A bored or anxious pastor is not a good pastor

Mihaly Csikszentmihaly said that:

  • When someone has skills or talents that are overkill for what is being asked of them, they get bored.
  • When what is being asked of them is not achievable through the use of their skills and talents, they get anxious.

Pastors suffer from both conditions.

Those who have been called to serve in the particular role of pastor are a unique breed of cat (Aren’t we all? But go with me here…). We say that these are the people who have been identified as being especially gifted at nurturing and educating us into the larger narrative that God is writing in history. This is a powerful and awesome reality, and, out of the full Body of Christ, we have asked particular ones of us to devote their lives to helping us see it.

This is what most pastors have signed up for. Willingly. Excitedly. Pastors are artists of the highest order, and artists will give up almost anything to make art.

And yet…

When a congregation has no interest in exploration or wonder or doubt or innovation or… The pastor is going to get bored, and will struggle with whether she wants to be in ministry in that place. Or at all.

When a congregational board insists that the pastor focus all his time and energy in marketing and recruitment for the sake of the bottom line…. Sorry, “evangelism”… The pastor will get anxious, and will struggle with whether he has actually been called to ministry in the first place. He might burn out, quit, and work at a menial uninspiring job. What a sad place for an artist to be.

What we ought to do with our pastors is help them find the sweet spot of their skills/talents where they are making the art they’ve been called to make and are stretched to make it better. I’ll bang this drum over and over again: Pastors are not called to be managers and administrators. That is an entirely different skill-set.

Pastors are artists. Do you want a good pastor? Then let her make her art, and she will blow your world wide open. If you don’t, then you’re squandering a precious gift that God has given you.

17 thoughts on “A bored or anxious pastor is not a good pastor

  1. I believe that the dichotomy between “pastor” and “manager and administrator” is a false one. It is true that some (perhaps many) are not qualified to be both. It is true that all have stronger skills in one area or the other.

    But to draw a separation between pastor and administrator is to ignore the administration part of the position. Some very large steeple churches may be able to afford a Senior Pastor who preaches and an Executive Pastor who administers, but most churches require that the pastor is both.

    And both jobs overlap each other. The best church administrators are those who administer pastorally – who take the pastoral needs of the congregation and individuals into account when making administrative decisions. Not all pastoral decisions are made solely on the basis of how much they will bring to the collection plate. Many are made to bring the congregation to where it needs to be – cost/giving be damned.

    The best pastors are those who pastor with an eye towards administration. It would be wonderful to recommend the most fervent, most social justice-active member for service on the Session. But perhaps that person is going through a difficult time, or has a personality that would be divisive and a distraction to the Session’s work. Perhaps this isn’t the week to preach on a hot button issue, when the boiler is broken and we need donations to fix it.

    The line between pastoral and administrative is a fine one, and one that must be walked gingerly and quickly. But it is a fallacy to say that one cannot be pastoral if they are a good administrator, or cannot be a good administrator if they are pastorally sensitive.

    Some pastors are artists. Some are administrators. The best are both.

    • While I wouldn’t completely sign on to the idea that “pastors aren’t called to be managers and administrators” (as some pastors can and should do both of those things, if they are gifted in them, or if they don’t require too much of their attention), I do stand with Landon on this.

      The 1950s (and before) model is the “omni-competent” pastor. That model is one of the reasons so many pastors have completely burned out. They have swallowed the crazy notion that ministry is about “them,” and that congregations are basically there to “help them do their job.” The false corollary to that is that “if the pastor had enough time, he or she should and would be doing all the ministry.” Baloney!

      Neither, however, should congregants be engaged in ministries that are not good fits for them! If churches are good at anything, it’s “guilting” people into ministry ventures that they are neither passionate about, nor well-suited for.

      Most of the work I do as a leadership coach and team-developer is about helping people find the places where their highest and best contributions are tapped, and to creatively find ways to tap one’s God-given energies where it exists, and to equip and empower others who will be energized by the things which (for the pastor) tend to be rather soul-sucking. It’s kind of a win-win.

      • I concur that people should be doing what they are called to do. Most people are not equally gifted in all areas. A good call is one where the Pastor does what they are called to do, and the congregation fills in the rest.

        My issue is with Landon’s absolute statement that Pastors are not called to be managers or administrators. On that we seem to agree at least some.

  2. It’s possible to be BOTH bored and anxious… serving a church that isn’t utilizing your gifts but making absurd demands of you as well.

  3. As a cradle Presbyterian and child of the manse who has served the Church for over 30 years beyond childhood, I nearly cried when I read your post, Landon. I left the pastorate and have functionally left the Church, in part because of the very issues you’ve raised. As Anne said, BOTH bored and anxious.

    Mark wants us to believe that the “best” pastors are both artists and administrators. I think it’s safe to say that the Institutional Church in general agrees with him. Language reveals attitude and attitude drives action. The rest of us (the majority of us?), whether primarily artist or primarily administrator, are “less than”, and treated as such.

    Let’s stop kidding ourselves: the Institutional Church wants only the “best” pastors, and that means that there is a relatively small pool of suitable candidates from which to draw. Unless attitudes and actions change, the “best” course of action is to shut down all the congregations that cannot compete for the “best” pastors. Oh, yeah… that’s happening already, isn’t it?

  4. Dorothy Sayers wrote about this condition in the mid ’40s – applied to the entirety of God’s people – where real vocation was set aside for “church work” My favourite quote from her work (after scolding the church for guilting people into doing things that they weren’t suited for) “The first order of business for a Christian carpenter is that he (sic) should build a good table”

  5. Post reminds me of the work on Flow from Mihaly Csikszentmihaly – he talks about the interaction between challenge and capacity factors and discovering our sweet spot. More challenge than capacity = burnout (and maybe anxiety). More capacity than challenge = boredom and frustration. Different people are called to different ministries. I think the key is understating one’s call, living deeply into it in the midst of a community that embraces and celebrates who we are.

    • “I think the key is understanding one’s call, living deeply into it in the midst of a community that embraces and celebrates who we are.”

      I agree with you, terrytimm. By the way, thanks for the TED Talks link.

      Frederick Buechner said it this way: “Your vocation in life is where your greatest joy meets the world’s greatest need.” Our seminaries, councils, and congregations laud this ideal. The problem is that they do not support it. It is one thing *to speak* in glowing terms about call; it is another thing entirely *to actively value* diverse calls. Across the PCUSA our gifts go underused or unused, while we expend our time and energy doing that for which we were not made. Knowledge and experience of call do not ripen into wisdom. Expectations do not change. Instead, the machine keeps churning the same old way in the hope of finding (or, more arrogantly, making) “the best” pastors, “the best” lay leaders, “the best” members, “the best” ministries, “the best” whatnots. The Church is being crushed under the weight of its own “if only”.

    • Yes, he did. In a book actually titled “Beyond Boredom and Anxiety.”

      Thanks for that reminder. I edited the post to reference him.

  6. Exactly where I find myself today. I believe I am better at the art of being a pastor and a decent administrator; I can’t do neither of them well if I don’t define, no, if the congregation does not define what is expected of me. Your post has given me hope.

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