Vocational Christian leaders in Western nations are leaving ministry and/or burning out at an alarming rate. The epidemic of leadership casualties in Christian organizations is so serious that leadership experts such as Robert Clinton suggest that only 30% of leaders finish “well” (Clinton, 1988, p. 156).
The stressful nature of pastoral ministry is clear. Over 50% of Christian leaders: (1) show signs of being burned out, discouraged, stressed, over-worked, (2) experience conflict with those they are leading, and (3) see signs of their emotional and mental wellbeing negatively impacted (Parkman, 2020). Pastors require a sustainable ecosystem around them to thrive, as represented by the framework in Figure 1. This paper focuses on spiritual and mental resiliency factors, as they have the greatest impact.
To better understand both the external and internal pressures of ministry and discover how they may be overcome, we survey the ministry of Paul the Apostle. In this paper, we ask what pressures Paul experienced in ministry and what strategies he employed to maintain a healthy spiritual/mental perspective on his life and ministry. Through Paul’s ministry, pastors can find validation knowing that stressors are real; they are to be expected in ministry. Pastors may also find hope in knowing how these stressors can be overcome in the pursuit of a vibrant life and ministry.
More than any other New Testament author, we are given great insight into the Apostle Paul’s internal world and processes. This is observed in Acts, but even more so in his epistles. Here we view his reaction to his personal sense of weakness, antagonism from unhelpful people within the church, and ill-treat ment from those outside the church. His vulnerability, openness, and robust mindset allow us to investigate the anatomy of wellbeing in the leader’s life.
Leaders That Last: A Holistic Theoretical Framework
Stressors in Ministry Leadership
Minister’s vocational hazards have the potential of negatively affecting their internal world. The threats to which Christian leaders are exposed include: (1) spiritual risk, (2) emotional/psychological risk, (3) relational risk (LeadFresh, 2017), (4) staff issues, (5) difficulty getting buy-in from members and generational challenges, (6) fund-raising needs, (7) criticism, and (8) lacking true friends in the church (Ratner, 2013). Dorian! (2015) reveals that it ts impossible to satisfy everyone, contributing to depression. Grady (2016) laments, “You will face discouragement often . . . Your pride will be wounded . . . Your heart will be broken . . . Your dreams and ambitions will be misunderstood.”
As each ministry stressor ts experienced, 1t ts processed through the grid of the leader’s internal world, including personal beliefs and self-image. Over time, these stressors reveal whether the leader has a helpful or unhelpful pat tern of cogn1t1vely processing each challenge. Ministry leaders need to renew their minds regularly, so they are redemptively processing ministry experiences. Leaders need cognitive-behavioral therapy from a spiritual perspective—allowing them to replace negative beliefs with positive beliefs. In this process, the spiritual and the mental indicators of leadership sustainability overlap.
Pressures That the Apostle Paul Experienced
Those newer to ministry may find themselves unaware of the potential stressors that they will encounter. The Biblical record informs us of some of pressures that vocational Christian leaders can expect to face. In Paul’s ministry, we see that potential threats to his inner world came from three directions: internal pressure, pressure from within the church, and pressure from outside the church.
Paul reveals that he had to overcome self-doubt and fear in order to fulfill his calling. In 1 Cor. 2:3, he states, “I came to you in weakness—timid and trembling” (NLT). This is a reminder that Paul had a very human response to the intimidation he faced in each new ministry context.
Pressures from Within the Church
Paul had to make unpopular decisions as he worked to limit the influence of those who sought to bring false doctrine into the church (Acts 15:1). In guarding the church’s theological integrity, he faced social pressure from those who desired to have influence but were not worthy of influence. We rarely think of the social pressure this can create for a leader.
It was difficult for Paul to walk the church though times of immaturity or potential influence from false teachers. In Galatians 4:19, he confesses, “But oh, my dear children! I feel as if I am going through labor pains for you again, and they will continue until Christ is fully developed in your lives” (NLT) The struggle of tensions within the church left him crying out for relief; “From now on, don’t let anyone trouble me with these things. For I bear on my body the scars that show I belong to Jesus” (Gal. 6:17, NLT).
