Discover more from Contents and Containers
Ten ways to make pastoring sustainable
Right now we are seeing a nationwide exodus of pastors leaving the ministry. Here are ten ways for making our blessed profession more sustainable.
I served at my first church for nearly thirteen years. I assumed it would be my congregation for life, and for the most part, I felt blessed to be there. I was formed and shaped by that community, and I owe it a debt of gratitude. I was blessed also to realize when it became time to move on to another church. Throughout that process, I maintained my faith and my vocation. I know many pastors who are not as fortunate, and they end up leaving the ministry. Though I honor anyone’s choice to leave, and understand that sometimes it’s for the best, I think there are ways to make serving as a pastor more sustainable. Although I’m not yet an “elder statesman,” I’ve learned some things that can be shared.
Pastors should join a denomination
Despite the flack that Protestant denominations get, I believe they provide both an accountability and community structure that makes pastoring more sustainable. In MCUSA (Mennonite Church USA), I am blessed to be part of a conference with a conference minister. This individual is a resource and an ally–s-omeone I can lean on in times of trouble or confusion. What’s more, denominational conferences are often organized by region and can offer peer support. While one can certainly build one’s own pastor peer group, it’s helpful to have one already available. I think relating to peers is essential to overcoming the loneliness endemic to the profession.
What’s more, denominations root us theologically and in tradition. They hold us to a set of principles to which we humbly submit. They encourage continued education and offer partnerships that are hard to come by alone. I am grateful to be connected to more BIPOC, queer, and like-minded pastors through a variety of committees and initiatives in MCUSA. Beyond that, denominations expose us to beliefs and people we might not meet in everyday life. In my own conference, I am honored to meet pastors from different ages, walks of life, and perspectives on the world and ministry, within the safety of a basic frame of beliefs. Denominations can also provide mentors and learned pastors to help us grow.
Be aware of former pastors in attendance
Churches often have families and pockets of power that are unknown or hard to see. Pastors would do well to understand the political economy of a church before leading too confidently. Getting to know a church is essential to leading it. One of the most challenging prospects is leading when former pastors, or founding pastors, are part of one’s congregation. It’s not impossible to manage, but it can be complicated.
I’m so grateful that the former pastor of my current church maintained such clear ethical boundaries on departing. She and I continue to meet regularly, but she has removed herself from the life of the church. This is easier in some churches than others, but we would do well to make sure that the pastor is not the parish, but rather that the pastor serves the parish.
Don’t wear all the hats; develop a team
As I wrote here last week, the pastor is not the CEO of the church. Understanding that can lead to a more sustainable and ethical job. Churches should be run by the people, not by its pastor. Pastors should then have specific job descriptions and stick to them. Sometimes, for the sake of efficiency, pastors can end up wearing too many hats or wielding too much power. Not only does this make the job impossible, it adds unnecessary stress to a pastor’s job and life. It becomes harder to set boundaries, as well.
Pastors already bear a lot of responsibility for what happens in the church, but by not wearing all the hats, they can minimize this burden. Sharing the load with intention creates other leaders and increases collective ownership and responsibility. It is, in fact, the Body of Christ, and each member is valuable and important. Pastors can show this by having a boundaried and limited role. This creates a spirit of mutuality and collaboration.
Also: don’t fool yourself into thinking you can do everything better than everyone. You can’t. Your community is surely full of talented and capable people who want to help. And at the same time, do take on the undesirable jobs. While you shouldn’t do everything, you should not be above any particular task.
Cooperate with local bodies, don’t compete with them
Churches are fixtures that should do their best to seamlessly join the fabric of a neighborhood, disrupting it only for moral and ethical reasons. New church plants can be opportunistic and colonialist. Pastors would do well to get to know their context and learn about ways to help. Meeting the needs of a neighborhood is exactly what it means to love your neighbor as yourself.
This also means interfaith cooperation and camaraderie. It’s important not to act like an exceptional church holding all the solutions to the problems of a neighborhood, a city, and its residents. This means approaching your context in a spirit of humility and openness, not arrogance or superiority.
