The Most Frequent Burdens Pastors Face

January 29, 2015

By Chuck Lawless

In my years of church consulting, I have spent hours talking to local church pastors. Much of the conversation revolves around church structure, vision, etc., but seldom does the conversation stay at that level. Pastors, it seems, long for someone to listen to them. They want someone to share their burdens, even if only for a few minutes.

Listen to the topics of pain I often hear, and take a minute to pray for your church leaders.

  1. Declining church growth – No pastor I know wants his congregation to be plateaued or in decline; however, the majority of churches in North America are in that state. A pastor may put a hopeful veneer on that truth publicly, but I’ve wept with pastors who grieve privately over their church’s decline.
  2. Losing the support of friends – Losing the backing of a Christian brother or sister is a unique pain. God-centered relationships are a miraculous gift, the melding of hearts at a level the world cannot understand. When those bonds are severed, particularly over matters that are seldom eternally significant, the anguish is deep.
  3. Grieving a fall – Pastoral love is not a guarantee against failure. In fact, even Jesus had close followers who fell into sin and rebellion. When our pastoral calls for repentance go unheeded, it’s difficult not to take that rejection personally.
  4. Sensing that the sermon went nowhere – For many of us, our ministry is centered around the Sunday sermon. Ideally, hours of preparation end in focused exposition that leads to life transformation—but that result doesn’t always happen. Few pastors have a safe place to express candid concerns about their own preaching.
  5. Losing vision – A pastor who has lost his vision for the church is leading on fumes. To admit that condition, though, is risky. Not to admit that reality is even more dangerous. Little will change until that pastor can honestly share his lack of focus.
  6. Being lonely – Pastors bear others’ burdens, but they do so confidentially. They share both the struggles and the joys of life, from birth to death. Sometimes, previous pain has made it difficult for them to open up to others. Consequently, they carry the weight of many on the shoulders of one.
  7. Dealing with unsupportive staff – Facing contrary members weekly is hard enough, but facing unsupportive staff every day is an ongoing angst. Correction is difficult, and firing can be agonizing. Some pastors simply hope for change while not knowing the best next steps to take.
  8. Remembering failures – Not many of us easily forget that disorganized sermon, that rotten counseling advice, that disruptive team meeting, or that hasty staff hire. Perhaps we can laugh at some of yesterday’s failures, but others still haunt us because we never want to fail God or His people.
  9. Dealing with death recurrently – Few responsibilities are as serious as officiating at a funeral. Even when burying a believer, pastors, too, grieve the loss of friends. Burying someone who was apparently not a believer is even more gut wrenching. Ministry amid such pain without becoming calloused is difficult indeed.
  10. Facing personal jealousies – I wish no pastor dealt with personal or professional jealousies, but I know better – both because of my own sinfulness and my pastoral conversations. Coming to grips with the rawness of our depravity is never easy.
  11. Balancing family and ministry priorities – No pastor sets out to lose his family. Few leap into the inattentiveness that often precedes adultery; instead, they almost imperceptibly slide into sin. One reason for that failure is their lack of mentors and colleagues who help them prioritize family while fulfilling ministry responsibilities.
  12. Responding to criticism – Continual criticism is wearying. Learning how to hear any sliver of truth in criticism while not growing angry is challenging. We can indeed be better ministers through healthy criticism, but few of us learn that truth in the midst of controversy.

I love pastors. I have been a pastor. I would return to the pastorate with excitement if the Lord so called me. Accordingly, I challenge us to pray for pastors today.


Chuck Lawless currently serves as Professor of Evangelism and Missions and Dean of Graduate Studies at Southeastern Seminary. You can connect with Dr. Lawless on both Twitter and Facebook.

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78 Comments

  • Pastor Wayne makes some valid points. Still, the role of today’s pastor is a tremendous burden…as it always has been. Today’s pressures may be a bit different and, as Wayne says, some of it we have laid on ourselves.

    The post rightfully elicits sympathy and empathy for pastors. But there should be no pity. It is a privilege to “suffer” these burdens for the Kingdom. I resonate with virtually all of them and I am certainly no hero. But what I find is that in this crucible of ministry my soul is deeply formed if I will seek the Lord diligently through prayer and the Word. I find that I cannot survive without it. While the stress of ministry sometimes seems too much and I need to remain joyful for the sake of my people, I do count it a privilege to suffer the hardship because of the powerful spiritual shaping that is happening.

    Thanks for the post. It is helpful to have an understanding heart address these issues…even if only in a blog.

  • Michael Palmer says on

    Dr. Lawless, this article “nailed it.” I am sharing it with others. Thanks for your timely insight.

  • Powerful and timely!!!

