About six weeks ago, byFaith posted an article by Megan Fowler on the book “Resilient Ministry: What Pastors Told Us About Surviving and Thriving,” authored by Bob Burns, Tasha Chapman, and Donald Guthrie and based on seven years of research and interviews (to read that article, click here). As a follow-up to this article, Reasoning Together interviewed the authors. All three authors collaborated on some of the answers to our questions – those answers are identified with the initials “RM.” Answers provided by the authors individually are identified by their personal initials.

RT: What is the single most important thing you discovered in your research?

RM: Perhaps it is that the pastoral vocation is incredibly complex, challenging and misunderstood at this time in our society. That’s not a real answer to your question, though. The five themes of our findings are interrelated, such that if we start talking about one important aspect needed for resiliency in ministry, we would eventually want to bring up all of them.

If we consider the root of shalom, or Gospel health, as one’s  personal relationship with Christ, then this could be considered the most important thing for pastors to develop and sustain. But pastors find this very hard to do.  Pastors tend to meld their spiritual life with their ministry work and never really take off their “pastor’s hat,” resulting in dryness and exhaustion. Maintaining work boundaries and the pursuit of a growing spiritual life undergirds the development of health in other areas of pastoral life.  For example, when pastors were interviewed to participate in the research, the interviewer found a positive correlation between pastors who cultivate their relationship with Christ at a personal level and pastors who have the capacity to deal with conflict well.

Another key finding, which is not so obvious, concerns the significant degree to which pastors and their spouses are helped to become healthier and sustainable in ministry by participating in facilitated peer cohorts. Pastors are helped to thrive by scheduled time to meet with trusted confidants in order to work together on the five themes of spiritual formation, self-care, emotional and cultural intelligence, marriage and family, and leadership and management. Cohort retreat time away from ministry can further not only the sustainability of the pastor, but also the Gospel health of the whole church.

RT: You say that the melding of spiritual life and ministry work results in dryness and exhaustion. Are you saying that the way pastors go about their work often undermines the spiritual foundation needed for it?

TC: Yes. For example, if they are so busy and pressured that they attempt to make sermon preparation satisfy their need to be nourished from Scripture and from prayer, they end up feeling spiritually dry.

BB: I agree with Tasha, but with this caveat:  Most pastors find that sermon preparation is spiritually enriching and that their sermons are most significant when they (the pastors) are being transformed by the Scriptures and meditation before preaching it to others. That being said, spiritual formation and growth includes more than (but not less than) the study and reflection on Scripture. There are other spiritual disciplines needed. Also, there is a need for reflection on Scripture that has nothing to do with the obligations of Sunday or leading a study with others. So, while we don’t want to diminish the personal significance of work-related study, it is not a substitute for growing a worship/devotional life

RT: One of the things you say about the pastoral vocation is that it is misunderstood. By whom – pastors themselves, their parishioners or both? What is the nature of the misunderstanding?

TC:  Both.  The complexity, challenge, and long hours of pastoral work is a surprise to new pastors and largely hidden to parishioners. Pastors tend to be especially surprised by how much leadership and management is required of them. In addition, both pastors and their parishioners tend to confuse the person with the role of pastor, thus smashing identity and role together, which heightens unrealistic expectations on the pastors. These misunderstandings lead pastors to feel very isolated.

BB: I totally agree with Tasha in this response. I would add that it generally takes 2-4 years for young pastors to become acclimated to the expectations and demands of real pastoral ministry (versus their expectations upon entering). Also, I would add that the process Tasha describes of joining role and person together is a reality of the ministry, but one which isn’t appreciated or named – so that pastors live it and experience it, but don’t really understand or grasp it even as they experience it. The most significant challenge, in my opinion, is that parishioners assume they understand the pastorate (usually superimposing their own work experience on the ministry) while they usually don’t grasp the challenges.

RT: In the byFaith article about Resilient Ministry, you each identified the most surprising thing you discovered in your research; was there something you expected to find but didn’t? In other words was there something that surprised you by its absence?

