Eight of the Most Significant Struggles Pastors Face

March 1, 2014

Before me are handwritten notes that I took over a few weeks from various social media interactions, emails, and a few phone calls. The total is nearly 200 separate communications to me. I kept a record of them for one simple reason: I wanted to identify the greatest pain points of pastors today.

In many ways, there are no surprises. Indeed, I doubt most of you will be surprised at my findings. If nothing else, it is a good reminder of how we can help our pastors, and how we can pray for them. Of course, you will quickly see that they are not mutually exclusive. They are listed in the order of frequency I noted.

  1. Criticism and conflict. I do have a few observations about this number one issue. First, it seems to be growing, and pastors seem to be experiencing greater challenges. Second, most of the issues of conflict are not doctrinal issues. Indeed, most are trivial issues. Finally, very few pastors are equipped and trained to deal with the steady stream of critics and crises.
  2. Family problems. Many pastors struggle with expectations by church members of their spouses or children. Others struggle with finding time for their families. Many pastors’ families struggle with the “glass house” syndrome.
  3. Stress. The pastor’s life is one of emotional highs and lows. It includes critics and adoring fans. Expectations from church members can be unreasonable. The very nature of a pastor’s call into ministry can lend itself to seemingly unending stress.
  4. Depression. Every time I write about this topic, I hear from countless pastors and staff. Depression is pervasive in pastoral ministry. And it is often the “secret” problem.
  5. Burnout. Local church ministry can attract two broad types of persons: the lazy and the workaholic. Accountability is often low, and it can be easy to get away with little work, or to work 70 plus hours a week. I see more of the latter than the former.
  6. Sexual problems. These problems are most often in one of two categories: pornography or marital unfaithfulness.
  7. Financial problems. Most of the world hears about the few pastors who make huge salaries. The reality is that the majority of pastors struggle financially.
  8. Time management. Expectations of pastors can be unrealistic. Pastors are often expected to attend multiple meetings, to visit countless congregants, to prepare sermons with excellence, to provide ongoing strategic leadership, to conduct weddings and funerals, and to be involved in the community. Many pastors don’t know how or when to say “no.” And many are not good at delegating, or they really don’t have anyone who can handle some of their responsibilities.

Most pastors love their callings. Most pastors enjoy most of what they do in ministry. And most pastors wouldn’t change their role if they could. Still, many pastors have ongoing challenges and struggles. And many would gladly receive help from church members, a word of encouragement from most anyone, and the knowledge that others are praying for them.

What do you think of the eight struggles I noted? What would you add to this list?

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138 Comments

  • Michael Cooper says on

    Thom,

    Well said and very helpful. I am back in the local church after over a decade if denominational work.

    Regular meetings with fellow pastors an my own experience point to the validity of these insights.

    Thanks for your commitment to encouraging and empowering local church leadership.

    Mike

  • This is right on every aspect. My question is if you permitt me to translate this into Spanish as it is a very important topic to spread to all ministers.

  • I’ve had to learn the power of the word “No”. Great article!

  • After growing up in ministry and then my personal interaction with pastors for the past 20 years, I have seen all of these issues in churches. Don’t think not my pastor or not my church, If I were a gambling man, I would bet the house on the fact that at leased one of these points is an issue in every church. I am a workaholic! Just like my dad (who is also a pastor). My previous ministry had me serving with a lazy sr. pastor that had an extra relationship (Woman) in his life. This caused even more work to fall on me. I was headed for burnout. I got fired for addressing his inappropriate relationship (Matt 18). I am looking for a new ministry to serve in, but this has left some emotional scars both in me and my family.

  • Personally, the problem I face is competency. With the complexity of moral, ethical and social problems this generation is facing, and bringing to our desks for counsel on, it is overwhelming and intimidating, and often leaves me struggling to know where to start. Add in the factor that such a large number of people around us are weighed down by so many issues, and the fact that our churches have limited time and resources within, it can leave a pastor wondering “what good are we doing?” Of course, I know as we all do the answer is Christ, and His word and the preaching of the gospel does not return void. I know that we do for a few people what we wish we could do for them all. I know that with man this is impossible and with God all things are possible. That is my firm hope and trust. But there is still the human frailty factor and at times where at least I feel incompetent. That is my struggle.

