Pastor: The Happy Job?

From Mark Stevens, who blogs at the Parson’s Patch:

Are most Pastors really happy?

I read an article recently that listed pastors as the happiest of all workers. It appears being a pastor is the most fulfilling of all vocations. Second on the list were fire-fighters (now that I can understand). Apparently we pastors are a happy mob; however, to tell you the truth I am surprised and a little sceptical.

Since the day I stepped into Bible College over 15 years ago I have been hearing about ministry burnout.  The stats are real too. According to a 2010 article published in the New York Times, “The findings have surfaced with ominous regularity over the last few years, and with little notice: Members of the clergy now suffer from obesity, hypertension and depression at rates higher than most Americans. In the last decade, their use of antidepressants has risen, while their life expectancy has fallen. Many would change jobs if they could.

Therefore I am surprised that pastors have been named the happiest of all workers. I am surprised and yet not surprised. What do I mean? We pastors seem to have a very strange relationship with our calling. Pastors and ministry can be like a bickering couple who are at each other all of the time and yet proudly confess their undying love for each other. Try and get between the two of them and there will be trouble!

Being a pastor can be an up at dawn soul destroying vocation from which respite comes when our head hits the pillow at night (that is if we can get to sleep). And yet we are privileged to participate in the ongoing ministry of Christ in the world. We are afforded the wonderful joy of praying, reading and studying the scriptures and sharing in people’s lives, in good and bad times. We affirm the life of those saints who have passed on and comfort families as they grieve. We walk with those who have been trying for years to have a baby and then we have the honour of dedicating that baby to the Lord.  And yet these very tasks can also be the things that bring us down. The constant demands of people (both healthy and unhealthy) if not balanced with things that give us life can lead to burnout or depression.

Despite those elements of my vocation that eat away at my soul, I am, as they say, job satisfied (although I don’t think of what I do as a job).  And herein lays the tension. The tension between what we are called to do and who we are called to be and the harsh reality that we minister within a fallen world and amongst broken people (of whom we are one). However, if I am able to identify and recognise those things that drain me and balance those things that give me life I find I am better able to cope with the tensions.

For instance, what drains me?

  • Being with people:  Not people per se but constantly being with people; especially lots of people. As an introvert I find it incredibly hard to maintain the energy required to be available to people all of the time. I need time alone.
  • Expectations: Theirs and mine.  Being a pastor is 90% management of expectations (mostly our own I suspect). What people think we should do and what we are called to do are often different. Managing these expectations places a huge burden on my own heart and mind. Tension and conflict are never easy to carry.
  • The unpredictability of ministry: It is hard as someone who likes to know what is happening when and where to work in an environment that could be interrupted at any time. But that is what it takes.
  • Pastors: This might sound strange but I have a distrust of other pastors. Not because they are untrustworthy or competitors in the religious marketplace; but as someone who has suffered at the hands of one too many abusive pastors I find myself distancing myself from relationship with many pastors. I choose who I am with very carefully. I do have mentors and friends but I look outside of the usual avenues for such relationships.

What gives me life?

  • Being with people: Yes I know I am contradicting myself. But truth is, I love people and being called upon to share in their lives is one aspect of my work that gives me great joy. For instance, when someone who is facing cancer or going in to hospital or in need of work asks me to pray with them, I feel I am doing something right!
  • Being alone and reading: I read every day. I spend the first part of my working day alone in my study. In fact I usually structure my day so that I am alone in the morning and amongst people in the afternoon. I need time to find myself and room to re-charge my emotional batteries.
  • Sabbath: Sabbath is the single most important day of my week. Not just a day off (that is a bastard Sabbath) but a day of rest. No work. My wife and I usually go for a walk or spend time in our garden. An activity I have found incredibly refreshing for my soul. It is also something we can do with our kids. It becomes a circle of family, time and rest at the centre of which is God.
  • My Family: The three (almost four) most important people in my life are my wife and children. When the world goes crazy, when I doubt myself or get a big head they ground me with their love and support. They love me because I am mark or Daddy. They remind me of what is really important in this world. Time with them refreshes my soul (even if I do feel like a traffic cop on the intersection of mayhem and chaos at times!)
  • Being myself: Have you ever noticed how much energy it takes to fake it? Having said that being yourself can be quite a challenge at times. However, if I can move aside my ego and rest in whom God has created me to be then I feel at peace and rested in him.
  • Prayer and the Scriptures: The most basic of all disciplines is the bedrock of my life. Without this time taken each day I find myself unsettled and wayward. Prayer and the Scriptures ground me in my identity and the Kingdom.

