Church & Ministry

A Healthy Church Requires a Healthy Pastor

Being a pastor is bad for your health, or so concludes a 2012 study reported in Christian Century. Similar studies seem to verify the report. More importantly, personal experience makes it clear — pastors struggle with maintaining good spiritual, mental, physical and emotional health. Of course, fewer of us describe ourselves as unhealthy than really are, yet every pastor knows that we live on the edge. Discouragement, depression, restlessness, and poor family relationships are constant threats in pastoral ministry. They are never far away. Their shadow looms on the horizon almost daily, waxing and waning but never entirely beyond our conscious awareness. That’s our life; that’s our calling: to live on the edge where hurts, pains, and burdens are dropped on the shoulders of the pastor. Yet many of us live beyond the edge, in the realm of incessant stress from unrealistic expectations and overwhelming schedules. If we stay there, we are not healthy.

Life between the horizons of joy and sorrow is the norm for a pastor.  Sorrowful sobriety and joyous levity are never far apart, sometimes mere moments separate them. To feel the ups and down of the ministerial rollercoaster is not itself indicative of poor health. The opposite would be true. But long periods of incessant stress, restlessness, family tension, depression, and such like, is not a healthy life. Just like a healthy body may contract a cold or infection, a pastor may occasionally experience a period of emotional or spiritual sickness.  A healthy body, however, is resilient; that is, it has the resources to boost the immune system and recover fairly quickly. An unhealthy body, on the other hand, never quite overcomes the ailment. I don’t believe God calls us to be personally and perpetually unhealthy.

The Apostle Paul realized the hazards of Christian ministry when he admonished young Timothy to “endure suffering” (2 Tim 4:5) and that he himself had fought a good fight. Of course, in his case his very life was in peril. But there are many facets to the good fight including the incessant battle for a sound mind, a light spirit, a fit body, and spiritual freshness. Every believer experiences these challenges, but much more the pastor whose life is frequently controlled by rising circumstances which cannot be ignored. The fight for health is a unique one for the pastor and sometimes it can only be described as “enduring suffering.”

Here is the point: A healthy church requires a healthy pastor. The Apostle Paul understood this and prior to leaving the church at Ephesus, he admonished the local pastors first of all to “pay careful attention to yourselves….” It is not self-centered for a pastor to pay attention to his own welfare so that he may also “pay attention to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God” (ESV Acts 20:28). Caring for the church of God, which is the pastor’s calling, requires taking care of our own health as well as the health of God’s flock. Burning ourselves out or being perpetually ill, feeble, drained, stressed, or spiritually dry is not virtuous and is counter to Paul’s inspired instruction to pastors. Our culture may value workaholic lifestyles, but the Bible demands something different. God calls us to be examples to the flock (1 Peter 5:3), that is, healthy examples. A healthy church requires a healthy pastor. And an unhealthy church may be a reflection of an unhealthy pastor.

I’m writing this after seventeen years of ministry and believing I was healthy. It wasn’t the frequent migraines (they run in my family), or the ever-lengthening list of unfinished tasks at home or at church that suggested otherwise. Rather, it was God’s Word. Specifically, it was one little word in Acts 6:4 — the word “give” (KJV). In preparation for a graduate course on the doctrine of the church, I began studying what the Bible expects me, a pastor, to really do. Then I came across this little English word (a sixteen-letter word in Greek!) that means “to attach oneself to.” I have no problem attaching myself to many things — and therein lies the problem. I failed to notice that I should not be more attached to any pastoral responsibility more than my devotion to prayer and the study of God’s Word. As I become acquainted with new needs in our community, my devotion to them increased while my devotion to prayer and study remained the same or even decreased on some days. I never thought too much about it because I rarely struggled with consistent, daily prayer and Bible study. But suddenly my spiritual habit was not enough to maintain, much less to grow. I needed to attach myself even more closely to prayer and the Word.

In my observation and experience, there are several contributors to poor health. I have experienced all of these and have includes some ideas for countering them.

