I stared blankly out the driver’s side window. I was sitting in my parked car outside the church where I was the pastor, fighting the urge to drive away and leave it all. Unanswered questions crowded my thoughts: How could I get out of the car and drag my feet through another day of being a pastor? If I went home and told my wife I was leaving the ministry, how would she react? How could I make any money if I quit? How did I end up here?
I had taken the call to be the solo pastor of a 200-member congregation in rural North Carolina when I was 25 years old and fresh out of seminary. Having been raised in the church and called to ministry when I was 19, I was excited to finally be a pastor. The people were great, and I absolutely fell in love with the job. I was preaching and doing weddings and giving spiritual counsel and teaching and visiting people. It was a dream come true! But slowly things changed.
There was no one dramatic moment. It was the cumulative stress of ministry: attending the meetings, grappling with personnel and financial decisions I felt ill-equipped to make, constantly putting out small fires of interpersonal conflict between members, burying too many people I’d grown to love, representing the church in the community, and working in the presbytery in a season of grinding denominational conflict. And, of course, there was the unique pressure of preparing a weekly sermon to inspire and challenge but hopefully not offend the people who paid my salary. By my eighth year of ministry I was exhausted. I was confused. My heart was dry and calloused. I had grown disconnected from God and felt spiritually hollow. And so I sat there, in my car, staring out the window and dreaming of being somewhere else.
Sadly, I’m part of a growing number of pastors with these experiences. A well-known Fuller Theological Seminary survey revealed that 75 percent of clergy have had, at least once in their ministry, a significant crisis due to stress and that 70 percent have a lower self-image than when they started ministry. A survey performed by the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)’s Board of Pensions found that four times as many people leave the profession within their first five years in ministry than they did in the 1970s. Some studies suggest that as many as half of all pastors feel so discouraged at some point in their ministry that they would leave if they had any other source of income. These pastors attribute their increased stress to consistently working more than 50 hours per week without taking all their allotted vacation time, being “on” all the time because of texting and social media, experiencing conflict in the church, and feeling inadequately trained to meet the ministry demands placed on them. One pastor said, “Seminary taught me to preach good sermons and visit sick people, not be the CEO of a not-for-profit organization.”
In the mid-1800s, popular American preacher E. H. Chapin wrote, “The true Church is not an institution . . . [but] a vital heart of truth and love, beating with the life of Jesus, and sending abroad its sanctifying pulsations.” But for many pastors, that vital heart can feel as if it’s stopped beating. How can the church live into this beautiful vision when the women and men God calls to lead it are losing their desire to minister and sometimes even their desire to follow Christ? If pastors are suffering, they have little left to offer the church, and the church in turn has less to offer the world.
In an attempt to counteract these trends, many denominations offer programs like the weeklong Presbyterian CREDO retreats for pastors, sponsored by the Board of Pensions. As a past participant of CREDO, I can attest to its positive impact. Over the course of one week away from the stresses of the church, I was able to relax and quench my parched spirit through daily prayer and powerful conversations with other pastors in similar situations. It was so refreshing to be able to honestly share my financial, spiritual, and vocational struggles and joys with others who knew exactly what I was going through. However, this and programs like it are usually short-term; the relationships forged there are hard to maintain; and they lack a lasting connection with the congregations these pastors serve.
The creative efforts of one small presbytery may, however, provide the answer.
Flint River Presbytery is made up of about 50 congregations in southwest Georgia, a majority of them small and struggling with declining membership and resources. Often the focus in these congregations is on surviving, not trying new things in ministry. The pastors of these churches face similar challenges, but rarely share a space where they can process them in order to lead more effectively.
In response, the presbytery leadership came up with the Reformation Project. Burnout wasn’t the project’s original focus; it was helping pastors discover God’s possibilities for them. But burnout is what they discovered once they started meeting.
Executive Presbyter Deb Bibler, the project’s lead instructor, says, “We wanted to create pastors whose identity was so deeply grounded and clothed in Christ that they could lead congregations to fresh places of ministry and mission.” To reach that goal, each participating pastor makes a three-year commitment to attend one meeting per month with the other clergy members of their class. (There are usually around four members per class.) They prepare for these meetings by reading works from the likes of Eugene Peterson and Henri Nouwen and by preparing case studies from their ministry context. The meetings utilize a three-prong approach: spiritual formation (worship and Bible study), self-awareness (personality type indicators), and leadership skills (conflict resolution, coaching, adaptive change, and so on).
