I have been in part- or full-time ministry for more than 15 years. A decade and a half in, I can count the times I’ve wanted to quit on one hand. Unfortunately, that’s rare. Even a conservative estimate reveals a shocking truth: Somewhere between sixty and eighty percent of pastors don’t make it ten years in the ministry before quitting. There are a host of factors, to be sure. But this isn’t a post about why people quit.
This is a post about how to make it.
Here are four things that I think will prevent burning out and throwing in the towel. While they may not seem super-spiritual, I’m convinced they are the truth.
DECIDE WHAT YOU’RE WILLING TO PUT UP WITH
Like any job, ministry gigs come with their fair share of annoying, demanding, or disagreeable characteristics. News flash: there is going to be stuff you don’t like. You might be required to keep certain office hours. The church you serve might not spend money like you wish they did. There may be theological differences. They might require you to sign a statement of belief or adhere to lots of policies. The list is endless depending on your preferences.
The truth is, you just have to decide what you’re willing to put up with.
Personally, I have decided that I can put up with a lot of stuff I disagree with in terms of methods. There are even theological things I can disagree with other leaders on that don’t bother me too much. Boundaries vary for each person. Decide where your line in the sand will be on a given topic, and don’t work anywhere where that line won’t be in the same place.
FLEE TOXIC ENVIRONMENTS
You can put up with things you don’t like, but enduring toxic leadership or unhealthy systems will run you into the ground faster than anything else. Let me put this as clearly as possible: Putting up with something that isn’t your preference is an exercise in humility, but putting up with a toxic church environment is an exercise in idiocy.
I am so blessed to serve in a church that, while admittedly imperfect, is healthy. I have also served in churches that weren’t. Fortunately, I had the good sense to get out. Some people I know remain in personally damaging environments much too long. They often end up in a different career.
Leadership experts continue to debate balance, work ethic, etc. Some say we should all go French and work four days a week and take a month off each year. Others say we should keep the candle burning at both ends for the sake of the Gospel. I thought this was a pretty good treatment on the subject.
Here’s the bottom line: ministry years can be kind of like dog years. A demanding one can take the toll of seven. Be smart. Make a plan. Follow it.
Don’t kill yourself trying to save others, or everyone will likely end up dead, or at least sick and tired.
INSIST ON A GOOD FIT
There are lots of great churches and ministries out there, but that doesn’t mean you should work for all of them. There are great churches in rural Alaska (I think?) but I’m not sure that’s a good fit for me. There are great churches that are of the Pentecostal tradition…again, not sure that’s a great fit for me. Fit matters.
You may be looking for a ministry, and a church may be looking for a minister, but that doesn’t make it a fit. You need to ask questions about ministry philosophy, priorities, the culture of the congregation and the area it serves, and more. If it’s not a good fit, don’t take the job out of desperation. You’ll like find yourself back in the same spot in 1-2 years, even more desperate, and more likely to land somewhere that’s still not a good fit. Before you know it, you are fed up and disillusioned and wanting to do something else. Your calling did not expire…you just never found the right fit.
There are lots of good reasons to bow out of vocational ministry — whether that’s to follow God’s call in some other career or to care for a family member or who knows what else. Unfortunately, the frequency of these resignations pale in comparison to the folks who are just too frustrated to continue. I hope the four pieces of advice above will help you avoid unnecessary angst and discouragement as you seek to serve well.