Managing Expectations for a Sustainable Ministry
“We’re expecting a new pastor soon, after many years without one, and I’m worried that some in the congregation will be tempted to dump work on our new pastor. Can you guide us in how to support and protect our new pastor both from his own and others’ expectations, so that he will set off and continue at a sustainable pace?”
I was recently asked this great question by an elder and thought it would be a good one to answer in this public way so that others also may benefit from thinking through these things.
First, insist on the Sabbath principle. Instruct your pastor that he must obey the biblical principle of six days of work and one complete day of rest. Ideally, it should be the same day each week (and he’s not allowed to choose Sunday!) so that his body will get into a healthy and regular six-and-one rhythm.
The chosen day should also be made known to the congregation so that everyone knows not to contact the pastor on this day, except in an emergency. Even when it’s thought to be urgent, members should be encouraged to contact an elder first so that he can make sure it really is an emergency. In my experience of counseling pastors, the single greatest cause of pastoral burnout is not taking a full day off every week.
Try to ensure that the pastor has at least three evenings a week at home to relax with his wife and family. If we assume that he’s preparing for Sunday on Saturday evening and involved in ministry of some kind on Sunday evening, then that leaves five evenings a week. One of those evenings will usually be taken up with the church’s midweek meeting (e.g. Bible Study or Prayer Meeting) and one should be taken up with pastoral visitation or counseling.
That leaves three evenings for his family. If there’s an elders’ meeting or some other church meeting one week, then that should take the place of the pastoral/counseling evening. Sometimes, emergencies and other events will mean an additional evening out, leaving only two evenings for family life, but that should be the exception rather than the norm. If the pastor’s marriage and family relationships aren’t established on a solid footing, then his ministry will suffer in the long-run (and so will his wife and children).
Establish a small group of elders (maybe two or three) to meet regularly (maybe quarterly) with the pastor and report to the rest of the elders on how the pastor is doing. This should be a caring and compassionate group that will enquire as to whether the pastor is taking a full day off every week, is getting good sleep, has sufficient time to study, is exercising, is taking his full vacation time, is enjoying God in his private devotions, and so on.
They should make sure the pastor is not working more than 45–50 hours a week (on average). They should also help the pastor build as much daily and weekly routine into his life as possible so that he is working with his bodily (circadian) rhythms rather than against them. If necessary, this group can advocate for him at the full elders’ meeting, rather than the pastor having to advocate for himself. If the accountability group is to be an asset to the pastor, its spirit should be supportive rather than inquisitorial or accusatory.
For new pastors, sermon preparation will take much longer than it will for an experienced pastor. Allowance should be made for this in terms of expectations. After a few years of practice, he will be much more “efficient” in terms of sermon preparation, releasing more time for pastoral work and discipling.
Try to keep administrative work to a minimum for the new pastor. By all means, expect him to work hard in preaching and pastoring, but if administrative/organizational work can be done by someone else, either paid or voluntary, then try to delegate it. Often, there are people within the congregation who have these gifts and can assist the pastor in this way.
Try to build a team of counselors both inside and outside of the congregation so that the whole counseling load doesn’t fall on the pastor. As people get to trust the pastor, more of them will come to him for counseling and eventually this will become overwhelming. Work toward training people in the congregation in specific problem areas like depression, addiction, marriage breakdown, abuse, and so on. This may take years to fully implement, but it will help take some of the low-level but time-consuming burden of counseling off the pastor. I would strongly advise the pastor to study and specialize in conflict resolution and peace-making because conflict is the second most common cause of stress, anxiety, and burnout in the ministry.
Encourage the pastor to build connections and relations in the wider community with doctors, counselors, psychologists, and social workers (all preferably Christians) who have particular expertise in the most complex counseling areas so that the most difficult cases can be referred to trustworthy professionals. This team approach spreads the load and utilizes the experience and expertise of those who are dealing with difficult problems all day every day. However, the pastor should be receiving regular reports from these professionals so that he can build trust, supervise the counseling, and continue to minister to specific spiritual needs.
If a congregation can do even some of the above, with the Lord’s blessing, it will lay a wonderful foundation for a sustainable ministry.