Pastoral ministry has always been a pressure cooker.

Add a global crisis, rapid change and constant uncertainty into the mix, and what was barely sustainable before has become almost untenable to thousands of leaders.

Recently on my leadership podcast, I interviewed Kayla Stoeklein whose husband Andrew, a lead pastor of a large, growing California mega church, died by suicide in 2018.

Kayla talked about the pressures of ministry Andrew felt as lead pastor. See if you can identify with what she has to say:

“I feel like there’s got to be a better way to lead the church. I think being the lead pastor is like the impossible job. Leading an organization, our church, our staff was big. We had a staff of about 35 people.

And so, being basically the CEO of an organization and then also being the visionary and the voice and having to come up with these compelling messages weekend after weekend after weekend, and then to have the space during the week to actually have the time to sit with God and be inspired and read scripture and read books and go for walks and like do the filling up that you have to do to keep pouring out authentically on the weekends while also leading an organization, I think that’s just the impossible job…

It’s just a lot of pressure, it’s so much pressure. And then it is lonely. I think oftentimes it can be hard. You have this paranoia, Andrew would call it like, a healthy paranoia at the top. Who you let in and it can be hard to know like who attend your church, who works at your church, like who to let into your circle, who to let into your friend group, who to let into your personal life.” (Here’s the whole interview.)

Having just wrapped a succession plan that concludes 25 years serving as a pastor in the local church, Kayla’s words struck me as so true. Yep, those are the pressures.

I fear that the combination of the current crisis and chronic pressure church leaders are under will see more leaders quit, burnout or fail morally (here are some thoughts on why megachurch pastors keep failing).

The mission of the church isn’t broken, but too many of our leaders are.

For the record, I’m a fan of large gatherings and of churches of every size. And so much good has been done through the kind of church I’m describing here. So if you’re here to beat up on pastors or the church, please stop reading this and go elsewhere.

But for those of us committed to each other and the mission, I think you know the toll is great. Often too great.

With all this in mind, somethings got to give. The pandemic will eventually resolve. But the chronic pressures of ministry won’t unless we change the expectations we have around pastors and ministry.

Here are five sad reasons ministry will continue to be such a pressure cooker long after the global crisis fades.

If something doesn’t give, our leaders will.

1. The need to pretend you have it all together

It’s so easy to believe your pastor has it all together, but  of course, anyone who’s been in leadership for more than ten minutes knows that’s not true.

Some leaders but themselves on a pedestal, and they kind of get what they deserve.

God belongs on the pedestal. So why don’t we keep him there and keep ourselves below it?

Well, most leaders don’t try to put themselves on a pedestal. People put them on it without asking.

I’m fortunate to have a congregation that accepted us for who we were, not for who they wanted us to be. I’ve also been quite transparent about my shortcomings. It needs to be far more okay to do that than it is in most cases.

Christians need to come to terms with the fact that the heroes in the scripture were flawed people. Peter barely got it right. Paul had his critics. Noah was a flawed leader. So was Moses. But reading their story gives me hope for my story. And—you know what—it gives me hope for your story and for the church.

God doesn’t use perfect people. His grace flows best through broken people.

2. An inability to find anyone to talk to about your deepest struggles

Church is the only place I know of where what you believe is also what you do and the your friends are also part of the community you serve.

When almost everyone you know is someone you’re serving or someone you’re trying to reach, who can you talk to?

In the interview, Kayla said

I, too, struggled with friends and how much to let them into our like interior life and our home life. And a lot of my friends attended the church so Andrew was their pastor. And so, it was hard to know how much to be vulnerable about in what we’re going through. I felt like I couldn’t. There was a lot of things that were happening because my friends would also know those people that worked at the church. There’s things that were happening on staff at the church that I wouldn’t be able to share with anybody.

As most leaders have realized, a lot of friendships can be 90% deep, but, for the reasons Kayla explained (and more), you often can’t really talk about the last 10%.

