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A Conversation Between Dr. James C. Dobson
• 50 percent of all congregations in the United States are either plateauing or declining.
• 33 percent of pastors confess "inappropriate" sexual behavior with someone in the church.
• 90 percent of pastors work more than 46 hours a week.
• 80 percent believe that pastoral ministry affects their families negatively.
• 33 percent say that being in ministry is an outright hazard to their family.
• 75 percent report they've had a significant stress-related crisis at least once in their ministry.
• 50 percent feel unable to meet the needs of the job.
• 90 percent feel they're inadequately trained to cope with ministry demands.
• 40 percent report a serious conflict with a parishioner at least once a month.
• 53 percent of Americans say the nation's moral problems are greater than the nation's economic problems. 78 percent of Americans rate the state of moral values in the United States as weak or very weak.
Even a quick glance at the risk factors on page 20 shows how pastors today are feeling and the tough life they're leading.
Do you see yourself in these numbers? More important, what can you do about it?
As part of the answer to that question, let me tell you how a ministry for pastors and their families started. During a family gathering, James Dobson and I had a casual conversation. As we talked, we began to realize the need for someone to become a pastor to pastors to help ministry professionals cope with these unique stresses they live under. We sensed a need for someone to plead the cause of pastors and families to parishioners across North America.
You probably know that Dr. Dobson is founder and president of Focus on the Family. And I served as a pastor for 31 years. But you may not know that Dr. Dobson and I are first cousins. We're both the only sons of ministers, and we were born just nine months apart. We've been close friends since childhood.
That's not all we have in common. We're both immensely interested in the spiritual health and emotional wellness of pastors and their families everywhere. We believe that if we can help pastors and their families, they'll in turn multiply ministry to families in their churches.
Our casual conversation in Jim's den led to prayer and thoughtful discussions about how Focus on the Family might respond to the unique needs of pastors who serve 350,000 churches across the United States.
The outcome was a commitment by Focus on the Family to assist pastors who face the difficult daily dilemma of meeting the needs of their families while trying to be faithful to the obligations of a contemporary pastorate.
To help pastors build healthier homes, Focus on the Family tries to offer a compassionate heart that seeks to understand their unique stresses; a noncondemning listening "other" for ministers and spouses; and topflight strategies and imaginative resources for spiritual renewal, family-life strengthening, time management and financial stability.
I can't recreate the original conversation I had with Jim, but I can let you listen in on another conversation-a Focus on the Family radio program originally heard on 1,900 radio stations-that shows how building awareness among pastors and lay church leaders is the first step in untangling some of the stresses and trials pastors face.
Dobson: H. B., I believe the Church is the first line of defense for the family. It must not be permitted to flounder. Since the local pastor is the most visual person who represents the Church, he carries most of the load.
He's the one people call when they have a family emergency in the middle of the night. He's the one who puts his arm around someone's shoulder to offer comfort in crises and spiritual support when it's needed the most. The pastor's role is vital. His work is absolutely essential in our society.
Unfortunately, few people stop to think about how much difficulty, how much depression and how many obstacles he faces to serve in this way.
London: That's right, Jim. In many ways, the first line of defense for the family is the Church. But it can only be strong when the pastor is emotionally stable and spiritually solid. That's why I believe that if we can strengthen pastors and their families, we can be a catalyst for spiritual renewal in many churches across the nation. But it's an uphill battle: We live in a culture of increased religiosity but decreased morality. Pastors have never had to work harder to serve people than they do now. The pressures are incredible and brutal.
Dobson: Describe the pastors we're talking about.
London: There are 350,000 churches in the United States served by pastors who head families, so I assume that's the size of our problem. Families in pastors' homes face all the pressures every family faces, plus unique demands pastoral ministry makes on them. These pastors need help with their families as much as they need to be able to do ministry well.
I want to encourage these faithful pastors. I want to serve those with deeply felt spiritual commitments who give themselves every hour of every day to ministry. I want to help those ministers whose families sacrifice to keep their husband or father in the pastorate. The church couldn't exist without these families.
Dobson: What are the main difficulties the average pastor faces?
London: Their most pressing problems relate to time, money and family. I think we must help pastors balance these areas. Balance is the principal issue; everyone wants it but few seem able to make it work for them. They ask, "How do I minister effectively to my family and still be fair to my congregation?" There's always more to do than time allows.
Dobson: It's a bottomless pit-they never get done. The burden of unfinished work is probably greater in the pastorate than in any other vocation.
London: The terrible tyranny of the unfinished is always with them. But like all strong family units, pastors' families need to make it specific-they need to stop and talk to each other and take time to understand what's happening in each other's lives. Then if something is amiss, they need to take time to fix it.
Dobson: Still, if you're a pastor and you get a call at 3:00 in the morning-if someone has a heart attack-you go to the hospital. If someone has a serious automobile accident, you go. And if a family has a runaway teenager, you go to offer support in any possible way.
London: That's it exactly. You answer the phone. You get up. You stagger into the shower. You go. You pray all the way. You minister however you can for as long as you're needed. Then you pick up your day wherever you can find it.
Something Must Change
Dobson: But that pace takes a terrific toll-emotionally, spiritually, even physically. Faithful ministers must live in a perpetual state of fatigue.
London: Something has to change-that's the message I hear often these days from the letters pastors write about their frustrations in ministry.
Dobson: Let's talk about what your mail says. When you first came to Focus on the Family, I think you wrote 5,000 pastors to see what they were thinking and feeling.
