“The best pastors have a healthy level of paranoia.”
My father’s advice struck me as odd. I was in my early 30s, pastoring through a difficult situation with the potential to split my congregation. I was anxious. He didn’t feed my anxiety, but his words weren’t comforting either. The advice was honest. And real.
At the time, a group of people intended harm, and I needed to be cautious. Or, as my father put it, have a healthy level of paranoia.
“I emphasize the word healthy,” he reminded me, “But you must watch your back.”
Platitudes only make anxiety worse. What I needed was a realistic perspective and practical solutions. My father offered both.
Pastors and church leaders experience anxiety for a variety of reasons. Unsurprisingly, almost two out of three pastors report stress in ministry. Usually, it is the compounding of multiple stress points rather than one singular item that creates anxiety.
- Constant availability. The pastor’s role often requires round-the-clock availability for emergencies, further blurring the line between work and personal time.
- Perceived isolation. Despite being surrounded by people, pastors can often feel alone, particularly if they can’t share their struggles for fear of seeming weak or lacking faith.
- Public scrutiny: As public figures, pastors can feel pressure to always be “on” and maintain a certain image.
- Emotional labor: Pastors are frequently the first point of contact during personal crises or grief. They must keep confidence about any number of personal issues in the congregation. Sexual sins, substance abuse, and spiritual neglect are common problems among parishioners that pastors must keep secret. This emotional labor can be exhausting.
- Financial pressure: Many pastors face financial instability, often working with limited resources and sometimes receiving inadequate compensation for their work.
- Personal neglect: Pastors can become so involved in meeting the needs of their congregations that they neglect their personal needs, including physical health, mental well-being, and quality time with family and friends.
- Increased polarization. Like other areas of society, churches have people at the extremes—politically, ideologically, and theologically. Navigating spiritual waters is challenging when more people are rocking the boat. Conflict is almost always stressful. Add in a couple of bullies, and the ride can be nauseating.
- Uninformed criticism. All leaders should expect criticism, but the burden of answering uninformed critics is wearying. I once had someone get quite upset with me. She went on a long, forceful diatribe about one of our ministries. After several minutes of hearing from her, I realized she was talking about another church.
- Unfair comparisons. Some pastors place unreasonable expectations on themselves and their churches. You cannot be someone else. But church members can also be guilty of unfair comparisons. The best sermons from the best preachers can be accessed instantaneously from anywhere. Why can’t you preach like him? Why is our worship service not like that? The questions are deflating, if not humiliating.
- Unhappy spouse. When a spouse struggles in a church, the pastor’s job becomes incredibly difficult. Some churches place unreasonable expectations on the spouse. The mentality of hiring two-for-one is a common problem. In other cases, the spouse can feel pressure to minister in ways that do not align with their gifting.
The combination of these stress points can create complex and nuanced problems in ministry. But there are some practical ways to combat the inevitable anxiety of ministry. Consider these tactics.
Stop using all-or-nothing reasoning. Idealists make terrible pastors. Perfection is an unachievable goal. One error does not ruin an initiative. The perfection-or-failure mindset can create a massive amount of stress. Rather than letting one setback create a domino effect of anxiety, view failure as a way to learn. Besides, most things in the church are a mixture of good and bad, positive and negative. Optimism, as opposed to idealism, is the better approach. The optimist recognizes the setbacks for what they are but keeps plodding forward.
Make potential stress an ally and not an enemy. Fine furniture is not crafted without the friction of sandpaper. The best art and music pieces are usually produced in a crisis. Identify what makes you stressed and channel your emotional energy into productive exercises. Ask questions about what you can control rather than dwelling on what you cannot change. The power once went out in our sanctuary. There was no need to panic over what I could not control. I called everyone closer to the front and preached from the floor. No one complained. The Sunday service was memorable but not a failure.
Learn to laugh at the one-off blunders. I was once so sick preaching, I walked backstage, passed out, and puked in a live mic. The sound guy was asleep as usual, so everyone got to hear the thump of my body on the floor, followed by what sounded like an exorcism going badly. My nickname was “puking preacher” for several weeks to follow. You have two choices in a situation like this one. Be anxious. Or laugh.
Use the word “no” more often. You can’t do everything! Nor should you. Pastors should be accessible to the congregation, but there is no way a pastor can always be available. This tiny, two-letter word may be the most powerful tool you have to reduce anxiety. Most pastors do too much, not too little. Properly shepherd your church’s expectations. When you try to do everything for everyone, you train the congregation to expect “yes” every time. It’s unfair to you, your family, or a future pastor who may have to replace you due to burnout.
Every pastor will experience stress. Do not let the pressure build to the point of anxiety.
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Posted on July 26, 2023
As President of Church Answers, Sam Rainer wears many hats. From podcast co-host to full-time Pastor at West Bradenton Baptist Church, Sam’s heart for ministry and revitalization are evident in all he does.
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