Our pastor reminded us last night about a harrowing statistic. Only one in ten pastors will retire as pastors. Read that again. Nine out of ten pastors (90%) will leave vocational ministry and retire from some other career. This statistic is part of broad research on the pastoral ministry, which references even more comprehensive research.
Obviously, not all of that 90% leave for the same reasons and no pastor is irrevocably entitled to retire as a pastor. Some should leave vocational ministry for a variety of reasons and pursue other careers. In my limited experience, however, that is not true for the majority of pastors I know. Some pastors stir up their own grief, but the overwhelming majority do not. Most pastors I know are good brothers, faithful preachers, diligent shepherds who weep every Monday that they could’ve done more on Sunday. They are some of the most imperfect men you will ever meet. And they should be pastors until they die.
I have been on both sides of the “sacred desk.” I’ve stirred up my own share of grief had all its pain coming. And I’ve been bloodied by those coming out of nowhere. I have popped off at the mouth and suffered the consequences. And I’ve led that business meeting when the room is suddenly packed with long lost members. I have embarrassed myself and my family by pathetic pastoring. And we’ve been embarrassed by unruly professing Christians. I have held a ridiculously high standard for church members. And I’ve suffered the double-standard imposed by church folks.
The trajectory in the modern church does not lend itself to pastoral health, much less, longevity. I don’t know if this holds true worldwide, but I do know American churches (and Bible Belt churches, more specifically) are shredding their pastors at an alarming (read: sinful) rate. I can attest that the majority of pastors I know can’t fathom doing anything else with their life. And yet they can’t fathom pastoring in their the context the rest of their life. There is very little encouragement and that inevitably takes a regrettable toll.
Risking overstatement, pastors often feel like foster parents with rebellious foster children. Most foster parents really want to help. They open their home and wallets to give disadvantaged children hope, love and stability. They allow some liberty at first, but slowly introduce structure, discipline and self-restraint for the long-term success of the children. If those children constantly infuriate the parents, frustrate their authority, threaten their family structure and rebel at every turn then the parents lose heart and send those children along to the next home. Maybe someone else could do better. Of course, foster children who have bounced around foster homes usually suffer stunted growth and nearly impossible hurdles. The cycle perpetuates and increases immaturity, selfishness, sense of entitlement and personal autonomy. Only a dramatic, rock-bottom sort of event can break the cycle.
Likewise, churches who run through pastors every few years are often (not always!) like those foster children. Things start off great because everything is new with necessary latitude. But then lines get drawn. Liberties are restrained. Errors are corrected. And suddenly the church wants to try a more accommodating pastor. Convinced he’s a failure, the pastor hopes the next home will be better for the children. The cycle continues and churches are left woefully immature, spiritually starved, blinded to error and largely inward-focused. It will take a dramatic, church-splitting or church-starting sort of event to break the cycle.
Again, some pastors consider their church a rung on their way to the top. Not all churches are difficult foster children. Some pastors are pathetic “parents” who think they’re entitled to better kids. They’re in it for the money and accolade. But honestly this is not true of most of the pastors I know.
It is high time the church break this cycle. We must. Else we risk “poimacide” (the Greek work for pastor is poimen): the extinction of pastors and suffer the irrevocable anemia of the local church in our day.
This really isn’t new, though. Paul knew his own share of pastoral pain (2 Cor 11). He prepared his protege, Timothy, for a hard life (2 Tim 4.1-5). The Ephesian elders needed warning (Acts 20.25-35). The Philippian elders need to corral a couple of disgruntled women (Phil 4.2). If the only way the church could be made holy was by the brutal execution of her Lord then we should expect our own scrapes and bruises along the way.
We should not have a utopian fantasy that pastoral ministry should be easy. It’s war, but it’s hard when pastors suffer most of their wounds from friendly fire. We’ll never have perfect churches served by perfect pastors until the Church is perfected by her Head in the last day (Eph 5.25-27). But, 90%? This ought not be. Churches are to bind up the wounds her pastors suffer behind enemy lines, not cause them.
Our churches need a prophetic wake-up call. When pastors find more encouragement, kindness, respect and relational freedom from unbelieving outsiders than his church folk then something is grievously wrong. In fact, we might well have the gospel upside down. And an upside-down gospel is no gospel at all.
In the next installment, I hope to consider particular areas the church must take seriously to slowly reverse this cycle. Until then, contact your pastor and give him some life. Trust me, he needs it badly.
Read Part 2.