This Thing Decreased My Stress as a Pastor

This week an article about pastors quitting ministry and even Christianity itself circulated among some of the clergy I know. I see articles like this all the time. Among this one’s ominous passages is this one:

[] conducted a 2015 survey that found 60 percent of pastors consider themselves overworked and 81 percent feel unable to meet the demands of their jobs, Atkinson said during an Oct. 13 FaithSoaring Churches conference call sponsored by The Columbia Partnership.

The survey said 82 percent feel they are burdened with unrealistic demands or that they and their families are expected to meet unwritten expectations.

“Eighty-five percent consider leaving ministry [and] 77 percent consider themselves having experienced burnout,” Atkinson said.

One of the things I’ve experienced as a pastor is that, no matter how much work I put into trying to reach people, it’s never enough. If I look out at my church on a decently attended Sunday, like most churches these days, I’m doing well to see about 1/3 of my actual population (and I’m pretty careful about keeping the membership rolls accurate). And if I look out at Vespers on Saturday night, well… let’s not go there. And if I think about the number of people who come to confession, who attend classes, who give something approaching a tithe, who go on pilgrimages, who engage in spiritual reading, etc., it is very easy to think that I am really failing.

In my conversations with other Orthodox clergy, their experiences are almost always roughly the same. And similar things are happening in non-Orthodox churches, too.

So we work harder. We call people. We write them emails. We send them text messages. We show up at their homes for house blessings. We talk to their relatives. We send them letters and post cards in the mail. Yet only a handful respond. 
 Why are the people who aren’t very engaged not very engaged? I could speculate, and that’s what I’d mainly need to do—speculate. Why? Because when I ask, they almost never respond. They just don’t even seem to hear.

I’m talking about pastoral ministry here, but experience tells me that anyone who tries as a Christian to minister to others, even those within his own family, has similar experiences. It’s just impossible to get through sometimes.

This used to bug me a lot. And I will admit that sometimes, it still does. But I learned something about why I can’t seem to get through to some people, no matter how hard I work at it. And what I learned is summed up well in this passage from Edwin Friedman’s A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix:

Whether you are a parent, a minister, a healer, or a CEO, your communicant’s capacity to hear you depends primarily on the emotional variables of direction, distance, and anxiety. Others can only hear you when they are moving toward you, no matter how eloquently you phrase the message. In other words, as long as you are in the pursuing, rescuing, or coercive position, your message, no matter how eloquently broadcast, will never catch up. And as for anxiety, it is the static in any communication system and can distort or scramble any message. It cannot be eliminated simply by turning up the volume, since that invariably also turns up the static. Messages in families, in the consultation process, or in organizational directives come through less because of the quality of their content than because of the emotional envelope in which they are delivered.

Unless someone already has a desire to listen to you and to pay attention to you, he just cannot hear you. You can be eloquent, persistent, caring, brilliant and even compelling, but unless the other person is making himself available to listen, there’s nothing you can do to make him listen.

There’s a lot you can do to make the emotional process work better, if possible. You can try building a relationship with that person. You can try finding out how to eliminate obstacles in your communication. But if that person simply will not respond even to attempts to build relationship, then he cannot hear you when you try.

Once I learned this, my stress dropped pretty significantly. It’s not that I decided to ignore those people. But I decided to stop putting my emotional investment in whether and how they responded. I still include them in every way I can along with everyone else. But I’m not packing any emotional worry into them. They choose to connect or not. I cannot make them do that. I can give them opportunity, but I cannot make them take it.

And you know what? Freeing myself from chewing worriedly on whether I’ll ever get certain people to respond makes me available to put a better investment into the people who are ready, those who are available, those who are (to use Friedman’s language) “moving toward” me.

And it seems to me that this approach is compatible with the style of leadership Jesus exhibited, too. He preached to all, healed all, offered Himself to all, and yet He also focused His ministry mainly on twelve men, who, despite their many imperfections and even sins, got up and followed Him when He called.

There is only so much of each of us to go around, emotionally speaking. Without cutting anyone out in terms of ministry availability, wouldn’t it best to spend that emotional investment on where it’s going to have an impact? Wouldn’t it be better to speak when you know that you are being heard?

And what about speaking more to the One Whom we know always hears us?


  1. I hope you are able to circulate this message among your brother priests. I never knew how much you and your brother priests are burdened by constant activity, energy drain and the sense of disappointment concerning your congregations until I read an article about four months ago. Yes, Father, we have to be willing to go to you and not have the unrealistic expectation of your coming to us. May God bless you and your ministry!

