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When Shepherds Flee:

Confronting the Stress Wolves in the Smaller Church

By Glenn Daman

The call to ministry is a call to a strange mixture of joy and sorrow. When pastors enter the ministry, they anticipate the joy of making a difference in the lives of people. What most pastors did not anticipate or prepare for, however, is the depth of pain pastors experience daily. Paul wrote, “This body of ours had no rest, but we were harassed at every turn — conflicts on the outside, fears within” (2 Corinthians 7:5). Because of this pain, many pastors are leaving the pastorate disillusioned and disappointed. They feel rejected not only by people, but also by God. The crisis is not only seen in pastors leaving the ministry, but also in pastors leaving their churches in search of greener pastures. When confronted with the daily stress, it is easy to think if we had a different church, we would have a more productive ministry.

In John 10:12, Christ contrasts the faithful, True Shepherd from the hireling who abandons the sheep and runs away when he sees the wolf coming. Wolves are not only those who violently oppose a pastor’s ministry, but they also include the threat of pain and the difficulties pastors face in ministry.

For the smaller church to be healthy and effective, it needs stability in leadership, that is, leaders who do not flee because of the wolves in ministry. Stable leadership occurs when pastors recognize what causes stress in the smaller church and how to effectively prevent it from destroying their ministry. The key to stress is not its elimination, but managing it effectively.

Hearing The Cry Of The Wolves

Stress is a reality in any ministry. Troubles and difficulties are a part of ministry. While there are prevalent issues in any size church (opposition, criticism, and conflict), there are unique issues in the smaller church or issues that are exacerbated by the dynamics of the smaller church.

The expectations wolf

When a pastor arrives at a smaller church, the congregation has many differing expectations of his role as pastor. These expectations range from preaching on Sunday to mowing the lawn and fixing the plumbing on Friday. People expect pastors to be an extra hand during harvest, attend every meeting, oversee every program, and take care of church facilities.

Equally unrealistic are the expectations pastors place on themselves. They expect the church to grow. They expect to be involved in everyone’s life. They expect to develop new, effective programs to reach the community. The result is an open-ended and never-ending job description. As one pastor shared, “It is not uncommon for a pastor in a rural setting to need to get up early to have an unhurried time with the Lord, study for Sunday morning or a Bible study, then attend some church or community meeting, stop by and help an elderly neighbor with some chores or run him to the store, counsel a family who has had a long-term problem, drop in for the youth ministry meeting, get an unexpected call to visit a church member, and after a quick bite to eat, head to another church activity.”

When pastors do not fulfill these expectations, they feel guilty because they believe they are not doing enough. Pastors become frustrated because no matter how much they have accomplished, there remains a mountain of activities and tasks to perform. Guilt becomes their constant companion. So, they become like one pastor who, in his first pastorate, worked 70 to 80 hours a week that resulted in a stroke at age 33.

The finance wolf

Sometimes pastors feel like Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof. They sing, “If I were a rich man” and wonder if in God’s infinite plan, it would have been possible to have been blessed with more wealth. While most pastors never expect to become rich when they enter the ministry, they never anticipated living on the fringe of financial poverty. While most smaller churches are generous in their giving, the limited number of people makes it difficult for a smaller church to pay anything more than a basic subsistence salary. The constant financial struggle a pastor faces can easily lead to resentment against the church for its failure to pay more, especially if the church has had to cut his salary or has failed to give him a raise for several years.

Without a savings, pastors fear retirement. They wonder how they will buy their children new clothes for school or pay for their college education. Over time, pastors develop a sense of guilt for bringing their family into a ministry where they need to make so many sacrifices. It is no wonder one study on the shortage of pastors concluded the number one reason smaller churches face a shortage is because of the lack of financial remuneration.

The defeated dreams wolf

When a pastor arrives at a church to begin a new ministry, he has dreams of a growing and dynamic church. Even though the church may have had problems in the past, the pastor is confident his faith in God, depth of training, and personal hard work can turn things around so the church can become an exciting place for service and fellowship. It does not take long, however, before the reality of ministry undermines his dreams. Instead of a pastor’s dreams being realized, they become a mockery of his passion for ministry. His frustration increases as he reads the plethora of books broadcasting the latest fad guaranteeing ministry success. Instead of attaining his dreams, the pastor becomes discouraged, disheartened, questions his call, and becomes embittered toward the people he perceives are hindering the fulfillment of his dreams. This is compounded when a church family moves from the community, leaving a big hole in church leadership or when, after working many hours to prepare a sermon, only a handful of people attend. These can sap the spiritual vitality of one’s ministry.

