Altar Call – Opelika-Auburn News

Walter Albritton

November 11, 2007


Pastors are not immune from the problems that confront us all


      Pastors hurt like everyone else. They cry too. And they can get so frustrated that they want to quit. If you did not know this, then you have never known a pastor well. Pastors are simply not immune to the problems that often overwhelm the rest of us.

          Without a doubt there is much less stress in my life since I retired from active ministry. There is no longer the pressure to meet the high expectations of hundreds of people. And people have a right to expect excellent leadership from their senior pastor. As a part-time associate pastor I am content to leave many of the nitty-gritty problems of church life in the hands of the boss. I happily pray for him while thanking the Lord I no longer have to wrestle with issues that once overwhelmed me.

          This week I came across the story of a pastor who ran away from home - not to get away from his wife but to get away from his congregation. This pastor spent three nights wandering the snow-covered mountains near his home. When he was found, he confessed that he was overwhelmed by life and just needed to get away.

Most pastors can sympathize with that pastor. Few clergy would deny that there are days when they too want to get out of Dodge. What may surprise us all, however, is how widespread this problem is with the men and women of the cloth. I was surprised to read that one psychologist said, "Pastors are the single most occupationally frustrated group in America." He went on to say that the demands upon pastors are so great that 30% to 40% of pastors eventually quit the ministry.

This clergy crisis is so extensive that one counselor said, "The incidents of mental breakdown are so high that insurance companies charge about 4% extra to cover church staff members when compared to employees in other businesses."

We are not surprised when other professionals quit one job and pursue another career. But pastors are “called of God” so we do not expect them to throw in the towel. Still, if we think about a pastor’s life, we can understand why some pastors cave in under the pressure. People expect their pastors to be on call 24 -7. They are expected to fill the roles of marriage counselor, crisis interventionist, personal confidant, and financial counselor as well as prophet and priest.

Such expectations thrust pastors into a constant whirlwind of stress.  When the telephone rings, day or night, a pastor is expected to offer his help, rain or shine. To not be available would be a betrayal of his calling.  
          Some believe clergy are more stress-ridden that doctors, though the pressure on them is similar to that on pastors. But the doctor can walk away from terminally ill patients when he leaves a hospital room. The pastor, however, has emotional and personal ties to such persons and feels it necessary to suffer with them. It is well nigh impossible for him to”disengage.”

Most pastors find it difficult to handle the pressure of living in a fish bowl, being scrutinized by their congregations and the community. Pastors may also increase the pressure upon themselves by believing they are expected to live a holier life than other people. A wise pastor will learn to “get over” this feeling and stop trying to “perform” for other people.

There is also pressure upon the pastor to wear many different hats. He is expected to be a spiritual "jack of all trades," able to leap tall buildings, serve as a counselor, business administrator, personnel manager, and still preach powerful sermons every Sunday.

One pastoral psychologist observed about pastors, "Their strong religious beliefs mean they won't kill themselves; they just spend their time wishing they were dead." That comment stings.  I doubt the situation is that severe.  

What is the solution?  Pastors need to set limits for themselves. This will help them avoid burnout even if they are “on fire” for God. They need hobbies and interests other than church stuff. A support group can help. Meeting with a small group of men has been an enormous help to me over the years. A few close friends can help us come down off our pedestals and be real.  

It has helped me to admit that I cannot do everything and need to concentrate on the things I can do best. Pastors need to remind themselves that they cannot help everyone nor can they be everything other people expect them to be.

Life became more fun for me when I finally understood that I cannot really solve the problems of other people. That is not my mission as a pastor. My job is to put people in touch with the One who can help them, the same One upon whom I am leaning for strength every hour. I try to remember every day that as a pastor I am simply a fellow struggler who can introduce hurting people to God. And they are more apt to believe me if I let them know that I hurt and cry too. + + +