Every month, Beth and I (Nathan) talk to pastors on the verge of quitting—somewhere between 100-200 per year. The important question isn’t IF you will feel this way, but how often?
What causes pastors to quit?
Upon entering the ministry, almost every pastor expects to continue ministering until death. However, four reasons eventually induce almost every minister to consider quitting:
First, feelings of hopelessness can induce burnout—Almost every pastor goes through times of feeling hopelessness. We feel hopeless when we can’t evangelize. We feel hopeless when nothing works as expected in our house, car, bathroom or kitchen. We feel hopeless when the smallest home repair takes an entire day—or two to fix. We feel hopeless when church members or members of the community don’t want us around except to pay for whatever they want. We feel hopeless when we can’t get along with other Christians and staff members. We feel hopeless when our church drops our support or asks us to leave. We feel hopeless when…A thousand reasons tell us that we work in a hopeless situation. Whenever a pastor feels that all is hopeless, they eventually quit.
And I am convinced every one of these pastors is absolutely right—their situation really is absolutely hopeless!
What can I do to protect myself from these feelings?
- Build an extra margin of resilience
- Strengthen your calling
- Strengthen your connection to God
- Strengthen your social support network
Basic stress management works well in most first world countries but it is often ineffective in the third-world or other high stress pastoring contexts. Pastors cannot avoid, (much less manage) many of their numerous stresses. They can, however, build resilience to bounce back quickly without the lasting effects of burnout.
We cannot address in this article all the relevant research on building resilience. However, we invite you to obtain a copy of Rebound From Burnout: Resilience Skills for Ministers (by Nathan and Beth Davis). This book will help you to:
- Develop a resilient lifestyle
- Utilize everyday experiences to enhance resilience
- Create personal and professional goals and calling to produce resilience
- Reframe suffering to produce hope
This book provides the most comprehensive prevention and intervention skills available to address burnout and emotional recovery from a crisis. Just click on the book photo to order a copy of this book, available at https://www.amazon.com/Rebound-Burnout-Resilience-Skills-Ministers/dp/1475217641/
Second, sucessive crises can induce burnout—Secular individuals experience one or two life-threatening crises per lifetime. However, pastors not only experience their own crises, but they also get to experience the crisis of every member of their church. After all, the church members almost always turn to the pastor when they go through a crisis. So, many pastors go through a life-threatening crisis several times a year, sometimes once every few weeks. Successive crises induce burnout and depression. Even witnessing others in crisis induces burnout and depression. Thus, many pastors experience burnout without realizing that their vicarious experiences serve as the culprit. Life-threatening experiences and experiences of horror almost always cause humans to reassess their fundamental values, especially religious values. This entirely normal reassessment process often lingers for a couple of years, during which time a pastor often notes a waning of his or her calling. As a reaction to their waning call, they sometimes change fields or quit altogether. Almost always, they later regret their decision to quit or change fields. Those feelings and emotions of burnout usually linger for no more than two years. If they could just wait for a couple of years, they would happily look back on their experience with gratitude for staying the course. But when we assume that our present feelings represent permanent feelings, we make inappropriate judgments. If you feel a need to change fields or quit altogether, avoid reacting for at least two years. Let your emotions heal before making any life-changing decisions. You will feel glad that you stayed the course and made your decisions out of wellness instead of burnout.
What can I do to protect myself from the affect of crises?
We cannot address in this article all the relevant research on building resilience. However, we invite you to obtain a copy of Rebound From Burnout: Resilience Skills for Ministers (by Nathan and Beth Davis).
This book provides the most comprehensive prevention and intervention skills available to address burnout and emotional recovery from a crisis. Just click on the book photo to order a copy of this book, available at https://www.amazon.com/Rebound-Burnout-Resilience-Skills-Ministers/dp/1475217641/.
Third, discouragement over prodigal children can induce burnout—My parents’ most severe trial started the day that I left Japan to attend College in the States. My leaving posed no problem. My rejection of God posed their biggest crisis yet—they knew that their years of influence had ceased. They felt like failures and a few Stateside friends told them so. Because they no longer controlled me in any way, my condition seemed hopeless and permanent.
And they were right—they were totally out of control. Even God refused to take control. And He refuses to force your child to accept Him, too. However, God never stops pursuing our (His) children. Just as He pursued me, He keeps pursuing your children, too. And He knows much better how to pursue than any of us. When each of our children leaves home, we release them into God’s care. I believe that we feel hopelessness about our children when we view their continued care and salvation as a personal responsibility instead of God’s responsibility.