TC: I expected financial concerns and stresses to be a main factor in ministry sustainability. It wasn’t.  Finances did not even make it to the top of the list from the pastors’ discussions on healthy marriages and family. Other issues in the five themes were much more important and challenging to them.

DG:   I thought they would talk a bit more about how their seminary experience related to their current ministry experience. We did discuss this occasionally but it didn’t seem to be much of an ongoing factor. The further away they were from their seminary experience, the less of a factor it seemed to be.

BB: I wasn’t surprised by this, but it is worth pointing out. Consider the hours spent in seminary on homiletics. Consider the hours spent on exegesis. I am not discounting the importance of these disciplines. But the primary emphases of seminary education can be disconnected from the primary activities of ministry. The areas where pastors are trained the most in seminary were absent in the pastors’ discussions.

RT: What were some specific areas pastors wished had been covered more thoroughly in seminary?

TC: Leadership, management, conflict resolution, counseling, financial planning

BB: I would add an understanding of organizational dynamics (including governance), and especially the negotiation of interests and social dynamics within a system.

RT: Early in the book you quoted one pastor as saying, “I feel like a guy who is driving over the speed limit on a narrow mountain road without barriers. It’s the grace of God I haven’t driven off.” I realize in your book you indicate there aren’t reliable statistics about this sort of thing, but what is your impression about the percentage of pastors who feel this way? The percentage of those who have driven off?

RM: We all think that the vast majority of pastors regularly feel this way. They are lonely and vocationally isolated; they don’t feel supported or understood; they are tired; and they feel great pressure to perform at high levels, week in and week out, without regular breaks. This all contributes to a sense of persistent anxiety.  Paul Tripp’s book Dangerous Calling correlates with this.

We don’t have reliable statistics on evangelical pastors who have left vocational ministry. The shockingly high statistics reported from the Lilly Endowment account for pastorates beyond the evangelical church. We do know that the numbers were so alarming that the Endowment spent many millions of dollars over a decade supporting research to find help to keep pastors fruitful in ministry.

RT: Based on your research, what would you say is the most difficult thing about being a pastor?

RM: It took us a book to answer this question, as the challenges are so very complex and interwoven. One of the most difficult things is the combination of vocational and personal isolation and lack of role-identity boundaries. Pastors tend to feel quite alone, even while working constantly with people; having allies but very few (if any) confidants beyond their spouses. Another seemingly ironic difficulty for pastors is the ability to engage in personal and corporate worship that is meaningful and significant for themselves. Add to that the difficulties of nurturing a healthy marriage in the midst of constant work demands, requiring conflict management, which requires emotional management (EQ) and ties into the challenges of leadership. And so we get back to wanting to discuss all the themes…

RT: How would you suggest a Session use your book? A Pulpit Committee? A Presbytery?

RM: In general, we suggest people read the book slowly and take time to reflect on how each area speaks into their own lives. We can learn more by discussing one theme at a time in small groups, using the questions provided
in each chapter.

Sessions – Talk together about how the five themes work out in your own lives and not just the pastor’s life. Create ways to help your pastor grow in resilience in each area. Consider using the themes as a vehicle for regular annual staff reviews, getting beyond “noses, nickels, and noise” to what is really happening with the pastor and staff. Demand that your pastor takes vacation time. Build pastoral sabbaticals into your job expectations. Provide counseling for your pastor and his spouse. Don’t wait until they ask for help. Sometimes counselors are the only persons pastors can really share deep needs with; this is not “unspiritual.”

Pulpit Committees – Develop behavioral interview questions around each theme. Ask candidates about how they have lived in these areas, not about their ideas of how one should pursue them. The best predictor for future behavior is past behavior. Ask for specific stories of how they have succeeded and failed in each area.  Also, review how your church has made demands on previous pastors in each area. How will you help your next pastor be resilient?

