9 Ways to Survive in Ministry

by Roger Barrier

Dear Roger,

I’ve been a pastor for a decade. My church is growing. My spiritual life and my family is failing. I feel like I need to quit the ministry! Do you have any suggestions to survive the stress?


A Tired Pastor

Dear Tired Pastor,,

How do you survive in ministry? Let me tell you my story. The lessons I learned were hard-won, but I believe they helped me stay at the same church my whole ministry.

1. Get rid of your Messiah Complex.


Behind the orange couch in our living room was as good a place as any to have a nervous breakdown. I phoned our head counselor and said, “It’s Saturday night and I am hiding behind the orange couch crying. This is not normal, is it?”

“No,” he replied. “I’ve seen this coming for a long time and I’ve already made arrangements for you to talk to a Christian counselor. He’s waiting for your call.”

As we sat for our third session Jerry said, “Today we are going to talk about your messiah complex.”

“Messiah Complex! I don’t have a Messiah Complex!”

“Don’t be so surprised. Most young ministers have one.”


A Messiah Complex, for our purposes, has to do with a pastor’s misunderstanding of their dreams. They dream of a large successful ministry having accomplished great work for God. The extreme might reveal it self in thoughts like these: “God has called me to win this city for Christ!”


A messiah complex may cause pastors to consider their call from Jesus so important that they are willing to sacrifice their spouses’ and children and health for the sake of the “call.” 


I discovered lurking within me was an enormous messiah complex. “I used to imagine that when I entered Heaven God would say something like this: “Oh Roger. I am so glad you are finally here! You did things that even Moses never did!”


Was my complex pathetic, or what? I’ve worked to eliminate it from my life for over 35 years. Between you and me, I must be careful in saying this, but I think it is finally gone.


By the way, about the age of 40-45 most pastors begin to see that their dreams just aren’t going to come true. How they handle this moment makes all the all the difference in the world.

2. Protect yourself.


Jesus knew the importance of boundaries: “Jesus, knowing that they intended to come and make him king by force, withdrew again to a mountain by himself” (John 6:15). The exhausted Jesus—tired from teaching, preaching and healing all day often withdrew to refresh, regroup and pray.


The Rock Musical, Jesus Christ Superstar, includes a scene where the sick and dying are pushing and crowding around Jesus screaming, “Heal me” on and on and on. Then suddenly Jesus screamed back, “Leave me alone! Heal yourselves!” Immediately I thought, “Jesus never said that!” Then, I thought, but I wonder how often He felt like that?”


Global Leadership Network talks often about the four gauges we must monitor: Emotional—Physical—Mental—Spiritual. When the “Check Engine” light brightens up the dash board, we don’t pull out a hammer and knock out the light. We find out what is wrong and fix it. Enough said.


3. Get your expectations in line with reality.


Early in my ministry I was going to win the world to Jesus…. When that wasn’t happening I changed my focus to winning Tucson for Jesus. Soon, I saw that I couldn’t even win my street for Jesus


We all have expectations that we intend to live up to. Like, “Today, I am going to visit patients in three different hospitals, spend four hours in sermon prep, have two counseling sessions and make fifteen calls to church members. The truth is, that will never happen—not enough time in the day.


At seven o’clock, we are still working on our list when our spouse calls to see when (if) we are coming home. After all, she is tired from her work and has to make supper, feed the dogs, give the kids a bath, read them a story and tuck them in for the night. Can you imagine that she might need a little help!


You feel frustrated. You only got to two hospitals; there was no time for sermon work; you only made 12 phone calls; and had to cancel one counseling session when the first ran way too long. Then, you had to go home and do family stuff that you never even put on your today list.


No wonder you are frustrated.


The distance between your expectations and reality is your frustration level. Stop trying to fix your frustration by working harder and faster. The key is to lower your expectations down to reality. The closer your expectations are to reality the less frustration you will have and you will be able to go home and bless your spouse and kids.

4. Spend more time with the energizers and less with drainers.


Most people in our ministries are what I call neutrals. We know them by name and have casual conversations with them at church or in the community. They don’t really energize or drain us.


Drainers, on the other hand, can suck the very life out of us. You go to their houses for dinner at 7:00 pm and three hours later you look at your watch and it’s really 7:35! You are in the presence of drainers.


Energizers, on the other hand, bless us with companionship, encouragement, fun, and energy. You go to their houses for dinner and 35 minutes later you look at your watch and it is 11:25! Where did the time go? Your spouse says to you, as you get into the car, “Wow, that was a great night. I can hardly wait to be with them again!” You’ve just spent the evening with Energizers.


