Leading the Sheep Astray
There are numerous statistics about pastors leaving ministry in record-breaking numbers. However, Mark Dance with LifeWay disagreed. He wrote, “It is a prevailing myth that 1,500 to 1,700 pastors leave the ministry every month. The promising truth is 250 pastors leave the ministry every month.” Whether the number is in the thousands or in the hundreds, it is disheartening, because while pastors leave the ministry, 23.1% of Americans claim no religion and 16% of the world’s population is not affiliated with a religion. The heart of Christian ministry is reaching souls for Christ. Scriptures state that God desires that no soul would perish, but all would come into repentance (2 Peter 3:9). Yet, Scriptures also warn, “‘Woe to the shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of My pasture!’ declares the LORD” (Jeremiah 23:1).
Although ministry functions in various forms, it is the pastor who teaches and encourages believers to love and live for Christ and to reach others who have never heard or experienced Him. However, Jeremiah 50:6 warned, “My people have been lost sheep. Their shepherds have led them astray, turning them away on the mountains. From mountain to hill they have gone. They have forgotten their fold.” It is true that one person should not have so great of an influence on others. However, the fact is that there are many believers who are not spiritually-mature to grow in their own relationship with Christ. Thus, the purpose of a pastor continues in response to the call. Such dependency can lead to the stress symptoms that a pastor experiences. If a pastor loses the passion for ministry, it is possible that it will affect the parishioners. Sheep follow their shepherd.
One may be so engulfed in ministry call that it becomes easy to ignore the extreme emotional and interpersonal stressors that represent the warning signs for positive change. Christina Maslach and her colleagues stated, “Occupational burnout is a prolonged response to chronic emotional and interpersonal stressors on the job, and is defined by the three dimensions of exhaustion, cynicism, and inefficacy.” Sadly, pastors may come to believe they are failing God when they lose the drive to serve His people.
The foundation of pastoral leadership is deeply rooted in the pastor’s calling. Exantus described it as a threefold calling: (a) a pastor’s call to salvation; (b) a pastor’s call to service; and (c) a pastor’s call to full-time ministry.6 In each of these calls, the pastor has to be intentional about knowing God’s people, to pattern life to serve like Jesus, and to become available when needed. Yet, even in serving like Jesus, the pastor has to establish a proper balance.
In all the work and miracles Jesus performed, He always established physical and spiritual balance. Revisiting the idea of spiritual, physical, and emotional boundaries, there are many Biblical examples. “Now in the morning, having risen a long while before daylight, He went out and departed to a solitary place; and there He prayed” (Mark 1:35). Jesus is attending to the spiritual boundary. “And He said to them, ‘Come aside by yourselves to a deserted place and rest a while.’ For there were many coming and going, and they did not even have time to eat. So they departed to a deserted place in the boat by themselves” (Mark 6:31-32). They were attending to physical boundaries. “Come to Me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For My yoke is easy and My burden is light” (Matthew 11:28- 30). Emotional balance stems from care and attention to rest the heart, soul, and mind.
The weight of the pastorate involves emotional rollercoasters. One day, the pastor feels able to save the world. Within minutes, there is an all-time low as the same pastor wants to hide away from church and family. Even if well-versed in Scripture with the power of God flowing through them, pastors still face moments of despair. Two female pastoral colleagues stated that they were traumatized by people stating that they were leaving the church. One pastor explained, “Even though they said I wasn’t the reason, I began to feel like I had done something wrong.” Some parishioners have great admiration and respect for pastors, while others have their opinions and no regard for them or their calling. This can lead to emotional trauma.
An individual’s response to the call of ministry is based on a zeal to share the gospel and love of Jesus Christ. One may view this call as a response to Jesus’ mandate to the disciples:
“Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age. Amen” (Matthew 28:19-10).
As pastors, one is always teaching, discipling, and nurturing. Even after leaving the church and in the comfort of home, pastors are still shepherding a sheep. Most times, there is no idea of when to put an end to the day, because of the commitment to fulfill the cause of Christ.
What happens when the pastor’s zeal is extreme and it causes self-destruction? Pastor Cordeiro noted, “A tragic flaw of many leaders is that they cannot recognize their limits or acknowledge their need for others as the demands of work or ministry scale up dramatically.” It is tragic because the pastor attempts to be all things to all people, and that is not the plan nor the will of God. Throughout Scriptures, God had leaders to strategically assign individuals to assist with ministry. “Therefore, brethren, seek out from among you seven men of good reputation, full of the Holy Spirit and wisdom, whom we may appoint over this business; but we give ourselves continually to prayer and the ministry of the word” (Acts 6:3-4).
