This week, I am spending time in reflection about what it means to be a pastor, what ministry is all about, and what it means to be the church. Earlier this week I shared some insights from Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Life Together about the church and from Dallas Willard on the nature of ministry in a consumer society. Today, I want to turn my attention toward pastoral ministry.
In their book Resilient Ministry: What Pastors Told Us About Surviving and Thriving, Bob Burns, Tasha Chapman and Donald Guthrie outline five themes of resilient ministry that I have found valuable as I reflect on what is most meaningful in my life as a pastor. They write:
After seven years of studying our [pastoral] summit participants (including their marriages, families and ministries), we learned a lot about what it takes to survive and thrive in ministry. Five themes, each with multiple factors, stood out as the keys for pastors to remain resilient in fruitful ministry for a lifetime.
In chapter two, the authors introduce those five themes, so here they are in summary form.
Theme One: Spiritual Formation
The study reveals that focus on personal spiritual formation within the life of the pastor is incredibly important to pastoral resilience. “In our work with pastors, we have come to define spiritual formation as the ongoing process of maturing as a Christian, both personally and interpersonally” (19, italics mine). This is not something that has been attained, but is an ongoing process in which leaders give attention, as any disciple of Christ should, to their ongoing growth with God. Along with this, the authors emphasize that pastoral resilience arises when this emphasis on spiritual formation is not only persona, but interpersonal. That is, spiritual formation must involve others and, though this can be a problem for pastors to find, must involve safe places for vulnerable disclosure. They quote Diane Langberg, who says “Before you were called to be a shepherd, you were called to be a lamb” (21).
Theme Two: Self-Care
As pastors take steps to live out self-denial with intentional spiritual growth, they must also give attention to appropriate self-care. “The idea of self-care involves the pursuit of physical, mental and emotional health” (21). The work of ministry is very demanding in terms of time, life issues, and the sense that it is a 24-7 role. However, in the midst of those stresses, we cannot lose sight of taking care of ourselves through meaningful physical exercise, good sleep and eating, activities outside of the church, and some life-giving hobbies. As someone once said to me, “The best thing you have to offer to the church as a pastor is a healthy you.”
Theme Three: Emotional and Cultural Intelligence
The authors combine two overlapping areas, that of emotional intelligence and cultural intelligence, into the third theme of resilient ministry. Emotional intelligence involves both emotional awareness of the self and emotional awareness of others. Emotional self-awareness means we can identify our own feelings correctly and handle them wisely. Emotional intelligence with others “requires the ability to accurately discern what others are feeling and respond appropriately to them” (23). Cultural intelligence, on the other hand, “is the ability to recognize and to adapt to different cultural contexts” (24). “It involves an awareness of ethnic, geographical, socioeconomic, educational and generational differences and the implications of these differences on one’ perspective and behavior” (24). Resilient ministry requires intelligence of self and others, both emotionally and culturally, or roadblocks will arise that block us from long-term fruitfulness.
Theme Four: Marriage and Family
While I want to acknowledge that not all pastors are married, the fourth theme “recognizes that to sustain the stresses in ministry, pastors need to focus on spiritual and relational health with their spouse, children and extended family” (25). It is well documented just how difficult it is to be married to a pastor, but the authors found that one of their most significant findings in their study was “the strategic role the spouse plays in ministry life” (25). This doesn’t necessarily mean that the spouse is helping with strategy, but rather “we mean the role spouses have in sustaining their pastor-partners in the work of ministry” (25). There is a parallel here to the need for pastors to invest in their families and not merely leave the left-overs of their time, energy and attention for the spouse and children.
Theme Five: Leadership and Management
The authors point out that some readers may begin wondering why “none of the themes you’ve mentioned thus far focus on the actual tasks of ministry” (25). The final theme that is vital could be called congregational oversight, and is, as I found in my own experience, the aspect of pastoral ministry that seminary training least prepares a pastor to fulfill. “In order for pastors to thrive in ministry, they must accept the fact that they are leaders and managers….we describe leadership responsibilities as poetry and management tasks as plumbing” (26-27). Discussing the challenge of this, the authors write: “thriving ministries have pastors who have embraced the difficult facts that leadership and management skills must be learned and responsibilities must be accepted” (27).
Each of these themes outlined by the authors highlights a need in the life of pastors that is vitally related to resilience over the long haul in ministry. However, many of us realize that we do not live in the ideal, but are more on the journey. Near the end of the book, the authors share some of the key realizations and challenges reported by pastors within each theme after a series of growth gatherings (summits)
Theme 1: Spiritual Formation
- Positive impact: “Distinguishing our selves from our jobs is critical for our spiritual, emotional and family health” (254).
- Disappointments: “The pressures of ministry do not recede when we are pursuing spiritual disciplines” (257).
Theme 2: Self-Care
- Positive impact: “People in ministry benefit greatly from peer groups” (255).
- Disappointments: “Confidants are hard to find….Furthermore, the pace and activity of pastoral life makes it difficult to work on these relationships. There is no simple solution” (258).
Theme 3: Emotional and Cultural Intelligence
- Positive impact: “We need conversation partners with whom we can process these [painful, stressful] experiences and the feelings that accompany them” (255).
- Disappointments: “Our experience leads us to believe that the majority of pastors do not take time for reflection-on-action, pondering what took place, how people spoke or acted and what could be learned from the experience” (258).
Theme 4: Marriage and Family
- Positive impact: “We believe pastors and their spouses need the support and encouragement of others in ministry” (256).
- Disappointments: “When pastors participate in peer groups, they often identify patterns and behaviors that are not healthy. When they go home and re-enter the church, however, they discover that the expectations and patterns of family and congregants remain the same” (259).
Theme 5: Leadership and Management
- Positive impact: “We were encouraged that some pastors gained a new vision on how regularly scheduled meetings could be transformed into times of encouragement and partnership” (257).
- Disappointments: “Helping the church see and acknowledge ways they could change in order to have a healthier pastor has been an extremely delicate – and at times, painful – process” (260).