Paul also faced pressure from disagreements of principle with ministry team members. In Acts 15:38, we see that he had a sharp disagreement with Barnabas, causing them to part ways.
Pressures from Outside the Church
External opposition to Paul’s ministry came from Jewish leaders in several cities he visited. “But when the Jewish leaders saw the crowds, they were jealous; so they slandered Paul and argued against whatever he said . . . they incited a mob against Paul and Barnabas and ran them out of town” (Acts 13:45, 50, NLT). In some locations, Paul’s ministry also disrupted the economy and threatened the city’s religious fabric. In Ephesus, two of his ministry team members were dragged into the theatre after a local Artemis craftsman incited a mob against them. Paul was present; some friends had to hold him back from addressing the angry assembly (Acts 19:23–41).
Spiritual/Mental Strategies that the Apostle Paul Employed
While the threats and challenges in Paul’s ministry were real, he continued to thrive because of the healthy spiritual/mental processes and patterns he established in his life. By studying Acts and the epistles, we see nine strategies that promoted his wellbeing as a leader.
Defaulting to a Praxis of Prayer and Worship
Approximately thirteen years after Paul’s conversion, we find him worshiping, fasting, and praying with the believers in Antioch (Acts 13:2–3). By this time, he had already experienced hostility from outside the church and skepticism from within the church. In this context, the Holy Spirit spoke about the special next assignment God had for Paul and Barnabas.
Later, we see Paul again turn to worship and prayer, even after a public beating and jailing in Philippi. “Around midnight, Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the other prisoners were listening” (Acts 16:25, NLT). This pattern shows that Paul’s practice was to filter everything he experienced through God’s majesty and worth. His gaze was kept on God’s glory rather than his circumstances. The leader’s reflex (or natural response) to threats or complications may be to blame, panic, attack, or withdraw. Here it is vitally important to train the mind and heart to turn, instead, to worship. A leader can gain a fresh perspective and allow God’s room to move and speak into the situation.
Focusing on What Could be Gained Through Facing Challenges
While the Apostle Paul acknowledges the profound challenges he faced, he can positively process those experiences by recognizing that they taught him how to depend on God (and thus they held tremendous value for him).
We think you ought to know, dear brothers and sisters, about the trouble we went through in the province of Asia. We were crushed and overwhelmed beyond our ability to endure, and we thought we would never live through it. In fact, we expected to die. But as a result, we stopped relying on ourselves and learned to rely on God, who raises the dead. And he did rescue us from mortal danger, and he will rescue us again. We have placed our confidence in him, and he will continue to rescue us.” (2 Cor. 1:8–9, NLT)
Again, in Romans 5:3 Paul teaches about the benefits that come into our lives in times of trial:
We can rejoice, too, when we run into problems and trials, for we know that they are good for us—they help us learn to endure. And endurance develops strength of character in us, and character strengthens our confident expectation of salvation. And this expectation will not disappoint us. For we know how dearly God loves us, because he has given us the Holy Spirit to fill our hearts with is love. (NLT)
Paul displayed a maturity of thinking that allowed him to reframe his experiences. He understood that there were benefits of trials and that he could be more enriched as a leader by having gone through them. When a leader can see the value of an experience—difficult though it may be—they become more resilient.
Trusting God with the Outcomes of Ministry
Paul had the ambition to affect many people, yet he nurtured the ability to trust God with the ministry outcomes. He learned to detach his sense of wellbeing from the responsiveness of others. “I hope all of you who are mature Christians will agree on these things. If you disagree on some point, I believe God will make it plain to you” (Phil. 3:15).
Paul also detached his sense of wellbeing from the reality that some would work counter-purposes to his ministry. “You know my love and my patient endurance . . . But evil people and imposters will flourish. They will go on deceiving others, and they themselves will be deceived” (2 Tim. 3:10, 13, NLT). He refused to allow the existence of those with dishonorable intentions to disturb his peace.