Some people say “well why don’t you just share everything with everyone?” Great question, except you probably don’t want to do marriage counselling live on stage every weekend.

As wise people say, when it comes to public sharing, let people see your scars, not your wounds. Share your scars publicly. Process your wounds privately.

The extremes of telling nobody or telling everybody are both highly dysfunctional.

Somebody needs to help you process your wounds.

Two things help with that: professional counselling (of which I’ve had hundred (thousands?) of hours) and a couple of friends who don’t work for you, who you’re not trying to ‘reach’ and who may not even live near you.  These have been life giving to me.

Dr, John Townsend explains how to develop those kinds of friendships here. Trust me, they are life-lines.

And your spouse? Of course…share everything. But leaders,  your spouse isn’t designed to bear the full weight of your pain.

3. Living by (or for) likes, comments, shares and views and growth

You and I lead in an era where everything is measurable.

Some of that’s good, and some of that is devastating. It’s a daily discipline for me to try to keep the right perspective.

While growth is important (I don’t know too many leaders who want things to decline), the pressure you feel to see the number of likes, comments, shares and views grow can be devastating.

Too much of your ‘success’ or ‘failure’ can eat at your identity.

I have to remind myself constantly of what Tim Keller says: when work is your idol, success goes to your head and failure goes to your heart.

Leaders have always looked at spreadsheets and reports. I think the difference between fifteen years ago today is most of those metrics were private and occassional: for staff, board or annual reports.

Today your scorecard is public and daily. Everybody sees whether your video got 17 views or 17,000 views. Ugh.

4. Being the pastor who does everything

Many congregations define the success of their leader according to how available, likeable and friendly their pastor is.

It’s as though churches want a puppy, not a pastor.

You need to be competent at everything, available 24/7 and have a fantastic family life.

Since when did that become the criteria for effective Christian leadership?

By that standard, Moses, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Hosea, the Apostle Paul and perhaps even Jesus failed the test.

The goal of Christian leadership is to lead people, not to be liked by people.

That’s no excuse for being a jerk or insensitive, but still, leadership requires that at times, you need to do what’s best, not what people want.

If a church is going to grow, congregations have to let go of the expectation that their pastor will be available for every medical emergency, every twist and turn in their lives, every family celebration and every crisis.

That’s a tough sell for many congregations, but if a church is going to grow, it has to happen.

The pastor who attempts to do everything will often become a leader incapable of doing anything. Burnout does that to you.

5. The relentless intensity around Sunday

There are few jobs in the world that require you to write a fresh message every week, week after week, year after year. In particular, a fresh Word from God.

Combine that with a powerful or meaningful worship experience and the added pressure of social media where everyone can compare you with anyone, and it’s an intense challenge.

I take preaching very seriously, and the Word of God even more seriously, but one of the unfortunate drifts of the last few decades in ministry is how we’ve made everything rise and fall with the weekend.

Of the five issues we talk about in this article, the pressure on Sunday is most likely to change the fastest.

First, Sunday attendance was already struggling and in decline pre-pandemic.

Second, the pandemic has already started shifting the focus a lot of churches from Sunday to everyday, and content delivery from live to on-demand.

Finally, many churches were already moving to team teaching. In the early 2000s, I used to write and deliver over 50 messages a year. I haven’t preached more than 35 a year in over a decade. Still, thanks to social media, the pressure kept rising on the Sundays I was responsible for.

A more distributed ministry owned by the people of God and equipped by the staff team could provide some real health.

And while everything rises and falls on leadership, not everything has to rise and fall on a single day.

Want to know how to get you and your team out of burnout? A free toolkit:

As hard as it might be, what if 2021 could be a year of real growth for you and your church?

You know that in 2020, some organizations grew while others struggled. I’d love to help your church thrive in 2021.

I know, that sounds crazy (especially after a post like this), but like most things, it’s crazy until it’s not.

I believe 2021 can be a great year for you and your team, and I’d love to help you make it happen.

