Doing Ministry for the Long Haul

By Ashley White

A recent Lifeway Research study on the Greatest Needs of Pastors considered some mental challenges pastors face in ministry. While nearly half of pastors say discouragement (48%) and distractions (48%) are challenges they face, stress (63%) emerges as the number one challenge for pastors.

Research also shows that pastors’ marriages often take a more significant toll, their children have more issues, and the physical health of many pastors is below average.

So, what is it that makes being a pastor so challenging? Let’s dig into it and a three-step plan for keeping pastors in ministry for the long haul. 

Why is this so hard?

I don’t think anyone questions whether or not pastoring a church is difficult; in fact, most people would agree that that’s pretty intuitive knowledge. But I think the journey is even more difficult than people assume. 

Brand new pastors on the front end of their journey often acknowledge that there will be challenges ahead, but once they are on the other side of that and leading a church as a senior pastor, they look back and realize they had no idea just how hard it would be. 

Being a lead pastor takes sobriety and weight; the nature of the call of a pastor is that of a leader, servant and warrior. That alone can make the calling very difficult.

Then, when you add the very real issue of false expectations into the mix and a sense of failure or missing the mark, that weight becomes even heavier.

For many, social media creates a false view of the success of others. Social media feeds with seemingly full auditoriums, blissfully happy families and an overall sense that everything is perfect for everyone else.

But the truth is that we see a picture taken at such a precise angle that shows the most people with the least empty seats, practiced smiles and filtered selfies and a tightly controlled image of what life looks like.

Then, we look out around our ministries and see empty seats or struggling programs and compare them to what we see on social media, and we feel discouraged. The problem with this scenario is that this kind of comparison sets pastors up for failure because they have normalized a success that isn’t real or attainable for most. 

The third reason the role of a pastor is such a challenge is a lack of healthy and sustainable boundaries and goals. 

Often, we talk to planters who want to do everything right NOW. And while those goals are correct and well-intentioned, the speed at which they are reached isn’t the metric for success and should be the condition of their heart when they arrive there. One of the best questions is, “What do I want to be true about myself when we cross these mile markers?” 

It’s not just about getting to the moment, it’s about getting to the moment with the emotional, mental, and spiritual energy to enjoy and celebrate it. 

A Three-Step Plan 

We’ve all heard it before, “it’s a marathon, not a sprint,” and while that applies to many things, it’s especially true in ministry. 

Any endurance runner can tell you that crossing the finish line of a marathon is a result of a process to get there. It was a process that prepared you to cover the miles in a way that landed you where you wanted to be and how you wanted to be when you got there. 

This lesson also applies to church planters and pastors. 

Here is a three-step process for going the long haul in ministry: 

1. Decide what success looks like

Before you spend the time, energy, effort, money and passion into doing something, it’s critical to spend time on the front end, ensuring you define exactly where you are headed. Otherwise, you will give all that time, effort, money, and passion to succeeding at the wrong thing and realizing that the “win” wasn’t what you hoped for. 

For me, I do this by lifting my eyes off the immediate and taking a more long-term view of where I am going. I have found this is made clear the most through the “what do I want to be true” questions. 

Here are a few great questions to walk through with your spouse, your board, or your mentors as you define what your wins look like: 

  1. What do I want to be true about myself, spiritually, one year into our church plant?
  2. What do I want to be true about my family at the end of the next three years?
  3. What do I want to be true about us financially as we enter the second five years of church planting?

Answering these questions is the first step in becoming a healthy pastor who can go the distance because you are defining where you want to go, not just where you hope to arrive. Andy Stanley said, "Everyone ends up somewhere; not everyone ends up somewhere on purpose.” These questions allow you to have clarity on where you want to go. 

2. Decide how to get there.

Once you know where you are going, you can decide HOW you will get there. The truth is, the HOW is just as important as the WHERE. 

Some people say, “I want to get 100 people in the church as fast as I can!” If that is your vision, then the shortest path is the right call with a few questions asked. But, if your vision is, “I want to get to the place of pastoring 100 people in regular attendance while maintaining a strong marriage and connecting with my children in the process,” then the shortest path may not be the right one, as it could hinder the quality of the other aspects of your vision. The shortest path is not the right path if it costs you a strong marriage and time with your children. 

Our “how” must incorporate more than just the speed of the journey but the quality of our lives when we arrive at our destination. Too many church planters and pastors disconnect their visions from their personal lives and end up at the finish line, too burned out to enjoy it. They are living for the growth of their congregations but not foreseeing the need to cultivate their soul. 

We have to ask ourselves, “How can I arrive where I want to go in a way that will result in the condition I want to be in when I get there?”

This is a great question to seek in the place of prayer and to also discuss with your family, mentors, or elders. 

3. Defend your path and vision from distractions.

The moment you know where you are going and how to get there, you will be met with resistance. It just happens. 

The moment I say I want to lose weight, a donut shop opens up next to my office. Often, church planters and pastors are not healthy because they don’t have a clear vision or idea of how to get to that vision, but because they have been distracted by other things that keep them from it. And often, they are not bad things; they are just not the right things to help us get where we want to go. 

I have found that the key here is creating a “stop doing” list. This is the list you should create to stop doing certain things that are getting in the way of achieving your goals. 

For example, if my vision is to “get to the place of pastoring 100 people in regular attendance while maintaining a strong marriage and connection with my children in the process,” I might decide to stop having meetings after 5:00 p.m., so I don’t miss dinner with my family. Or, I might need to stop spending time in front of the TV to spend more time with my spouse. Or, I might need to stop eating unhealthy food, so my energy levels are where I want to be for the things that matter most. 

I don’t know what they are for you, but we all have potential distractions that keep us from the life we know we want to live.  

Pursuing your vision

In the life of ministry, there are always more people to help, pain to be comforted, problems to be addressed, and meetings to be had, and we won’t have time to address all of it. To be a healthy pastor, you must decide now, even before you get going, what you will and will not do in pursuit of your vision. Because our goal is not just to arrive at the finish line, the goal is to be as healthy as possible when we get there. 

So, what is your vision as a church planter? What are the goals you have for your church plant? Give us a call at (844) 362-2722 and share them with our team. At StartCHURCH, we want your church planting journey to be a success. We are here to come alongside you and encourage you along the way. 

We created the Launch to Lead video course series specifically for church planters. This video course is designed to give you practical steps in planting a thriving, successful church.

Call us today at (844) 362-2722 to purchase this video course and take your church plant to the next level.

And receive Book 1 of our Grow Trilogy FREE today! This series gives you the strategies you need to get started growing your church plant today!