As the pastors make this commitment, their sessions commit to support them by, among other things, engaging in monthly reflection and attending an annual retreat with their pastor. Seven years after its inception, the Reformation Project receives high praise from its participants. Jerry Long, a member of its initial class who now serves as pastor of Batesville Presbyterian Church in Mississippi, puts it simply: “It was probably the best thing that ever happened to me in my ministry.”
A chance to share
Participants Danny Loffredo and Leanne Simmons came from very different backgrounds.
Loffredo, now the pastor of Gulf Breeze Presbyterian Church in Florida, arrived at First Presbyterian Church of Americus, Georgia, with the hope that he and his family could put down roots and, in his words, “start their lives.” It seemed like an ideal situation for them: a church with about 150 members that had the potential to grow. But this ideal soon broke down amid an interpersonal, painful conflict involving factions of church members and Loffredo. As some members criticized his pastoral leadership, he began to struggle with anger and anxiety, even his own self-image.
Simmons is the pastor of All Saints Presbyterian Church in Midland, Georgia. With a PhD from Princeton Theological Seminary in hand, she was fully equipped to boldly lead the church in mission, but after her divorce she saw how complicated that could be when you’re the mother of a daughter with a disability. “When you’re the pastor of a small church and you’re dependent on that congregation for your medical insurance, it complicates your role; you become vulnerable,” she says. “Being faithful to Christ is really the goal, but it’s really difficult to do that when you’re calculating what to do at the next committee meeting.”
Both Simmons and Loffredo gladly accepted Bibler’s invitation to join two others in the second class of the Reformation Project. Simmons was amazed at how learning about family-systems theory changed her understanding of her church. “I found myself admitting that I was from a family of nine children raised by a widow and how I might be replaying the dynamics of a little girl who lost her father,” she says.
Loffredo says it was the Enneagram and the Myers-Briggs personality tests that benefited him the most. “Learning how I ticked as a man and as a pastor had the biggest impact on me,” he says.
But for both Loffredo and Simmons, the greatest benefit of the Reformation Project was not in skills acquired, but in something much deeper. Christopher Peterson, the pastor of First Presbyterian of Alameda, California, who was in the project’s first class, says, “What I need is the opportunity to share that being a pastor is sometimes lonely and we have experiences other people don’t have in their lives.” That “sharing” is what made the difference for Simmons. “Everybody in that group was willing to make themselves vulnerable,” she says. “There were some amazing encounters as we talked about who we thought Christ was and who he was calling us to be. I think I’ll love those guys till I die!”
For Loffredo, the entire project can be summed up in one experience: “I had a very contentious session meeting where one of the elders said some hurtful things to me in front of the whole session. I was wounded very deeply. I told the story at our next Reformation Project gathering. When I finished, Leanne Simmons looked me dead in the eye and said, ‘You are enough, Danny. You are a good man.’ I began to sob. I had struggled with shame my whole life, and hearing those words from another pastor who knew both my strengths and weaknesses meant the world to me.”
‘No miracle stories’
Flint River Presbytery’s Reformation Project has not produced any membership booms in participating churches. The eight pastors who have graduated from the program don’t skip between committee meetings because they’re so full of joy that they are pastors. The small churches are still small. Where there was conflict three years ago, the conflict remains. The stresses and rigors of pastoral ministry aren’t going anywhere. But there has been change.
As these pastors learned how to root their identity in Christ, the same started to happen in their congregations. Church members began talking more openly about their feelings and emotions rather than stifling them or exploding in anger. Smaller congregations began affirming their worth and potential and trying new things. Maybe best of all, both the pastors and their churches are now walking the road of faith with their eyes wide open and fixed on Jesus and his witness through them. In a world where many pastors are quitting and churches are giving up, these congregations and pastors are pressing on, with firm resolution that they are enough, that God created them out of love, and that Jesus called them to serve him faithfully.
“There are no miracle stories here, just small steps of faithfulness and watching people consistently choose faithfulness and hope over despair,” says Bibler. Hope, she says, requires a long-term group of people building you up when so much else is draining you.
I know from the day I sat in my car in the church parking lot that hope is the only thing that can make you step out into another day of ministry, whether you’re a burned-out pastor or an anxiety-filled church. Just hope, a hope that is rooted firmly in Jesus and his desire for all people to flourish.
“My philosophy is no longer ‘I’ll go where God leads me,’ ” says Simmons. “Now it’s ‘I’ll run where God’s chasing me.’ We’re just trying to catch up with the Holy Spirit.”
Joshua Bower is the pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Albany, Georgia. He is a regular contributor to the Presbyterians Today blog One Church, Many Voices.