Avoiding Pastoral Red Zones

Pastor care must be a pandemic priority

During difficult times, the necessity of every gift in the church is magnified. God designed churches to need pastors. Right now, pastors need their churches more than ever.

Research confirms an unfortunate truth: Pastors are working beyond the point of exhaustion during this pandemic, and it’s hurting their long-term ministry when they do. Across several representative surveys LifeWay Research conducted during the COVID-19 pandemic, pastors have increasingly indicated a pressure point for them personally is their own exhaustion, stress and isolation.

Pastors’ initial shock of needing to find ways to communicate and worship in a socially distanced world was a huge stressor. But instead of that stress subsiding, the number describing their own exhaustion as a primary pressure point doubled across the first three surveys.

Following Christ is never something he intended Christians to do alone. Everyone within a church—including the pastor—needs to work in a unified way as a body. As we do, nobody should be isolated or left out. That includes our pastors.

Pastors need to prioritize their health and well-being in this season, while church members need to invest in the well-being of their ministers. Maintaining the connection between members and pastors is essential for the body of Christ to move forward as God desires.

PASTORAL RED ZONES

I enjoy riding a bike. It can be challenging, but it is good exercise that allows you to experience a variety of outdoor scenery. I prefer to ride for distance, but that goal is in jeopardy if I enter what’s called a “red zone” too often or for too long. A red zone is brought about by something extra stressful, like excessive heat, riding out of breath or hitting a hill too hard. A two-hour ride I have easily finished in the past can absolutely whip me if I spend too much time in a red zone.

This pandemic has brought a huge amount of stress on pastors’ personal and professional lives and placed many in very real and potentially dangerous red zones.

LifeWay Research conducted a relevant study with the help of the North American Mission Board and Richard Dockins, an occupational medicine specialist in Houston. We studied senior pastors who stopped serving in that role prior to age 65. We wanted to get some clues as to what could help a pastor reach the typical employment finish line.

The former pastors’ advice for current pastors focused on the need for them to care for themselves and their families. The top responses fell into seven categories:

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1. Invest in your devotional life, your own spiritual health, your relationship with God.
2. Invest in your family.
3. Have a mentor or confidant who can provide accountability.
4. Follow God’s calling and direction.
5. Pray.
6. Invest in your spouse.
7. Maintain a Sabbath and take regular rest.

During the pandemic, it has been too easy for pastors to set aside these self-care and family-care priorities for the sake of the church. That attitude implies that God cannot accomplish his work without the pastor. In reality, he wants to use you within your weaknesses and limitations. Attempting to go beyond those limits in our own strength will prove insufficient.

Pastors who were not able to remain in pastoral ministry not only provide some good advice during this difficult time, they also provide a comparison point. By comparing them to current pastors, we learned several factors that predict finishing well.

One reality that improves the odds of finishing well in pastoral ministry is having a spouse who is very satisfied with their marriage. Among current pastors, 82% strongly agree their spouse is very satisfied with their marriage, while only 51% of those no longer in pastoral ministry strongly agree.

As important as marital satisfaction is to a successful ministry, it doesn’t happen on its own. It takes constant investment. The church isn’t the only thing in a pastor’s life that has additional needs during the pandemic that must be addressed—spouses need extra care, support and attention now as well.

In addition to protecting their marriage and family, pastors must also keep a proper perspective on their role. Those who avoid the “this church would not have achieved the progress it has without me” attitude are more likely to stay in ministry.

Two in 5 current pastors (pre-COVID-19) agree with the above statement, but 66% of those who left pastoral ministry before age 65 agree. It can be easy to mistake our own efforts as the cause of ministry success rather than seeing God as the author and our efforts as simply faithfulness.

CONGREGATIONAL CARE

These former pastors also gave advice for how churches can best help their pastor thrive in ministry:

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1. Support, encourage and affirm your pastor. Have reasonable expectations of your pastor.
2. Respect your pastor’s schedule and family time.
3. Follow your pastor’s lead. Be committed to the church’s ministry. Discipline those who cause trouble.
4. Pray.
5. Love and show respect for your pastor.
6. Take care of your pastor financially.
7. Be clear about expectations from the beginning.

Church members can literally improve the odds their pastor reaches the finish line in ministry by regularly encouraging their pastor and the pastor’s family. This might include messages of thanks, confidence and affirmation. It can also include gift cards or financial help.

If members are physically able, there may be no greater encouragement in the pandemic than to ask how you can help share some of the ministry load. Many traditional roles for serving in the church are on hold, but pastors are burdened with new responsibilities. Picking up a piece lightens their load.

Another way for members to encourage their pastors—especially in the current situation—is to follow the pastor’s lead as the pastor follows Christ. During the pandemic, the typical pastor is hearing constant second-guessing. In March last year, pastors gave no indication this was an issue. By July, however, conflict, complaints, disagreements and maintaining unity had become the top pressure point for pastors. A local church cannot shine a light in a dark world when it is filled with strife.

Another way members can statistically improve the odds of their pastor finishing well is to avoid setting unrealistic expectations. Former pastors were more than twice as likely as current pastors to say they experienced unrealistic expectations at their church.

Church members must be careful to not expect their pastor to fill every gap created by this pandemic or any future hardship. Every part of the body is needed to weather a storm. As pastors care for their church, both they and their members need to care for the pastor. When we do, we will see God’s design at work.

Read more from Scott McConnell »

Pre-COVID-19 Research Among Protestant Pastors and Pastors Who Left Pastoral Ministry Early:

“My church has/had unrealistic expectations of me.”
Current Pastors: 20% Agree
Pastors Who Left Pastorate Early: 49% Agree