Pastoral Care

Understanding pastoral leader burnout and finding a way forward

By Laura Stephens-Reed

Thinking in general, I do not like the application of business mindsets to ministry. The Church, after all, is not out to make money for those who have invested in it. It’s not even about the number of people in the pews. Instead, the Church’s function is to grow disciples and to show and tell the good news of God’s love to all the world, no matter what the balance sheet and average service attendance show. 

Laura Stephens-Reed

That said, I have recently been found that categories from The E-Myth Revisited: Why Most Small Businesses Don’t Work and What to Do About It by Michael Gerber provide a helpful framework for thinking about ministry. Gerber says that every business needs people that fulfill one or more of three key roles:

The entrepreneur is the big-picture thinker, the dreamer of what could be. In a church, this might be the pastor and/or lay leadership body that discerns the congregation’s direction. Without this visionary function, a church risks either falling into a rut or planning with no sense of ongoing invitations from God or hoped-for impact. 

The manager tends to the day-to day details that make operations run smoothly in the present. In a church, this might be paid staff and/or key volunteers who ensure that everything is ready for worship, that there are teachers and nursery attendants on Sunday mornings, that the food pantry is peopled, and that the HVAC gets serviced. These people stave off gaps, confusion and frustration. 

The technician is the front-line worker who does the hands-on tasks. These undertakings include preaching, teaching, pastoral care and service in the larger community. In a congregation, these are carried out by the pastoral staff as well as laity who are living their followership of Christ in tangible ways. If a congregation doesn’t have both pastor and people visibly embodying God’s love, it might as well recast itself as a social club. 

As you can tell from the descriptions, all of these roles are essential for congregations to live fully into their purpose. Each mode of being augments the others, and there is room for the gifts of all church members in at least one of the three categories. You might not be a visionary, but you can coordinate a schedule of liturgists or people to prepare a meal for those experiencing homelessness. You might be terrible at details but are ready at a moment’s notice to show up on a doorstep with a casserole or to a protest advocating for everyone to be treated as Jesus would treat them. You might be hesitant to have a conversation with a stranger, but you can see possibilities and strategies for your congregation to do more good than anyone else can imagine. The entrepreneur, manager and technician mindsets, then, can be a way of understanding and leaning into our spiritual gifts.

You might also notice that the pastor pops up in all three categories. Particularly in smaller congregations, clergy are called upon to wear all three hats. They set much of the church’s trajectory, or at least shepherd the process by which their governing board does this work. They tend to the details of worship and spiritual formation and congregational care and ministry to the surrounding neighborhood. They preach and teach and care and represent the church in the community. Not all of this work comes naturally to them, and they delegate some (ideally, many) tasks. But often, whether or not it is healthy for them to do so, they shoulder the bulk of the mental, emotional, spiritual and sometimes even physical (e.g., driving around town to make visits, fixing a leaky toilet) load for a congregation. 

And that was clergy life before Covid-19. When the pandemic hit, the floor dropped out beneath the delicate balance of entrepreneur, manager and technician for pastors. The short term, not to mention the long term, became so uncertain that it was hard to stick to previous visioning and nearly impossible to discern direction anew. So, pastors micro-visioned, looking for nudges toward the next right step. Day-to-day operations changed entirely, and many of the go-to people who previously helped with details either weren’t sure how to do so in the changed circumstances or were dealing with the turmoil that Covid had wrought in their own lives. Familiar means of hands-on ministry dried up with physical distancing and, in many cases they were replaced with new modes that carried big learning curves (such as online worship) and additional prep time. (Raise your hand if you’re a pastor who still recoils at the memory of rendering a recording to post online.) Pastors made these adjustments because they love Jesus and love their people. 

We are now in a time when Covid seems to be loosening its grip on us. We are largely physically regathered, living in the tension between what seems familiar from two-and-a-half years+ ago and what feels familiar from the height of Omicron infection six months ago. This means that pastors are now wearing six hats: the old and new ways of being entrepreneur, manager and technician. It’s a big ask. No wonder they are crispy-fried.

And so, I wonder if the three categories can be a way forward for us all, a hat rack of sorts on which we place those caps we need to take off and leave them for others to don when they can. This would begin with pastors and laypeople getting honest with one another about what they have a modicum of energy for, because it won’t be everything. Maybe the pastor can do small slices of the managerial and technician roles, but nothing more. Maybe a team can do some very limited visioning work around its ministry area. Maybe a few individuals want to pick up details for a simple fellowship event or a book study. Nobody needs to overreach, but just focus small until some energy and momentum accrue. And everybody needs to acknowledge that the congregation is doing appropriately bite-sized work in all three areas, slowly building muscle.  

Every single church is in a re-start phase. When a business starts, it needs small movements forward in entrepreneurship, management and technical work. Let’s take a helpful hint from the business world about how we can sustainably rebuild capacity for future impact in God’s name.

Laura Stephens-Reed is a clergy and congregational coach based in Alabama.

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