Tracking the emotional and mental health of our pastors is a priority for us on the Northern California district, where we oversee ninety-two congregations worshiping in eighteen different languages. Amid the current pandemic, the district team has been calling our pastors, praying for them, sending out polls to gauge their well-being, meeting weekly with them online, providing mental health grants for those seeking professional support, and offering a benevolence fund for pastors and churches facing financial challenges due to COVID-19. As the district leadership, we care for our pastors to the best of our abilities. However, I have seen time and time again that all the support we can offer our pastors, although appreciated, cannot compare to the loving care and encouragement from the local church.
A congregation can make or break a pastor. There is nothing more heartening for a pastor than to be lifted up and supported by their congregation, especially during seasons of hardship and challenge. There is nothing more disheartening for a pastor than to pour out their heart to serve the congregation and receive nothing in return, leaving them feeling isolated and alone.
Here are some substantial ways to hearten your weary pastor in light of the enormous burdens this year has brought upon their shoulders
1. Educate yourself on the state of the church. The church is changing. Few pastors have the expertise for how to lead the church as the ground beneath us constantly shifts. To navigate this alone is daunting and overwhelming. Especially if you are on the church board or in other roles of leadership, do some research and be a resource for your pastoral team. Some topics of recommended study are 1) leading a church through crisis, 2) racial tensions in the church, 3) pastoral burnout, 4) future projections of church culture, and 5) church and technology. The Barna Group website is an excellent place to start.
2. Develop a culture of “all hands on deck.” People seem to have the misconception that pastors have more time on their hands now that many of our churches are worshiping online. This is far from the truth. In fact, this model of church has been pushing pastors to work overtime, causing a great deal of angst and exhaustion. As churches trickle back into face-to-face worship services, the demands and safeguards that need to be put in place to minimize risks for the congregation are not a task a pastor can do alone—yet many are. Experts are predicting a national crisis of pastoral burnout. Some are even saying that 20 percent of churches will not survive the pandemic—that is, 1 out of 5 churches will permanently close their doors for one reason or another before the pandemic is over. It is up to the whole body of Christ—the whole church community—to push through with resilience and faithfulness. This burden must not be placed on pastors alone.
3. Create a pastoral relations committee. On our district, we encourage our churches to create a committee of two or three individuals of the pastor’s choosing who will commit to the care of the pastor (and their families, if married). I can’t think of any pastors I personally know who are good at advocating for their own needs. It is awkward and uncomfortable. In fact, it is highly unlikely that a congregation will know when their pastor is going through a difficult time. A pastoral relations committee (PRC) would be responsible for assessing the needs of the pastor and advocating on their behalf. An excellent resource that outlines the content and structure of PRC responsibilities can be found in this Pastoral Relations Committee guide.
4. Prove your commitment to investing in the mental well-being of your pastor by adding it to your annual budget. Often, financial obstacles prevent pastors from seeking professional counseling for their self-care. We have a mental wellness grant on our district for pastors in these circumstances. Local churches are encouraged to match the grant to promote a collaborative effort toward pastoral care as well as to protect the sustainability of the grant. In almost every case, pastors resist approaching their own church boards to subsidize the cost because it feels too vulnerable. If churches create a preapproved budget line restricted solely for a pastor’s use toward mental health, pastors can have access to the care they need. Never question a pastor’s spiritual maturity when they seek help of this kind. Too often, well-meaning congregants have told pastors they should just pray harder, only to drive them deeper into despair. We would never tell someone with a cancer diagnosis to pray harder. We would direct them toward medical treatment. This should be the same response for those facing mental illness. Yes, pray, but seek professional help as we pray.
5. Be an advocate for, not an adversary of, your pastor. It is inevitable that you will disagree with your pastor at some point—especially in a polarized and divisive American culture where simple issues can easily become political altercations. Being an advocate for your pastor does not mean you have to agree on every point. It means to assume they have prayerfully discerned their position as a follower of Jesus in this contentious culture, just as you have. It means you sit with them and respectfully discuss the points of disagreement and prayerfully discern the way forward no matter how many meetings it takes to get there. If we cannot be unified in love despite our differences within the church, how can we partner in the ministry of reconciliation outside the church? After many prayerful conversations, it might become obvious that disharmony cannot be overcome. At this point, decide together which voices to invite to continue the conversations that need to take place for harmony to be restored.
6. And, of course, pray. Your pastor, above all things, needs your prayers. This cannot be overemphasized. For so many seasons, I have felt that the faithful prayers of our congregation were the only reasons we were able to survive. I have little doubt that the days we are in right now would be considered to be one of those seasons by your pastor.
To all those weary pastors out there: you are loved and appreciated. May the Lord’s strength sustain you and give you hope and peace that are beyond the world’s understanding.