How Dio You Survive the Ministry?

Dear Roger,

My resignation letter is in my pocket. I decided last June to spend the next six months trying to get things straightened out. It’s now December and I am no better off now than I was then. The stress and pain is incredible. My family is struggling as I try to minister to others. I feel like if I quit I’m jumping from the frying pan into the fire; but I don’t know what else to do. I’ve always wanted to thrive in ministry but now I’d be satisfied if I could just survive. Can you help me?

Sincerely, David


Dear David,


Julie and I have taught pastors on how to survive in ministry on four of the seven continents. One thing we’ve discovered is that most pastors struggle with scores of hurts and pains.


Early in the first session Julie and I do some teaching on how to mourn and comfort from Matthew 5:2: “Blessed are those who mourn for they shall be comforted.”


Then, we practice Romans 12:15: “Rejoice with those who rejoice and mourn with those who mourn.”


I say to the couples, “Take a moment and share with your spouse one of the happiest moments of your life. Then rejoice with them. Laughter and joy fill the room.


Then, we experience the second half of that verse: “Mourn with those who mourn.”


I’ve discovered that with twelve words I can have the room in tears: “Share with your spouse a hurt you received in church and then let them comfort you.”


Thirty minutes later they’re still going at it.


The size of the group doesn’t matter. From four couples in London, England to 150 couples in Billings, Montana, the response is always the same. Pain and hurt are just below the surface.


Don’t get me wrong, there are multiple joys in ministry that provide much satisfaction. Most pastor couples say that if they had it all to do over again, they’d do it again!” Nevertheless, they still get hurt in the ministry.


I’d like to share with you, heart-to-heart, some issues that I’ve dealt with as I try to thrive, not just to survive, in ministry.


? I had to face up to my messiah complex.


The back of the couch in our living room was as good a place as any to have a nervous break down. I called up our head counselor and said, “It’s Saturday night and I am hiding behind the orange couch crying. This is not normal, is it?”

“No,” he replied. “I’ve seen this coming for a long time and I’ve already made arrangements for you to talk to a Christian counselor. He’s waiting for your call.”


As we sat for our third session Jerry said, “Today we are going to talk about your messiah complex.”

“Messiah Complex! I don’t have a Messiah Complex!”

“Don’t be so surprised. Most young ministers have one.”


A Messiah Complex has to do with our misunderstanding of our dreams. Many of us dream of a large successful ministry that accomplishes great work for God. A Messiah complex might sound like this, “God has called me to win this city for Christ!”


Early in my ministry I was going to win the world to Jesus…. When that wasn’t happening I changed my focus to winning Tucson for Jesus. Soon, I saw that I couldn’t even win my whole street to Jesus.


A messiah complex may cause pastors to consider their call from Jesus so important that they are willing to sacrifice spouse and children for the sake of the “call.”


I discovered lurking within me was an enormous messiah complex. “I used to imagine that when I entered Heaven God would say something like this: “Oh Roger. I am so glad you are finally here! You did things that even Moses never did!”


Occasionally, I am so embarrassed for my arrogant attitude that I’ve imagined myself in heaven sneaking out of the line of pastors waiting to see Jesus. I wasn’t sure that Jesus really wanted to see me.




Jesus knew the importance of boundaries: “Jesus, knowing that they intended to come and make him king by force, withdrew again to a mountain by himself” (John 6:15). The exhausted Jesus—tired from teaching, preaching and healing all day often withdrew to refresh, regroup and pray.


Bill Hybels talks often about the four gauges we must monitor: Emotional; Physical; Mental and Spiritual. When the “Check Engine” light brightens up on the car dash board, we don’t pull out a hammer and knock out the light. We find out what is wrong and fix it. Enough said.


? I struggled to Get MY expectations in line with reality.


Every morning I made a list of all the things that needed to be done that day. My list often looked something like this: “lead morning staff meeting; visit patients in three different hospitals; spend four hours in sermon prep; have two counseling sessions and make nine calls to church members.”


Then, when I went home to discover that my day is not ended. More things are on the list: “play with the children; help with supper; wash the dishes; feed the dogs; give the kids a bath; read them a story and tuck them in for the night.”


I seldom completed my list. I only got to two hospitals; there was no time for sermon work; I only made six phone calls; and had to cancel one counseling session when the first counselee talked too much. Then, I had to go home and do family stuff.

My day was never finished. The satisfaction of “well done” seldom occurred.


The distance between my expectations and the reality of my resources is my frustration level. I tried to fix my frustration by working harder and faster. I only got further behind. I discovered that the best way to deal with frustration is to lower my expectations to the level of what I could honestly accomplish that day. The closer my expectations matched reality, the less my frustration.


