Pastor, Is Wellness Absent from Your Vocation?
The calling of a pastor is a demand for wholeness and holiness.1 Yet, the pastorate is not without dangers and perils. It has been described with words like “stress,” “exhaustion,” and “burn out” to explain the reality of the modern-day pastor, causing casual observers to note that the pastor‟s “meter is always running.”2
Many of today‟s pastors live under the congregational demands that often use “success” as a synonym for “faithfulness.”3 Such a rigorous mindset, creates a façade for the pastor that can stifle the disciplines of physical and spiritual wellness.4 Medical doctor Richard Swenson notes that all of the “advances” of humanity have not been helpful or healthful. Rather than enjoying the front porch swing, many feel guilty of being still. Those who relax are often scorned, while the “speed of light” jet pilot is admired. Further, he writes, “The pastorate has gone from a „low stress, high reward‟ job to a „high stress, low reward‟ job. Never was a job created with more conflicting expectations.”5
The unique setting of pastoral ministry must be understood within the context of life in the church. Author William Willimon details important factors in properly comprehending the prevailing culture of local church ministry that drastically impact the pastor and his ministry. In summary form, he writes:
- The work of the church is never done;
- The church does not give us a clear picture of the expectations and the tasks we are supposed to fulfill;
- Ministry tends to be repetitive;
- Ministers must work with the same people year after year;
- The church is haven for and refuge for people in great need;
- Some people join the church not out of any deep commitment to the true purpose of the church, but rather out of a desire to receive attention and affirmation from the church;
- Ministry requires the wearing of a mask that hides the pastor‟s personal feelings;
- Church people may be exhausted by failure;
- The church and its ministry are not valued by the surrounding culture;
- Many serve in situations where there is institutional decline;
- Much of the church and its ministry is a “head trip;”
- Poor time management wears down many in the church;
- Ministry is often a mess;
- The pastoral ministry requires the commitment, or at least the sympathetic support of the pastor‟s spouse; and
- Pastors and laity must be in general harmony with the denominational value system, theological stance, and priorities.6
Willimon offers further comment in seeking to emphasize the necessity of the disciplines of physical and spiritual wellness:
The church deals with spiritual and intellectual matters, not with fleshly, carnal matters. We come to church to think or to feel, not to be physically active. Most pastors I know are notorious neglectors of their bodies. We may believe and preach an incarnational faith, but when it comes to the care and nurture of our own bodies, we live an utterly disembodied docetism. Many times, emotional or relational problems have their roots in the neglect of the physical body. A host of studies show that the physical activity can greatly reduce levels of stress. Generally speaking, the more cerebral the work, the more we need to nurture our bodies. We are not all brains, not disembodied souls. We are people, creatures, animals who are psychosomatic in all we do. We forget our physicality to our own peril.7
Awareness. Are you cognizant of the unhealthy view many parishioners have of pastoring? The remedy is found in the Pastoral Epistles.
Assess. Are you regularly exegeting the context of your ministry? Evaluating the recipients of your ministry will impact its method of teaching, but not the message of truth.
Action. Are you purposefully engaging steps toward a paradigm shift? Your family deserves this needed congregational modification in thinking.
© Jim Fisher, Ph.D.
Christian Education and Leadership Concepts, LLC.
Fit for the Fight, April 2010
1 Much of the information is taken from the author's dissertation: The Relationship Between Selected Disciplines of Physical Wellness and Spiritual Wellness Among Southern Baptist Pastors, 2006.
2 Ulstein, Stefan. 1993. Pastors Off the Record: Straight Talk About Life In The Ministry. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press),17.
3 Hughes, R. Kent, and Barbara. 1988. Liberating Ministry From The Success Syndrome. (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House),35.
4 Salter, Darius. 1990. What Really Matters In Ministry: Profiling Pastoral Success In Flourishing Churches. (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House),183 .
5 Richard A. Swenson. 1998. The Overload Syndrome: Learning To Live Within Your Limits. (Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress),119.
6 Willimon, William H. 1989. Clergy and Laity Burnout. (Nashville, TN: Parthenon Press),31-51.
7 Ibid, 48.