Even before Covid and this volatile election cycle, I knew plenty of pastors who were contemplating moving on to greener pastures or even quitting ministry altogether. It happens for a thousand different reasons, most of which come unexpectedly. It prompts the question for many: Does ministry have to be miserable?
I am convinced that many pastors are suffering in large part because they aren’t conducting ministry so much as letting ministry happen to them. There are so many things a pastor cannot control, of course, but a great deal of other things may go differently if he took initiative, set up appropriate boundaries, and kept a closer watch on his life and doctrine. There are certainly no ways to create a force field against suffering and other hardships that come with the territory of caring for Christ’s flocks, but there are some things a pastor can do that can contribute to more happiness in the ministry. Here are a few:
1. Don’t overwork.
Sometimes it’s due to the implicit demands of the congregation and other times it’s due to the people-pleasing workaholism of our own flesh, but many pastors create their own misery by never resting. They end up using their day off to work on the sermon or other ministry stuff, working late many nights because they aren’t managing their time well during the day, foregoing vacations or other breaks, and just generally trying to perform as their church’s functional messiah. Family ends up getting neglected and fatigue (physical, emotional, and spiritual) begins to set in. Over time, this cycle produces in the pastor a kind of resentment against his church. He sees them more as his boss or taskmaster, than as a flock to shepherd.
There are just some things you have to do, of course. You can’t neglect what’s required of you. But there are other things that can be delegated, other things that can be put off, and still others that don’t need to be done at all (probably). Overworking drains the emotional reservoir, preventing you from even enjoying your hard work. If you want to be happy with your church, don’t be so afraid of them you won’t obey God’s command to rest.
2. Spend more time with low maintenance people.
This is how it usually works: the pastor spends most of his time with the people in his church who need the most help, who complain the most, who most threaten (explicitly or implicitly) consequences for not tending to them, who engage in emotional blackmail, or who otherwise, whether intentionally or just circumstantially, are takers rather than givers. Again, for the most part, this dynamic is part of doing ministry.
But if you only spend time with people who drain you, the temptation to seeing your church as a hindrance to your happiness grows. You have to care for the hurting, comfort the afflicted, and feed the hungry. If you didn’t want to do that, you shouldn’t be in ministry anyway. But there are people who give ministers cause to groan (Heb. 13:17), and there are people who give them cause to smile. There are people you see coming that make you grit your teeth, and there are people you see coming that make you exhale.
Spend more time with low maintenance people, those in your church who aren’t asking for your time or demanding your attention. I never regretted the lunch or home visit with couples or families in my church who otherwise never would have raised their hand for my attention. I got to know more people in my flock that way, and my perspective on my flock changed. I didn’t see them as a drain or an impediment to my happiness. I began to see them more as a joy and and as my friends, my family. And when you spend time with people who don’t necessarily have any expectations of you, you feel free to be more yourself, which fuels happiness, as well.
3. Get perspective.
Many times our misery in ministry comes from an inability to see beyond the weeds of our predicament. We’re deep in the trench or in the valley; we’re hyper-focused on the problem or sadness. It helps, then, to get some perspective.
Adopting a long view about many problems can help extricate a pastor from unhealthy emotional response to them. Ask yourself, “Will this be a big deal in one year? Two years? Even six months from now?” If something doesn’t promise to be a significant issue in the long run, it hardly makes sense to agonize about it now.
Similarly, there’s a wise sort of detachment as it pertains to leadership decisions or relational conflict that can help you rise above unhealthy responses, as well. Use this mental exercise: If you feel stuck and are reluctant to make a decision for fear of the blowback, imagine a friend was in your position and came to you with the same problem. What advice would you give them? Then you do that. The reason this often works is because we see more clearly what others ought to do than we see it for ourselves. Our negative emotions — fear, anger, grief — cloud our ability to make right decisions. We’re too attached to being liked, to making decisions that make everyone happy, etc. A good sense of detachment from the emotionality of some ministry decisions gives us a more wise perspective on them. In the long run, this serves our happiness in ministry, because it erodes our tendencies to sinfully overanalyze, micro-manage, or maintain our image.
In addition, the perspective of solitude can exacerbate sadness. Even if your an introvert by nature and even if you’re a solo pastor, you still need the perspective and collaboration and encouragement of others. Get outside of your own head for a bit and ask others for insight, for counsel, for help. Fight against sadness by fighting against loneliness. Don’t just accept your lot in self-pity. Do what you can to correct it. For your own good and for the good of your church.
4. Preach the gospel.
A little considered effect of law-heavy preaching is that it reinforces the fleshly tendencies toward legalism in the preacher, which of course over time undermines his joy in the Lord. If you are inordinately focused on the do’s and don’t’s of Christians and don’t spend more time on the wonder of the “done” of Christ, you are setting your congregation — and yourself — up for frustration in the Christian life. A preacher who is gospel-centered is putting his own heart in the crosshairs of joy every week.
How miserable it finally turns out to be when a pastor’s heart is energized more by the law that crushes than the grace that heals. This will happen even if you’re preaching “positive law,” by the way. Even if you wear jeans and preach from a coffee table and tell jokes and give everybody inspiring application points to be better-adjusted people in the world, you’re only setting yourself up for disappointment. No one can keep these unending weekly sets of “action points” straight for more than a day. Free them and yourself from the law by enjoying Christ having set you free from the law.
And then of course preach the gospel to yourself on a regular basis. Remind your soul, a la the self-talk in Psalm 42, that you are not your pastorate, your performance, or your production. You are united to Christ by faith, and you are free from earning or paying.
5. Spend time with Jesus.
He really did come to fill our joy (Jn. 15:11). In all your doing for Jesus, don’t forget to be with him. So much misery in ministry could be avoided if we stopped avoiding our Savior.
Don’t let your pastorate become a substitute for relational closeness with Jesus. Don’t let your church become the project you cheat on Jesus with. There is no more stabilizing, comforting, energizing, and enjoyable reality than abiding in Christ. Don’t neglect the great privilege of friendship with him. “Taste and see that the Lord is good. How happy is the person who takes refuge in him!” (Ps. 34:8).
As I said, none of these words of advice will ward off suffering. Pastors are broken people caring for broken people. Sadness comes with the job (1 Pet. 5:10). But if joy is part of the fruit the Spirit promises to give Christians no matter what, we can identify the things we do have control over that only serve to stifle that joy. With wisdom and discernment, pastors can invest in their own godly happiness in ministry.