  • Pastor Wayne says on

    Interesting article, but not for the reasons others have mentioned.
    Almost all, if not all, the issues written about are problems which either the pastors, or the system they operate in, have brought upon themselves.
    Pastors need to stop trying to be CEO’s and modeling their church structure after the ways of worldly business and worldly organizations and other things which are of the kingdom of this world rather than that which is of the Kingdom of God.
    They can start by being disciples of Jesus Christ. I urge all who read this to study the NT and what it reveals about being a disciple of Christ – and then to implement these discoveries.
    For example, if pastors completely and utterly trusted Christ in everything (the TRUE meaning of “believe” in the Greek), then they wouldn’t be worrying about many of the concerns in this article. Jesus said His burden is light and His yoke is easy, but few pastors in the western church live in this truth experientially.
    If a pastor KNEW that the sermon he preached was given him directly from the Holy Spirit, then he wouldn’t be depressed or concerned about a sermon which seemed “to go nowhere.” (He would first have to do what is necessary to make certain that the Holy Spirit was the source of the sermon).
    If he was modelling a disciple of Christ and his call to pastor, he would do as the apostles and give most of his time to prayer and the ministry of the Word.
    If he was modelling what the New Testament revealed about the working and ministry of the Body of Christ, he would empower other disciples within the fellowship of believers to do many of the things most contemporary pastors take upon themselves. This not only frees the pastor to do and be what he is called to, but also frees others to do the same in their individual callings.
    There is much more I could say about how far removed the contemporary, western church and pastorate is from what the New Testament reveals about being a disciple of Christ, and pastor, and a congregation of believers, but I think you can begin to get the point.
    I realize that discovering what the New Testament reveals concerning these things is radical and the implementation of them within a pastor’s life and the life of the congregation is even more radical. Perhaps, however, if Christs’ and the apostles’ design for His Church and His disciples were implemented, such an article as this would never need to be written.
    WAKE UP CHURCH!!!! CHRIST is calling HIS Church back to foundation He and His apostles laid out for any who will earnestly and wholeheartedly seek Him and HIS Truth. He is in the process of bringing forth a new reformation of His Church. To those who will seek Him, His design, His purpose, and His Truth, He has promised to reward them with being shown all these things.
    Rather than being given a heavy load of heart-breaking burdens, He truly gives freedom, peace, joy, and blessing – even in the midst of trials, testings, and persecutions.
    HIS YOKE IS EASY and HIS BURDEN IS LIGHT. The prerequisite, however, is that we get to know Him in His call to deep relationship with Him – that we learn of Him experientially. He DOES give rest and peace to such ones (Matthew 11:28-30).
    I was such a pastor as you describe. However, the Lord has taken me on a 25-year journey and much transformation into His image for me to come to such a place as I’ve described. My prayer is that the trip is a shorter one for those who grasp what has been shared.
    God bless.

    • Chuck Lawless says on

      Thanks for your thoughts, Wayne.

    • Chaplain Bull says on

      Ouch.

    • “Rather than being given a heavy load of heart-breaking burdens, He truly gives freedom, peace, joy, and blessing – even in the midst of trials, testings, and persecutions. HIS YOKE IS EASY and HIS BURDEN IS LIGHT”

      Since when?

      When Christianity is turned into a rules-based faith by some denominations/churches, it is not easy to follow and makes for miserable Christians. Sorry, but some of us never saw freedom, joy, or peace.

      • We have a savior that called those who were weary and heavy burdened to himself in order to give them rest. I would wonder if, while verbally and intellectually affirming that Jesus is the one who carries these burdens with and for us, if their actions don’t reveal a tendency to lace up His sandals and play that role themselves.

        Mark, I have been reading through Galatians the last couple weeks, and your words remind me of Paul’s words that they were buying into a “different gospel”. As he goes on further to mention, there is no other gospel, but the one that Christ has given us, and we shouldn’t expect to feel any lifting of burdens as long as we are buying into a false one.

      • So, what you’re saying is that a pastor dealing with a heavy burden is the equivalent of not really believing in Jesus. What is wrong with you?

      • Yes, that was exactly what I meant ACD. You have a wonderful way of taking exactly the wrong message away from things that might be challenging to you.

      • Let’s follow your logic D.S. and the logic of Pastor Wayne. If a pastor is burdened, that means he is not taking Jesus’ yoke (this is a gross misapplication but for the sake of analysis…). If a pastor is not taking Jesus’ yoke then he is following a different gospel which means a false gospel. If a pastor is following a false gospel then he, by definition, doesn’t believe in Jesus. Thus, a pastor dealing with a burden doesn’t believe in Jesus.

        This has struck a nerve with me because I don’t like seeing pastors get slapped down by sanctimonious, condescending bystanders.

      • Chuck Lawless says on

        Thanks for your comments, Mark. Like I have with the others who have responded, I have just prayed for you.

      • Thanks.

    • Well, I’m glad you have it all figured out but for those of us who are not yet perfected these are real concerns. Besides I would expect someone so sanctimonious to have a better understanding of God’s word. Among other things, Jesus’ yoke is not about having an easy care free ministry, it’s about His fulfillment of the law on our behalf. Jesus Himself dealt with many of these same concerns.