Paul was not fatalistic in that he had a positive expectation of ministry fruit when he entered into new ministry contexts. We see this when he penned the words, “. . . in order that I may have a harvest among you” (Rom. 1:13, NIV).
Forgiving People Who Have a Negative Impact on the Leader and the Church
The Apostle Paul was hurt by an individual who had hurt the Corinthian church. While he (and the church) set in motion a plan to deal with the transgression, Paul was careful to forgive and release the offender (2 Cor. 2:5–11).
Indeed, when a leader is disappointed, offended, or wounded—and cannot healthily process the event—there will always be a negative impact on their ministry. Though some preached Christ out of rivalry and an attempt to stir up trouble for Paul, he found joy because Christ was preached, rather than dwelling on feelings of personal offense (Phil. 1:18).
This perspective gives leaders personal freedom from the posturing and politicking that can happen in an unhealthy church or organizational context. The leader who is dwelling on personal offenses can go to dark places emotionally and mentally. The leader who is not preoccupied with a personal offense can focus their mental energies on their ministry’s crucial objectives.
Paul was willing to revisit his assessment of people that he felt were unhelpful in the past. We see this when he, upon his reconsideration of Mark’s ministry, asked that he be brought to Paul because he would be such a help in his work (2 Tim. 4:11).
Adopting a Positive Theology of Personal Weakness
Paul was not discouraged by his own sense of inadequacy in the fulfilment of his calling. He did not see weakness as being unacceptable or a sign of failure. His inadequacy served the purpose of showing that it was God at work in his ministry. “It is to show that the power comes from God and not from us” (2 Cor. 4:7, NLT). For Paul, personal insufficiency provided an opportunity for God’s sufficiency to be displayed: “So now I am glad to boast about my weaknesses so that the power of Christ can work through me” (2 Cor. 12:9, NLT).
One of the greatest potential downfalls for a leader is that they are unwilling to expose their own sense of inadequacy or their own personal struggles (Parkman, 2020). Paul was willing to admit his own insecurity and fear. He was willing to ask others to support him in prayer on multiple occasions and believed that he would move forward in ministry only through this support from others (Philem. 22; Rom. 15:30–33; Phil. 1:19–20; Col. 4:2–4; 2 Cor. 1:10–11; 1 Thess. 5:25).
Experiencing Renewal Through a Focus of the Internal World on the Eternal
Paul found daily renewal in the conviction that the ministry’s transitory difficulties would bring lasting reward in the coming age. Each time he brought this future joy to mind, it gave him a deposit of joy in the present. In 2 Corinthians 4:16–18, he reflected,
That is why we never give up. Though our bodies are dying, our spirits are being renewed every day. For our present troubles are small and won’t last very long. Yet they produce for us a glory that vastly outweighs them and will last forever! So we don’t look at the troubles we can see right now; rather, we fix our gaze on things that cannot be seen. For the things we see now will soon be gone, but the things we cannot see will last forever. (NLT)
Elsewhere, we notice again that the apostle derived present joy from the future joy he understood he would have because of others’ transformed lives. “After all, what gives us hope and joy, and what is our proud reward and crown? It is you! Yes, you will bring us much joy as we stand together before our Lord Jesus when he comes back again” (1 Thess. 2:19, NLT).
Daily renewal is possible through a reorientation of the inner being—or spirit—on the bounties of ministry that will be enjoyed in eternity. For Paul, taking these pauses was a daily habit that brought daily renewal. It appears to have been a spiritual discipline that energized and enlivened him. Perhaps Christian leaders would display more vitality if they adopted a daily habit of thinking of their ministries’ eternal impact.
Receiving Encouragement from Others
Many of the indicators of leadership health are interconnected (Parkman, 2020). Social connection and community are indicators of a leader’s health and have a direct impact on the mental and spiritual wellbeing of the leader.
