It seems that every few weeks there’s another good article about the high cost of being in the ministry. What they boil down to is this:
Ministry is a tough, lonely profession that makes ministers and their families unhealthy in a multitude of ways. There was a day when this meme was limited to the bitter and disenchanted, but no more. Now the statistics back it up, undeniably, and denominations have learned the hard way they they have to budget for what just may be the unhealthiest profession in America. Ministry is hard on people, too hard, and no one should enter ministry unaware of this fact.
Which should raise a question in those considering entering professional ministry: are you willing to risk it? (If anyone makes you aware of these facts in the first place.)
I think ministry is worth the risk to your health and family in two specific circumstances.
1. You have the calling and gifts for big church ministry. In my experience, big churches are insulated from the worst of church dysfunction. Churches have a tough time growing that large if they’re dysfunctional to begin with. And big churches often have—or have the ability to create—organizational structures that can more easily manage dysfunction when it arises. Plus, big churches allow you to specialize in your gifts instead of having to be a jack of all ministry trades, and the staffing levels mean you’ll have colleagues at the ready who can provide support when you need it. Big churches are growing, and they’re good gigs if you can get them.
2. You have the calling to be a small church pastor and have the gift of drawing healthy boundaries. This one has more than one part, so let’s break it up.
Small churches. Most churches are small churches. If you’re new to the ministry, odds are good you’ll spend the early part of your career, perhaps all of your career, ministering to a congregation of ±100 people. That’s just where the numbers are. If you feel called to a bigger church, you better have the gifts for that and be willing to put in time proving it at small churches first.
Pastor. You are fine with serving primarily as a pastor, which is to say not as an administrator or prophet or powerhouse preacher. I’m not saying you’ll never need to be an administrator or a prophet, or that you can’t preach well, but that’s not what your congregants will expect of you. For the most part, they’ll want to know you’re there to take care of them, having some wisdom and support to offer when they need it most. If they know you love them, they’ll forgive mediocre preaching and administration, and they’ll put up with occasional prophetic moments, even go along with them if you aren’t always pushing it. But if you don’t have the gifts of pastoral care, forget it.
Healthy boundaries. This one is the clincher. Let’s be honest. Odds are good that if people haven’t already pointed out that you’re good at drawing boundaries in a firm yet loving way, you don’t have this gift. That’s okay, you can learn it. But it will be hard, and you’ll have to set out to learn it yourself because they won’t teach you this in seminary. The stats linked to at the top of this post prove that most people in ministry are bad at this, and it hurts their health and their families. Something about ministry seems to draw people who are bad at boundaries. A little dysfunction makes a big splash in a small church, which is probably where you’ll be. If you’re not good at confronting unhealthy behavior in a healthy and proactive way, prepare to be eaten alive. Thousands of others have found this out the hard way.
If I sound too negative, keep in mind that one study showed that half of current ministers would leave the ministry today if they knew another way to make a living. That’s sad news, and that single fact should be posted as a Surgeon General’s warning on every seminary brochure. Are you willing to risk years of your life finding out the hard way why so many ministers feel that way?
Full disclosure: I’m a seminary graduate who worked for six ministers in four churches in two denominations as a non-ordained ministry professional over nine on-and-off years. I am both grateful for the my time in ministry and grateful that I’ve been able to find a way to make a living outside it.
(Photo by I_am_Allen. Used under Creative Commons license.)