The American church is suffering, and pastors are hurting with them.
If the statistics are true, 70-90 percent of churches in North America are either plateaued or declining. Many churches close their doors each year; others struggle to keep the church afloat.
The typical congregation is graying, and with that comes a greater demand for care and bereavement ministry at the expense of evangelistic and outreach efforts. Faithful members attend less frequently due to travel, sports, work and leisure. Monies once used for ministry are now expended for building upkeep and maintenance. Pastors are performing additional work because there are fewer staff members and volunteers. Because of financial shortfalls, many pastors are taking pay cuts and having benefits reduced or eliminated. All the while, the church continues to decline, with the prospects for improvement fading like the sunset.
Pastors often feel as if they are pushing a heavy ball uphill, exerting energy, only to slide backward on the slippery slope of decline. The problems, demands, frustrations and expectations are endless. Is it any wonder that many pastors leave the ministry each year while some face forced termination, or that others live with constant fatigue and depression?
How can the pastor remain healthy in the midst of such pain?
First, he must understand that the church’s problems aren’t all the fault of the pastor. Certainly, as in any profession, there are some lazy and unethical pastors who give the rest a bad name. Most pastors are hardworking, faithful, diligent and caring servants who are called to their posts. They labor long and hard every week. They launch new initiatives and outreaches. But nothing seems to work. Is the pastor to be blamed? Not always. Peter Drucker writes: “Culture eats strategy for lunch.” The church’s culture is often enmeshed in tradition, values and hierarchy contrary to biblical truth and pastoral authority. These forces trump vision, strategy and leadership. It will take a miracle to move engrained and deep-rooted practices — and people — so that God can work.
Also, the pastor is responsible to his people, not for his people. In other words, the pastor is responsible to teach, train and equip members to perform assigned tasks, duties and obligations. The pastor is not responsible for the people’s response. The pastor teaches each week in a way that engages, equips and exhorts people to live more Christlike lives and to grow in their discipleship and personal ministry. But the pastor is not responsible for how hearers respond any more than a chef is responsible for people eating the food he or she has prepared. Not everyone followed Jesus or responded favorably to him. If the labor honors God, the pastor has done his part.
Next, the pastor should leave the results to God. The pastor presents Jesus’ message in the Holy Spirit’s power, leaving the results to God. Pastors must disconnect themselves from the results. The Apostle Paul understood this fact: “I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God has been making it grow” (1 Corinthians 3:6 NIV). Most churches, if not all, grow because God placed his blessing on them. Sometimes they grow in spite of the pastor and the strategy. After a season of growth, some churches will verbalize their success through webinars, conferences or books. In all honesty, they should admit that God was at work and that they simply got out of the way. Remember, pastor: The church is not yours, it is God’s. Pastors and lay people need to execute care with the personal pronoun “my” when referring to the church. The church has never been “yours.” God instituted it, and Jesus shed his blood for it. The church should be treated like financial resources: Manage what God has entrusted to you — leading, serving and caring for the church as if it were your own until God moves you elsewhere.
Finally, consider this: No panic exists in heaven. Yes, the statistics are staggering and unnerving. Yes, pastors are struggling and stressed. But God is still on his throne. He is not pacing the heavenly floor. He is not stressed and befuddled. Five hundred years ago, the church was on life support, having ventured away from biblical truth. One hundred years ago, the church faced an epidemic of liberalism that threatened its survival. Fifty years ago, the church was given up for dead as Time magazine asked on its cover: “Is God Dead?” But God was not fretting. He was not wringing his hands in alarm. God was up to something. Five hundred years ago, the Protestant Reformation re-birthed and enlivened the church. One hundred years ago, evangelicalism emerged with a renewal of evangelism and church growth. Fifty years ago, the Jesus Movement stirred the dying embers to ignite a spark that swept over many churches, giving them new life and new hope.
What will God do today? How is God at work today? One thing I’m sure of: As a quick study of God’s Word reveals, God’s future work will look different from the past. God rarely duplicates himself. He has always used new wineskins. Glimmers of stirring are seen at various places. Pastor, don’t give up too soon. God may be doing a work in and through you to impact a generation. Hang on. Look up. Keep your hand at the plow. God is still God, and it’s still his church. He called you as his ambassador. Be faithful. Be true. Be available. God always accomplishes his best work through the willing hearts of tired people.
— Rick Ezell is pastor of Greer First Baptist Church. He has published more than 600 articles and sermons in various Christian publications and has authored seven books.