Photo by Rod Long on Unsplash
September 27, 2014

When Pastors Struggle

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It is a sad and uncomfortable fact: Pastors struggle with the same temptations and sinful inclinations as “lay” people. Although we long to have pastors who display unwavering faith, have model marriages and families, provide strong leadership, and deliver excellent preaching, the reality is that pastoral leaders are human, and struggle just like us. And while pastors expend much great effort to meet and exceed those expectations, they often fall short and then find it difficult to admit they need help. This is especially true because pastors are accustomed to being the ones to whom people turn to for help; they are the “experts” in the “helping” role and are supposed to “know better.” So, like many of us, their needs often don’t get adequately met.

Unfortunately, there are severe consequences for the church when this happens. Pastors often can:

  • Engage in the dangerous cycle of “masking and medicating. Experiencing difficult issues and internal pain in ministry contexts where the pastoral leader is supposed to “have it all together” can cause pastors to hide their pain from others. This often leads to masking over the problem and then medicating emotionally to feel better. Pornography and masturbation, sexual misconduct and substance abuse are tempting and easy sources to medicate emotional pain. Yet, the consequences are staggering, both personally and professionally.
  • Lose touch with the reality that God is the one who sanctifies (1 Thessalonians 5:24). Struggling alone in ministry often leads to a cycle of over-working, which leads to more struggling. The line between God’s sanctifying work within the leader’s heart and pressures to demonstrate competency becomes blurred. They continue to proclaim a gospel of grace for all, but emotionally, they struggle to experience this grace for themselves.
  • Strive to maintain their identity as the “successful leader” by engaging in ministry related activities rather than finding their identity in Christ. This striving cycle serves the purpose of maintaining a pastoral persona that temporarily wards off feelings of failure and insecurity. This makes it exceedingly hard to enjoy God’s refreshing, healing presence. Like Martha, they continue to endlessly serve, placing “doing” above “being” (Luke 10:38-42).
  • Develop subtle ways of running from suffering rather than healthy ways of moving through their suffering. Pastoral ministry necessarily involves suffering because it requires being in relationships with people who themselves are wounded. The pain and disappointment that comes from receiving criticism and rejection can be excruciating. Sadly, persons receiving training for ministry often do not have a corresponding training in managing their own emotional life and the emotional lives of others. This leads to burn-out and compassion fatigue as they experience profound suffering in the workplace.

Pastors and their congregants must honestly face the reality that being in ministry is difficult and can be detrimental to the health of the pastor and his family. A pastor is first and foremost a human being with emotional, social, spiritual and physical limitations, and unless these are wisely addressed, the pastor, the pastor’s family, and the congregation will suffer. In addition to leaders needing trusted friends to help them do good self-care, they especially need a safe place for them to be honest with others about specific, potentially damaging habits, like sexual struggles and pornography. The shame that is associated with sexual struggles and sin keeps the pastor living “underground,” and then when everything comes to the surface, the implosion of their families and their congregations is tragic and widespread.

So, what can pastors and their congregations do to address these ministry hazards? Pray for them, and love them well: keep expectations realistic, and give them adequate time off and away. But take it one more step. Encourage, and help them, to find a “safe” group of friends and/or colleagues where they can practice being “real,” and find support to stay clear of the ever-present sexual dangers that haunt ministry leaders.

ServingLeaders Ministries is a unique, non-profit ministry that provides a safe, and confidential haven for pastors and ministry leaders. It offers pastoral and professional counseling, seminars, retreats and other services tailored to meet the special needs of ministry leaders. Please check out the website at for more information about what ServingLeaders provides to the ministry community.

In addition to contacting Dave Wiedis, you can also send a confidential email to John Freeman at j[email protected] if you are a pastor needing help. Both ServingLeaders Ministries and HARVEST USA understand the unique pressures on ministry staff, and want to help.

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