Health and Effectiveness in Ministry

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We find that pastors are often whipsawed by competing outside expectations and held to various measures of effectiveness, such as head counts or dollar figures, that may be unrealistic or unfair...

Divinity magazine is the glossy periodical for friends and alumni of Duke Divinity School. In the new issue, there is a column by Scott Field, a DDS alum and pastor in the Northern Illinois Conference.

Field’s first appointment out of seminary was to Wheatland Salem Church, a rural congregation averaging 50 in worship attendance, struggling to survive. Thirty years later he is still there, and the church has thrived during his tenure, erecting a new building to house its multiplying ministries, and growing to be the second largest church in his conference.

Clearly Mr. Field is a ministry “success story” being held up as a role model. Most of his column is taken up with a bulleted list of things he’s learned in his “first appointment,” his top 20 or so pearls of wisdom. Here are the first three:

  • If you don’t take care of yourself, nobody else will. You are worthless to lead ministry unless you are well enough to do and be what God calls you to do and be.
  • There is not a job opening in the Trinity. Don’t even attempt an internship. You are a servant of Christ, not the other way around.
  • Congregations can have a number of different pastors. Neither your spouse nor your children have another you. Set boundaries that let your personal relationships thrive.

As it happens, his first three items are messages that we at the Clergy Health Initiative also preach: the importance of self-care, a well-grounded spirituality that puts God in God’s place and us in our place, and the primacy of family and close friends. Taking care of this immediate circle is essential for pastors to function effectively. Yet we have heard it said by more than one of our North Carolina United Methodist pastors that the role models held up by the conference are often the workaholics who model poor health and unfaithful leadership habits. Well, Scott Field certainly doesn’t sound like a workaholic (though I suspect he learned the hard way)…and yet his church has thrived.

Pastoral health and pastoral effectiveness have an uneasy relationship, and I have sometimes felt it necessary to differentiate the two.

“Clergy Health” in our conception is not identical to congregational health as the conferences measure it. We find that pastors are often whipsawed by competing outside expectations and held to various measures of effectiveness, such as head counts or dollar figures, that may be unrealistic or unfair. Some of the trials and conflicts of parish ministry are inherently unhealthy; these are no-win situations by any numerical measure. We want to advocate for pastors in those situations, to help them survive to fight (and thrive, and be effective) another day.  We want our pastors to be well, not merely to perform well.

Surely health and effectiveness can coexist within the swirl of congregational life. Surely doing well can and should flow out of being well. The conscious goal we want to promote is for pastors to be healthy, balanced, and faithful in ministry. Effectiveness happens when we as Christians find that balance and get out of the way of the Holy Spirit.

In a recent blog post at Faith & Leadership, James Howell discusses the growth that occurred during his tenure as senior pastor at Davidson United Methodist Church. It was not providence, nor grace, nor his own gifts or charisma that caused his congregation to swell, he says – it was pure luck. I find that honesty and humility refreshing!

But we are called, as Fields points out in the Divinity piece, to be well enough and whole enough to receive favorable circumstance when it arrives, and able to take advantage of it.  A broken pastor cannot.

How do you view the relationship between health and effectiveness in congregational ministry? Or am I missing the point: is there no relationship between the two?  We’d love to hear from you.

Shalom y'all,


John James, M.A., Research Coordinator, Clergy Health Initiative

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