Pastors are under tremendous pressure from churches. Members are often unaware—but Disney offers a clue.
Pastors Under Pressure
In the 2021 film, Encanto, we meet the enchanted family Madrigal. The recipients of a miracle, each member of the family receives a blessing or gift that they use to help the people of the village. (Don’t worry—no spoilers here.) Every one of Mirabel’s family is special—a nephew talks to animals, a sister makes flowers bloom, while her mother can heal people with food. People always call on her sister for her super strength. Always helpful, Luisa is willing to do whatever it takes to please the people who expect her assistance. When I heard Jessica Darrow sing Luisa’s song “Under Pressure,” I realized how well she represents the pastor under pressure from the church. Click here to watch the video.
Church members often place such pressures on their pastors that clergy feel like Atlas, with the weight of the world on their shoulders. One scene depicts Luisa heaving a church in the air and hauling it to another location. Pastors feel like they’re carrying the congregation on their backs, under pressure to never let it slip. And, if they’re honest with themselves, many feel worthless if they can’t be of service. So they lift emotional weights that are too heavy to bear, praying a straw won’t break their backs.
When Luisa sings of toppling dominoes, I can identify. In a recurring nightmare I had for years, the brakes went out on the church bus I was driving, full of parishioners. Momentum built as I careened up and down, around bendy mountain roads without guard rails. The meaning of the dream seems obvious now—terror at feeling like I was at the wheel, and the church was out of control.
Under the surface, pastors always think about their purpose. They feel called to their role in the church, and they genuinely love the people they serve. They see their congregation heading toward an iceberg and try to steer out of the way. But they know how the Titanic ended, and fear that the destruction will be their fault. “If I can’t preserve this,” they ask themselves, “have I failed in my calling?” The pressure builds until they feel overwhelmed by the responsibility, to the point where many pastors lose their bliss. It might as well be pastors singing Luisa’s song.
If you’re not in ministry, it may surprise you that many pastors feel this way. They feel pressured to measure their own performance in terms of baptisms, dollars in the collection plate, new members, or building projects. Statistics about pastors’ depression, loneliness, hopelessness, resignation, and moral failure show that clergy are not exempt from the weights that they try to lift from their parishioners’ shoulders. Vicarious trauma, combined with unhealthy coping mechanisms, often leads to burnout, and even to death. Yes, I know first-hand of ministers who worked or stressed themselves to death.
How did I make it twenty-six years in church ministry? I had amazing pressure valves. I had family and friends who were also pastors, who could listen with empathy and make suggestions when needed. I made meditation a regular part of my life, often combined with extended time in nature. I kept a spiritual journal, so I could keep track of my prayers and write down observations from scripture and from life.
I also had church members who invested in me, who allowed me to be myself and let me vent. Here are a few sweet memories of parishioners who became family and offered a pressure valve:
- The couple who refused to join the church because they said as soon as they were members, I would be their pastor and I’d have to take care of them. Instead, they chose to minister to me by inviting me to sit on their front porch and listen to my cares.
- The widow who saw that I was running myself and my car ragged in ministry, so that when my vehicle died, she bought me a new one.
- The ladies of the church who babysat my kids while I made pastoral visits.
- The family who knew what the church paid (and didn’t pay). When they guessed how my wife at the time and I might struggle at Christmas, they filled the back of our minivan with presents.
- The extended family who adopted us, made us feel at home on their farm, and gave us enough free firewood that we never had to pay for heat.
- The deacon who took me out to the water when I felt stressed, teaching me to fish and smoking a cigar while I lit my father’s tobacco pipe.
- The folks who let us use their vacation home—frequently—to afford holidays with our kids.
- The deacon who taught my daughter to ride horses, took me on late night drives to decompress, and stood up for me in business meetings.
- The church leader who put his arms around me publicly when my first marriage fell apart. Before the church he said, “He’s taken care of us—now’s our turn to take care of him.”
Are You a Pressure Valve?
Every pastor needs pressure valves. Because ministry can be “pressure like a drip, drip, drip that’ll never stop…Pressure that’ll tip, tip, tip ’til you just go pop.” You can help keep your pastor from burning out by offering open homes, open arms, open wallets, and open minds. You can use the above examples as ideas for you to take care of your church leaders, so they don’t break. You can “free some room up for joy or relaxation, or simple pleasure.” I pray God will use you to help your pastor, who’s under pressure.