London: Yes, I randomly selected 5,000 pastors from our mailing list. I asked three questions:
1. What's the greatest danger facing pastors and their
2. What's your number one challenge as you serve your
3. If it were possible for me to do so, how could I personally
assist you through utilizing the resources of
Focus on the Family?
Dobson: What a list of questions. I guess you had a blizzard of responses and the phones started to ring. What conclusions have you reached after reading hundreds of letters?
London: Second to the balance issue is the difficulty of motivating people to live consistent lives and to help the Church accomplish the Great Commission. Pastors are frustrated because people seem apathetic. They're experiencing a lack of people willing to do acts of Christian service.
I don't want to overgeneralize unfairly, but these pastors are saying that the good people in their churches seem centered on their own comforts, achievements and happiness rather than on the needs of others. Of course, the laity have many of the same pressures pastors have in their families and on their jobs.
Dobson: You've told me that about 40 percent of pastors say they have considered leaving their pastorates in the last three months.
London: That's what our surveys indicate. And though most of them will never leave the ministry, it does reflect an agonizing dissatisfaction that's largely unrecognized by those outside the profession.
Dobson: That's frightening when you calculate how important the church is to the family and the community. The Church is the essence of the Christian movement and the cornerstone of everything we believe and stand for. Yet 40 percent of its leaders say they're thinking about bailing out. Why are 40 percent ready to give up?
London: It's a buildup-an overload or even a soul-breaking accumulation-of all we have been discussing. Pastors feel victimized because the work is harder and more complicated than ever before. They work harder now yet see less response and fewer results.
People are easily enticed by cultural nonvalues. Many people in the Church place more value on success and show than on spiritual reality and wholehearted repentance and authentic holy living.
Many pastors of churches of all sizes also feel pressured to be like the megachurches. For most, it's an impossible dream, but they hear about it often and some of their church members talk about it often.
Then, too, I think there's a disheartening message that trickles down from superchurches through books, tapes, conferences and religious TV programs; so pastors want to be like the biggest churches. But that creates unbelievable frustration because they can't be like megachurches.
The reality is that most pastors will never pastor churches of more than 100 members. Somehow, pastors need to hear that it's pleasing to God and important to the Kingdom if they do their work well in whatever size church they serve.
Dobson: I realize my qualifications to speak on some of these issues are limited, but I believe an emphasis on numbers is mistaken. It's upside down. The priority is wrong. Put the spiritual needs of people first, and numerical increase will be the natural outgrowth.
London: But some small churches have neither quality ministry to people nor increased numbers; some have not had a visitor in church in months or maybe even years. It's hard for a pastor to keep up his morale in those situations.
Moving Beyond Survival
Dobson: What about the health of those churches? I think I saw a statistic that 90 percent of churches are in survival mode. In other words, they are hanging on for dear life and trying to make ends meet. Do you agree?
London: Yes, and many of those churches have tried everything they can think of to break out of that, but they've failed. So some change pastors every three or four years. They're frustrated by nonproductive activity and tired of preaching that judges their lack of spiritual commitment. And we need to be aware that the secularization of society wounds them greatly because it encourages sporadic attendance and irregular giving.
Dobson: That constant moving tears up pastors' families, too.
London: Sure, and they can't even begin to develop trust between pastor and congregation in such a short time-to say nothing about trust in the community for the church.
Dobson: And did you tell me more than half of the pastors' wives are severely depressed?
London: Yes. And their wives often have reason to be depressed. They're expected not to express themselves. They're supposed to sit in the corner while their husbands run the show. And they slowly die when they see their husbands come home, sit in a chair and stare into space. They ask, "Is it worth it all? Are we doing any good? Does anyone care? Will it ever change?" And most of the obvious answers are even more frightening than the questions.
Dobson: I have to admit that you're giving me a new perspective on the local congregation and how much the pastorate has changed. I also have to admit that I'm a little convicted in the way I deal with pastors. I've often asked why the church isn't fighting abortion and pornography and why the church isn't reaching out to single mothers. Now I see that many pastors are hanging on by a thread. It changes my perspective and makes me believe something has to be done to change these situations.
London: You speak often about pastors having full plates. That word picture is amazingly accurate. Their plates are running over with so many demands and causes that they just throw up their hands when a new one comes along. One more challenge to take up a new cause, however noble, is just too much for them. Any additional expectation can push them over the edge.
One pastor writes that he feels like an old-fashioned wagon with the wheels coming off after someone removes the toggle pin from the axles. When the wheels come off, it either turns over or ends up in the ditch. That illustrates how many pastors feel today.
Dobson: How widespread is this problem, and what can be done?
London: All I can say is read my mail, answer my phone, hear what pastors tell me in conferences, and then you know pastors are in pain-everywhere. More than anything else they need the love, encouragement and prayer support of the people they serve.
That's why I believe our mandate is to encourage spiritual restoration and renewal and then help pastors better manage their time, money and personal lives. I think our first responsibility is to initiate spiritual renewal and restoration in the life of the pastor's family. We are going to do it every way we can-through books, tapes, magazines, pastor gatherings and conferences.
In the years I have left, I want to be available to speak with pastors and help them extend their ministries to families-especially their own families. I also want to be able to help those who are burned-out or depressed. I want pastors the world over to feel loved and valued.
Hope in the Assault
The prevailing crisis among pastors is crystal clear.
Excerpted from PASTORS AT Greater RISK by H. B. LONDON, JR. NEIL B. WISEMAN Copyright © 2003 by H. B. London, Jr., and Neil B. Wiseman
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.