The overzealous pastor wants to do more for the cause of Christ (e.g. community outreaches; Christian education training; etc.). Most times, the overzealous pastor’s intentions are good, but if not properly balanced with quality time in God, it becomes easy to lose oneself in doing ministry and not Christian living. At that time, the focus shifts from soul-winning to egotism.
Although this scripture pertains to the office of a bishop, it holds true to the pastorate: “A bishop then must be blameless, the husband of one wife, temperate, sober-minded, of good behavior, hospitable, able to teach; not given to wine, not violent, not greedy for money, but gentle, not quarrelsome, not covetous” (1 Timothy 3:2-3). The application is not gender-specific. These godly characteristics apply to all of God’s leaders. Christian leaders are a representation of Jesus.
Therefore, their lives are to reflect the characteristics Jesus displayed while living on Earth. Throughout Jesus’ ministry, He always reminded people that He represented His Heavenly Father. Jesus said, “Truly, truly, I say to you, the Son can do nothing of Himself, unless it is something He sees the Father doing; for whatever the Father does, these things the Son does in like manner” (John 5:19). In each of these Scripture passages, Jesus never operated in ministry to bring fame or accolades to Himself. “I have glorified you on Earth. I have finished the work which you have given me to do” (John 17:4). Everything He did was to bring glory to God and to bring the people back to Him.
When a pastor loses sight of this purpose, the spirit of egotism sets in. Egotism is the frame of mind which causes a person to pay too much attention to self, to be conceited, and to become selfish. Robert Louis Stevenson stated, “However grand the truths a preacher taught, however skillful the outward image of the leader, the time comes when the veil falls away and a man is seen by the people as he really is.” Egotism exposes an individual’s heart.
Humanity and Limitations of Pastors
Sparsely researched empirically are the mental states of pastors, which can significantly impact churches, communities, and even nations. Rather than viewing emotional and mental health needs and resources as enhancing the shepherding and leading of parishioners, a wave of Christian and pastoral resistance to understanding mental and emotional well-being, and the factors that undermine it, can negatively affect pastors and parishioners seeking assistance. As a result, pastors and their congregations may continue to maintain unrealistic expectations for pastoral leadership. “Traditional conceptions that promote unrealistic expectations of the congregation are likely in turn to foster internal unrealistic expectations kindled by a leader’s basic human need to achieve and succeed.” With these “internal unrealistic expectations” and a lack of awareness of potential or real threats, pastors may either unnecessarily resist or ignore the competent plentiful resources for pastoral care.
An understanding of the humanity and limitations of pastors, along with the intercession and physical support of the parishioners, are crucial for pastoral well-being. The Apostle Paul called the church the Body of Jesus Christ (1 Corinthians 12) and bodies need each part to systemically coordinate to optimally function. Parishioners must be mindful of their pastors’ human limitations and needs. If the pastor overextends, the church may also stretch in unhealthy ways. If the pastor develops a spirit of arrogance, there is a chance some of the parishioners will also walk in arrogance. Ed Stetzer wrote, “Arrogance stifles mission. It redirects the focus of our ministry to us instead of a kingdom focus. The reason this is so dangerous, especially for those in ministry positions, is that it can become a cancer to our ministry.” Cancer spreads and cancer kills if left undiagnosed and untreated.
The stress of pastoral ministry is real and irrefutable. Each day, the lack of soul care is becoming costly to the pastor, family, and the church. A pastor who is constantly doing ministry, engrossed in daily church work, and available to everyone, with no time for self or family, will eventually self-destruct. Such pastors may face spiritual, physical, and emotional destruction, and as an end result, major devastation. Pastors reaching this point in ministry may become withdrawn and isolated from family and the church. Tripp stated, “An intentional culture of pastoral separation and isolation is neither biblical nor spiritually healthy.” Yet, pastors are not exempt from withdrawal and depression that create unhealthy distance, whether physically or emotionally, from their roles and responsibilities.
The body has limitations and its effectiveness wanes at a certain point in one’s life. Rest is useful in reducing stress and anxiety. When we take rest, both physically and mentally, we remain away from stressful situations. It allows the body to calm down and gather some energy as well.Pastors understand the importance of eternal soul care through the decision to receive Jesus Christ as personal Savior, but then may deny physical and mental soul care needed for them to be efficient and effective in their pastoral assignments. As a result, it may lead to sheep going astray