Most pastors feel like the church people will get jealous if the pastor and spouse spend more time with one couple than another. Spend time with the neutrals and a little time with the drainers; but a significant amount of time with the energizers.


I hate it when a drainer tries to dominate my time after church when I’m speaking to guests or trying to greet a number of people. I have a boundary in place that allows them three sentences before I break in and say, “Sandy, now is not a good time. I need to talk to some others, too.” I turn to the next person and go on.


5. Protect your Children.

So, we were at a church pot luck dinner. My six-year-old daughter had eaten a cookie and she wanted another. She was reaching for a second when one of the church women pushed her hand away and said, “Don’t you know that we don’t want our pastor’s children to be fat.”


Pastors’ kids have so little privacy.

Too often they are sermon illustrations for an entire church to analyze. I was so excited the first time my three-year-old came to big church. She was sitting in the balcony with mom when I told a story on her from past week. I looked up and Brianna was gone. She was under the pew.

As my daughters grew older we made a deal. Any sermon illustration about them must first be cleared with them.

Then we bargained for how much the illustrations were worth.

Was it a one dollar or three or five dollar illustration? Were we having three services or five? If she were lucky and the illustration was really good, she may come up with $5 times 5 services equals $25. I didn’t use those illustrations often. I couldn’t afford them!


Pastors’ kids struggle with unfair or impossible expectations.


Pastor’s Kids are forced ascetics.


Pastors, as a general rule, don’t have much money.


A youth pastor says to me, “My children’s friends all have the new King James sneakers (or Michael Jordan, or whom ever). All we can afford is a $10 pair of Bob Cousey’s.”


Pastors’ kids struggle with the God issue.


Many rebel. 32% never attend church again; 32% enter the ministry thinking that this is the only way that God (or dad or mom) will love me. How dysfunctional is that!

They may associate God with their pastor father or mother who is never around. They conclude that God won’t be there when they need Him either. I could give many illustrations here!


Pastors kids know that “quality time” is a myth created by parents who are way too busy.


The only time that matters, that says, “love” to a child, is lots of time.


I remember praying for my busy, overloaded ministry day for God to take care of my kids: “It’s only fair”, I said to Him, “I’m going to be busy with your work today so it’s not too much me to ask for You to take care of my children today.”

I distinctly heard God answer: “Remember Eli and Samuel and David. They were busy taking care of My work while ignoring their children. If I did not rescue their children what makes you think that I am going to rescue yours? The only one who can fulfill the role of father to your children is you! And, if you don’t do it, no body else will do it either.”


6. Protect your spouse.


Once upon a time I was interviewing a candidate for the position of worship pastor in our church. After asking him my questions, I turned my attention to his wife to see how she was handling ministry.

After a moment she said to her husband: “Should I tell him?”


She paused and tears came as she began to speak. It seems that the chairman of deacons was making sexual advances to her. Her husband told the pastor and he refused to deal with it because the deacon was so powerful, influential, and financially supportive. Now, she was weeping. I encouraged them to insist that their pastor deal with issue or for them to get out as soon as possible. No one needs to remain in that sort of dysfunctional system. The pain in their lives was incredible. Unfortunately, this pastor failed to face the issue straight on and get his wife to safety.


Julie hardly fit the expected role of pastor’s wife as defined by many churches of the last generation. She is extraordinarily creative, talented, musical and brilliant.


Steve Dowdle said to me “You had best set her free or you will have a very angry woman on your hands in twenty years.”


I remember the Sunday when a senior adult couple accosted me to inform me that Julie had no business as a pastor’s wife returning to the University of Arizona to work on her doctorate in Choral Conducting. As they scolded I remembered when Jesus told John the Baptist that He needed to be baptized to “fulfill all righteousness.”


Finally, it was my turn to speak. I said to them firmly, “the reason Julie is working on her doctorate is to “fulfill all righteousness.” They had no idea what I was talking about…… I didn’t either.


I feel a divine calling from God to run interference and support her so that she can use and fulfill all he gifs and talents God has given her.


She’s played keyboards with the high school rock band in her leopard skin pants. She has three post graduate degrees in music. She’s conducted church and community concerts, taught worship at seminaries, written a text book on orchestra and musical instruments and now leads the “preachitteachit web site with 8 million visits around the world.

I’ve stood behind her every step of the way. Freeing the pastor’s spouse to fulfill their calling is critical in ministry survival.