Strangely I suspect there is a twisted irony in the love hate relationship most of us have with our vocation. We love the very thing we are called to do. We love that God has called us to the dangerous frontline. And yet, in the midst of this love is hard work; work that is at times draining and soul destroying. Fortunately this vocation, although carrying with it many struggles affords us the space to enjoy those things which give us life. However, we are the only ones who can do this. We can’t expect others to make these things happen. We have to be the ones to take responsibility.

What about you, what things drain you or give life? I don’t think there is one set of dos and don’ts so I’d be interested in hearing other people’s lists.

About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than forty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.

  • jeff weddle

    Criticism and lack of involvement drain me.

    Praying with people, studying Scripture alone and with others, teaching, being there in the tough times with people, being around the dying–getting a glimpse into those intimate, personal moments you find yourself invited to to grant comfort, all these give life.

  • Paul

    I’m not a pastor, but I am a PK. My dad pastored smaller churches which couldn’t support the family, so he worked secular jobs in addition to pastoring. At one church in Michigan a number of years ago, he managed a small store in a nearby town, but the small store was part of a larger chain of stores. Because his store did so well, he was given the opportunity to become a district manager, but it would have necessitated some travel and leaving the church. It was a very hard decision for him, between safe full time secular employment to support his large family and maybe finding places to preach on weekends, or working full time and pastoring full time. After several weeks of struggle, it came down to the realization that he had a clear pastoral call to preach and minister, but no call to give his time and talents to the world. A few years later, after he left that church and that job, and we moved to another church, that store chain where he had worked went bankrupt.

  • John M.

    As a former pastor I can identify with most of the things you mentioned including being an introvert. I know so many in full time pastoral positions who are introverts. I’ve often wondered why so many introverted people are drawn to vocational ministry.

  • http://theparsonspatch.com Mark Stevens

    Jeff, criticism is a killer of the soul. I could receive a thousand compliments but one criticism can be tough to deal with, especially when unfair or unwarranted.

    Paul, I love stories like that. I bet it wasn’t easy at the time though.

    John, I’m not sure. Maybe it is because in smaller contexts we are often left alone to do our thing. there is a great book entitled ‘Introverts in the Church’ from IVP. Along with Susan Cain’s book ‘Quiet: the power of introversion in a world that can’t stop talking’ I have learnt to identify my introversion (some are shocked to discover I am an introvert because I preach and teach), celebrate it as a gift to the body, and work within my limits and not the limits of others.

  • http://derekzrishmawy.com Derek Rishmawy

    I just started out in ministry. What is this “sabbath” thing I keep hearing about? :)
    But seriously, thanks for this piece. I’m less than 2 years in, but I’m getting a feel for the ups and downs, the beautiful nights and the depressing days. It’s nice to read pieces by some people further in who are making it.

  • http://thesidos.blogspot.com/ Arthur Sido

    Perhaps the problem can be tied back to turning ministry into a profession that is subcontracted to one man rather than something the entire church is equipped and encouraged to be actively involved in?

  • http://Www.theparsonspatch.com Mark Stevens

    Arthur, although I am a full time pastor I am part of an eldership. An eldership where I have one voice. I am not the only pastoral carer, I am not the only prayer person or manager of the church. We have both high rates of service and frustration that we can’t get to other things. People work, people have homes and families so time is limited. I think it is easy to have a go at pastors and what we do. We do our best with what we know and what we have at our disposal including time. :)

  • Casey

    Thank you.

    I’m still a young pastor, excited about our common work but also very attuned to the tensions and struggles you name.

    I’ve been very fortunate to have forged friendships with a few others who I’ve known since college and who are all in pastoral ministry of some sort. We recently began retreating together for a few days at a time, something we hope to do twice a year. It has been incredibly sustaining.

  • Ben Thorp

    I’ve been thinking through these categories for a couple of years now, I think there are actually 4 categories – things that give us life, things that drain us, things that give us rest, and things that tire us. Too often people associate resting with doing the things that give us life, and avoiding the things that drain us, whereas in actuality some of the things that drain us are things that we need to do, and avoiding them can be stressful and tiring, and, conversely, doing the things that give us life are often tiring.

    We need to find time to do the things that are necessary, but draining, do the things that give us life, but be aware of their tiring nature. But importantly we need to discover the things that give us rest, and restore us, and make the space for those things.


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