Stress emerges as the number one mental challenge for pastors. Here are three areas that cause the most stress for a pastor.
By Matt Henslee
Ministry is awesome, but it can also be hard. It’s a joy and a thrill to be a pastor and see God at work in the lives of the people we serve, but there are seasons when it’s a struggle.
A recent Lifeway Research study on the Greatest Needs of Pastors considered some of the mental challenges pastors face in ministry. While nearly half of pastors say discouragement (48%) and distractions (48%) are challenges they face, stress (63%) emerges as the number one challenge for pastors.
When I saw that statistic, I immediately recalled the meme of a smiling old man with the words: “I don’t know why they say ministry is stressful; I’m 35 and feeling great!”
While I’ve served in churches of all sizes in various contexts, I’ve only been senior pastor of normative-sized churches in rural, middle-of-nowhere towns. Here are three areas that have caused me the most stress as a pastor.
It’s important to remember each of these areas undoubtedly have a personal or family side and a ministry side. Yes, this is about pastors and what causes us stress in ministry. But we’re still people, and many of us have spouses, children, and other things we navigate outside of our roles as pastors.
On the family side of things, most pastors I know will never crack the Forbes Richest People in the World list. While there are some wealthy pastors out there, many are everyday people like most of our church members—living paycheck-to-paycheck, battling debt, and feeling the crunch of ever-increasing inflation.
We went through a season when my wife was ill and unable to work. We didn’t have debt and lived in a parsonage, but we were under significant financial stress with my meager $10,000 a year salary. To make ends meet until my wife could return to work, I sold my guitars and drums and began teaching piano. When the bills for my wife’s surgeries arrived, I still had to ask my parents for a loan.While there are some wealthy pastors out there, many are everyday people like most of our church members—living paycheck-to-paycheck, battling debt, and feeling the crunch of ever-increasing inflation. — @mhenslee Click To Tweet
On the church side, we all experience stretches when the weekly giving is lagging, and the deacons start asking you to preach on tithing. Just as many of our members live paycheck-to-paycheck, many churches live offering-to-offering, and that’s stressful.
I remember my first pastorate when, during our elders and deacons’ meetings, one of the men would regularly say, “Pastor, we’re still behind this month.” He didn’t have to tell me; I knew. It kept me up at night, too.
Our church had grown from about 20 to 80 people at the time, but the growth in giving lagged. It wasn’t until we cracked attendance of 100 that we finally crossed into the black. And when that happened, instead of encouragement, that same man remarked, “It’s about time.”
Church finances can be stressful for pastors because they ebb and flow with key members moving or facing financial hardships. It weighs on us because we know the adage, “The buck stops here.”
Pastor, may I give a word of encouragement for either the personal or church side of financial stress? Actually, take it from Jesus in Luke 12:24: “Consider the ravens: They don’t sow or reap; they don’t have a storeroom or a barn; yet God feeds them. Aren’t you worth much more than the birds?” (CSB).
It’s going to be okay; God’s got this. He’ll take care of you, your family, and your church. Work to eliminate debt. Live within your means. Be wise. And trust God.
People are another cause of stress for pastors. As a husband and father with four little ones at home, the family side of this stress point usually peaks around holidays.
We’ve been as close as next door to my parents and as far as nine hours away. I don’t necessarily recommend the former, but the latter is typical as pastors follow the calls of God to go where He leads.
If you have little ones at home as we did, that often means disappointing the people you love when your Christmas Eve service or even Christmas falls on or near a Sunday, causing your family to miss out on the traditional Christmas festivities.
When it comes to the church side of relationships, pastors see the absolute best of people—and the worst. You may have an impossible-to-please deacon, a member with the spiritual gift of anonymous complaint letters, or another who, if you let them, would fill every second of every day of your time.
Early in my pastorate after recently adopting our four daughters and halfway through my master’s degree, I found myself in a season when I just couldn’t do anything right in the church. For pastoral care each week, I would call three members, visit two members, and have one member over for dinner—but that wasn’t enough.Shepherding sheep is messy, but what a privilege God gives us to lead and love His people with care. — @mhenslee Click To Tweet
One of our elders regularly reminded me, “When I pastored here, I visited three or four families a day. I don’t see why you can’t do that.” Although our church grew by about 300% and saw the first baptisms in years, nothing I did was ever “enough.”
If you’re a pastor reading this, we could probably share stories about relational stresses in our churches. But I’d like to remind you we stress people out, too. Our members are sinners. We’re sinners. And leading and serving in our yet-to-be-glorified state will bring about stress and animosity from time to time.
Shepherding sheep is messy, but what a privilege God gives us to lead and love His people with care. And do you know what? It’s worth it.
I’m reminded of Proverbs 27:23: “Know well the condition of your flock, and pay attention to your herds” (CSB). Sheep may bite, run off, or do dumb things. It’ll stress you out, but it’s why you’re there.
Time is the final stressor I’ve felt the most—both with family and at church. As a husband, I work hard to carve out time for date nights or downtime with my wife. As a father of four, I often feel like an unpaid Uber driver taking them from place to place.
And as a pastor, I rarely feel there’s enough time in a week—let alone a day—to write an effective sermon, handle administrative tasks, follow up with visitors, make visits, evangelize, and so forth. I’ve yet to meet a pastor who complains about having too much time.
Here are four tips to save you some time:
- Date your spouse (at least) monthly
- Put your kids’ activities in your calendar (and go to them)
- Limit social media (or leave it altogether)
- Start your sermon prep early in the week
Your wife will be with you long after any church you serve. Plus, she makes a much better date than your church … I’m just saying. Date her. Treat her like a queen, and make sure she’s not getting the leftovers of your time.Your wife will be with you long after any church you serve. Make sure she's not getting the leftovers of your time. — @mhenslee Click To Tweet
When you put your kids’ activities on your calendar, you have an immediate out—especially for trivial matters. But it’s also your reminder to be involved in their lives and activities.
Many of us are on social media, and it’s not only stressful in general, but it can easily be a major time-waster. Post a little something encouraging, and then get off. It’s not worth it when you have a family to love, a church to lead, and a lost and dying world in need of the Savior.
Finally, when you start your sermon prep early in the week, you build in some bandwidth for unplanned crises or ministry needs. Your sermon is important, but it’s one of many important aspects of being a pastor.
Don’t let an unfinished conclusion or illustration keep you from meeting the day-to-day needs of your flock or family—plan for disruptions by starting early in the week and picking it back up as soon as possible.
While finances, relationships, and time can cause significant stress for pastors (and their members), let’s not forget it’s a privilege to serve God’s people as pastor. It might not make you rich by worldly standards. Some people may drive you batty, and you’ll almost always be crunched for time. But it’s totally and completely worth it.