? I endeavor to spend more time with the energizers and less with drainers.


Most people in our ministries are what I call neutrals. We know them by name and have casual conversations with them at church or in the community. They don’t really energize or drain us.


Drainers, on the other hand, can suck the very life out of us. You go to their houses for dinner at 7:00 pm and three hours later you look at your watch and it’s 7:30! This is a house of drainers. Drainers don’t dialogue; they monologue. They focus upon themselves and never seem interested in yours. They talk about things you couldn’t care less about.

Energizers, on the other hand, bless us with companionship, encouragement, fun, and energy. We go to their houses for dinner and thirty minutes later we look at our watches and it is 11:30 pm! Where did the time go? Julie says, “What a great night. I can hardly wait to be with them again!”


Most pastors feel like the church people will get jealous if the pastor and spouse spend more time with one couple than another. Spend time with the neutrals and a little time with the drainers; but a significant amount of time with the energizers.


Remember that the drainer to one person might be an energizer for another.


The church is a hospital for sin-sick souls. Drainers abound. Take care of them; but not to the detriment of your health.


? I wish I’d learned earlier how important it was to Protect MY Children.


So, we were at a church pot luck dinner. My six-year-old daughter had eaten a cookie. She was reaching for a second when one of the church women pushed her hand away and said, “Don’t you know that we don’t want our pastor’s children to be fat.”


Pastors’ kids have so little privacy.


Too often they are sermon illustrations without permission. I was so excited the first time my three-year-old came to big church. She was sitting in the balcony with mom when I told a story on her from past week. I looked up and Brianna was gone. She was under the pew.


As my daughters grew older we made a deal. Any sermon illustration about them must first be cleared with them.

Then we bargained for how much the illustrations were worth.

Was it a one dollar or three or five dollar illustration? Were we having three services or five? If she were lucky and the illustration was really good, she may come up with $5 times 5 services equals $25. I didn’t use those illustrations often. I couldn’t afford them!


Pastors’ kids struggle with unfair or impossible expectations.


Pastor’s Kids are forced ascetics. Pastors, as a general rule, don’t have much money.


A youth pastor says to me, “My children’s friends all have the new King James sneakers (or Michael Jordan, or whom ever). All we can afford is a $10 pair of Bob Cousey’s.” Most pastors have no idea who is Bob Cousey. That’s the point.


Pastors’ kids struggle with the God issue.


Many rebel. 32% never attend church again. Many are disillusioned by some of the things that happened to their parents. Many are hurt so badly in church that they never want to go there. Some enter the ministry thinking that this is the only way that God (or dad or mom) will be proud of them— or love them. How dysfunctional is that!

They may associate God with their pastor father or mother who is never around. They conclude that God won’t be there when they need Him either!


Pastors’ kids know that “quality time” is a myth created by parents who are way too busy.


The only time that matters, that says, “love” to a child, is lots of time.


I remember praying for my busy, overloaded ministry day and the asking God to take care of my kids: “It’s only fair”, I said to Him, “I’m going to be busy with your work today so it’s not too much for me to ask You to take care of my children.”

I distinctly heard God answer: “Remember Eli and Samuel and David. They were busy taking care of My work while ignoring their children. If I did not rescue their children what makes you think that I am going to rescue yours? The only one who can fulfill the role of father to your children is you! And, if you don’t do it, no body else will.


? I learned to Protect JULIE and set her free.


Once upon a time I was interviewing a candidate for the position of worship pastor in our church. After asking him my questions, I turned my attention to his wife to see how she was handling ministry.

After a moment she said to her husband: “Should I tell him?”


She paused and tears emerged. It seems that the chairman of deacons was making sexual advances to her. Her husband told the pastor and he refused to deal with it because the deacon was so powerful, influential, and financially supportive. Now, she was weeping. I encouraged them to insist that their pastor deal with issue or for them to get out as soon as possible. No one needs to remain in that sort of dysfunctional system. The pain in their lives was incredible. Unfortunately, this pastor failed to face the issue straight on and get his wife to safety.


Julie hardly fit the often expected role of pastor’s wife (the expectations take different forms in different churches). Julie is extraordinarily creative, talented, musical and brilliant.


Our primary counselor, Steve Dowdle, once said to me, “You had best set her free or you will have a very angry woman on your hands in twenty years.”


I remember the Sunday when a senior adult couple accosted me to inform me that Julie had no business as a pastor’s wife returning to the University of Arizona to work on her doctorate in conducting. As they scolded I remembered when Jesus told John the Baptist that He needed to be baptized to “fulfill all righteousness.”