  1. Most pastors are on-call 24 hours, seven days a week and therefore never experiences a day of rest. Sunday is certainly not a day of rest for the pastor. A church should consider giving the pastor a day of rest each week, but it is the pastor’s responsibility to make sure it happens. Arrangements should be made so that someone else is able to respond to an emergency. Perhaps a well-prepared and gifted lay minister can be present with people in need on this day. Of course, the pastor will not want to miss the most urgent emergencies, but those are not so frequent as we may think. The church can help by respecting the pastor’s personal space, including the parsonage (even if it is owned by the church) as the pastor’s home.
  1. Many church members have unreasonable and/or unbiblical expectations of the pastor. One such expectation is that the pastor is immediately accessible for their personal need. Our ubiquitous presence on social media contributes to that expectation. If we cannot be reached on the home phone, try the pastor’s cell phone. If he doesn’t answer, send a text. And add a FB message. If that doesn’t work, call the pastor’s wife. Our constant accessibility is bad for our health and the health of the church. It allows the church to become increasingly dependent on the pastor to do things that loosen his attachment to prayer and God’s Word. I believe it is also helpful to have a written covenant or contract between the pastor and the church so expectations and compensation are in writing. This arrangement should be reviewed every year.
  1. People look to the pastor to help them resolve a personal matter. Pastors are called upon to give all sorts of counsel: legal, marital, psychological, medical, etc. It is a pastor’s nature to want to help people, but those who are especially gifted with empathy or problem-solving are likely to take on more than they can handle. Before long we have added unnecessary stress when we could just as easily advise the person to seek help from an expert in that field. This is one reason I have discouraged pastors who have solicited my input about getting more education in counseling. Unless God is calling you to a specific career in pastoral counseling, don’t do it. All you’ll get done is counseling. There are well-trained, qualified Christian counselors we can recommend to our people.
  1. Many pastors lack of a mentor or ministry friend who can help carry personal burdens. This is one reason team ministry (even in churches of less than 50) has gained immense interest among our own college students and recent graduates. Solo pastoring has unique challenges because every strength of the pastoral “team” is yours and so is every weakness. Pastors need someone that can sit across the table from them, look them in the eye, and talk about tough stuff. Pastors need a friend-relationship where there is give and take with both parties. It is insufficient for a mentor or ministry friend to say, “If you ever need to talk, call me.” That suggests, “I don’t have time to think about you unless you get in my ear.” Instead, a good mentor takes occasional initiative to reach out to his friend. If you are blessed with someone like that in your life, honor it with transparency and authenticity.
  1. Inability to discern the unimportant from the most important. Those with a “driven” personality “need” to get things done now; those with less-driven personalities may be uncertain about what to do next. Both experience the paralyzing effect of having too much to do. It has been said that successful people say “No” to most things in order to stay focused on the most important things. Are you stressed? Find something in your life that you’ve been saying “Yes” to and start saying “No.”
  1. The inability to rest at mealtime (three times a day). It may seem odd to include this in the list, but this list is from my experience. Specifically, my experience is that I frequently skip meals altogether because I’m too busy to stop and eat, or I eat something quick and easy (and often unhealthy) in order to get back to work. But as I have reflected on Scriptures regarding mealtimes, I have concluded that meals can serve three purposes: meals 1) should always provide nourishment; 2) should be a time of pausing and giving thanks to God; and 3) may be a time of fellowship among friends. The second point is where I have been most recently convicted. It seems God’s Word has more in mind than a quick and thoughtless prayer; rather, it is a time to reflect on God’s steadfast love (Psalm 136:25), to give glory to God (1 Cor 10:31); to recognize God’s good gifts (Psalm 145:15-16; James 1:17) and provision (Psalm 111:4-6; 1 Timothy 6:17-18); it is a fitting occasion to ask God to increase our hunger and thirst for righteousness (Matthew 5:6) and to draw from his eternal water and receive heavenly bread (Isaiah 55:1-2); and to turn our mind toward the Great Supper being prepared for us (Revelation 19:9). In other words, every mealtime is an opportunity to nourish our soul by reorienting our thoughts to the Almighty. Regarding physical health, add one healthy habit to your physical life at a time – start with something like drinking water instead of sugary drinks on a regular basis.
  1. Pastors frequently have, or feel that they have, insufficient time to study and prepare an outstanding sermon for Sunday (much less two or even three excellent sermons per week!) The Shepherd’s role described in Ezekiel 34:15-16 alone is enough to stretch us to the breaking point. In my early years of pastoring I thought it was difficult to find time to prepare two excellent messages in a week. Now I’m more convinced than ever of that truth. Consequently, I usually preach once a week and on the occasions when I preach twice it is often “Part Two” of the same sermon. I started this while pastoring a church of 35 people. For those who preach on Wednesday evenings also, I suggest adding discussion questions to your sermon notes and making that your material for mid-week. A church can help their pastor by allowing him to stay focused on his primary biblical responsibilities as stated in Acts 6:4 and Ephesians 4:12—to devote himself to pray and the ministry of the Word, and to equip the saints for the ministries of the local church.
  1. Pastors often sacrifice their family time to help someone else. Yes, I’ve done it despite the good advice of ministry mentors. Although I believe my marriage is the most important human relationship I have, I have often asked my wife to sacrifice what should have had more importance to me. This is a constant battle because she is the easiest person to presume upon and she’s the most self-giving person I know. But I also know that I need the strength from a strong marriage or the sacrifice will be too much. I am noticeably healthier when Sarah and I are connected emotionally. I can go out into ministry as a healthier person giving more in less time.

A healthy pastor is one who has something in the tank to give. When our physical body is depleted and malnourished, it begins to attack itself, taking resources from parts of the body that the brains deems less important until it breaks down. When the pastor breaks down, the church suffers. The church needs healthy pastors; and healthy pastors help mold healthy churches. In Cracking Your Church’s Culture, Samuel Chand notes that there are two kinds of people in our lives: givers and takers. In a pastor’s life, he notes, “99 percent of their interactions are with people who make withdrawals.” (Thank God he is exaggerating the percent, but the point is clear.) The constant call to give requires us to have something to give. People need our time, energy, attention, emotional support, advice, and much more. Exactly how are we to give any of that when we are emotionally or spiritually or physically depleted? We’ve all preached when we didn’t feel well; visited the hospital while masking a sickness; offered counsel when we needed it ourselves; and so on. And we love it! But that doesn’t mean we ought to operate that way incessantly. The church is better off when the pastor takes care of his health.

Someone recently told me about a graduate student who approached Dr. Kevin Vanhoozer at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School (my alma mater) with a question, “Dr. Vanhoozer, do you think I have what it takes to get into the PhD program or do you think I should just go pastor a church now?” Dr. Vanhoozer, always quick-witted, replied, “Well, if you’re ready for long days, little rest, lots of stress, time away from your family, and you have the fortitude to stick to it, finish the job while feeling inadequate, frequently overwhelmed, and still able to meet deadlines or suffer the consequences; if you’re up to all of that you should definitely pastor a church; otherwise, just get your PhD.” I have a PhD (and studied under Dr. Vanhoozer) and I pastor a church – the rigors are not dissimilar, just ask my wife!

Being a pastor can be bad for your health, but it doesn’t have to be. Stress, restlessness, and self-doubt are more frequent than I care to admit. The wisdom of God tells us that we must devote ourselves, that is, labor to attach ourselves, to prayer and God’s Word. That’s where our help and health come from (Psalm 121).