Paul understood that the life-giving people who came into his life were part of God’s provision for his need. In 2 Corinthians 7:5–7, he expressed this:
When we arrived at Macedonia there was no rest for us. Outside there was conflict from every direction, and inside there was fear. But God, who encourages those who are discouraged, encouraged us by the arrival of Titus. His presence was a joy, but so was the news he brought of the encouragement he received from you. When he told me how much you were looking forward to my visit, and how sorry you were about what happened, and how loyal your love is for me, I was filled with joy! (NLT)
This is an important point, especially for leaders who detach themselves from the social connections they so desperately need. By so doing, they miss out on a God-provided avenue of renewal. Paul recognized this and consciously derived joy from others’ partnership in his work (Phil. 1:5) and from the times when people responded positively to his ministry (Rom. 15:17). Paul procured delight from relationships, yet he did this without succumbing to the temptation to base his emotional wellbeing on others’ response to him.
It is also worth noting that Paul modelled reciprocity in ministry relationships. He envisioned ministry not as a one-way experience but as a mutual experience in the community. “I’m eager to encourage you in your faith, but I also want to be encouraged by yours. In this way, each of us will be a blessing to the other” (Rom. 1:12, NLT). Ministers whose ministry philosophy is that ministry always flows from them to others are susceptible to burnout and, ultimately, bitterness.
Paul also drew strength from observing the steadfastness of the people into whom he had invested. “So we have been greatly comforted, dear friends, in all of our own crushing troubles and suffering, because you have remained strong in your faith. It gives us new life, knowing you remain strong in the Lord” (1 Thess. 3:7–8). A helpful, life-giving practice for a leader is to keep a thankfulness journal that records the encouraging moments of ministry, so that they are kept in the front of the mind.
Being Patient with Difficult People and Gently Teaching Them
Any honest discussion of Christian leadership should acknowledge the existence of difficult people. The church is beginning to be more willing to do so, rather than setting the expectations for emerging leaders that there is nothing ahead but glory and fully cooperative followers.
Interestingly, Paul felt that it was profitable to allow challenging people to change, for if they changed, great benefit would come to the church. The potential for their transformation outweighed the frustration he felt as a leader. Paul encouraged Timothy to create space and opportunity for God to change hearts. In 2 Timothy 2:23–26, he instructed Timothy,
Again I say, don’t get involved in foolish, ignorant arguments that only start fights. The Lord’s servants must not quarrel but must be kind to everyone. They must be able to teach effectively and be patient with difficult people. They should gently teach those who oppose the truth. Perhaps God will change those people’s hearts, and they will believe the truth. Then they will come to their senses and escape from the Devil’s trap. For they have been held captive by him to do whatever he wants. (NLT)
Operating Out of Calling and Identity in Christ
Paul gained security from seeing himself as God saw him, thus making him less susceptible to the pain of rejection or insults from people. We see this in 1 Corinthians 1:1: “This letter is from Paul, chosen by the will of God to be an apostle of Christ Jesus . . .” This assurance of his own value and authority helped him to not see himself as inferior or a victim when he was in conflict situations. He understood that he had God’s validation and authorization— and that God had provided spiritual weapons he could utilize (1 Cor. 10:1–6). He embraced his personal worth and value in ministry as “an expert builder” (1 Cor. 3:10), yet he was not given to self-importance. He speaks about this in 1 Corinthians 3:5, “Who is Apollos, and who is Paul, that we should be the cause of such quarrels? Why, we’re only servants. Through us God caused you to believe. Each of us did the work the Lord gave us” (NLT).
Paul also taught his proteges to operate from the same center. When Timothy was experiencing resistance in his congregation, Paul counseled him to defend his own value: “Don’t let anyone think less of you because you are young . . .” (1 Tim. 4:12, NLT). He also reminded Titus, to stand in his Godgiven identity and authority when teaching the church community: “You have the authority to do this, so don’t let anyone ignore you or disregard what you say” (Titus 2:15, NLT). The way the leader sees themselves affects their ability to be resilient amid ministry trials.