The relational wolf

The strength and vitality of the smaller church is the depth of relationship it enjoys. The hallmark of the smaller church, however, can become a source of stress for the pastor. Everyone in the church expects the pastor to be his friend. Consequently, pastors become relationally stretched as they try to meet the relational expectations of everyone in the church. As pastors strive to be a friend to everyone, they become a close friend to no one, even neglecting their own family.

A second problem with this relational focus in the smaller church is pastors feel significant tension should they need to choose between upholding biblical truth and maintaining close relationships. One pastor expressed this unusual stress when he stated, “Within the small-church context it is easier to fall into the murky areas leading to the depression of being well-liked. Sometimes it is easier to put aside personal principles to maintain a sense of being liked by the people in the church. But over time the guilt and agony of not being true to strong biblical principles will drag a pastor down into despair. The constant battling against or giving into these issues and relationships can literally drain away one’s heart and compassion for ministry.”

The isolation wolf

In contrast to the relational tension, there also exists a mindset the pastor should never have any close relationships with people in the church. This leads to pastors being isolated and lonely in ministry. For those serving in smaller churches, this is further exacerbated by the separation pastors have from their fellow pastors. These pastors do not have other staff members with whom to share their struggles. They may be serving in isolated communities where they are geographically distant from other pastors in their denomination or even other pastors in their community. The result: pastors do not have the support mechanism, or support may be too distant to provide them necessary encouragement in times of uncertainty and stress.

The slow-pace wolf

For some pastors, especially those who have come from large churches where things are continually happening, the slow pace of the smaller church can seem old fashioned, outdated, and generally inflexible. Small-church pastors attend conferences and hear how individuals in large suburban churches have achieved several goals during the past year, and they wonder if they will see anything different in their church in a lifetime, much less a year. One pastor shared what he had learned: “It took me a long time to learn that people in a small community will observe you for years before they will trust you with anything, their problems, or another’s.”

The smaller church operates at a different pace. People move in seasons rather than hours. Life cycles play a far more important role than goals. People think in cyclical time rather than linear time. This can lead to frustration for a pastor who desires to move the church ahead.

Killing Wolves And Defeating Coyotes: Dealing With Stress In The Smaller Church

The key to dealing with stress is not eliminating stress but managing it. God reminded Jeremiah when he was being overwhelmed with the stress of his ministry that he was not called to a life of ease but to faithful ministry. God challenged Jeremiah, “If you have raced with men on foot and they have worn you out, how can you compete with horses? If you stumble in safe country, how will you manage in the thickets by the Jordan” (Jeremiah 12:5)? This is not an unrealistic appeal to buck up and quit complaining, but a challenge to recognize the realities of ministry and keep focused on God.

Pastors cannot deal with the pressures of ministry by blindly denying them. To do so is to take the first step toward burnout. Rather, they must make sure to take the necessary steps to manage pressures so they can maintain their spiritual and emotional health. Pastors must accept responsibility for their own well-being — no one else will.

Build a strong support team

Because of the isolation pastors experience in the smaller church, it is important to intentionally and prayerfully build an emotional and spiritual support team. These individuals are more than just friends; they are people with whom to share struggles and frustration. They are to challenge the pastor’s perspective when it becomes distorted and hold him accountable when he is starting to develop unhealthy attitudes and ministry habits. As one pastor shared, this often needs to be someone outside the church: “We believe strongly it is valuable and vital to invest some time in building relationships with good godly people — local pastors, a pastor and family in the same denomination — other people who are not connected with our church, … we need to have a base of emotional support outside the church so our world is not encompassed by the church.” This person, however, does not always need to be someone near. It can be someone a pastor can call or send an e-mail to monthly or even weekly (especially during times of difficulty), and who can provide encouragement and support by offering a listening ear.

Maintain a healthy marriage

The single most important person supporting the pastor’s ministry is his spouse. Consequently, it is important to maintain a healthy marriage. Along with having dates, it is important to develop healthy interaction. During their time together it is important for a pastor and his spouse to keep negative talk to a minimum. It is easy to spend too much time talking about the problems in the church. While there is a time and a place to talk about the problems in the church, pastoral couples should not dwell on them.

