By Steve Reeves
A survey of Christian church/church of Christ ministers from September 2016 found that 43 percent of the 500 responders were seriously considering leaving the ministry.
In addition, Tim Wallingford with the Center for Church Leadership (CCL) says attrition among ministers in our churches might be as high as 70 percent.
Here are some additional findings Wallingford shared with me when I began volunteering with the CCL:
- 74 percent of ministers have debt. The school debt among many couples, upon their graduation, is as high as $75,000.
- 54 percent of churches offer no retirement benefits; 47 percent offer no health/medical insurance. Many ministers leave full-time ministry after 10 to 20 years because they feel they must save for retirement.
- 71 percent of ministers feel competent to preach and teach, but do not believe they are competent to lead the church well.
- 51 percent of ministers do not feel they can share their economic burdens or family challenges with their elders.
- 54 percent of ministers cannot mobilize their staff and leadership to embrace a shared vision and ministry plan.
- 85 percent of ministers feel stress.
- 80 percent struggle to maintain a healthy balance between work and family.
- 76 percent of ministers say they face the challenge of “feeling successful.”
- 92 percent of ministers cannot mobilize the church members to serve.
This should not be! And while I know this is not a new problem, and that our churches are governed independently, may I suggest the pathway to a solution? The key component that most influences a minister’s working relationship is the level of connection, communication, and compassion between the minister and his elders.
I recently retired after 40 years as a minister. I concluded my ministry by serving 31 years as lead pastor with my second church, Connection Pointe Christian in Brownsburg, Indiana. Why did I have long ministries? The elders with the churches I served cared for my family and me, and we deeply loved and were committed to them. That is why I am investing in coming alongside church leaders through my involvement with CCL and also the Leadership Network. Both organizations exist to add value to churches and church leaders.
I’m hoping our elders and ministers can nurture better relationships to help curb this problem of attrition. I believe if we dream together, meet together, eat together, and plan together, we ultimately will win together.
DREAM—Ministers, staff, and elders need to begin to dream together about what could be. They must embrace a shared vision and ministry plan. This needs to be a cooperative process, and it’s imperative because doers respond to tasks and leaders respond to vision. So, set aside time to discuss the minister-elder relationship. Discuss expectations and past frustrations. Be kind, but be honest, and listen before you respond. Discuss why you signed on as an elder or minister. Consider what you can do to enhance the communication and respect between one another. Map out what a healthy relationship would look like. Capture the information and keep it posted where you regularly meet. You must dream it together before you can experience it together.
When I arrived at Brownsburg 32 years ago, the church had a long history of dysfunctional relationships between the minister and elders. That is why my first sermon series was to study through 2 Timothy. It provided a scriptural framework for what the church can expect from their minister and elders.
In the years since, I never publicly said, “The elders have decided . . . ,” but always, “We have decided.” It consistently conveyed to the church that the leaders are united. It was a commitment we made as a result of our dream: “We will speak with one voice or not at all.” That commitment will keep you united through various ministry challenges.
MEET—Ideally, the minister and the chairman of the elders should meet at least biweekly, but preferably every week. (An acceptable alternative is for the minister to meet regularly with a different elder with whom he has bonded.) Either way, a trusted elder needs to know how the minister and his family are really doing, how he’s growing, and what he’s thinking. The time invested in these regular meetings, perhaps over breakfast, will benefit the minister, elders, and the congregation.
It’s also a good idea for a minister to meet regularly, perhaps weekly, with a trusted minister from another church. That ministry friend can be a great sounding board for topics you might be reluctant to share with your elder friend. For 40 years, I met with at least one local minister weekly, and these folks are still some of my closest friends.
Brent Dolfo, director for leadership development with Leadership Network who has more than 30 years of experience in senior ministry leadership, agrees. “Every minister/pastoral leader needs one or two people in their life where they can receive coaching, mentorship, and friendship, or they will not grow as a person or a leader,” Dolfo said.
EAT—Our monthly elders’ meetings followed the same schedule for most of my time at Connection Pointe. When we gathered, the elders would be available for prayer with church members for one hour, and then we would eat dinner together.
I’ve heard it said, “The New Testament leaders fasted and prayed, but we meet and eat!” While I believe we should fast and pray, I also think we should break bread together.
Praying for others, and praying together, and then eating together are indelible reminders—even before the meeting begins—that we are shepherds of the flock and a small group of friends first, while also being decision-makers for his kingdom.
PLAN—Our meeting agenda was usually the same, with discussions categorized into four areas: pastoral, protection, policy, and prayer.
Pastoral: What needs—personal and congregational—should be known by the entire leadership team? Is an elder response needed? What should that response be and which two elders should represent the group?
Protection: What progress is the church making toward its mission and vision goals? This is “the business side” of the church, involving objectives, goals, finances, and personnel. In short, we sought to answer, “What’s our business and how’s business?”
Policy: Are any policies (i.e., boundaries) needed that could help the staff better facilitate the work of the ministry?
Prayer: This is the final item but the first priority! (Note that the evening begins and ends with prayer.) Ideally, every person shares a prayer need and is prayed for by someone whose prayer focuses entirely on that leader’s personal need. The final prayer summarizes the main focus of that meeting’s agenda and also the health, progress, and unity of the congregation.
WIN—Statistics overwhelmingly show that healthy churches are led by healthy and long-tenured pastoral ministries. Elders and ministers win together and lose together. God’s name is glorified and his church flourishes when the minister can be honest about his personal and professional life with those who have the greatest impact on his success and fulfillment: the elders.
The next step is up to you, whether you are an elder or minister. Will you contact the Center for Church Leadership to come alongside you? Will you attend church leadership conferences and put into practice some of the things you learn? Will you, as an elder, take an earnest interest in how your minister is doing, in every area, and will you encourage him and address the issues that will extend his health and local ministry? And will you, as a minister, talk to someone you can trust and follow their wise counsel? Will you carry out your ministry with wisdom and integrity?
Don’t drop surprises on the eldership and then blame them because you failed to take the time to process your thinking. Instead, seek out wise counsel before proceeding with an initiative. Remember what Proverbs 15:22 says: “Plans go wrong for lack of advice; many advisers bring success” (New Living Translation).
Wise planning must include a strategy for pastoral succession, of course. After 31 years as lead pastor with Connection Pointe Christian Church, I passed the baton of pastoral leadership to John S. Dickerson in 2017. Before leaving, I counseled John to meet weekly with the chairman of the elders and cultivate a regular connection with one minister from a church in the area. Additionally, I offered to meet with him anytime he wants to as a friend, encourager, or just to provide “a safe place.”
While our specific succession process is outside the scope of this article, it’s important for every church to develop plans that provide the new minister, elders, and executive team an opportunity to bond as they continue to lead the church. Be sure to have a plan in place for the retiring minister as well, to help him continue in what God is calling him to do next, which certainly includes his family.
Please contact me if you’d like to learn more about our pastoral succession plan or if you would like to know how CCL, Leadership Network, or I can personally help you and your congregation care for your minister and equip your leaders. The ultimate goal is for God to be glorified in and through his church!
I can think of many reasons why we should encourage ministers, but the primary motivator for me is this: The local church is the hope of the world! We must take care of the messengers who have given their lives to “bringing good news” (Romans 10:14, 15).
Steve Reeves serves as a coach with the Center for Church Leadership and engage pastor with Leadership Nework. He developed his new book, Restored! Our Story (College Press), for ministers and churches to study together and learn what key factors contribute to longevity in local church ministry. Contact Steve at firstname.lastname@example.org.