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Several years ago, I spent a coupe of hours with a group of young pastors. It was a cross representation of church planters and pastors of established churches. There were healthy churches and unhealthy churches. Churches represented were growing, plateauing and declining. Most of these pastors were new in their positions and I expected to see all these churches would be growing soon. It was a sharp group of people.

We talked about a lot of issues, but one of our longer discussions was when I asked them what their greatest struggle in ministry was at the current time. There were some incredible consistencies – actually more than I anticipated. Very different churches and very different pastors – very similar struggles.

I thought it was worthy of sharing here. A large majority of my readers are pastors. And here is my word to you – you may not be as alone as you think. The title says “young” pastors, and I chose it because this group was, but I suspect these aware shared by pastors of all ages.

Here are the 5 most common struggles among pastors:

Personnel issues.

If the church has any paid staff other than the pastor there will be issues for the pastor. I’m finding this portion of our work more demanding than ever. The longer I lead the more complex this issue becomes, simply because of the changing laws and regulations placed on places of employment – including the church.

I always advise younger leaders, especially those without a background in this issue, to seek professional help in this area – even if it has to be from outside the church.

Navigating bureaucracy.

I think this is a particularly heavy burden on younger pastors. The generation entering the ministry is much like the generation entering the secular workforce. They want to do something, not meet about doing something. I share their heart, but granted this is one of the hardest ones to address. (Of course, the church planters weren’t the ones with this struggle as much.)

I often advise young pastors in established churches to write some of their best sermons around casting vision of how we should spend our time as pastors. Jesus seemed to teach and model quite extensively about our need to reach the lost. The Bible doesn’t record a lot of His time in committee. Acts gives good models of leadership and serving the people. People in the first century seemed to do a lot of the work we’ve placed on professional staff.

Balancing ministry and family time.

This has always been a struggle. And, frankly, it should be. We need to work hard – it’s a good Biblical principle – and we need to protect our family. There’s another great Biblical principle. It requires a healthy art of balancing our time. This younger generation of ministers, however, won’t automatically let the ministry trump their family. And I think that is a good thing. Ministers from my generation and older generations sometimes did. Many from these generations have told me they wish they hadn’t after it was too late.

My advice to the younger pastor was to keep the heart for the right rhythm. I knew they would likely never be fully balanced, but they can be very intentional with their schedule and use of time. They will have to cast vision to the church continually of why they are not at everything and why their family is so important. The church needs this message too – as they are equally in the struggle.

Developing leaders.

This one seemed true regardless of the style of church. And, in my experience, it’s true in most organizations. We are always in need of new leaders. You can’t grow or even maintain without consistently developing new leaders. In a practical sense, leaders come and go, die or burnout. But it’s also difficult to grow and develop as a body without growth in the number of leaders.

I advised them to start systematically and strategically developing new leaders now. In fact, I think it’s more important you have a system – even if it’s not perfect – than to do nothing. People typically learn best by doing. So, at the least, in the absence of a formal leadership development program, start giving people you see with potential assignments to lead – and let them develop with on-the-job training.

Handling critics.

Again, this one was shared less by the church planters, but the interesting twist is the criticism church planters received was typically from outside the church. Pastors in established churches seemed to receive most of their criticism from inside the church. (There’s a whole blog post needed on my thoughts on this one.) But, either way, one thing all leaders have in common is criticism. Lead anything and critics will find you. You don’t have to go looking for them. (I love the passage in Exodus 24 where, as Moses was going to the mountain to spend time with God, he made a plan for how to handle disputes among the people.) Because leadership involves change. And change always changes things. (You got that, right?) People often respond to change with an emotion — it could be anger, frustration or sadness — but it comes to us as what we’ve labeled criticism. I’ve learned sometimes it isn’t as much against the leader as it is against their sense of loss, but either way it hurts.

I always remind young pastors and leaders that we must find our strength in our calling, our purpose and in the pursuit of the vision God has placed in our hearts. We shouldn’t ignore criticism. We should filter it. (And I’ve written on the right and wrong ways to respond to criticism.) But we should not let criticism control us – in our leadership or in our emotional state – even though that is sometimes the intent of the critic. Part of leading is learning how to stay healthy even in the midst of criticism.

I loved my time with this group and repeated it several times.

Let me ask – was anything surprising about the list?

I also wondered if seminaries addressing these issues? Should they?

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Ron Edmondson

Author Ron Edmondson

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Join the discussion 11 Comments

  • justinhiebert says:

    I see the conversation here has moved to the degree of how seminaries should (if they can), teach this. I think they can, and with the changing landscape of church in the coming years, will have to. I read a report recently (though the report wasn't very recent), that said that the highest rate of burnout among pastors occurs in those who are chronologically younger. While it can certainly happen to anyone at any age, the research seems to suggest that experience in ministry is less a factor than age in years. Seminaries are going to have to address this for young leaders and teach them how to avoid these pitfalls. Hard work no doubt, but doable, perhaps paired with Matt's idea of intensive intentional mentoring.

  • @matt_steen says:

    The seminary question is an interesting one to me. I am currently attending seminary after spending fifteen years in ministry (I forgot to get an MDiv).

    I don't know if a seminary can truly teach this stuff… or if I could have learned it in a classroom setting. I think that much of this can only be learned "the hard way" and that intentional mentoring during the first five (or more) years of ministry in a local church would be far more effective.

    • ronedmondson says:

      Thank you Matt. I understand that and tend to agree. I wonder though if exposure to these issues would help. How to build systems and accountability and structures that promote health — for example. When I was raising my boys I tried to expose them to things I thought they may encounter so that they would be more prepared to handle them when they did encounter them. 

  • Bill says:

    Good points…very good in fact..and timely, because I just spent 3 hours driving up to Indianapolis with three Christian Leaders (and obviously 3 hours driving back) and some of our conversation went in depth about church and non-profit leadership and management. We all agreed that its probably long overdue that established churches / ministries streamline and update their leadership and management structure to eliminate 90% of time spent meeting about doing something. We also believe we came up with a solution worthy of discussion that would provide the same results, eliminate redundancy and provide added transparency. I'm reluctant to give details here publicly as our group was made up of members from different churches and organizations who read your blog, but I would be happy to share privately and you could make the decision to consider or dismiss. We may be way off base or just doing wishful thinking, but we don't think so.

  • Keith says:

    Let me ask, was anything surprising about the list? Nope!

    I also wondered, are seminaries addressing these issues? Should they? Yep!

    About 8 years ago I spent about 4 hours with the President of a seminary that we were considering doing some joint ventures with. I spoke to him about variations on all these themes plus some. He dismissed my observations and thoughts outright. We didn't proceed with the joint ventures. God protects!