a rod and a staff to comfort us (Psalm 23).
Perhaps our greatest challenge is to keep “devoting ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word,” (Acts 6:4). The Greatest Needs of Pastors study revealed that most pastors are struggling to stay consistent in personal prayer (72%), in confessing and repenting from personal sin (61%), and in Bible reading not related to sermon or teaching preparation (68%).
All pastors know that soul care is important, but how many of us consider it imperative? Take a moment to check your spiritual pulse by asking God to reveal whether you are loving Him daily and intimately with all your heart, soul, and mind (Matthew 22:37). Then make whatever adjustments you need to put your first love first.
We can be optimistic about the future when our delight is in the Lord.
“God’s presence is my good. I have made the Lord God my refuge, so I can tell about all you do,” (Psalms 73:28, CSB).