Resilient Ministry
By Megan Fowler

What makes pastoral ministry so difficult that, although men feel called to pastoral ministry for a lifetime and spend years training in seminary, they often quit after a few years? What does it take to sustain lifelong pastoral excellence?

Christian agencies, seminaries, and pastors have asked these questions for years, and Bob Burns, Tasha Chapman, and Donald Guthrie believe they have found some answers. Their new book, “Resilient Ministry: What Pastors Told Us About Surviving and Thriving,” condenses seven years of research and interviews into five themes for resilient, lifelong ministry.

“Resilient Ministry” came about through a grant from the Lilly Endowment as part of its Sustaining Pastoral Excellence initiative. The Lilly Endowment dispensed $64 million to organizations studying what it takes for pastors to thrive in ministry.

Burns, Chapman, and Guthrie, who were colleagues at Covenant Theological Seminary, began their research in May 2004 and finished in May 2011. They conducted much of their research in cooperation with Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia and Reformed Theological Seminary in Orlando.

Though the Lilly Endowment gave organizations freedom to be creative with their programs, it did encourage the programs to include pastor peer groups. The program that Burns and Guthrie crafted was a scientific, rigorous research study, and Chapman joined the team a few years into the project to help with data analysis. Findings of that research study are the main source of “Resilient Ministry.”

Understanding what it takes for pastors to thrive long-term in ministry fits into Covenant’s mission of training pastors for a lifetime of ministry. When Guthrie, then Covenant’s vice president of academics, learned that the Lilly Endowment was distributing grants to study pastoral excellence, he submitted a proposal.

Part of what interested Guthrie was the opportunity to interact with other institutions within the broader church community and compare their findings. Once Guthrie secured the grant, he recruited Burns to help design and implement the program.

The Pastors Summit

For the research study, Burns and Guthrie created pastoral peer groups that they called the Pastors Summits. For each Pastors Summit, three groups, or cohorts, of pastors met three times a year for two years. Participants had to meet stringent criteria to participate, and cohorts for the first two rotations were selected in partnership with WTS Philadelphia and RTS Orlando.

Cohort members were categorized based on years of experience and the state of their ministry and emotional health. The cohorts met separately twice each year, and during the summer all three cohorts came together for a longer meeting. The pastors’ wives were invited to be as involved as they wanted to be, too.

Sometimes the pastors were divided into cohorts according to experience; sometimes they were divided according to their personal and ministry health. One set of minority cohorts was organized by ethnicity.

While the pastors were primarily Presbyterian, some came from other denominations, and participants represented nearly every region of the country, with one international pastor.

During the Pastors Summits, Burns and his assistants interviewed the pastors about their interests and the ministry issues they wanted to discuss. Participants then read books on those subjects and listened to expert speakers. For example, when the pastors wanted to discuss conflict in the church, Burns had them read “The Peacemaking Pastor” and brought in the author, Alfred Poirier, to teach them.

Burns and his team recorded all group discussions at each Pastors Summit and transcribed the meetings into thousands of pages of notes. From these notes, the researchers extracted five themes they believe are keys to sustaining pastoral excellence.

“What was being taped were very honest retreat times for these pastors and their spouses where they were working on really hard issues that they had selected and wanted to work on with experts and great literature,” Chapman said.

After compiling thousands of pages of data from pastors and their wives, Chapman said the researchers could look at the data and ask, “What makes the pastor’s role so difficult, and what can help?”

“We were trying to dig down to find out what makes [the pastor’s role] so unique and challenging that, even though men train for ministry at seminary and feel called to ministry for a lifetime, they are leaving ministry at incredibly rapid rates and are not able to stay in vocational ministry,” she said. “The book answers the question that your average church person might ask, ‘Why do people leave ministry when they feel called to ministry for a lifetime?’”

While there is not much scientific data on the current rate at which pastors leave the ministry, clearly the culture of local church ministry has changed dramatically in the past few decades, and pastors struggle to adjust.

Strengthening the Tapestry

The five interlocking themes that can lead to long-term pastoral excellence are spiritual formation, self-care, emotional and cultural intelligence, family and marriage, and leadership and management. The book spends two chapters unpacking each theme, though the researchers acknowledge that each could merit its own book.

Spiritual formation is the process of maturing spiritually and personally. Because pastors have so many things to do, they can neglect their own spiritual health and the need for time to reflect.

Self-care involves a pastor taking time to tend to his spiritual, emotional, physical, social, and mental needs. Many pastors told the researchers that they felt as if their role as a pastor was the only part of their lives that mattered. This lopsided view of self can leave a pastor feeling one-dimensional. Pastors need to create healthy boundaries to pursue interests and take care of their responsibilities outside the church.

Emotional and cultural intelligence deal with how one engages with feelings and ideas outside one’s own experience. The authors define emotional intelligence as “the ability to manage one’s own emotions proactively and to respond appropriately to the emotions of others.”