Finally, it was my turn to speak. I said to them, “The reason Julie is working on her doctorate is to “fulfill all righteousness.” They had no idea what I was talking about…… I didn’t either.


I feel a divine calling from God to run interference so that she can fulfill all the gifts and talents God gave her.


She’s played keyboards with the high school rock band in her leopard skin pants. She has three post graduate degrees in music. She’s conducted church and community concerts, taught worship at seminaries, written a text book on orchestra and musical instruments and now leads the “preachitteachit web site with over 8 million hits from over 200 countries.


I’ve stood behind her every step of the way. Freeing the pastor’s spouse to fulfill their calling is critical in ministry survival.


? As a pastor-teacher, I discovered that expository sermons BUILD UP THE CONGREGATION MORE THAN ANY OTHER MODEL. EXPOSITORY SERMONS ALLOWed ME TO maximize MY TIME and effectiveness.


Too often I found myself struggling to decide what to preach each week. May I suggest working through the Bible paragraph by paragraph? No time is wasted wondering, “What shall I preach?” You just preach the next several verses.


There is nothing wrong with topical preaching. It has its place—it just tends to be “thin” over time.


I wanted our congregation to come to church asking the question, “Does God have a word for me today?”


I followed Charles Spurgeon’s preaching guidelines and the church has flourished and lived in relative peace.


“People are like dogs,” he wrote. “If all you have to give them on Sunday is a few old bones then they will fight and scrap with each other. But, if you give them steak, they will lie down and sleep in peace.”


? Remember The Sabbath Day and take a nap


“If you have more than three ways people can get in touch with you, you are a really sick person,” said my pastor friend.


Jesus didn’t live a harried life and we don’t have to, either.


He walked for weeks and never used the phone. He took long walking vacations like hiking two weeks to Tyre and Sidon. He still finished everything on His “to do list.”


We tend to say, “Yeah, but that’s Jesus. Does God have an answer for me?”  You bet He does. The answer is “the Sabbath.”


Fundamentally, Christ saw the Sabbath (and by extension, all of life) as being a day of restoration and connectedness with God.


Mark 2:27: “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.” This pronouncement has profound implications for us and for our society.


The original purpose of the Sabbath was twofold. The Sabbath was for rest and worship. Count the verses. The idea of Rest is emphasized more than Worship.


The idea is refreshment; to recharge our batteries.


Sometimes we think we are the Energizer Bunny—and just keep going and going and going. But, the bunny is a fraud. We must continue putting in new batteries.


At one time I thought that an hour every day at Starbucks was enough to recharge I was stupid.


? Eventually, I developed A Workable Plan, approved by the church leaders, to produce balance.


1. God Says We Need To Stop Every Six Days For 24 Solid Hours of Rest.


In ministry it is easy to cheat: “Well”, we say, “I will begin my 24 hours after lunch on Thursday and get back in the office just before lunch on Friday.” That’s cheating. It should work like this: you go home on Wednesday evening and return to the office on Friday morning. That is a full day off.


By the way, for a pastor, Sunday is a day of work. It is not a Sabbath.


2. I Limited How Many Hours That I Would Work Each Week.


The average American worker now puts in 43 hours per week. Many work fifty. I decided that my goal was no more than 50 hours per week.


Too many of us tend to be available 24-7 to the church members. It is tough to be on duty all the time. Studies show that very little profitable work occurs after 50 hours.


3. I Utilized Compensation Hours to balance a week that I overworked.


The key here is balance. We all know that in the ministry not all weeks are equal. Christmas weeks are busier than summer weeks. Some weeks have too many funerals and marriage crises. So, to achieve a balance for a 50 hour schedule, if I worked 55 hours one week (5 over the limit), then I tried to work 45 hours the next.


4. I Promised Julie That I Would Be Home At Least Four Nights Per Week.


Pastors’ wives called to thank me. One of them said, “Now I might get to have a real husband who has time for me and the children”.


5. I arranged for a church member to “cover” for me on my day off.


Of course, some situations, like funerals, hospital emergencies or weddings required my personal attention.


One of the best things for our church family was the development of a hospital ministry which saw to it that every person in the hospital received a visitor every day. They also covered most of the surgeries.


6. I led The Church Leaders To Approve The Plan.


Most people are sensible. When they think about it, they want you to have time for yourself and family in order to survive and not burn out. Let them approve the plan and then you stick to it.


Now, go to YouTube and search for the words, “Bob Newhart Stop it.” Then do what he says.


I hope this is helpful. The goal is not just to survive but to thrive.


Love, Roger



Comments + add a comment