A Word from the Executive Director on Small Churches

I often lead workshops for pastors of small churches. I typically start by asking the question: “What keeps small churches and churches led by bi-vocational pastors from being as Kingdom-minded as they would like to be?” Great discussions follow about the challenges small congregations face. Inevitably, the issue of pastoral burnout becomes a key part of the discussion. Pastors of small churches are already doing so much, and they just can’t add anything else to their agenda without burning out. So therefore, they never get to do all the Kingdom ministry they want to.

Though all pastors are prone to burn out, bi-vocational pastors and pastors from single staff churches typically face this threat with fewer resources from their local church and denomination, and sometimes with less information on how to avoid burnout.

One way to help bi-vocational and single staff pastors avoid burnout is to help them overcome the “second class syndrome.” Many small church pastors feel that they are “second class” pastors. Though there are many reasons for this, common ones include: they lack education, they cannot boast about numbers or they cannot take part in denominational meetings because their second job conflicts with those meetings. But pastors need to realize that bi-vocational ministry is actually NORMAL for the church (read Acts 18:1-4, 1 Thess. 2:9, 2 Thess. 3:7-9). Pastors also need to realize that bi-vocational ministry is becoming MORE COMMON in America. Almost all pastors will spend at least a portion of their ministry in a bi-vocational situation. Just knowing these two critical realities can help pastors change their perspective. That change of perspective is the first step to avoiding burnout. 

A second way to help pastors avoid burnout is to help them learn the art of delegation. Pastors and lay leaders need to understand that shared leadership is NORMAL in the church (read Acts 13:1-3, 2 Timothy 2:1-2). God NEVER intended for the pastor to do all the ministry on his own! It is very unhealthy for both the pastor and the church when the pastor does it all. Pastors and lay leaders must be taught that there are multiple callings to ministry in a healthy church (See 1 Timothy 5:17). There are people who are called to do ministry who may not be called to be pastors. When we tap into those people, then the leadership capacity, and therefore the ministry capacity, in small churches will leap forward. Some pastors do not delegate because they either think the lay people will not do ministry or that the lay people are not trained adequately to do ministry. Pastors must remember that one of the primary duties of pastors is to train people in the local church to do ministry (See 2 Timothy 2:1-2).

A third way to help pastors avoid burnout is for them to have a Sabbath on a regular basis. God set the example of working for six days and then taking one day to rest. Genesis 2:2-3. Bi-vocational pastors, and the churches they serve, must understand that the pastor needs a day off each week if they want him to be around long term. Though it can be hard to make time for a day off, delegating small tasks to others will help relieve some of the pressure from a bi-vocational pastor. However, if the pastor really wants to avoid burnout, he must also be willing to delegate some high-level ministry duties to others.

That leads to the fourth key to avoiding burnout: developing a pastoral leadership team. Since preaching and visitation are two of the most time consuming aspects of ministry, bi-vocational pastors should train others to help them with these two ministries. Lay people can and will help with these ministries if trained adequately. If lay people resist learning how to assist in these ministries, pastors should remind them that the Spirit will empower them. Letting a lay person preach several times a year gives the pastor a much-needed break and develops the lay people’s spiritual lives. The same is true for visitation. Both the pastor and the church is enriched when lay people join the pastoral leadership team and provide part of the preaching and also carry part of the visitation ministry. 

Pastoral burnout is a growing concern for all pastors, but especially single staff and bi-vocational ones. Pastors can avoid burn out best by realizing their situation is far more common than they realized, by learning the art of delegation, by taking a regular Sabbath and by creating leadership teams to assist them preaching and visitation.

Dr. Terry Dorsett is the executive director of the Baptist Convention of New England.