Presbyteries – Create space and time for conversations about the themes. Provide resources to hire facilitators to lead small peer groups where pastors and spouses can talk about these things. We found that people in Presbytery don’t usually trust each other enough to really share honestly about these issues.  Trust to pursue resilience together would take time to grow.

RT: So you would suggest that one of the most effective things a presbytery might do to help it members would be to provide resources to establish cohorts that might involve members outside their bounds (and perhaps even their denominational boundaries)?

BB: Agreed. With this I would particularly stress the need for an “outside” facilitator for groups. I know that pastors assume that – because they do it all the time in their churches — they are fully capable to self-lead a group. But pastors need a place where they are not the leader or initiator, but where they can come and be a participant. Again, I would add how it seems pastors within the same presbytery have a harder time letting down the “professional persona” and simply being themselves. There may be generational dynamics going on here, and it might be different for participants who are NOT the Sr Pastor.

RT: Presbyteries are often reactive in their care for ministers (they find themselves putting out fires). How might they become more pro-active in promoting resilient ministry?

RM: The challenges are great since the members of presbytery are overworked in their own ministries, so rarely have any time to be proactive. Also presbytery members have limited relational trust in light of potentially conflicting interests. Therefore, they are limited in their ability to care deeply for one another towards resilience.  Presbytery may be considered the “church” for the pastor but usually feels more like a court. If so, consider a pastor for the pastors. Ah yes, but all this requires money, doesn’t it.

Budget, plan, and train facilitators to offer and lead pastor cohorts. Pastors could use a pastor for themselves. Cohorts could consist of pastors meeting with pastors from different presbyteries according to established relationships. They could also include parish or regional groups comprised of PCA and non-PCA pastors. A presbytery could also pair up newer and/or younger pastors with more veteran and/or seasoned pastors for the first year or two of the newer/younger pastor’s call.

RT: Are there elements of your five themes that are more easily learned? Are there some that are more intuitive (E.g., how easy is it to develop “emotional intelligence”? Are some people more naturally adept at “cultural intelligence”?)

RM: Unfortunately, no; resilience does not grow via simple steps or a check list. Each element, to varying degrees, combines God-given capacity with personal responsibility. Different personalities, different life experiences, and different training may make one theme or another easier for one person. But we are convinced that the issues involved in pursuing resilience require practice and feedback from others. For example, we found that pastors do not pursue spiritual formation more easily than others. Bottom line is that each of the five theme areas requires intentionality: stopping the busyness, carving out time, energy, and resources to work on them. Will pastors do this? Will they be supported in doing it? Moving beyond good intentions to lifestyle actions is hard work.  Pastors may commit to pursue healthy changes, but if their church systems don’t pursue the same changes, they will get squeezed back into the same unhealthy molds of the church’s expectations.

Pastoral personal responsibility to pursue resiliency is just that, personal and responsible. It’s personal because redeemed image bearers in relationship with God and one another through Jesus Christ are involved. It’s responsible because these redeemed image bearers are agreeing with and participating in God’s plan to bring His will to earth as it in heaven. No one will master any of these elements in a week or a month. All three of us are certainly still working on pursuing our own resiliency for ministry.  This work is better described as a daily walk with God over a lifetime than a quick study in self-mastery. God the Father is delighted to guide our walks to keep us in step with the Holy Spirit as He forms us into the image of the Lord Jesus Christ.

RT: If I were to develop a “peer cohort” what kinds of things should I look for?

RM: In Appendix E in the book we provide the details of what we found worked bests from the seven years of designing and facilitating pastor cohorts. We include recruiting criteria and strategies, logistics, schedules and timing, funding ideas, and study resources.  We highly recommend limiting cohort size to eight pastors with similar ministry strategies plus spouses and facilitators. We suggest requiring two-year commitments from all in advance.  Commitments for pastors to participate should also come from the pastors’ sessions. The ideal cohort retreats met for forty-eight hours, including two nights, during the middle of the week, three times per year. The meeting site needs to be away from the churches. Only an outside facilitator is able to provide the structure, accountability, and pastoral care to help the pastors pursue life issues deeply.

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