Pastors: Jesus told you to go the extra mile, not run the extra marathon. Sure, Paul uses the analogy of running the race set before us. But he never expected us to be like an athlete who dies in the prime of their life because they pushed themselves too hard.
When Above and Beyond Means Over-the-Top
Good pastors know how to take care of the members of their congregations. But they also know how to take care of themselves. They prioritize pastoral care for their congregants, but they also set proper boundaries to keep themselves from burning out. Unfortunately, ministers can often allow themselves to be driven by church members’ expectations, which are often unhealthy. Truthfully, going above and beyond sometimes means giving over-the-top and excessive service.
Stroking My Ego
When I was young in ministry, it made me feel good to be told that the level of service I offered was greater than that of other pastors. On visitation nights, funeral directors would tell me, “Most ministers breeze in, pray with the family, gather information for the funeral, and then leave. But you stay the whole night!” It stroked my ego to hear that I was more dedicated than the other clergy.
The hospital staff told me the same thing. “Most pastors visit their church members and pray with them before their surgery,” they said. “Then they go and take care of other things during the surgery. They might come back afterward, or they might send a deacon to see how things went. But you sit with the family as they wait through the whole surgery!” It made me feel good to know that my ministry was so appreciated. And it made me feel proud to hear that I was going above and beyond.
Excellent Service; Excellent Tips
Sometimes there were perks stemming from the excellent service that I gave. I remember staying up all night at the hospital, waiting and praying with two brothers. Their mama died at dawn, and I had stayed awake all night to be with her as she passed. It was beautiful. And her boys recognized my dedication. They showed their appreciation with an eye-popping honorarium that they slipped into my coat pocket after the funeral. This reinforced my belief that, like a good restaurant server, excellent service was rewarded with excellent tips.
The Problem with Performance
The problem was that my church members came to expect that each of them would receive that kind of individual attention. That was fine a church of 20 people. But in a church of 200, something had to give.
The first thing that gave way was my sanity. By the time I served my largest church, I had still not learned my lesson that above and beyond means over-the-top. I found myself burning out, using dark humor with colleagues and taking my frustrations out on those closest to me. Much of the stress was subconscious. I wasn’t aware of how much I was growing angry with my parishioners for expecting so much. The trouble was, I had trained them that when they asked me to walk a mile with them, I would not only go the extra mile, but I would run a marathon while carrying them.
Eventually, I realized that I had created a codependent pattern of ministry. I needed to be needed. I served the church with such gusto that whenever I went on vacation, they told me how desperately they missed me when I returned. That substitute preacher was nowhere near as good as I was! That felt good. But it didn’t feel good when they called me with their problems while I was actually on vacation. Or when they asked me to return early from vacation to solve their problems.
After some study, I learned that pastoral codependency is common. Like myself, many pastors find themselves overworked because they are satisfying demands that they themselves created. Like myself, many pastors need to reevaluate their level of service, do what they can to change their congregation’s expectations, and create systems to deal with the needs without overtaxing the minister.
Not only is it common for pastors to be codependent; churches can be codependent too. Many churches set themselves up to need the minister too much. And many churches keep the pastor on the threshold of poverty, so the minister will need them. It’s a vicious cycle that needs to be broken.
In some of the churches I served, breaking the cycle meant overhauling and streamlining committees. It meant adjusting church councils and increasing the number of deacons to assist with the ministry. Though I was never successful at convincing my churches to hire an associate pastor, I was able to persuade them to hire administrative assistants who took much of the load off me. Since I’m not the greatest administrator, this allowed me to play to my strengths rather than try to constantly cover my weaknesses. If you find yourself in the same situation, realizing that your above-and-beyond has gone over the top, maybe you can dial things back and enlist some help. But remember—it’s not just a matter of changing systems. It’s a matter of changing people’s perspectives (including your own).
Filling Someone Else’s Shoes
To be fair to myself, not all of my problems were self-induced. Sometimes parishioners’ over-the-top expectations come from experiences with former pastors. Church members thought they were praising their former minister when they told me, “You’ve got big shoes to fill.” Instead, they were creating a complex within me, making me feel like I always had to try to measure up.
In one church, the previous minister was a self-described workaholic. This resulted in over-the-top expectations from the parishioners. If you are a pastor who is inclined towards either laziness or workaholism, please be aware of the impact that it will have on the minister who follows you. If you are a minister his church has prior pastors like the ones in my churches, please try to sit your own pace rather than letting the expectations of your members determine your productivity level.
In another church, the last pastor was a retired military officer. He had a comfortable pension and didn’t need the ministry income. So, generously, he gave the money back to the church. That was all well and good for him, but it created a situation where the church members believed pastors didn’t really need to receive a sustainable income. In his generosity (read that as “codependent need for praise,” the last pastor made situations worse for his successor.
Of course, not all former pastors set a high bar for performance. In one church, my predecessor had been somewhat of a slacker. Instead of taking his job seriously, this pastor had quiet quit the church. The result was that the people became so dissatisfied that in the interim between ministers, they created a job description that required a superhuman. Instead of challenging that job description, I tried to be up to the task. This resulted in discouragement.
When you start a new ministry position, you’ll hear stories of what great people (or slackers) your forerunners were. But you should never let your predecessors determine your output. Your ministry has to be sustainable for your family, for you, and for your church. In that order. If it’s not, you’re likely to leave your ministry location prematurely, causing disruption to your family. Either that or you may end up hanging up your robes altogether. You have got to set the pace for yourself, and not let anyone dictate that for you.
Working Yourself to Death
When I was young, one of the great heroes of the Southern Baptist Convention was Lottie Moon (1840-1912). Every year to honor her death on December 24, we took up a Christmas offering in her name, for international missions. She was a missionary to China during a time of war, famine, and widespread poverty. She literally starved herself to death because she gave away her food to meet the needs of the people around her. Baptists set her self-sacrifice as an example for good Christians to follow. But Jesus never expected this of her or any of his followers.
John the Baptizer said if you have two coats, give one away to somebody who has none. He didn’t say to strip yourself naked. Jesus said if someone compels you to walk a mile with them, you should go an extra mile. He didn’t say that you should run a marathon without training for it. When above-and-beyond means over the top, it’s a recipe for disaster. Working yourself to death never helped anybody. Who was left to do Lottie’s ministry when she was gone? What good will it do you or your family, if you work yourself into an early grave?
If you are a pastor, I hope that you will create healthy boundaries in your ministry. Sure, there are some perks involved if you don’t. You might get some generous honoraria. You could earn the codependent right to remind people of all that you’ve done for them. You’ll probably get recognition for being diligent, creative, and dedicated. But without proper boundaries, your mental health and that of your family members will suffer.
Here’s a neat little trick that I didn’t learn until I was out of the ministry, and working in social services: Make referrals! That’s right–you don’t have to do everything on your own. You aren’t a lawyer, Uber driver, social worker, addictions specialist, psychologist, athletics coach, or schoolteacher. By taking on these roles, you keep your people from getting the professional services they need, and you over-stress yourself. It’s a nobody-wins scenario. Learn how to make referrals, and help everyone out.
The Church Sucks!
I remember coming home one night from a church business meeting and flopping down on the sofa, exhausted. Someone asked if I was all right. “Man, the church sucks!” I said with a sigh of exasperation. The truth is that the church does suck. It will suck the life right out of you. The church will take just as much as you are willing to give. When above-and-beyond ministry means over-the-top service, it will wring you out. Creating healthy boundaries will allow you to survive this thing called ministry. It will allow you to give away your coat without walking away naked yourself.