Living out of a healthy self-identity also helped Paul to be exceptionally courageous in the face of opposition. Paul stated how he overcame resistance from unbelievers who intimidated him in 1 Thessalonians 2:2:
You know how badly we had been treated at Philippi just before we came to you and how much we suffered there. Yet our God gave us the courage to declare his Good News to you boldly, even though we were surrounded by many who opposed us. (NLT)
He was also confident in what God had invested in him when he needed to deal with difficult people situations inside the church: “We, too, are weak, just as Christ was, but when we deal with you we will be alive with him and will have God’s power” (1 Cor. 13:4).
In The Making of a Leader, Robert Clinton studied exceptional Biblical leaders (and leaders in church history); he noticed that there were predictable types of experiences that God used to grow the leader’s influence. Clinton (1988) called these events “process events” or “destiny process items,” where the leader encountered a challenge or crisis. The way the leader processed the challenge would either increase or diminish their influence and progress in their calling. Some of these ministry maturing items include conflict, loneliness/isolation, spiritual warfare, breaking growth barriers, and faith challenges. When the leader sees the process item as part of God’s way of growing their inner life and ministry capacity, they can be renewed in their God-given assignment.
This observation is consistent with other research studies (Parkman, 2020). When the leader encounters process events, Clinton (1988) says, “The leader is forced to do serious reflection about ministry . . . The leader does an evaluation that results in formative thinking . . . The leader experiences a renewed determination.” The key to success in processing is seeing or perceiving God’s hand at work in the leader. If a leader can do so, the process event helps him/her rather than being a hindrance.
My personal experiences confirm the nine strategies that the Apostle Paul activated to ensure that his cognitive process served his personal and ministry wellbeing. When I perceived that I was experiencing rejections, opposition, betrayal, or even indifference, I began to be discouraged, and thus, my ministry’s future was threatened. As I learned how to be intentional in the way that I processed these experiences through the framework of God’s good intentions for me, I experienced substantial personal recovery and ministry revitalization.
Of course, this would be no surprise to the Apostle Paul. He emphasized that transformation and awakening begin with the thought and belief matrix we choose to use: “Let God transform you into a new person by changing the way you think” (Rom. 12:2, NLT). Our greatest threat is not what is happening to us, but what we think about what is happening to us. Similarly, he urged people to choose a mindset that serves them well (i.e., gives them life and peace): “If the Holy Spirit controls your mind, there is life and peace” (Rom. 8:6, NLT). This becomes a simple test for the leader to determine whether s/he is processing through a healthy belief and thought framework. Thus, the Christian leader’s education in healthy spiritual/mental processing will contribute directly to ministry longevity and fulfillment.
Clinton, R. (1988). The making of a leader. Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress.
Doriani, D. (2015). 3 occupational hazards for pastors. The Gospel Coalition. Retrieved from https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/3-occupational-hazards-for-pastors/
Grady, J. (2016). 10 occupational hazards of ministry. Charisma. Retrieved from https://www.charismamag.com/blogs/fire-in-my-bones/26466-10-occupational-hazards-of-ministry
Leadfresh (2017). Why LeadFresh community is so important. Canadian Baptists of Atlantic Canada. Retrieved from https://baptist-atlantic.ca/our-convention/departments/clergy-formation-and-wellness/leadfresh/
Parkman, R. (2020). The predictors of sustainability and wellbeing in ministry [Unpublished doctoral dissertation]. VU University Amsterdam.
Rainer, T. (2013). The twelve biggest challenges pastors and church staff face. Church Answers: Featuring Thom Rainer. Retrieved from https://thomrainer.com/2013/06/ the-twelve-biggest-challenges-pastors-and-church-staff-face/
Rob Parkman, PhD (candidate, VU University Amsterdam), is a leadership revitalization coach, a speaker with Compassion International, and the author of REFUEL (available on Amazon).
René Erwich, PhD, is Principal of Whitley College in Melbourne, Australia. Joke vanSanne, PhD, is Rector Magnificus at the University of the Humanities in Utrecht, Netherlands.