  • Pastor Rainer,

    I just want to say thank you for posting this and the mental health post. I am thankful for social media and your openness. It helps so much when praying for my own Pastor. I am sure sometimes it must feel like you have the burden of the world on your shoulders. God Bless and thanks for your faithfulness.
    Tammy

  • As Dr Rainer noted, this list is not exhaustive, rather the most frequently mentioned struggles to him. Your input on this blog has already expanded the conversation to include friendships (Brett), spiritual transformation (Lanny) and marriage (Ken). Keep the conversation going pastor friends so that we can “carry one another’s burdens.” Gal 6:2

  • Thom,
    I thank you greatly for addressing these issues. I have surely faced many of them through the years. I am grateful for wise counsel from caring members and mentors who helped me walk through the balance of family and church, the humility and determination needed to stick it out through the criticism, and the need for accountability and encouragement.
    I’ve often said, “They didn’t teach me that in seminary.” The three years to get an M.Div. or some other degree to prepare a person for ministry are busy ones spent with Hebrew, Greek, weighty theology texts, etc., but I have often thought there needs to be some “welcome to reality” course using visiting pastors who have been in the trenches. Perhaps that type of course exists now.
    Thanks for the always timely posts.

    • Thom Rainer says on

      Thank you Jimmy. You pastors are my heroes. I try to learn from you daily.

    • Among some denominations, there is a mandatory year of seminary spent in a congregation or chaplaincy doing real work under the ordained clergy. This way everyone gets a year of exposure to the real side of ministry, not just seminary courses and chapel with one’s colleagues and the faculty. Perhaps some of the seminaries need to rethink their policies and some of the big churches need to talk to the seminary deans about the need for ministerial candidates to have some real world experience and then be willing to take some of these students and put them to work in the big churches where they can get some experience.

  • Tony Wolfe says on

    Thanks for posting this, Thom. I certainly appreciate all of your hard work for our convention, and your heart for pastors. What a blessing you are, brother.

  • Ken Jerome says on

    Thank you for making this list — you are ever so correct in every point — The most important point of the “pastor job descripton” should be — Stay alive spiritually and make sure your marriage is healthy. With all the stress that is “self imposed” we pastors have don’t handle our time very well. I am thankful for a few strong friends and a healthy marriage. Not always had that. —

  • Blessings Thom! These posts are very helpful to me. I have experienced some of the struggles you list. But the greatest struggle I face (and have faced) in 30+ years of ministry is seeing so little spiritual growth in people, including me. I served for ten years as a Pastor, sixteen years as a DOM, and have now been pastoring a wonderful Church for the last six years. I have rarely found anyone truly interested in sacrifice and spiritual transformation.

  • I agree with all 8 Thom! These are great. For me burnout was a major conflict that has happened in my ministry and one that I want to help other church leaders overcome. One that I might include with your list is friends. I’ve heard a statistic before that 70% of pastors don’t have any close friends which goes with another statistic that 25% of pastors don’t know who to turn to when they have a personal or family conflict. I think pastors can be very lonely people which is a paradox since we can be surrounded by 100’s of people. Having a few deep, meaningful friends can be a struggle that I see among church leaders. Great post!

    • Thom Rainer says on

      Well said Brett. I pray this blog site will be a place where pastors can see the need to connect with each other.

    • Dave Crow says on

      I would add that this can also be true for the pastor’s spouse and family.

    • Lemuel Billingsley says on

      I too agree w/ all of your comments. I often do what I can to position certain of the church members to be in prayer for me in specific ways. In addition to this, I use the scriptures to lead them in praying for me. Does this help, of course it does, but there are still various struggles such as not being prepared for certain crisis. And I think sometimes we forget that we are dealing w/ a dirty devil in which many pastors are not equipped to fight. What I have done to keep myself going is surrounding myself w/ a few pastors in which meet for prayer daily by phone. We too use the scriptures for praying for our families and church. I have seen that it keeps us refreshed in the Spirit of our God. Again, I thank you for your insight.

      Lemuel Billingsley

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