The sometimes trying and stressful nature of the pastorate can easily weigh pastors down if they’re not careful.
Karen Miller is well aware of these difficulties. As a pastoral coach, she comes alongside pastors and leaders to help them tackle the challenges associated with their ministries and to care for themselves while they are busy caring for others.
In this role, Miller has seen a lot of pastoral challenges, including the perennial challenge of burnout. She suspects one reason burnout has become such a big issue among ministers is that pastors are spending too much time with their congregations and not enough time being with God: i.e., they aren’t spending enough time tending to their own spiritual life and needs.
“In order to be a good, effective pastor, you also need to develop your soul,” Miller says. “What I do in my coaching is I combine . . . growing your leadership skills and caring for your soul.” This idea of “soul care” simply means attending to one’s own spiritual life and doing what is necessary to foster one’s own spiritual health and growth.
Miller recalls being at a pastoral conference a few years back and asking how many of the attendees took prayer retreats at least once a year. Only two hands went up in a room of 26 people.
That’s normal, according to Miller. At a conference last October, she was teaching a room of 50 pastors. When asked how many take a prayer day once a month, "no one raised their hands,” says Miller. Once a year? Only a little better, says Miller. “A few people raised their hands.”
Here are some steps pastors can take for their own soul care, according to Miller:
- Find a spiritual director and a leadership coach. Every pastor needs one. Most of the time these are two separate people, but Miller serves both roles for those she coaches. (If you need help finding a spiritual director or pastoral coach, Miller’s website may be a starting point. Otherwise, finding networks in your area—or just using Google—can be a way of finding someone who is qualified.)
Miller knows firsthand the value of spiritual coaching. She had a pastoral coach herself during her time as an executive pastor, and she has a personal history receiving spiritual direction. “I have found it invaluable in my life to have a coach or spiritual director for the last 27 years,” she says. “I feel like it’s really helped me stay healthy, effective, a strong leader, and a disciple of Christ.”
- Take self-care seriously. Pastors should take their allotted vacation time, prayer days, and so on. The main thing many pastors need is accountability to not put off their own needs.
But it’s not just pastors who have a responsibility to take care of their needs, Miller explains: churches should also care for the needs of their pastors. Many churches profess the importance of a pastor’s spiritual life and development, but many don’t make a plan to support it.
Miller describes a few ways churches can support pastors' wellbeing:
- Include some form of counseling or coaching for pastors in the annual budget. Too often pastors—especially in small churches—are expected to pay those costs out-of-pocket. “I think pastors and boards need to take very seriously the need for these pastors out there, working hard to have an outside coach or spiritual director,” Miller advises. “I think the church is missing that, and that’s where we lose a lot of people. They get off-track, and they get burnt out.” Budgeting that support for pastors is one way to help ensure their ability to be effective ministers.
- Offer non-vacation time for pastors to care for their souls. Churches can offer prayer days (e.g., once a month), annual prayer retreats, and occasional sabbaticals (e.g., a four-week sabbatical once every several years)—all paid. This affirms the real spiritual needs of the pastor and the church’s commitment to see the pastor care for himself or herself.
Ultimately, pastoral leaders need to be caring for their souls, and churches need to intentionally support them in getting that care. For congregations to flourish, pastors need to flourish. Soul care of pastors is an indispensable part of making that flourishing a reality.
Karen Miller is a pastor and licensed clinical social worker. She serves as Associate Rector at Church of the Savior in Wheaton, Illinois. She is the founder and coach of Strengthen Your Leadership, a pastoral coaching service for pastors.
Seth Humeniuk is an undergraduate student pursuing a communications degree. Samuel Ogles is an associate editor and special project manager with Church Law & Tax.
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