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What’s Happening to the Pastors?


Aside from growing up on a family farm, I’ve never worked at anything except being a parish pastor. When I studied for ministry I was motivated, as most of us are, by a search for answers to the disquieting questions in my own young heart. (Henri Nouwen had it right when he spoke of the “wounded healer” who heals others in the attempt to heal him or her self.) At the time, I didn’t know much about what it meant to be a pastor. I knew I’d be expected to study, preach, oversee church business, visit people in the hospital and in their homes, and tell others in the community our message—this last which, at that time in my life, seemed to me so flawlessly coherent that no one, hearing our theology from my lips, would be able to resist it.

I proved moderately good at some of these things, not so good at others. Being a pastor isn’t a hard job in the sense that work on a farm is hard. John Updike in one of his novels refers to it as a “curiously idle” profession, and indeed, you can put as much or as little into as you wish. (A church woman said to me once, “Could you come and help us clean up the store room on Wednesday? You’re the only man I know who doesn’t work.”) Most pastors are conscientious. Marry that with common sense, the ability to self-start, a bit of personal warmth, and a general acquaintance with Adventist points of doctrine, and you can survive and even thrive. 

What I didn’t know was that the biggest challenge wouldn’t be the tasks, but the relationships and expectations. Read any book on ministry (they are cranked out regularly, rarely by someone still in a parish) and you’ll find a standard so high that Jesus Himself couldn’t reach it. A pastor must spend at least 60 hours a week doing God’s work, respond to every problem heroically, preach outstanding sermons, love even the most hateful of his church members and make his church grow even in the face of a congregation’s fights and inflexibility—but never neglect exercise, relaxation, giving his family unhurried quality time, praying and studying for hours every day, and in short maintain a perfect relationship with wife, children, church and Jesus.

Beyond the math not adding up, it doesn’t seem to be working very well, for pastors in any denomination. A New York Times article by Paul Vitello draws on several studies, including a significant one by Duke University, that show that “Members of the clergy now suffer from obesity, hypertension and depression at rates higher than most Americans. In the last decade, their use of antidepressants has risen, while their life expectancy has fallen. Many would change jobs if they could.” Another study claims that only one in ten pastors who train for the profession when young will stay in it until retirement.

I have spent my life in the company of Seventh-day Adventist pastors, and I will defend them to anyone as the most well-intentioned bunch of people in the world. They’re not in it for the money and they really do love their people. But to pretend that they’re little Jesuses would be a stretch. I’ve been on personnel committees, had many close pastor friends, and been a pastor myself long enough to question the air of triumphalism that permeates advice to pastors. Clergy are not (as Boccaccio and some of your church members would have it) more corrupt, lustful and sinful than the average person, but they have problems like everyone else. There is certainly incompetence among Adventist pastors, though I’d counter that in some of our dysfunctional congregations, it would be pretty hard to know what competence would look like.

According to Paul Vitello, “There is no simple explanation of why so many members of a profession once associated with rosy-cheeked longevity have become so unhealthy and unhappy.”

But here are a few ideas that occur to me.

Mismatch between education and job. When I left seminary and went to a tiny multi-church district, I suffered not a little disillusion, for what I‘d prepared for with years of theology and Biblical languages required almost none. I’ve got as many years of education as a physician, but in most places a high school education, an outgoing disposition, and a Share Him DVD would have served me about as well. What conferences wanted back then (and some still do) was a team of salesmen. What congregations want is more complicated, though I can safely say that no pastoral search committee has ever listed “must be able to translate from ancient Aramaic” as a requirement.

Loss of automatic respect. In Victorian England, a pastor with not a lot of piety or theological education could be regarded almost as nobility, just by bestowal of a good sinecure. My childhood family placed the pastor on a pedestal (which honor, I should add, was maintained by moving him every 2-3 years before the luster wore off). But we no longer live in an era of automatic respect. Most people don’t claim to be more skilled than their orthodontist, but everyone in church is a theologian. Just like politics, everyone gets to have an opinion on how the church should be run.

More contentious culture. A lot of things—some of them attributable to our own bad behavior—have left clergy subject to accusations that in the past would have been unimaginable. Yet even a good pastor is a target for projected frustrations. I’ve had people speak to me in ways they wouldn’t to their dog. It is an angry culture, and while you might be willing to put up with incivility in a business or courtroom, it’s harder when you’re working in the same place where you get your spiritual sustenance and have all your friendships.

Cynicism about religion and rise of the “nones”. Though you might not realize it from watching the media preachers, religion in America is in decline. Spirituality is still valued, meaning an increasing number in the younger generation put “none” as their religious choice. Pastors see it in many ways, the most significant being the disappearance of the young from the church, and in how the guy next to you on the plane buries his face in Wired magazine to avoid talking to you when you admit you’re a clergyman.

Needy congregations. Except perhaps for those in the shadow of colleges or hospitals, there’s a feeling of desperation in many Adventist congregations. They’re seeing the median age rise, the children and youth disappear, money dry up, and the congregation as they know it daily on the knife’s edge of danger. Jesus saves our souls, but the pastor should be the savior of the congregation, even if it’s already on hospice care.

Family expectations. An old pastor told me of sitting down for dinner one evening decades ago, when the conference’s van driver knocked at the door, and said that they were supposed to move—the first they’d heard of it. The wife was 8 months pregnant, but they packed up in a day and moved to a parsonage across the state. How things have changed! Children want to stay in the same school. Families own homes. Wives have careers and may not be willing to drop everything to follow God’s call as it is relayed to them by the conference office. So when difficulties of any kind occur, it isn’t uncommon that a pastoral family and their good educations will go off in another direction.

Rise of celebrity ministry. At almost any time of day you can tune in Doug Batchelor, who never broadcasts an unpolished sermon, has all the answers, and is backed by professional musicians. You can infer that his wife and children are perfect, that he never misses an appointment, never argues with his congregation’s leaders, always has a clean car, never burps or has spots of food on his tie. Why wouldn’t you send your tithe to him?

Being a clergyman is challenging right now. Fortunately, our denomination offers plenty of careers for people with ministerial training not to do what they trained for. Our best clergyman transfer into denominational offices, where (according to a recent NAD study) we spend up to $145,000,000 each year for what many believe is superfluous administration. We in the Seventh-day Adventist church have the dubious distinction of having created a system where to be recognized as a good pastor, you will have to leave the profession.

More on that next time.


Loren Seibold is a pastor in the Ohio Conference, and the recently-appointed Executive Editor of Adventist Today.


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