Joe: OK, so it is Monday after “one of those weeks.” During the past seven days you have (1) conducted two funerals, (2) been informed by the chair of your Trustees that the church’s air-conditioning system is dying and the Fellowship Hall’s roof still leaks, (3) are facing the need to exit a long-time staff member because of ongoing performance issues, and (4) have verified that the church’s worship attendance was lower this quarter than any time during the past three years. Plus, giving is down and an anonymous parishioner has sent you another message complaining about your sermons. What do you do when you get to one of these “I’m at the end of my rope” periods?
Bill’s response: I always put these stories in the context of what is happening to the church in America today. Two funerals may be bad news for your calendar and the church’s membership role, but funerals are our most consistent form of evangelism. Every funeral gives you a chance to share deep spiritual truths with dozens of people, many of whom rarely attend church. This is “low hanging fruit.” Rejoice!
Every pastor is plagued by building issues. Our task is to remind ourselves and others of two truths; first, that church buildings aren’t meant to be perfect or lovable, they are meant to be functional. Second, these structures are tools for ministry, caring for them is a spiritual task. All of our ministry tools need to be sharpened, maintained, and, when they no longer serve the church’s mission, replaced. The same thing is true of long-term staff. The bad news is that staying on target is expensive, and the worse news is, offering real leadership today is often controversial. You must be willing to post transparent budgets, receive professional assessments of structural issues, be honest in reporting attendance figures, and clear in stating shared expectations. These things separate the okay clergy, from the great ones. They should cause us to raise the bar on our own plans for professional growth.
When people are critical, its hard not to take it personally. Often, there are underlying church issues that haven’t been adequately dealt with. You may have stepped on a land mine. Now are you willing to dig up the other buried problems and make this church a better place? Your job is to educate and gently lead your people through today’s theological and cultural shifts. This task will be quickly derailed if you adopt a defensive or authoritarian attitude. Further, today’s culture also expects you to be willing to receive feedback on your sermons.
Each of the components of a bad week are indicative of the problem ministers face everywhere. Still, these negative experiences may lead you to question whether you are due for a move.
Joe: We all go through occasional rough stretches. If we truly believe that things will likely get better soon, it’s possible to maintain a positive attitude. But what if it’s more than just this week? It may be months since you caught a serious break. You feel tired, fed-up, and discouraged. This is when the thought continues to creep into your mind, “Is it really worth it for me to keep grinding it out here?”
Bill: I think it is important that we reflect upon why we feel burned out. Is it related to our failure to manage our time well and to fulfill the expectations people have of us? A simple change in ministry locations is unlikely to fix this. Or is it instead, that this church is requiring of us new skills and we are struggling to develop these tools? I often say that Bradford was my favorite church to serve, because when I arrived, it was ready for the skills that I already had in my tool box. My next appointment was more of a challenge. I felt less productive there, but I learned more. God seems to believe in on the job training. Burnout can also be a sign that we have accomplished or learned what we needed, and now it’s time to move on.