That’s why I created the 2021 Church Leader Toolkit.

Inside, I cover:

  • How To Produce Content That Actually Gets Read & Watched
  • 5 Keys To Better Digital Preaching
  • 7 Strategies To Deepen Digital Engagement
  • How To Keep You And Your Team Out Of Burnout
  • 3 Key Pivots For Every Organization In 2021

I’ll be releasing 5 parts of the toolkit throughout December. And it’s free.

You can get access and share these skills with your team here!

The Mission Isn’t Broken…

The mission isn’t broken, but too many of our leaders are.

I’d love to know what’s breaking you, and what you’re doing about it.

Glad we’re in this together, and I’m committed to getting through it together.

Scroll down and leave a comment.

The pandemic will eventually resolve. But the chronic pressures of ministry won't unless we change the expectations we have around pastors and ministry. The mission of the church isn't broken, but too many of our leaders are.

20 Comments

  1. Lisa Wengel on December 23, 2020 at 1:29 am

    I am a lead pastor of a small church (40) but still lucky enough to have many leaders. My struggle is that we dont have a building so everthing in in my house right now and all my support staff had to be laid off because of Covid. I have become the one who does everthing. Struggling to learn technology to keep us online and struggling to keep engagement. Plus my husband has Muscular dystrophy and is in sharp decline. It can feel overwhelming. The people are doing ok but rarely do they check on us. Your message hits a mark for me. Everything about what I do right now feels te exact opposite of what I was called to be as a leader. Pressing through. I miss the team meetings!

  2. Wayne Hollett on December 22, 2020 at 10:28 pm

    Thanks for an insightful article. The culture of churches needs reforming.
    I believe every Pastor, Board member and Elder should read and apply Pete Scazzero’s “The Emotionally Healthy Leader” and Henri Nouwen’s wonderful little book, “In the Name of Jesus: Reflections on Christian Leadership”.

  3. John Henderson on December 22, 2020 at 11:00 am

    We need the Preisthood of all believers to rise up. All followers full functioning pointing to Christ. Christ is the leader of the church. Problems are increasing at an exponential rate. Christ is the only one able ready for the moment. Rejoice that the pressure need not be on us. His burden is light. Your comment on Paul is really funny. Need in our expression room for Paul, Peter and John to work together and space for the saints to come alive lead by the Spirit to the Glory of the Father.

  4. Thomas I. Brezee on December 21, 2020 at 3:54 pm

    I am not a pastor nor related to a pastor, but feel it is important to support the Lord’s church I attend and more importantly my pastor. Your insight really helps me and our men’s group to focus on where and how we can help. I attend a church leadership conference each year in the hopes being a better congregation member and grow in my support of other church leaders, I may not even know. The comments and observations of Kayla really help to broaden my understanding, I hope it makes our church men’s group (also watching this) and I, to be more supportive of our pastoral leadership. Thank you.

    • Mark Holman on December 21, 2020 at 4:18 pm

      Have you prayed to see if you can help with the Men’s Ministry? I have on times to help in that area because I’m actually working on my Education as a Pastor myself, and part of the process is that I have to do some teaching and I was recently offered to help with a college student ministry and for some reason was directed not to get involved and I would need psychology degree and something that happened years ago, and I politely turned down running for Sherrif in my home county which issues at hand would have destroyed my life. In a positive spin I would pray first before taking on a task, my other choice would have been a well paid government job in IT and Communications but not my calling.

    • Jenny on December 21, 2020 at 5:27 pm

      I teared up as a I read this. This is the best. I think the church needs more people who do this. Your pastor is lucky to have you. Keep asking your pastor what do you need let them tell you.

      • Rev Mark Holman on December 22, 2020 at 9:44 am

        I was told in one of our Denomination larger church we visited that Senior Pastor said that they have approximately 300 plus people to do the church service and we’re going to a small church with a married couple Co-Pastor and I’ve got a intern level unofficial position and I’m looking at Decipleship training on line and working on details.

