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

  • Deb Killeffer says on

    Here’s another piece to add: The increasing amounts of mental illness in a church membership. I can’t under-emphasize that it’s a huge burden to those in ministry (I’m a PW) and how difficult it makes for any kind of genuine discipleship to occur. Also, please add the cultural changes that have occurred in our country which devalues the call to ministry AND the cost of remaining faithful to Christ in all areas of our lives.

    • Deb, would you please elaborate on your comment
      regarding mental illness? My pastor asked me to
      start a ministry for people with mental health issues just today.

  • As a pastor w 3 decades of experience, I have learned not to say, “I disagree” because it’s too terse, but in the interest of time I will simply say that having struggled w 1-4, 7 &8, I conclude that they were not my biggest struggles, in retrospect.

    The most significant struggle is connected with a lack of self-awareness. I was handed a script that contained so many good things that I failed to realize that it wasn’t tailored to me I became angry over the “people” who gave me a script and angry with myself for accepting it.

    “This is what the Sovereign LORD, the Holy One of Israel, says: ‘Only in returning to me and resting in me will you be saved. In quietness and confidence is your strength. But you would have none of it.'”

  • Should be titled 8 of the most struggles Christians face-not limited to pastors

  • We ARE in the middle of spiritual warfare, after all. We need to keep that in mind as we pray, study, prepare messages, marry and bury, preach and teach. And this is why we need to discipline ourselves for the purpose of godliness.

  • Dave Wallace says on

    Thom,
    I so appreciate this article and the comments. Hundreds of churches die every year. Many years ago I was pastor of a slowly declining congregation. No matter what I tried it just got worse. Surely you speak to many pastors who are right now living through the same thing. Not many pastors even want to admit that it is happening to them. What would you say to them?

    • Thom Rainer says on

      Thanks Dave. I hope my upcoming book, “Autopsy of a Deceased Church,” will help address those issues.

  • Thom,
    Thank you for your contributions to the ministry of so many pastors and staff.
    I’m a staff member and have served either part time, volunteer or full-time for almost 50 years. I think one of the greatest problems is having a close friend with whom we can simply be ourselves and can count on that person to pray for us, be our friend and help hold us accountable without being judgmental! I know someone else has already addressed this but I need someone with whom I can be honest and they will help me balance the issues with a different perspective. I have a great relationship with my spouse of almost 49 years but I need someone else to be myself with other than her. Too often she has the same perspective I have.
    Thank you again for your ministry!

  • Becky Gilbert says on

    A ninth problem could be a lack of accountability itself. Some see this word with a negative connotation, but a pastor (or any believer, for that matter) who loves/values his spiritual walk, his calling, and his destiny would be doing himself a favor by seeking out those who will speak truth into his life and hold him accountability regularly (not once a month), even eyeball to eyeball where words and speech are more easily parsed and discerned. (Skype is a wonderful tool for practicing this!) Accountability doesn’t mean someone is policing or monitoring your life, but rather helping to hold you responsible and keep you on track to fulfill your charge and ministry. It’s a GOOD thing!

  • Kevin Dodd says on

    Dr. Rainer,
    Thanks for compiling this poignant list, as well as creating a forum that lets pastors (and their wives) not only identify with those areas, but also add their prevalent struggles.
    I was a senior (aka “solo” in spite of other staff) pastor, and some of these things really resonate with me. Now, however, I’m experiencing the blessing of plurality and parity of pastor/elders, and while there are (and will be) struggles that we each face, we have this paradigm that helps us intentionally invest in and even intrude upon each other. I believe that one of the biggest boons, however, is that none of us are burdened with flying solo when it comes to the preaching, teaching, and shepherding of the flock, even though we are all bi-vocational with the associated time-management challenges that any pastor faces.
    I believe a key principle within this is accountability, and I strongly echo the sentiment that was expressed earlier. Accountability doesn’t just have to mean someone checks up on your internet activity or asks if you’ve had a daily quiet time this week. My prayer is that every pastor would find one person who would push them, prod them, pray for them, and intentionally purpose to help protect their honor and, subsequently, their family and their ministry.
    It’s not easy. It requires an intentional effort to even find another pastor (preferably) who’d be willing to deal with your eventual transparency and (hopefully) reciprocate. But it’s extremely important, because, as has been echoed throughout this stream, our sanity is worth it, our wives are worth it, our families are worth it, and our God who calls us, compels us, and keeps us as His own is worth it.

  • Agreed. I have personally experienced, or seen in the lives of close colleagues, every one of these.

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