We should pay special attention to matters of marginalization and oppression, both within and outside the church. As we seek to be peaceable participants in the community, we learn from the marginalized about where need is greatest. Devote your time to their care and liberation.
Set specific hours and keep them
You can’t work round-the-clock. Set a schedule, post it, and do your best to keep to it. I admit that this remains a challenge for me, but having time to rest and relax is essential for sustainability. If productivity is a concern, consider that never being off suggests you’ll never be really “on”, either. It’s important for pastors to have boundaries to model to their congregants, as well.
By setting hours, you are setting a precedent that the church doesn’t own you, and that you don’t own the church. It helps to create a healthy balance with and empathy for the volunteers we work with.
Finally, time boundaries around work benefit our families. I am blessed to be a pastor for certain hours and then focused on being a dad at other times. I do my best not to mix the two.
Maintain a social life outside of the church
A church community can offer so much nourishment and life for its members. I was shaped in my late teens and early twenties by mine. All of my friends and social activities existed within and for the church. I admit that this is greatly appealing to a young person, but it cannot be how a pastor operates. To be ethical and objective pastors who shepherd and care for our people, we need to have boundaries. That doesn’t mean we can’t attend baby showers, ball games and birthday celebrations, but when we do so, we are working. It’s important to be friendly and close with our church members, but not to cross the boundary into ordinary friendship. If we aren’t careful, soon they’ll be taking care of us, instead of us caring for them.
To avoid that, we need to have social outlets where we are not the pastor. It’s impossible to do this within the community of the church, and so we need to build a social life outside it. Sometimes this can also mean that our own families aren’t part of the church we serve in. It allows us to become whole people, instead of just being reduced to our blessed office. Remember that self-care is not selfish.
Volunteer for other activities and ministries
One way I set boundaries with work is by sharing my gifts and leadership with other organizations. Not only does volunteering in other capacities keep me from working too much, it teaches me and keeps me humble. I love the work I do for affordable housing in Philadelphia. I am grateful that my church considers that to be a part of my greater role as a pastor, and affords me the time to do it. Not only does it make Philadelphia a more sustainable place to live, it makes my job more sustainable, too.
Find things to do that you enjoy beyond pastoring. Develop hobbies and interests that have nothing to do with your ministry or local activism and volunteering. Have a life beyond church, and give yourself a chance to become whole.
For me, home cooking and watching local sports are really important (even when the home team isn’t playing its best!) These activities make us more human, and pastors need to be in touch with their own humanity and desires. If we mute them, they may express themselves in ways we aren’t conscious of, and can even have unethical consequences.
See a therapist and a spiritual director
This is probably good advice for everyone, and pastors are no exception. My spiritual director and my therapist are essential to my life and health. They’re also essential to my ministry. Continuing to spelunk into my insides and history allows me to lead out of my true and best self.
The work of spiritual direction connects me with my body and with God. And with my therapist, I can attend to old wounds and patterns, learn my motivations, and to heal in a way that makes me less likely to be triggered by congregational drama and conflict. It centers and focuses me, and makes it less likely that I will use my church to heal those wounds. My own church has a specific team that is designed to offer me this sort of care, as well; they are there to simply listen to my problems, not solve them.
Take personal retreats
For fifteen years, I’ve been venturing to a secluded hermitage for times of quiet, rest, reading, and writing. I don’t know what I’d do without my place of rest, but it has proven to be essential. It connects me with God, sharpens my prayer life, and allows me the chance to even take a nap. There is no agenda on a retreat, but I am learning that bringing a novel and taking long walks really helps. I try my best not to bring work along. I stay off the phone and avoid Email, as well.
Part of a pastor's job description should be to go on retreat, and our churches should help us be sure we do. The nourishment and richness that come from these places of contemplative prayer offer endless dividends, for our ministry, and also our life.
This is nothing close to a complete list, but it’s a start. I have been blessed by the use of these techniques, and I think they will make it possible for me to serve in a lifelong way in my cherished vocation.
Yes, pastors should leave their posts when they feel it’s for the best, but some of these practices may offset the most common reasons for doing so.