Marathon men

How are pastors faring in ministry?

Three years ago, through my work with the Pastors’ Academy, I was in touch in an active way with 63 pastors.

This autumn I thought it was time to conduct a simple audit of how those same men are getting on. Here are the broad statistics: Of those pastors, 2 have retired, 6 have moved churches, 2 have had to take several months sabbatical due to stress and 8 have left the ministry.

Caveats, Covid and congratulations

I ought to say immediately that this sample is almost certainly skewed and should not be taken as perfectly reflecting how things are generally. My work means that I tend to be in contact with pastors facing troubles of various kinds. (On the other hand, which pastors don’t face troubles?) But overall what we have here is leadership change of around 25% and a drop out rate of 12% over just three years. 

Yes, it is true that during this time period the Covid crisis has taken a terrible toll on churches. So that might slant things. But again, on the other hand it looks as if the pandemic might still have some way to go, so if we try to learn lessons from the last three years the conditions in which ministry takes place in the future may not be too different.

Without in any way judging those who have had to move on, it is very heartening to see the majority of pastors who have hung in with the work, often despite many difficulties. So, if that is you – well done! Amid our ever shifting, constantly disturbing and disintegrating society, an enduring ministry can be a source of massive stability and hope for many a Christian. A church you can rely on is no mean thing.

Why do men drop out?

Looking at the men who have left the ministry or felt it was time to move churches in the last three years there are various causes. But in almost every case a major factor has been sustained criticism from a group or an individual within the congregation or from fellow leaders in the church. 

This is not how it should be within a believing community. A critical spirit does not compute with Philippians 2, where the apostle exhorts Christians to ‘in humility consider others better than yourselves’. And, sadly, I have to say that in this matter many retired pastors are the very worst beasts in criticizing others. I remember a young man who left our church to take up a small pastorate in a rural area and after every Sunday morning service a retired pastor (who had moved away from his own congregation) took it upon himself to pull the sermon apart as the young man waited by the door to say ‘goodbye’ to church members. Needless to say, the young pastor did not feel supported and soon left. And what a tragedy it was. Under his ministry a work among mothers and children had been started and many evangelistic opportunities had begun to open up in the village. Some churches ought to be ashamed of themselves.

Of course no pastor is perfect. And of course they sometimes need challenging and correcting. Ministers can be improved. But there are ways of doing this in a brotherly spirit with grace, humility and love.

Tougher men required

But there is another side to this. A pastor needs to be resilient. In many ways, criticism of a man who is bringing God’s word is to be expected. We are often bringing God’s challenge to sinners. Jesus faced criticism. Peter, Paul and John experienced the same. It is par for the course when you teach the Bible[1].

Men in ministry have got to toughen up. They have got to learn that often such criticism is generated because God is using them to speak to people’s consciences. These folk find it uncomfortable and can well lash out in some way at the messenger.

A great assistance to resilience is a sense of God’s call. I spoke with a pastor a few years ago whose deacons took a dislike to him after some years of faithful and fruitful service. They wanted to get rid of him. It later emerged that one of them had even doctored the accounts to give the impression that giving had dropped. This was cited as evidence that the church was no longer behind the pastor and benefitting from his ministry. I can’t explain why such things happen in a Christian congregation, except to say that the devil is real. But the trouble having now passed, the pastor said, ‘John, during those days, if it had not been that I felt so sure that God had called me I could never have stood up to preach.’ A solid call to the ministry brings strength during difficult times. And it is not wrong, at times, to ask the Lord to reconfirm your call.

Men who know the call of God deep in their hearts are men who will keep going in the marathon of ministry, even when the terrain is very uphill.

Brave men required

There is an ongoing need for young men to step up. The early days of ministry can be hard. You may have to go into situations which are not comfortable. But those in ministry are called to deny themselves and take up the cross (Mark 8.34), just as much as any other true Christian. 

Not long ago I led the induction of a new man, just out of seminary, taking up the pastorate of a small church in Surrey. (No assistantship – straight in at the deep end.) The church had been kept going through the ministry of an older ‘retired’ man who had promised to come for 2 years while the church sought a permanent pastor. In the event he was there for 13 years before he could pass on the baton. A short dash turned into a marathon. But he had kept things going.

The church was so thankful to God for the brave young man and his family who were willing to get involved and take on that frail and faltering church. And there are already signs that God is beginning to do things in that place. May the Lord give the ability to keep going.

John Benton

Director for Pastoral Support,

Pastors’ Academy

[1] See Coping with Criticism: Turning pain into blessing by Mostyn Roberts, EP books, 2020