  2. Seven years ago I was lucky enough to learn under a pastor who had studied with Ed Friedman; I saw these ideas in the parish firsthand. That doesn’t mean I can ever get it working well in my parish. Thanks for the reminder! Especially at this time of year!

  3. Thank you, Father. I am not a priest, but a special education teacher. Your words helped me to understand my career better, and to also understand my dear priest better.

  4. This reminds me of a sermon I once heard that emphasized that Jesus walked alongside the men on the road to Emmaus rather than jump in front of them and run backwards as they moved down the road. The ridiculousness of such an image helped me tremendously in the professional counseling practice I had at the time. There are other analogies that help remind us, such as, hovering over green tomatoes will not bring them to red ripeness any faster. But as you say, you will still tend those tomato plants, pick off the bugs, water and fertilize…but ripening, akin to responding, is an issue of timing.

  5. In the USAF chaplaincy we went to a workshop using the book Clergy Burnout (John a Sanford 1982) which said that the pastorate had several elements in it that ( although some are , of course, seen in other professions) – in the pastorate they are especially stressful :

    1. Job of ministering is never finished
    2. The priest cannot always tell if his ministry is having any results
    3. The work is repetitive
    4. The priest is constantly dealing with other’s expectations
    5. The priest must work with the same people year in year out
    6. The ministering deal with many people who come to him or the Church not for solid spiritual food but “strokes.”
    7. The priest must function a great deal of the time in his “persona”
    8. The priest may be exhausted by failure
    9. Lack of fulfillment

    I would add to this is having a “job” without a “job description” i.e. what is it that the pastor is to do? What are the more important?

    I might add that I am saddened by lack of “management skills” I see in a lot of pastors. My sarcastic question: Interested in evangelization? Begin with returning phone calls.

  6. Ding, Ding, Ding, Ding Ding! Right Answer! Tell him what he’s won, Johnny!

    I still struggle with this, but this leadership principle taught to me years ago; that we should believe people when they communicate to us they are not interested; saved me anxiety many times.

  7. This is a little difficult for me, personally. While I understand what you’re saying here in regards to how difficult it can be for priests, there are priests that make no overtures to those of us that really needed them and their guidance at a precarious time. In fact, my priest told me the last time he ever spoke to me (which was two years ago- and I had to initiate it) that he had ‘thought about calling me and my husband’. If he had ‘thought’ about it, then why didn’t he? I would have been thrilled to know he actually cared. Then, inaccurate speculation as to my predicament followed that declaration. I had gone from active, involved, and at practically every service to non-active. I’m still a little bitter about it. I know my issues and what I should do, but encouragement and a pastor attempting to pastor would have helped tremendously in my case.

  8. As a divorced/widowed woman in my late 60’s, I was drawn back to Orthodoxy on Palm Sunday (4/28/13) and have very rarely missed a Saturday Vespers or Sunday, Feast Day Divine Liturgy. I absolutely love my church and most of the parishioners, most of the time. I was the parish secretary for about 6 months and had to quit because of the unbelievable stress I was under (I chose to volunteer my services where and when I could, instead of being an employee.) Not because of my workload, but because of the constant bombardment of petty issues that they wanted me to bring to the attention of our Priest! My point here is: I can absolutely relate to the pressure that the parishioners put on Father and his wife and I don’t want to add to their stress. I worked for 18 years as a Legal Secretary at a large NYC law firm and was never under the kind of pressure that I experienced as the church secretary! Wanting to be a Priest has to be one of the most selfless professions there is! May God Bless our priests and give them strength!

  9. Very good reminder. Probably applies to the personal and corporate worlds, as well. And, yes, the Lord focused on The Twelve above all the people. He also had extra interaction with the three – Peter, James, and John. Even with Peter, above the rest. Years ago, when reaching out to some homeless people in the area, I was distraught over the lack of response by some. I was disappointed, not so much in them, as in my inability to reach them and connect with them. Later, I read a passage from one of the Fathers who mentioned that if we are helping someone, especially among the poor, and we are upset about it, excessively emotionally involved, then we are doing it wrong, and our heart is not in the right place. We must be faithful, regardless of how it’s received, because Christ *always* receives it.

    That lifted a great burden from me. I’ll never forget that.

    Thanks again for this essay.

  10. I am comforted by an experience I have with the dean of student my first week in seminary.

    He walked in to an alert and attentive group of men, eager to grow in the faith and pass on what they have learned when he said: “None of you will ever make a single convert in your lives. Conversion is Always and Act of the Holy Spirit. We plant seeds and lead unhypocritical lives – Everything else is a result of the Holy Spirit ”

    Perhaps the best lesson of my seminary career. Do your best and then leave the important stuff up to God.

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