The Hardest Part of Ministry

I am an ordained pastor, serving a rural congregation. I lead worship and preach most Sundays. I sit at hospital beds. I conduct weddings and funerals and baptisms. I talk with people who are struggling with their faith. I lead meetings and help the community discover its vision. I celebrate with people, I rejoice with people.

When people talk to me about what I do, they often focus on those aspects that deal with death. Most Americans don't spend a lot of time around death - our culture has largely sanitized the experience of death. Because of this unfamiliarity, most people assume that dealing with death is the hardest thing about being a pastor. It's not. 

The hardest part of being a pastor is saying no. 

Not just saying no when asked by someone to do some task, but saying no to yourself and limiting the amount of work that you do. The work of ministry is not a finite task. At the end of the day when I go home, I can't point to some finished product and say, "That's what I did today." There is always more to be done in ministry. 

There is always more to be done. No matter how much you have done in a given day or week or month: 
  • You can always spend more time visiting with people who are sick and homebound.
  • You can always spend more time talking with people who are grieving or hurting. 
  • You can always spend more time at community events. 
  • You can always spend more time reading, studying, and praying. 
  • You can always put yourself in charge of one more project or program. 
  • You can always spend more time crafting and sharpening your preaching and worship leadership skills. 
Short of the return of our Lord Jesus, there will always be more for those in ministry to do - some task will always be left unfinished when you stop working for the day. 

There is a great satisfaction that comes with knowing that tasks have been finished, knowing that everything is complete. And for most people, it is uncomfortable to know that things are unfinished. But that is precisely the nature of ministry - unfinished. 

But while the tasks of ministry aren't finite, those of us in ministry most certainly are! 

There comes a point when we have to stop. At some point, even if we could spend more time visiting, or reading, or teaching, or planning, we have to go home and be done for the day. We come to the point where we have to say, to ourselves or to others, "No, I can't do that." 

As pastors, we do this work because we think it is important. We are passionate about the Gospel, and we care about the people whom we serve. And this makes it hard to say "No." This passion for our work is precisely what makes it hard to say that there is not time for another program or project or meeting. 

Unfortunately for many in ministry, the first thing to go is self-care: being rested, spending time with family, caring for our own souls. Next to go is often the work behind the scenes: the hard work of keeping oneself prepared for ministry -- reading, attending learning events, all the things pastors and others in ministry do to make us better preachers, counselors, leaders, and pastors. 
And this is how burnout happens

In ministry it often feels like the solution is to work more. The voice in our head says that if only I could work for a couple more hours, then the ministry of the congregation I serve would be more effective. But the opposite is true. An overworked pastor - one who does not set limits - becomes more and more ineffective at the work to which we are called. 

This is the reality of living in this in-between time; when the work of the kingdom has begun but the kingdom has not yet come. No matter how much we do, the work of the kingdom will remain unfinished - and there is only one who can finish it. 

If you are a ministry professional, learn this lesson well: Say no. Set limits. Learn to live in that place where there is more that could be done, and some tasks are unfinished.

And if you have a pastor or other minister who you care about, encourage them to say no - encourage them to care for themselves, to set limits, and continue to make time to study and learn. 

Image: Antique Clock Face by Chris Willis (licensed Creative Commons-attribution)

14 comments:

  1. Pls give this to all Seminarians... if allowed, people will WALK ALL OVER THEM.

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  2. yes, I agree that this is true, and would add that the places where it is difficult to say 'no' are different for all of us.

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  3. Hey David, while I'm not an ordained pastor of a local congregation, I believe all of us who follow Christ are called to be ministers. As such, I agree that saying "no" is the most difficult part of what we do. I also agree that two of the most counter-productive solutions are 1) work harder and 2) cut back on self-care.

    A third thing I think ministers tend to cut back on which is also counter-productive is discipling/mentoring others. I don't recall Jesus ever doing any ministry apart from his disciples. He always had them with him. He modeled how to teach, pray, heal, evangelize, and more. After the crowds had gone home he explained his parables to them. Within a a few years he was sending out 70 disciples in pairs to the surrounding villages.

