Caring for Pastors

By Bob Zomermaand

(First appeared in the June 12, 2006 issue of the Christian Courier.)

A couple of years ago, my wife and I were on a spiritual retreat at a haven for clergy outside of Milwaukee. We were there with several other evangelical pastoral couples from all over North America. One evening as we sat around the dinner table, the host posed this question, “What made you decide to get into the ministry in the first place? or, What do you see in your spouse that led him/her into ministry?” The question evoked a great deal of discussion as, for about two hours, we shared stories of the love for Jesus Christ and his Church, of our love for people and our desire to see them come to know Jesus, and to grow in their walk with him. We spoke of influences from family, from mentors, and from teachers who shaped our understanding of ourselves and our place in the family of God.

So why were we, then, at a retreat center? The question was posed to people who had a immense love for the church but who found themselves needing to back away from the front lines just for a week, for a bit of time to once again develop a perspective on why we were in the ministry. To tell the truth, we were all tired.  Not just physically, but emotionally, and even spiritually. We found a sanctuary so that we could once again be a pillar of strength to the people God entrusted to us.

Ministry is one of the most demanding professions in the North American environment.  It is a calling that provides men and women with a tremendous open doorinto the lives of everyday people. It is a profoundly satisfying task because pastors daily have opportunities to impact others for alleternity. Yet, in spite of its eternal implications, it is a wrenching and draining profession as well. Why? Because as pastors serve others they are very vulnerable to the temptations to over do, to over achieve, to over compensate, to over care for others.

This temptation comes in the form of the tentative knock on one’s door and the timid query, “Pastor, can I talk to you about something?” It comes in the form of the phone call in the middle of the night informing the pastor that one of the close relatives of a parishioner has died tragically, “Could you go to inform the family?” It comes in the form of a council member seeking the pastor’s advice on a serious issue in his family. “Could we keep this just between us, pastor? I don’t want my family to know I spoke with you about this.”

I call these examples “temptations”, not because they are evil in themselves, rather it is because of the way we as pastors respond to them that they may become self-destructive.  I believe there are appropriate ways to respond to these issues and there are inappropriate ways.  Most pastors are very capable of handling these appropriately. But others have gotten to the point where their coping abilities have been so worn down they fall victim to the temptation to over do, over care, etc.

In evangelical circles in North America, far too many pastors are falling victim to the temptation to stretch themselves beyond a healthy point.  I am convinced that a sizable percentage of pastors who fall morally do so not because they are so susceptible to some particular lure of the evil one, but because they have become so fatigued that they cannot recognize the deadly result of taking the bait.  Pastors are drinking too much; they are eating too much; they are working too much; they are simply trying to find relief for their fatigue in all the wrong places.

I myself fell victim to the temptation to work too much. I became fatigued in my spirit, in my emotions, and in my body. I had overdone it all. As a result, I lost my ability to be a useful tool in the Lord’s hand. The very thing I so desired to be and to do was beyond my reach. I was finally diagnosed with something I had never heard of: compassion fatigue.  

Compassion fatigue is a condition that affects those who are in helping professions such as social workers, ER personnel, and clergy(!). It is a condition that means the person is so spiritually, emotionally, and physically drained that he or she is no longer able to perform professional duties. 

In my own life, it was not so much that I did nothave spiritual resources any more; they were being depleted in ways that I did not understand. I wondered why my walk with God did notseem to enrich my heart in the ways it had. I felt almost normal physically. I had the energy to go about my daily grind but I did notfeel like I had any of what might be called “vigor.” My emotional tank, on the other hand, was dry. It was draining the life giving vitality of my physical self and spiritual self so that I was unable to experience the life for which God created me.    

When I have told my story to laity from a variety of churches, they have asked me, “So tell us what we can do for our pastor! We’re concerned that we are seeing some of that same thing in her or him!” Here are some suggestions:

  1. Approach someone on the church governing board to ask them what the church is doing to make sure that your beloved pastor does not become overwhelmed with the tasks that fall to him or her. Compassion fatigue is something that accumulates in the pastor’s inner being. When the pastor walks with a family through a devastating tragedy, the pastor shares some of the wounds. When a tragedy has taken place in the church’s life, make sure the pastor gets some respite. Send him or heroff to a retreat center for a week. You will be blessed!
  2. In my particular denomination, we have an initiative called Sustaining Pastoral Excellence. As a part of that, we are encouraging pastors to become involved with other clergy in a peer learning group. This is a way for pastors to receive a blessing from other pastors as they get together to study something. As a side benefit they become people who care for each other in the tough times. Your pastor needs that! Make sure he or she has some time for being in a peer learning group. Sure it is time away from the church but your pastor will be better able to stay for the long haul. I think my grandmother called that, “A stitch in time, saves nine!”
  3. Require your pastor to have not just a day off to get the household duties done but another day to be alone in God’s holy presence. Those who treat compassion fatigue tell us that one of the best “cures” is the deepening of one’s spiritual roots.  Too often the overwhelmed pastor does nothave enough time to go deep with God.
  4. Be creative! You are the one who knows your pastor. Spend some money on a monthly morning at a relaxation spa for the pastor!  Buy the pastor and spouse dinner for just the two of them. Sure you might like to go out with them but sometimes they need just each other! This will be money invested in your pastor’s health. You will not regret it!

Being a pastor is a wonderfully rewarding calling but in our day it is becoming more difficult to sustain pastoral excellence. You can pave the way for excellence in your pastor! Look for the signs of compassion fatigue. Then do something to prevent the loss of another pastor to the temptation to over do the work of ministry.