Vested in Our Leaders: The Pastor’s Project
By Richard Creek
In 1975 I was standing in the lobby of the Veteran’s Hospital in Cheyenne, Wyoming, waiting to see Dr. Bruce Howar. Howar was the chief physician/administrator of the hospital, but he previously had been my family doctor back in Iowa. He had brought me into the world with the help of his nurse, my grandmother. From that time he had cared for all my broken bones, bumps, and bruises.
“So, tell me,” he asked after we had greeted each other with hugs and smiles, “What are you doing with your life?”
“I’m in the ministry.”
He removed his glasses, lowered his chin, looked right at me and said, “Young man I’m so proud of you. I want you to know that you’re entering the most difficult profession in the world.” He then said, “I need to see a young cowboy who thought he could jump his motorcycle from one side of the canyon to the other. He didn’t make it. He broke his neck. He won’t be able to walk the rest of his life. Is that a tough thing to tell someone? You bet it is, but you will face situations, people, and circumstances that will be far more challenging.”
Years later, I learned everything Dr. Howar said that day was true.
Today’s church needs to awaken and respond to the challenges and critical issues facing our ministers and their wives. Bible colleges no longer prepare enough ministers to fill pulpits. Churches are scrambling to find ministers to help keep their doors open. This is particularly true for rural congregations.
Focus on the Family, Barna Institute, and the National Church Growth Research Center tell us that 73 percent of Bible college graduates entering the ministry will leave within three to five years, 55 percent of ministers would quit today if they had another means of making an income, and 71 percent of all ministers report not having a personal friend or close confidant they trust.
Five Stressors Ministers Face
Research and personal observation indicate at least five stressors affecting those who end up leaving the ministry:
• Financial challenges: Ernie Goss, an economist from Creighton University, reports the majority of ministers earn less than lower middle-class income. And most have little to no health insurance.
• Discouragement: In 2012, Lifeway Research found that half of all pastors were discouraged. The number-one reason for this discouragement involved conflicts, complaining, and murmuring, according to a Twitter poll. As one pastor put it, “My problem is exacerbated by naysayers using social media as their outlets to complain.”
• Church bullies: Bullying is growing across the country as churches struggle with attendance, finances, and commitment. A Barna Institute survey indicates 40 percent of minsters who leave the profession reported parishioner conflict (aka, bullying).
• Mental health/depression: Duke Divinity School conducted a survey of 1,700 pastors and found that clergy are at a higher risk for depression and anxiety. Much of the depression was due to stress. Depression was once a topic reserved for “other” people, not ministers. The underlying issue is that depression, particularly among ministers, is kept off the radar screen.
• Loneliness: The number-one reason pastors (and their wives) leave the ministry is loneliness. One pastor said, “It’s really hard to find a true friend when you’re a pastor. And when you have no one to talk to about your struggles and questions, life can get very lonely.”
Eight out of 10 wives say they feel unappreciated or unaccepted by their husband’s congregation, according to the Global Pastor’s Wives Network. GPWN also reports 80 percent responded they wish their husbands would choose a different profession.
“I wish you could listen to some of the phone calls that come to my house,” writes Letitia Benjamin of the National Church Growth Research Center’s Safety Net program. “They come from all over the country—Ohio, Oklahoma, Idaho, Oregon, Missouri—all over. They all tell a single story. The caller (a pastor) is desperate, afraid, and lonely.”
The importance of ministers having trustworthy peer support must not be underestimated.
Responses to the Challenges
The Pastor’s Project offers a support program for our churches and preachers serving in ministry. We desire to encourage pastors and save our churches, especially small and rural churches, through several initiatives.
Connections is a Christ-centered, compassionate, and confidential program for any pastor who is combating loneliness, depression, or anxiety. At Connections, pastors and their wives discover a seasoned servant of the pulpit ministry to help them. These mentors are not professional counselors, but empathetic, experienced, and gifted pastors who are willing to assist with professional or personal problems.
The Connections peer mentor assures the caller (minister) he is not alone, but is speaking to a “safe” person with whom he can share his or her challenges. Through the Connections relationship, the mentor provides biblical advice, compassionate support, and a listening friend. Minister’s wives also have access to a female Christian mentor.
Rapid Response is a component of Connections. It offers immediate assistance, day or night, for any pastor who finds himself in a crisis situation. Rapid Response is staffed by a pastor who is a former crisis-trained firefighter.
Rapid Response has three initial objectives:
1. Provide an advocate for the pastor. This might be all that is needed. The worst thing in a crisis is for a pastor to feel isolated and suffer through a situation alone.
2. Perform “triage” on the situation. This ensures the appropriate resources are allocated. The pastor may require encouragement to seek professional help outside of Rapid Response.
3. Normalize the situation. A crisis affects everyone differently. Helping pastors realize these reactions are normal, and that they are not alone, provides healing hope.
Volunteers staff both Connections and Rapid Response. There is no charge for assistance. The process is simple. Go to The Pastor’s Project website, www.pastorsproject.com, and click on the Connections/Rapid Response tab. Scroll down to find the contact information of a peer mentor of your choice.
The Church Health Adviser is a coach who helps pastors and other church leaders to develop a healthy congregation.
At one time or another, every minister will face challenges within his congregation; these challenges might range from what direction to take next to handling an issue that affects the entire body of Christ. Bill Campbell—an accomplished author, pastor, professor, and church health expert—is available as a coach for church leaders.
Dr. Howar was right. Ministry is challenging. The apostle Paul, who personally faced many ministry challenges, encouraged fellow ministers, “Whatever happens, conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ. Then . . . I will know that you stand firm in the one Spirit, striving together as one for the faith of the gospel without being frightened in any way by those who oppose you” (Philippians 1:27, 28, my emphasis).
I want to encourage you, pastor. We must stand firm and strive together for the gospel message to which we were called. None of us can do this alone!
Richard Creek serves as founder and director of The Pastor’s Project. He is a graduate of Nebraska Christian College and Southwest Bible Seminary. He has ministered to churches in Iowa, Nebraska, and Oklahoma. He lives in Papillion, Nebraska. He is available for speaking engagements, church revitalization workshops, and rural church day seminars. Contact him at RDCreek@cox.net or (402) 391-4363.