    • >The issues written about are problems which either the pastors, or the system they operate in, have brought upon themselves.

      It is a given that pastors don’t have fym to push congregations to follow the pattern of the New Testament. (Going by the published research, if they had fym, they either would not be pastors, or would not rely on a paycheck from the congregation. Very few pastors are in the latter category.)

      Thus, in essence, you are saying that pastors neither have enough faith in God, nor trust God enough to satisfy their needs.

    • theist101 says on

      I used to be just like you. I thought I was the only one who knew and practiced biblical truth. I loved to point this out in sweeping generalisations, as you have. I didn’t see for a long time the extent of my own depravity, and following that a much fuller heart grasp of the gospel. I couldn’t see that despite what I thought, I was a Pharisee.

      After much suffering, and a number of years as a Pastor, the gospel penny gratefully dropped.

      I pray the same for you my friend as it seems you are under the same illusion that you are the bastion and keeper of truth and no one else gets it.

  • Nailed it! Things are going well right now, but I could circle all too many of these looking back in the mirror.

  • Dr. Rainer,
    Thank you for saying things that I want to say and ask for prayer for but feel that I cannot. Your words of wisdom are encouraging and helpful.
    By the way, we are a small church in a rural community and I bought a case of “I am a Church Member” books last summer for our people to read. I just had to make a third order of those books as that book has created quite a buzz in our church. We are going through it on Sunday nights and I am giving it to new church members. Thanks for writing it!

    Brett
    John 3:30

    • I’m doing some sermons based on “I Am a Church Member”, but I never thought about giving out the book to new members. That’s a great idea!

    • Chuck Lawless says on

      John,
      This is Chuck Lawless. On behalf of Dr. Rainer, thanks for the comments about his membership book. I’ve research church membership for years, and his book is the most practical, helpful one I know. I encourage all pastors to lead their church through that study.

  • Physicians have a lot of tasks too that can swing their emotions in a matter of seconds. It’s just part of the job.

    Why do pastors though never seem happy? I know much can be going on but they need a way to recharge. I know this is easier said than done. I have only seen a few who were happy to conduct a baptism or a wedding. I have seen some who conducted baptisms without being happy and did not enjoy conducting weddings and really did not like a congregation full of young people who were attending the wedding. This is tragic. It usually meant that they were going to lash out at the congregation and this just contributes to people not wanting to be there.

    • Strange. I’ve been a pastor for almost 20 years and I’ve never seen any that were unhappy to baptize a new believer. I’ve also never seen pastors that were unhappy at weddings, though I admit they involve quite a bit more stress behind the scenes.

    • Chuck Lawless says on

      I agree, Mark, that we need pastors to love and enjoy their work. Blessings.

    • Mark,

      All I can say is this: you won’t really know until you ask them. And of course, if they’re willing to give a real answer. There are so many reasons and many individual reasons. Many pastors including myself work 55hrs a week or more. They could have health problems. Maybe even spiritual malnutrition even spiritual warfare. You won’t really know until you ask and ask with real care.

      Steve

      • Chuck Lawless says on

        Steve,
        I agree that we simply need to ask pastors — to talk with them and let them share their heart. Thanks.

  • I have been a district superintendent in the United Methodist Church for about 4 years, and these are spot-on. I posted this on my Facebook page and urging laity to pass it around and read it. Good article, Mr. Lawless, and thanks again Thom for a great article. Keep up the good work.

    • Chuck Lawless says on

      Thank you, Sky. Blessings on your work with pastors.

    • Sorry to poke at the United Methodist but I find them too stuck on tradition and in love with their denomination. Around my area there are a few Methodist churches with a relative of mine a pastor of one but a majority of the people going to it are old.

      It would be better to A: close down the church
      or
      B: Convert to a non-denominational approach where Christ is the center and not tradition.

  • As a pastor, I have nothing to say in response to this blog except… AMEN!!!

  • Jeff Kautz says on

    Dr. Rainer

    I was wondering if you have any statistics about pastors and criticisms they face or on how many leave the ministry and problems that they face.

    Thanks for all you do for pastors

  • Thanks. Helpful list.

  • Great post! I would also include the pressure of sustaining and increasing funding to support ministries. In tough economic times, giving is the first thing people cut. Couple that with an overall reluctance to see giving as an act of worship and command, pastors feel the strain of trying to grow a church and spread the gospel while funding is often not there to do so.

    • Chuck Lawless says on

      Thanks, Chris. Just prayed for you.

    • Kris, I agree. I was actually surprised the financial burden of the church was not on the list. In many ways the constant reality of paying for past decisions to acquire debt is such a burden that escaping to a debt free post can become appealing.

      • Chuck Lawless says on

        No question that church debt was occasionally an issue, but pastors more often spoke of the issues noted.

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