John Piper, popular author and pastor for preaching and vision at Bethlehem Church in Minneapolis, Minn., announced a break from pastoral ministry in late March. His concern over "several species of pride" in his soul that threatened the integrity of his marriage and ministry gave rise to his decision. As believers around the nation continue to pray for Piper during this season of sabbatical renewal and evaluation, we must also earnestly intercede for every pastor we know. Many are struggling to maintain personal spiritual and emotional equilibrium in the face of the unique challenges of ministry.
Recently, as I conducted a regional renewal event in Wisconsin, the host pastor spoke honestly of his own struggles to stay encouraged and balanced in the midst of pressing demands. Twice, he and his wife have spent time at a retreat center designed to counsel ministry couples. He told me about his three best friends from seminary who all quit pastoral ministry in the last year due to overload and frustration. He spoke of two of his pastoral colleagues in the city who fell to immortality in recent years. The more I travel and connect with pastors around the nation, the more I realize how common his story is among church leaders today.
The results of a Focus on the Family study indicated that 1500 pastors a month leave the ministry due to conflict, family struggles, personal discouragement or moral failure. Some will eventually re-enter ministry. Yet, it is clear that Satan is launching relentless attacks against our church leaders with the intent of undermining the work and testimony of Christ.
Not every struggling pastor has the visibility of John Piper, the freedom to take such an extended sabbatical or the same kind of support from the church board. Yet, every pastor must make the same kind of regular assessment of the vital gauges and do everything possible to prevent a tragic leadership crash. In my recent book, Defying Gravity – How to Survive the Storms of Pastoral Ministry, I wrote of nine essential gauges on the "leadership instrument panel" to help pastors stay "in flight" and finish honorably. It seems that John Piper authentically evaluated his key gauges and realized that he could not continue to lose altitude. With the wisdom of the Holy Spirit and honest input from family, colleagues and friends – every pastor needs this same resolve.
There are no solo flights in leadership. Passengers are always on board, including one's spouse, family, friends, congregation and other followers. For their sake, and in view of Christ's honor, every pastor must embrace this same courage as Piper and make a wise decision, whatever the short-term cost, to stay on course for the long haul.
Pastors who last understand the vital role of prayer in supplying supernatural grace for the demands of ministry leadership. Paul unashamedly asked for prayer from the churches he served. Wise pastors today surround themselves with committed prayer partners. They open their heart to Christ and colleagues on their knees. Spurgeon said, "I know of no greater kindness than for my people to pray for me." In this day and age, I can think of no greater line of defense and infusion of power, than the persevering prayers of God's people for their leaders. In addition, real intercessors are seldom harsh critics.
Recently, I enjoyed a helpful conversation with Leith Anderson, senior pastor of Wooddale Church in Eden Prairie, Minn. and President of the National Association of Evangelicals. Leith told me "One hundred years ago, the only way for someone to compare their pastor with another pastor was to go on vacation. Today, because of television, radio and the internet, every pastor in America is regularly compared to a composite of the 'best-of-the-best'." The average pastor can be expected to have the depth of John MacArthur, the cleverness of Chuck Swindoll, the creativity of Ed Young and the smile of Joel Osteen.
This dynamic is unfair, unrealistic and unhelpful. The subtle discontent, disappointment and criticism from the pew wears on a pastor. The consumer mindset among believers drains a pastor's energy. Negative remarks and stealth attacks can become debilitating.
Anderson went on to note, "many churches do more to help their pastor succeed than the pastor does to help the church succeed." Clearly, impact and endurance are a two way street. Pastors need realistic and thoughtful encouragement as they seek to serve and sacrifice for the flock. They may not be as deep or clever as other notable pastors, but they are the ones God has called to lead and feed us. We need them. We need them at their best. We can help them keep their stride and serve honorably, as we create an environment of health and wholeness.
Brooklyn Tabernacle pastor Jim Cymbala believes the need to encourage pastors is urgent. He notes, "We are selling nothing but simply seeking to give words of hope and experiences of powerful prayer to our colleagues to keep them in the fight. We need each other."
You may not be able to travel across the nation, speaking to hundreds of pastors, but you can pick up the phone and minister to one. Every effort makes a difference. Every affirming word helps. Every prayer matters. Together, we can remain strong and united, and help our pastors finish well.
Daniel Henderson, a senior pastor for more than two decades, is founder and president of Strategic Renewal, which exists to ignite personal renewal, congregational revival, and leadership restoration. His most recent book, Defying Gravity – How to Survive the Storms of Pastoral Ministry, was published by Moody Press in 2010. For more information, visit www.strategicrenewal.com.
Published, May 2010