Six Ways to Support Pastors and Clergy Families While Building Stronger Congregations.

By Bob James and Rev. Mary James

Pastoring a church these days is hard.  Since the 1950’s attendance in mainline denominations has been in steady decline, and is now about half of what it was then. Many young people (known as “Nones”) and older congregants (“Dones”) simply find the churchgoing experience irrelevant. Dwindling attendance has resulted in greater financial pressures for churches, and many will close their doors over the coming years. Seminary enrollment is down; overall clergy health has declined, and pastors cite overwhelming workloads as a cause of stress to themselves and their families, and often a reason for leaving the ministry.

And yet, there is a renewal happening that offers a vision of a transformed church, one that seeks to combine the realities of 21st century life with a radical return to Jesus’ own practices of serving with generosity, welcoming the stranger, speaking to and for the marginalized, and practicing his ministry in the community.  It is exciting to reimagine the church along these lines.

In embracing this promising new direction there is a danger that clergy and church leaders will simply add these 21st century responsibilities to the existing job description of ministers, largely unchanged for decades.  If we are going to renew the church we will need to re-envision the role and responsibilities of clergy and the place that clergy families occupy within the new paradigm.

Where do we begin?  Kirk Jones, in Rest in the Storm writes “Being saved from deeply entrenched, unrealistic ministerial expectations involves radical reformations of ministerial understandings and behaviors on the part of ministers and their congregations.”  In Clergy Burnout, Fred Lehr lists the expectations of a “pastor-centered” church:  “…everything centers around the pastor; the pastor relates to everyone; expectations are high for the pastor to manage and control everything; growth depends on the popularity of the pastor; communication centers on the pastor; the pastor recruits and shepherds new members and volunteers; and the pastor is on an intimate level with all the members even at the expense of attention to the pastor’s spouse and family.”

There is ample evidence that this model no longer works. Yet it is commonly followed.

We would like to suggest six practices that re-imagine a healthier balance between congregations, clergy, and clergy families. They address the major causes of stress in clergy families identified by Priscilla White Blanton in her frequently quoted research, which we have written about in our 6/9/15 piece, “What do clergy families find stressful?”

These practices will  engage the spiritual gifts of congregants, provide needed support to clergy families, and help attract and keep good ministers –  even in this time of challenge and change.

  1. Encourage the discernment and calling out of the particular spiritual gifts of parishioners, rather than continuing a pastor-centered approach.   Consider changing your nominating structure to a  “calling and discernment” function. This “whole church” model calls for the minister to interact in a manner which strengthens the congregation and lessens dependency.  Ronald D. Sisk, in The Competent Pastor, observes “we spend way too much of our time doing things other people could perfectly well do…”   The job description of the minister has expanded continuously over the years, shifting the balance away from calm spiritual leader toward busy multi-tasking manager.  A model of shared responsibility can ensure that everything that is truly important can get done without burning out the minister. If people in your church say “When our pastor leaves I don’t know what we’ll do – she’s so involved in everything”  you might want to look seriously at changing your model.
  2. Be open to change. Most of our churches are still following models of worship and congregational organization that worked well in the 1950’s but which have not adapted to new cultural realities. The role of the minister today is to lead change.  Some church members understand this and are willing to look at new ways of doing church, while others cannot let go of familiar traditions. The toughest job of a pastor is to engage both groups in defining and acting on needed changes. Church growth experts predict that most smaller mainline churches will not be around in 20 to 30 years; those that survive will have embraced change and found ways to minister to the spiritual needs of people today.
  3. Establish well-defined boundaries between the pastor’s work life and family life, and honor them. The intrusion of congregational wants and needs into the family life of the minister is  frequently cited as a source of marital stress and divorce, a cause of depression, and motivation for leaving the ministry.  This weakens the church. The 24/7 nature of the job is certainly a factor, as are the multiplying demands that must be met, but what makes parish ministry unique and different is the difficulty in defining when a pastor is on or off the job, and the way the job becomes indistinguishable from the person. Kirk Jones notes “many well-meaning ministerial aspirants forget who they are apart from any religious activity”.  Another unique challenge in parish ministry is the tendency of congregations to function as second families, competing for the care and attention of the pastor in a way that other jobs do not. Ronald D. Sisk says “Clergy who cross boundaries do so in part when the church becomes their life instead of an appropriate part of their life.” Church leaders and pastoral relations committees can play an important role by being aware of these dynamics and by helping congregation and pastor define and respect good boundaries. This is an essential requirement for a strong church.
  4. Commit to a sustainable and well-supported pastorate. There are best practices that can assure this:  Define full time as a forty-to-fifty hour work week, and half-time as twenty to twenty five, with two full days off.  Limit evenings out each week for the pastor to one or two.  Respect vacation time. This is the only time the pastor’s family is guaranteed uninterrupted time together (the scarcest commodity in clergy life), and should not be disturbed except in the most extreme circumstances. Likewise, honor the pastor’s days off. All too often, congregants interrupt this time  with things that can wait. Provide time for Sabbath. Build in a sabbatical every five years.

       Provide fair and just compensation. Clergy live in the same world and have the same expenses as everyone else but are vastly underpaid in relation to other professions that require the same level of education and have an equivalent  level of responsibility.   The Bureau of Labor Statistics (2014 report) lists the median salary (meaning cash salary plus housing) for clergy as $ 43,950.  That is 37% of what a similarly educated lawyer makes ($ 114.970) and 49% of what an elementary or secondary school administrator earns ($ 89,540).  There is considerable and justified concern in our country that women earn only 78% of what men earn in equivalent positions. If clergy were paid at that rate it would mean an enormous raise.  While a written and signed call agreement between pastor and church is a legal document, it represents a covenantal relationship shaped by their mutual responses to God’s call.

 5.  Encourage and practice prophetic ministry, taking a countercultural stand against the busy and materialistic society around us. In his book, Sabbath: Restoring the Sacred Rhythm of Rest, Wayne Muller describes things this way: “It becomes the standard greeting everywhere: I am so busy. We say it to one another with no small degree of pride, as if our exhaustion were a trophy, our ability to withstand stress a mark of real character.  The busier we are, the more important we seem to ourselves and, we imagine, to others.  To be unavailable to our friends and family, to be unable to find time for the sunset (or even to know that the sun has set at all), to whiz through our obligations without time for a single, mindful breath, this has become the model of a successful life.” That is a society that has lost its way, one that the church should be shepherding back toward right living. Yet unfortunately Muller’s description applies to many clergy these days, multitasking their way through endless tasks and responsibilities. Eugene Peterson, back in 1989, identified this trend and said (in The Contemplative Pastor) “The essence of being a pastor begs for redefinition.  To that end I offer three adjectives to clarify the noun: unbusy, subversive, apocalyptic.”  He went further: “The adjective busy set as a modifier to pastor should sound to our ears like adulterous to characterize a wife or embezzling to describe a banker.  It is an outrageous scandal, a blasphemous affront.”

6. And finally, the voice of the pastor’s spouse, partner, and family needs to be heard and included.  If a true and healthy balance is to be achieved between clergy, clergy families, and congregations, the families must be invited to the table in churches, denominational activities, and seminaries, and given the opportunity to speak for themselves.  They have a unique perspective on the workings of the church that is essential as we seek to redefine our faith and how it will be practiced in the 21st century. The emerging church will not succeed without their participation.