Ever since the 1990s, we’ve heard the rather pessimistic forecast that “roughly 30% to 40% of religious leaders eventually drop out of the ministry.” More recently, it’s been said that only one in ten will make it to retirement. Mark Dance debunks the “prevailing myth” that 1,500 to 1,700 pastors leave the ministry every month. The “promising truth” is that it’s likely only 250 a month. Why? Because “pastors are not quitters. Ministry is tough, but so are ministers!” Temptations to drop out are sure to come. What God has called you to do may be difficult and costly, but remember, you are on a mission with God. You joined Him—not vice versa; therefore, you can afford to obey. And as Paul challenged Timothy, “When the going gets rough, take it on the chin with the rest of us, the way Jesus did” (2 Timothy 2:2, MSG).
Sound strategies are necessary to help us cope with ministry stress in a healthy manner and break the tape at the finish line. Lloyd Elder, a former Texas Baptist pastor and denominational executive, acknowledges that ministers have a unique set of stress challenges, but also unique outlets for managing the stresses that are particular to the work of church leadership. At age 83, Elder, who retired for the fourth time, outlines ten ways to help manage the stresses of ministry and even how to turn them into positives for your life and leadership. Don’t check out mentally, emotionally, or spiritually. Jesus’ call is your thumb in the back pushing you forward toward the finish line. Here are five coping strategies I put in place that made me a 10-percenter:
1. Establish a daily regimen for soul care.
Healthy soul. Healthy life. Thriving ministry. Taking care of spirit, soul, and body may require a reframing of ministry to include “self-care.” The challenge is in achieving a healthy balance in the mental, physical, and spiritual disciplines. No matter how busy you are, daily you must spend time with the Lord even if it means setting your clock 15 minutes early. You cannot constantly give out without taking in. Jump off the treadmill of busyness with its incessant responsibilities, activities, interruptions, commitments, and appointments. No more excuses!
The daily stresses of life, work, and family deplete us. A daily quiet time will replenish us. Soul care doesn’t get better by chance. It gets better by change. John C. Maxwell champions routine: “It’s not about what you do in a day; it’s about what you do daily!” What happens in you is more important than what happens to you. Soul care must become habitual. Strive to learn something new every day. Develop a learning mindset. Give yourself permission to be less than perfect but develop counter strategies to help you refocus quickly when your normal routine is disrupted. Frequency makes the difference. Change is never instant, permanent, and automatic. It takes time and repetition. You must put in your reps. String together enough successful attempts until soul care is firmly embedded in your mind and you cross the habit line. Routines require discipline. Daily disciplines become habits.
2. Refuse to fly solo.
You will never fly solo if you enlist prayer partners. C. Peter Wagner once talked to a group of pastors about the power of intercession. He boasted 200 intercessors. I had zero but left Pasadena determined to enlist my own prayer army. God gave me 46 with the assignment to daily hold myself, my staff, and our families up to the Lord in prayer as we went about our work. Who holds up your tired arms (Exodus 17:12-14)? It is the height of spiritual arrogance to say, “I can make it on my own. I don’t need anyone else.” Avoid the knockout punch. Identify and enlist intercessors to pray continually. Information is fuel for prayer fire. You only go it alone by choice. Avoid the lonesome road. Your followers are waiting to be asked.
3. Build behavioral boundaries.
Unavoidable temptations are sure to come (Luke 17:1). A talk radio host put it like this, “We’re patients in the same hospital, wearing hospital gowns. And our worst parts are showing, and we don’t even know it.” If none are exempt, how can we protect ourselves, our families, and Christ’s Church from the devastating effects of a moral lapse? Intercession is vital (strategy 2), but so are some strict behavioral boundaries beyond which you refuse to go. Fools boast, “Such a thing will never happen to me!” The wise “take heed lest they fall” (1 Corinthians 10:12).
Safeguards are essential. An unguarded heart is a vulnerable heart, no matter how much you pray. Guard your eye gate. Watch what you’re watching. Control what enters through entertainment. Exercise extreme caution with the opposite sex, especially in your role as an amateur counselor. Install doors with windows in your office. Refuse to meet alone with a member of the opposite sex, especially after hours. Be cautious about how you answer texts, emails, and cards. If an activity would require you to lie to your spouse, avoid it at all costs. Generally, moral failure begins with a thousand little letdowns in this pornified society we’ve been marinating in for some time now.
4. Identify the steppingstones to church health and
Mobilize your church to extraordinary prayer. Prayerlessness abounds. Prayer is oxygen for the soul. Quit trying to see how long you can hold your breath (1 Thessalonians 5:17a). Take a deep breath. Inhale the goodness and love of Christ. No plan will ever work effectively until you pray! Prayer fuels momentum. Cast a compelling vision born of prayer. Vision agreement may be a long, slow walk. Mobilize the laity for ministry. Trust God for your finances. Ask first what God wants, not how much it will cost. The Blackaby’s are right: “You can rarely afford to obey what God asks because He wants you to rely on His provision. The question is not, ‘Can we afford to obey?’ The crucial question is, ‘Can we afford not to obey?’”
5. “Screw your courage to the sticking place and stand!”
Instead of spending an inordinate amount of time complaining that God put you in a terrible or difficult place, believe that Christ has the power to change hearts and your situation. Project a spirit of optimism despite all the dark things that have happened. Attempt to minister to the main body of believers as a normal congregation. Rest assured that if the patient dies despite all you have attempted to do and everything falls apart, you haven’t fallen apart. Keep on praying for the miracle you know God can provide. You are not out there alone, isolated, and forgotten, even at those times when progress forward can only be measured in centimeters. No matter how painful or disappointing your service may seem to you in the hard place, it hasn’t been wasted. With “chin up and knees down,” you can break the tape at the finish line.