For help with dealing with prodigal children, please see our page on How to Deal with Prodigal Children.
Fourth, a desire to care for aging parents can induce burnout—Conflicting goals and strivings often arise when family members insist on elevating the pastor into a role as family patriarch or matriarch. Although there is nothing inherently wrong with assuming the role as head of the extended family, every minister needs to make sure that he or she is willing to pay the price financially, emotionally, and physically. Most pastors retain a very limited amount of energy and time available after pursuing their calling. The extended family members may easily assume that the pastor wants to meet all of their personal needs. After all, he or she possesses all the Fruit of the Spirit including kindness and compassion, right? So, they sometimes assume that the pastor wants to meet the needs of the extended family even more than the pursuit of ministry. Without strong personal boundaries, a pastor may find that their personal and ministry goals conflict with goals to help the extended family.
In North America, almost everyone possesses access to Medicare and social security. I frequently hear a pastor say, “If I don’t care for my extended relatives, no one is there to do it.” Usually, this represents a gross overstatement. Insurance, Medicare, social security, churches and community resources provide assistance to most of our relatives. Extended family members can sometimes offer care. Regardless, other sources almost always exist to provide care besides the pastor. Nursing a chronic medical condition fatigues the best of care-givers and can quickly undo your calling. Help your immediate family find resources appropriate to their budget. However, guard yourself and your divine calling against those whose goals would undo your calling.
Conflicting goals may also arise when family members insist on becoming enmeshed in the pastor’s life. As parents and children become less able to care for themselves due to age, illness, disability, or personal crises, they may latch onto the pastor, assuming that he or she is duty-bound to care for them and meet their emotional and social needs. Indeed, most pastors really want to care for family members, especially for aging parents or struggling children. Many ministers deal with intense guilt over trying to retain personal space, personal time, and a debt-free lifestyle while caring for parents or children. Sometimes, the parents or children would like to ignore the pastor’s personal goals and boundaries, and sometimes the pastor simply wants to care for them. Thus, an intense conflict develops between one’s goal to care for relatives, and goals to maintain one’s personal space, spiritual interests, and calling.
Pursue quality care for your parents. And make sure that you investigate ALL options and pathways for quality care before assuming that you need to resign your appointment to care for your relatives.
What is the most important question about quitting?
The cause of your desire to quit remains less important than you might think. The most important question is, “What will you do with your ‘call’ IF you quit? Every minister feels “called” into ministry at some time of life. Sometimes we choose to forget the call. Regardless, every minister must refute or kill that call in order to seriously consider quitting. Here are three very effective ways to get rid of your call:
- Ignore it. After personally attempting this tactic for about 10 years, I intimately relate to the fear Jonah felt as he journeyed into a major ocean storm. But that’s nothing compared to the fear of finding yourself in the belly of a big fish. Hebrews 12:6 clarifies this process by stating, “…because the Lord disciplines those he loves, and he punishes everyone he accepts as a son.” Although I may choose to ignore Him, I found that He will never ignore me. If you choose this option to deal with your call, please let me throw you overboard first. I have already visited that fish and don’t plan to act like Jonah ever again.
- Dismiss it as untrue. Most pastors start to question their call by dismissing its reality. Reflect for a moment about your call. How did it come about? What was God’s part in your call? To rationalize leaving, I find that most pastors mentally rewrite the divine part of their call into a different account to ease their conscience. In what ways have you rewritten your original account to allow yourself to leave? If your story looks different now than when you first met “the credentialing committee,” you are possibly rewriting your history without “the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.”
- Change it. Some pastors choose to believe that God has changed His mind and now invites them to follow a different path. Almost every pastor enters the ministry with the intent and conviction to serve for life. Interestingly, that conviction always seems to falter after a major frustration or a major crisis rather than before it. What frustrations and crises have affected you (robberies, auto accidents, relationship meltdowns with peers, prodigal children, death of a loved one, etc.)? Recent research shows that by the third crisis, a person is four times more susceptible to depression and burnout. In what ways have your frustrations stimulated burnout and a rationalization to modify your original calling? Even if you carefully honed out the greatest rationalization of all time, please note that it still remains a rationalization. Within two years after quitting, most of those who quit recuperate from their burnout and regret their impulsive decision. Such life-changing decisions are best made out of wellness, not burnout. Delay such a decision until you return to a state of health. The fact that very few ministers quit when they are emotionally and spiritually healthy indicates that those changes sometimes result from their condition, not God’s.
What if Jesus quit? What if the apostle Paul quit? What if God quit?
If I quit—is it really an option?
© 2013 Nathan Davis