7. Consider preaching expository sermons to maximize your time and effectiveness.

Too often the harried pastor struggles to decide what to preach the next Sunday. May I suggest working through the Bible paragraph by paragraph? No time is wasted wondering, “What shall I preach?” You just preach the next several verses.

There is nothing wrong with topical preaching. It has its place—it just tends to be “thin” over time.

I have followed Charles Spurgeon’s preaching guidelines and the church has flourished and lived in relative peace.

“People are like dogs,” he wrote. “If all you have to give them on Sunday is a few old bones then they will fight and scrap with each other. But, if you give them steak, they will lie down and sleep in peace” (Charles Spurgeon).

I might add that the well-fed build strong and healthy bodies as well as functional churches.

8. Remember The Sabbath Day and take a nap.

“If you have more than three ways people can get in touch with you, you are a really sick person,” said my pastor friend.

Jesus didn’t live a harried life like most of us. And we don’t have to, either. He knew just what time it was and paced Himself to arrive there just on time.

He walked for weeks and never the phone once. He got along just fine without it. He took long walking vacations like hiking two weeks to Tyre and Sidon. He still finished everything on His “to do list.”

We tend to say, “Yeah, but that’s Jesus. Does God have an answer for us?”  You bet He does. The answer can be summed up in two words: “The Sabbath.”

Fundamentally, Christ saw the Sabbath (and by extension, all of life) as being a day of restoration and connectedness with God.

MARK 2:27 “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.” This pronouncement has profound implications for us and for our society.

The original purpose of the Sabbath was twofold. The Sabbath was for REST and for WORSHIP. Count up the verses. The idea of Rest is emphasized more than Worship.

The idea is refreshment; recharge your batteries, rest for you, your animals, and your servants.

Sometimes we think we can be like the Energizer Bunny—and just keep going and going and going. But, the bunny is a fraud. They have to keep putting new batteries in.

We think we can just take 20 minutes every day at Starbucks and be fine – not.

 9. Develop A Workable Plan.


1. Take A Full Twenty-Four Hours Off Every Seven Days.


For most of us this means five days at our church, one day working at home to get all the chores done, and one day with no work whatsoever.


God says we need to stop every six days for 24 solid hours.


In ministry it is easy to cheat: “Well, I will begin my 24 hours after lunch on Thursday and get back in the office just before lunch on Friday.” That’s cheating. It should work like this: you go home on Wednesday evening and return to the office on Friday morning. That is a full day off.


The Sabbath Is Not A Catch-Up Day For What’s Undone. The Sabbath is a Rest-Up Day For Everything Yet To Come.


The Sabbath begins with the night’s rest and sleep. We rest in order to work. We must rid ourselves of the idea that we work hard and thus earn the right to rest.


Bishop Gerald Kennedy of California’s Methodist church told of two groups crossing the plains during migrations to California during gold rush days.

One group was led by a Christian who stopped every Lord’s day for worship and rest. The other party was led by a non Christian who was so motivated with gold fever that he refused to let his settlers stop and rest. After all, it was first come first served in gold fields.

Is it surprising that that the wagon train that rested and worshipped every seventh day arrived first in the gold fields?


2. Limit yourself to no more than 45 to 50 recorded hours per week.


Too many of us tend to be available 24-7 to the church members. It is tough to be on duty all the time. Studies show that very little profitable work occurs after 50 hours.


The hours worked have to be recorded or we will tend to cheat. Let your church leaders keep you accountable. We’ve had to lock ministers out of their offices because they worked too much and their lives and families were suffering.


3. Schedule carefully so that you are at home at four nights per weeK.


When we emphasized this requirement several of our pastors’ wives called to thank me: “Now I might get to have a real husband who has some time for me and the children”.


4. Use Compensation Days the next week when you worked more than the allotted days the previous week.


The key here is balance. We all know that in the ministry not all weeks are equal. Christmas weeks are busier than summer weeks. Some weeks have too many funerals and marriage crises. So, to keep things in balance for a 50 hour schedule, if you have to work 55 hours this week (5 over the limit), then you only work 45 hours the next.


5. Arrange for a church leader to “cover” for you on your day off.


Of course, some situations, like funerals may require your attention when a church leader just won’t do.


6. Get your deacons, elders or church leaders to approve the plan.


Most people are sensible. When they think about it, they want you to have time for yourself and family in order to survive and not burn out. Let them approve the plan and then you stick to it.


Now, go to YouTube and search for the words, “Bob Newhart Stop it.” Then do what he says.


I hope this is helpful. The goal is not just to survive but to thrive.


Love, Roger

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