Be accountable

Stress and discouragement make pastors vulnerable to temptation. When a pastor is emotionally drained, he is more susceptible to attacks of Satan that can destroy his ministry. Consequently, pastors need to be accountable in three areas. First, pastors need to be accountable for their spiritual growth. They need people who challenge them regarding their devotional and prayer life. Second, pastors need to be accountable for their marriage, and care for the emotional needs of their family. Third, pastors need to be accountable for taking time off from work so they do not overwork themselves and inevitably burn out.

Recognize your limits

Sometimes pastors get a Messiah complex. They think they need to save the world and solve everyone’s problems. Furthermore, because the work of ministry is never done and because pastors feel the enormity of the responsibility of ministry, they can easily become so involved in ministry they no longer take care of their family or themselves. Pastors can become overextended emotionally, spiritually, and physically. However, someone pointed out, “Relax and do not take life so seriously. There will still be work to be done long after I am gone. The world can run fine without me.”

Pastors must recognize they are finite in their abilities. Christ set a pattern for pastors by taking time to get away for personal rejuvenation when the demands of the people were the most intense (Matthew 14:13–24; Mark 6:31). While there are times when pastors need to forgo their comfort for the sake of ministry, they must also recognize there are times to draw back from ministry to be spiritually and emotionally rejuvenated.

Remain patient

Pastors must remain patient with the pace of the smaller church. Like a flower growing in a garden — which day after day seems not to change, but through time experiences a remarkable transformation — so also is the church. It may not seem anything is changing, but as pastors continue to proclaim the Scriptures, transformation happens. Paul reminded Timothy to “preach the word … with great patience and careful instruction” (2 Timothy 4:2). Pastors must remind themselves God is at work, even when they cannot see His work.

Accepting Wolves And Changing Shepherds

The reality of ministry is pastors cannot change many issues that cause anxiety and stress. Because pastors work with people still marred by the effects of sin and because pastors themselves are still marred by these effects, they will continue to serve in churches facing difficult challenges and problems. There will always be conflicts and disagreements. In the smaller church, there will always be financial shortfalls and limited resources. These wolves will not change. This, however, does not minimize their reality or the effect they have on a pastor’s life. Often these wolves can be the greatest causes of stress in ministry. What is most discouraging are not the problems pastors can address and solve, but the difficulties they have no control over and no hope of resolving. Pastors must learn to differentiate between what they can change (and, thus, are responsible for) and what they cannot change (what God is responsible for). Concerning the issues pastors cannot change and are outside of their control, pastors need to instead examine themselves and change their own attitudes.

Have a right perspective of God

Pastors must remember God is in control, and the church is ultimately His, not ours. He takes final responsibility for the growth and well-being of the church. A pastor’s task is not to solve every problem but to remain faithful in the ministry to which God has called him. One pastor said, “The Scriptures clearly teach effective ministry will produce fruit, but the foundation of this truth is faithfulness, not method. Productiveness does not create faithfulness, but biblical faithfulness will be productive in bringing people to Christ and seeing Christians grow spiritually strong.” Consequently, pastors must trust God to accomplish His purpose. This takes enormous weight off a pastor’s shoulders, for he can look to God for the results.

Do not compare your ministry to the ministry of others

God has uniquely and specifically equipped each pastor to the task to which He has called him. Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 12 that Christians have different functions in the body of Christ. While God has called and equipped some to serve in large churches, He has also called and equipped others for smaller congregations. Pastors can rest in the fact God has promised He will supply what is needed to effectively accomplish His purpose in one’s life and ministry.

Keep a focus on God’s call

In times of discouragement, such as those experienced by Elijah (1 Kings 19), pastors can easily lose sight of their calling. The problems pastors encounter can easily overwhelm their awareness of God’s calling on their life. Instead of seeing what God is doing, they only see the problems they face. The result is pastors begin to question God’s blessing on their ministry and God’s call on their lives.

Ministry is never easy, and it is costly. To live in the sphere of God’s ministry is to experience pain. A pastor is not sustained in the midst of his pain by some fabricated emotional and spiritual buck up that denies the problems he faces. He is sustained by the continued awareness of God’s character and His call on his life. When a pastor is sustained by Christ (Matthew 28), encouraged by the Word (Psalm 119), and empowered by the Holy Spirit (John 16:12–15), he can stand firm even when feeling the most ferocious wolves.

Glenn Daman

GLENN DAMAN, D.Min., is director of the Center for Leadership Development, Stevenson, Washington. He is author of Shepherding the Small Church, Leading the Small Church, and Leadership Development in the Small Church: A Guide for Building an Effective Board.

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