How Do Pastors Bounce Back from Challenges?

Most people with a genuine glimpse into the experiences of pastors understand that ministry comes with A LOT of challenges. Ministry is difficult on many levels, and pastors must be resilient to continue in their roles.

Ministry Challenges

Looking frankly at the challenges facing pastors paints a fairly painful picture of ministry. The broad categories of challenges include:

  • Ministry workload
  • Stakeholder expectations
  • Isolation
  • Personal challenges

Each category contains numerous types of difficulties:

First, ministry workload is challenging due to the time demands, relational conflicts, and the various emotional and spiritual needs of both pastors and their congregants. Ministry workload also requires pastors to fill diverse and complex roles, navigating constant change in ministry.

Stakeholder expectations emerge from numerous sources. Society at large and denominational communities each lobby for their own interests and values. Congregational expectations (including financial factors and ministry philosophies) present stressors ‘closer to home.’ Finally, many pastors have high (at times unrealistic) expectations of themselves partially due to the sacred nature of ministry.

Read “Supportive Congregations” by Margaret Clark in Faith Today (Jan/Feb 2022).

Isolation is a challenging aspect of ministry for pastors involving their geographic location, relocations and shifting communities, ministry schedules, decreased energy, and theological and cultural differences. Isolation for pastors can also arise when their role presents relational distance and complications to friendships in their ministry context. Competition among churches and ministry peers can too often further isolate pastors.

Finally, personal challenges are present for pastors just as they are for all of us. Loss, illness, family difficulties, financial struggles, and other trials create difficulties independent of existing ministry factors. In some cases, the pastoral position presents additional pressures to conceal or handle personal challenges with more grace than would otherwise be expected.

Supportive Resources

It is easy to wonder how pastors manage. However, pastors often bounce back from the challenges they face and remain resilient. How do they do it? There are four broad categories of supportive resources that pastors utilize:

  • Spiritual
  • Relational
  • Personal
  • Organizational

Unsurprisingly, spiritual resources are significant to pastors, especially remembrance of calling to ministry, theological meaning-making, and relationship with God. Overarching beliefs influence the meaning pastors make of the challenges and suffering they encounter. Especially prominent among those beliefs are a sense of calling to ministry and belief that ministry is partnership between the pastor and God. These perspectives join with resources such as prayer, scripture, worship, sermons, spiritual books, retreats, small groups, and journaling to reinforce pastoral resilience.

Relational supports are another central resource. Important relationships occur with spouse and family, friends, peers, mentors, supervisors, congregation members, and professionals. Spouses often share a joint sense of calling to ministry and share the ministry load, acting as a sounding board, problem-solving, and encouraging balance and boundaries.  Friends, especially those outside of the local church, are important confidants and support in both joy and challenges. Friendships with those inside of the church are complicated by the dual role and require more thoughtful navigation. Nevertheless, a supportive congregation is incredibly helpful in cultivating pastoral resilience.

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Relationships with ministry peers involve shared experiences and understanding. The unique empathy and commiseration in those relationships offer important support for pastors. They also create opportunities to share relevant ideas and resources. Mentors offer wise and crucial ministry guidance and care. Supervisory support from denominational leaders, local lay leaders, or a supervising pastor join and are important resources contributing to pastoral resilience. Certain emotional and mental needs are routinely met by professional supports, such as professional counsellors or spiritual directors. These professionals are able to offer insight into the pastor’s spiritual life and help them reconnect with how God has been at work.

A range of personal tools utilized by pastors also promotes resilience. Prioritizing balanced time for ministry, family, and personal well-being helps pastors. The ability to say 'no' to unreasonable or unwelcome expectations and maintain boundaries protects an appropriate distribution of time and energy rather than being consumed by the ministry workload. Diet, exercise, routines, and rest is similarly critical to pastors remaining resilient.

Self-awareness, processing of one’s own emotional wounds, understanding of one’s unique gifting, and grace for one's imperfections and need for growth are all crucial resources. Lifelong learning through formal education or professional development helps pastors as it enables flexibility, self-reflection, and growth. Cultivating alignment between the pastor and their denomination, congregation, and/or team encourages resilience as it decreased friction and conflict. While not strictly necessary, certain attributes like extroversion, optimism, realism, flexibility, adaptability, compassion, and diplomacy can be helpful to pastors, who possess them, in adapting to adversity and being resilient.

In addition to the spiritual, relational, and personal resources, certain organizational practices support pastoral resilience. In many cases pastors have less influence over these factors than their denominational or congregational leadership. Helpful organizational practices that support pastoral resilience include financial provision, role flexibility, rigorous pre-service discernment and preparation, early ministry support, skill-specific training and supports, and relational opportunities.

Walking in Resilience

This large list of resources offers a hopeful aspect to the ‘painful picture of ministry’ referenced above. Pastors might engage with these supports to reinforce their resilience and better face ministry challenges. The difficulties can become overwhelming and if supportive resources are restricted, resilience might be lost. It is important that pastors are not seen as impervious to the challenges of ministry or assumed to always bounce back. The interplay of ministry challenges and supportive resources ebbs and flows, and with it so might resilience. Pastoral resilience must be prioritized by individual pastors, congregations, and denominations and the resources outlined above offers a proven and hopeful way forward.

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Margaret Clarke

Margaret Clarke is the Counselling Department Head and Assistant Professor of Marriage and Family Therapy at Briercrest Seminary. She earned her PhD at the University of Saskatchewan (Educational Administration, 2021) and MA at Briercrest Seminary (Marriage and Family Counselling, 2005). In addition to Margaret’s professional experience as a therapist, researcher, and professor, she is married to Tim, who serves in vocational ministry, and together they have over 20 years’ experience in local church ministry.

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