So far in our series, we have focused primarily upon ways in which a team of pastors benefits a church as whole. In today’s post I will reflect on a key advantage enjoyed by pastors who minister as a team.
Pastoral depression and burnout have become hot topics of conversation. The increasing demands of the job, along with the relational isolation that often characterizes a pastor’s life, have generated some highly troubling trends. The following statistics come from H.B. London and Neil B. Wiseman. Pastors at Greater Risk (Regal, 2003):
- 40 percent of pastors and 47 percent of spouses are suffering from burnout, frantic schedules, and/or unrealistic expectations.
- 80 percent believe that pastoral ministry affects their families negatively.
- 33 percent say that being in ministry is an outright hazard to their family.
- 52 percent of pastors say they and their spouses believe that being in pastoral ministry is hazardous to their family’s well-being and health.
- 66 percent of pastors and their families feel under pressure to model an ideal family.
- 45 percent of pastors say that they’ve experienced depression or burnout to the extent that they needed to take a leave of absence from ministry.
- 90 percent feel unqualified or poorly prepared for ministry.
- 40 percent of pastors have considered leaving their pastorates in the past three months.
- Hundreds of pastors leave their ministries each month due to burnout, conflict, or moral failure.
We live in a broken world that is full of broken people. Pastors are broken people, too—all of us. There will always be instances of moral failure, debilitating depression, and burnout among God’s leaders. Recent events at Willow Creek Church made the headlines only because of the size and influence of Willow Creek’s ministry.
What is troubling is that these experiences have become almost the norm—rather than the exception—for people in pastoral ministry. This should not be the case.
Consider the Apostle Paul. Paul certainly faced serious challenges and crises in his missionary adventures. He was beaten, imprisoned, and nearly killed. He writes of “the daily pressure on me of my anxiety for all the churches” (2 Corinthians 11:28). He exclaims, “We were so utterly burdened beyond our strength that we despaired of life itself” (1:8)!
Ministry was not easy for Paul. Yet somehow Paul avoided the kind of personal emotional and spiritual crises reflected in the statistics listed above. Twice in 2 Corinthians Paul assures his readers that, despite all the physical and emotional hardship, “We do not lose heart” (4:1, 16).
Burnout was nowhere on the apostle’s radar screen. Nor was depression. Later, as Paul’s life drew to a close, he confidently claimed, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith” (2 Timothy 4:7).
What made Paul’s experience different than that of so many pastors in our churches today?
We must be careful here. There is generally no silver bullet to address clinical depression, which is often a puzzling combination of spiritual, emotional, and physiological factors.
Clinical depression, however, is not the issue faced by the great majority of the pastors reflected in the above statistics. Rather, it’s the daily pressures of church ministry that’s causing the problems.
So, again, what made the difference for Paul? The answer, I suggest, is team ministry.
We learned in our very first post (July 24) that Paul appointed a plurality of elders to oversee the churches he established (e.g., Acts 14:23). There were no senior/lead pastors in these congregations.
Paul modeled this very approach with his own team of missionaries. It began in Antioch, where he shared teaching responsibilities with Barnabas, Simeon, Lucius, and Manaen (Acts 13:1). We see it continue throughout Paul’s three journeys, as described in Acts 13-21.
I laid out the evidence for Paul’s relational style of ministry in some detail elsewhere (chapters 27 & 28 of Biblical Leadership: Theology for the Everyday Leader [Kregel, 2017]). We don’t have space here to revisit the data, so I’ll share another scholar’s observations by way of summary:
“Paul explicitly calls no less than sixteen persons ‘fellow workers,’ and his usage, along with circumstantial evidence, suggests that he would have so identified another twenty to twenty-five women and men. Acts and the Pastorals have picked up this evidence and added another fifteen names. Paul’s association with so many fellow workers has no parallel in early Christian missionary activity” (W. H. Ollrog, “Sunergos,” Exegetical Dictionary of New Testament Theology, 3.304b).
Key Question: Were the relationships Paul enjoyed with his co-workers a key to the apostle’s robust optimism about his work for Christ and his staying power in ministry?
Given the common sense connection between healthy relationships, on the one hand, and human flourishing, on the other, it could hardly have been otherwise.
It is now axiomatic among those who study human longevity that persons engaged in healthy relationships generally live longer. It only makes sense to assume that we will serve longer when we do so in community with others, as well.
The most troubling pastoral statistics, in this regard, may very well be the ones I left off the list at the beginning of this post:
- Although 55 percent of pastors say they belong to a small accountability group, 70 percent claim they don’t have any close friends.
- 56 percent of pastors’ wives say that they have no close friends.
- 25 percent don’t know where to turn when they have a family or personal conflict or issue. 20.5 percent say they would go to no one.
No close friends. Nowhere to turn. Our lone-ranger approach to Christian leadership contrasts sharply with Paul’s practice of ministering in community with others. And it is costing us dearly in terms of pastoral isolation, discouragement, and burnout.
I find myself deeply saddened when I think about the individual lives and families represented in these figures, in part because I find myself nowhere among the statistics.
Do I get discouraged at times? Seasons of exhaustion? Certainly. That’s par for the course in the pastorate. But my family has flourished in vocational church ministry. Serious burnout has never been an issue. And I still cannot imagine doing anything else with my life.
As I’ve shared in a couple recent sermons, the Hellerman family has gone through some very difficult times in the past several years. I won’t revisit the sad details here. I will simply observe that it is has been my relationship with my fellow-pastors—especially my two best friends, Denny O’Keefe and John Hutchison—that has kept me focused, obedient, and faithful to my calling as a husband and a pastor, during the darkest period I’ve experienced in forty-plus years of church ministry.
I take no credit for any of this. By God’s grace, Joann and I have never served alone. We began church work as part of a relationally healthy team of youth workers back in the late 1970s. A friend recruited me to co-pastor a church plant with him in 1996. I continue today at Oceanside Christian Fellowship serving among a team of eight pastors who share all facets of ministry and who, more importantly, share our lives together.