    Imagine what a pastor (or any Christ follower) could accomplish with even 7 fully-devoted followers of Jesus doing ministry?

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  4. As a leader called to support pastors (and other Christian Leaders) how do we help encourage self care? What should we or should we not do? LEAD would benefit from a little inside wisdom here! Peggy

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  5. As a person called to support pastors (and other Christian leaders) how do we encourage self care? One of the best antidotes for burnout is continuing education. Any advise on this?

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    1. One of the best things is to advocate with congregations for plenty of continuing ed time and funds. It really does make a difference when congregations are reminded of the importance of this.

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  6. I've been pondering this issue a lot lately as I face yet another cycle of burnout in my own ministerial life. Yes, it's something I need to relearn over and over again.

    Burnout is absolutely rampant among people in "helping professions," in part because of the temperament of those who are drawn/called to these professions. We want to help, we love being needed. Will anyone still like us or seek us out if we say, "no"? This is especially problematic for women of my generation because of deeply embedded and convey assumptions about what it means to be a "good woman."

    And so forth and so on. Clearly, you've (once again) touched upon something important...so you!

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  7. Very early in my formation for ordained ministry, I shared with a priest hearing my confession that I felt a need to repent because I was not doing enough for those whom I felt God had called me to serve. This priest and I did not see eye to eye on many things over the years but he had some real insights into what made me ticked. When it came time for him to hand out my penance, I braced myself. He told me to recite this prayer every morning upon awakening until I felt that the Holy Spirit told me that I need not do it anymore. It still hangs over my bed. It is six years later. From the 1979 Book of Common Prayer, page 461
    This is another day, O Lord. I know not what it will bring forth, but make me ready, Lord, for whatever it may be. If I am to stand up, help me to stand bravely. If I am to sit still, help me to sit quietly. If I am to lie low, help me to do it patiently. And if I am to do nothing, let me do it gallantly. Make these words more than words, and give me the Spirit of Jesus. Amen.

    Not everyday is full of intense activity. There are days that are quiet. Some days are mixed. God ordains and blesses them all. This prayer has given helped remind me to be a balanced servant because God is ultimately the Source. I am only a resource to those I serve.

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  8. Saying NO doesn’t mean that you don’t want to help. Work may not be finite at the ministry, but we are. Time management is important for ministers. Set aside some time for some peace, to help prepare your sermons, for visiting church members, and for having fun. I usually allot some time to go out and relax. Overworked ministers often lead to poor management of the church, as far as my experience is concerned. :)

    Mattie Wise @ ChristianLeadersInstitute.org

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  9. David - For years you have been putting the things weighing on the minds of other pastors into words that hit the nail right on the head. This post is yet one more example.

    Yesterday I had breakfast with a fellow pastor who needed time to unload a few things. He is feeling the effects of burnout and also wonders if he is still up to the task of ministry. The first thing I asked him was what is he doing to prepare for his day, week, month. Like so many of us, he feels there isn't enough time to pay attention to "those things" because there are so many issues that are far more "important."

    I am going to point him to this post. I believe he will hear God's voice reminding him that even as he is the shepherd for a large flock, he is also one of God's children in need of rest, good health and time to grow in faith and relationship with Jesus.

    I also plan to print this post and post it on the bulletin board in my office as reminder to me of these same issues of self care. Thanks once more for making a post that is so central to our calling as both a shepherd to our flock and a child of our heavenly Father.

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  10. David, I've been a rabbi for 30 years, a congregational, front line, in the trenches, doing God's work rabbi. Your words about self-care and setting limits were powerful and on target. I think most of us ministers/priests/imams/rabbis would agree that our work is a huge piece of our souls. We want to love and be loved, which makes saying no so hard to do.
    Thank you my brother for your honest teaching. It will accompany me into the new year.
    Rabbi Keith Stern
    Boston, MA
    USA

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