    • Carey Nieuwhof on December 22, 2020 at 10:38 am

      The empathy is much appreciated Thomas!

  5. Genetta Hatcher on December 21, 2020 at 1:06 pm

    Carey your perspectives and insights are amazing. I look forward to getting your emails and sharing them with my friends that are pastors and spiritual leaders. In ways that you could never know, you are saving lives and ministries. Thank YOU for your mission, ministry and transparency. God Bless!

  6. Mark Holman on December 21, 2020 at 1:05 pm

    Also here’s another thought I’ve known a fellow pastor who got into becoming an Alcoholic and probably went to AA counseling, and the last I’ve heard about him is that he started a small Bible School, and that was over thirty plus years ago. And getting private counseling should in fact be done.

  7. Carolyn Bowers on December 21, 2020 at 12:08 pm

    I appreciate your words of encouragement. One other crucial thing that has helped me this year is developing real, supportive connections with colleagues. So often clergy feel like we are somehow in competition with our colleagues. But in reality, if we can get beyond comparisons and competition, our colleagues are truly the only ones sometimes who can understand the pressures that another pastor is under, particularly in a year like 2020. And for me, being able to share my struggles with my colleagues takes away some of the need to dump it all on my spouse.

    But what has really dragged me down this year is not having the key leadership of my congregation behind me as I try to lead the congregation safely through this time of Covid,.In fact they have been fighting me all year over safety protocols for worship, meetings, etc., even when those protocols are handed down by our regional denominational leadership. And unfortunately, I know from talking with my colleagues, that I am not the only pastor who is fighting this battle.

  8. Darryl Schoeman on December 21, 2020 at 10:11 am

    A “spot on” word of encouragement, and truth for the masses.

  9. Sandy Rodgers on December 21, 2020 at 10:03 am

    Thank you for this article. Very true and very encouraging.

    • Doug Robins on December 21, 2020 at 10:42 am

      What’s braking me? I do very little pastoral care since our church is a size that allows for multiple pastors who can help. In the little pastoral care I’ve don’t since COVID-19 I’ve had to do four funerals for Millenials who’ve committed suicide & one funeral for a young couple who’s baby was still born. Just for perspective, I’ve had zero funerals for Covid deaths although I’m not trying to minimize the crisis. If I have to look into the eyes of one more set of parents who have lost a child it may break me. Thanks for the great encouragement Carey! You’re helping many of us through all this.

      • Mark Holman on December 21, 2020 at 12:00 pm

        I’ve done one memorial service of my wife’s niece (Cancer) and at the decision to start in ministry to perform funeral service and this also some counseling and some psychology. I’m thinking that fellow pastors should seek some plan of a weekend getaway with their spouse, like my wife and I went someplace to enjoy a dinner at a nice restaurant and also this keeps our marriage intact. Right now I’m studying and the process of somewhat of a vacation as being laid off, I don’t get jammed up with things and I’ve learned from someone’s hate (just like Saul in the O.T. ) isn’t a good thing. I’ve also have a hobby that is a good stress reliever. Careful balance and I’ve worked on my prior car, I know a lot of you don’t do your own oil changes repair exhaust systems, change water pump etc. well the main idea is find something as a hobby , like my brother loves sports, my one sister is art, and you get the point. One thought go see a funny movie I watch one called “Who framed Roger Rabbit? “ when I was much younger my oldest brother and I used to read Satire magazines. And get a cat or a dog.

      • Carey Nieuwhof on December 22, 2020 at 10:40 am

        That’s a lot to carry Doug. I’m so sorry!

  10. Andy Wood on December 21, 2020 at 9:58 am

    Really great post Carey! Thank you.

    • Carey Nieuwhof on December 22, 2020 at 10:38 am

      Thanks Andy!

  11. Thanks for the great insights. We really appreciate you being a voice for so many pastors and leaders. Keep it up we need it

    • Carey Nieuwhof on December 22, 2020 at 10:39 am

      Thanks Mark!

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