Similarly, cultural intelligence “is an awareness of regional, ethnic, and generational differences and the implications of these differences personally and interpersonally.” Pastors need to be able to learn from, and not be threatened by, perspectives and experiences of others.

The marriage-and-family theme addresses how critical it is for a pastor to carve out time to tend to his family’s spiritual and emotional health. A pastor cannot sustain pastoral excellence if he does not care for his wife and family.

Finally, leadership and management address ministry aspects that most pastors do not instinctively embrace.  But Burns, Guthrie, and Chapman believe these two elements of ministry cannot be ignored. Leadership and management are, according to them, “necessary components of discipling Christ’s church.”

The authors quote extensively from Pastors Summit participants who breathe life into these concepts that, at first glance, appear simple, even simplistic. Though it seems obvious that a pastor needs to care for his own spiritual life or take time for his family, Pastors Summit participants illustrate that these changes can be difficult.

Burns, Chapman, and Guthrie believe these themes are intricately connected like strands of a tapestry. One cannot look at self-care, for example, without also addressing spiritual formation or marriage and family.

Seven years of research certainly offer some unexpected findings. For Chapman, it was the unique way pastoral ministry scrambles boundaries between a pastor’s personal, family, spiritual, and professional lives.

“That leaves them with a very unique isolation and causes a very unique stress on the marriage as well. It was very eye-opening to realize just how stark … a challenge that is for our pastoral couples,” she said.

“Resilient Ministry” includes an analogy from one Pastors Summit pastor who described the average person’s life as a three-legged stool, with family life, work life, and spiritual life each representing one leg. If one aspect gets off balance, there are two other areas to balance the stool. But, the pastor reflected, a pastor’s life is a one-legged stool, so his ability to stay balanced is much more difficult.

Though he knows it seems obvious, Burns was surprised to see just how crucial a role the pastor’s wife plays in sustaining pastoral excellence. Burns said the researchers began referring to the pastor’s wife as the “nuclear dumping group” of the ministry.

“There are exceptions to this, but in general the most significant human factor in the sustainability of pastors in ministry is their spouses,” he said. “A pastor’s wife can be the only confidant a pastor has.”

As a result of this finding Covenant began to place greater emphasis on helping seminarians strengthen their marriages. “That is really changing how we look at our students and how we want to engage them outside the classroom,” Chapman said.

Guthrie said he was surprised to discover how entrenched the “hero-leader” model of ministry can be for some pastors. “In the face of loneliness and even recognized need for collaboration and partnership support, so many pastors felt the need to just soldier on as kind of a lone wolf in ministry,” he said.

“With pastors, almost every relationship is what a counselor would call a dual relationship,” Burns said. “A pastor could counsel the elder on issues in his marriage, and then the elder could be bringing the pastor up on charges. It’s not a safe place for the pastor.”

 Implications for the Whole Church

The Pastors Summits reinforced for the authors the critical role peer cohorts can play in helping pastors receive the support and encouragement they need. The book even includes an appendix with best practices for forming peer cohorts.

As a result of this research, Burns reformatted Covenant’s Doctor of Ministry program into a cohort model. The goal is to give those students pastoral peer relationships to sustain each other as they pursue further education.

“We hope that those who take up the implications of our findings will either strengthen their ties to those with whom they are in relationship or find some people to be in relationship with for refreshment, encouragement, and professional development,” Guthrie said.

Though the benefit for pastors is clear, reading “Resilient Ministry” can teach elders and congregations much about caring for their pastors.

Congregants can use “Resilient Ministry” to understand what their pastors do and why their jobs are so challenging. The book’s first chapter simply describes what life is like for a pastor and offers an eye-opening glimpse into how stressful, lonely, demanding, and unreflective a pastor’s life can be.

“Most people have no idea how hard their pastors work, and they are overworking terribly,” Chapman said. “We are terrible about giving our pastors vacation time, making them take sabbaticals, making them take care of their families, and making them limit their work hours.”

Chapman recently shared the book’s findings with a group of women in church leadership, and the women realized they never considered who serves as a pastor to the pastor. “Resilient Ministry” can equip congregations to help their pastors help themselves and get the breaks they need for rest and rejuvenation.

And even though elders work closely with their pastors, they often do a poor job of assessing their pastor’s job performance and emotional health. “Resilient Ministry” offers elders the tools to effectively and holistically evaluate their pastors. The book also includes an appendix with questions to use for personal evaluation and annual personnel reviews.

Burns, Chapman, and Guthrie also designed “Resilient Ministry” to be used as a book study for a small group. Each chapter contains discussion and reflection questions and recommendations for further reading. Leadership teams can reflect on the findings and make strategic changes to their churches’ ministries, which can lead to healthier pastors and healthier churches.

Burns, Chapman, and Guthrie believe that their research, when properly applied, can create healthier church environments and pastors who are equipped for lifelong ministry.

“We are deeply convinced from this research that healthier pastors and pastoral families lead directly to healthier churches, and we hope the book can play a role in this way,” Chapman said.

For more information, visit

Scroll to Top