There is a problem in our churches with many empty pastoral positions across the UK. There are many reasons for this problem, one that could possibly get worse as the ‘baby boomer’ generation steps down from ministry responsibilities.
The FIEC identified a possible obstacle to ministry staffing as the lack of clearly defined access, training and progression routes, but the problem is clearly more complex.
Recently I was talking with a Christian brother, who is a manager in a large international warehouse chain. I was struck by how much emphasis he placed upon staff retention. The staff incentives, management training and work ethos all combined to make employment pleasant and sought after.
We know from numerous surveys that retention is also a problem in Christian ministry. More than one survey has shown that many pastors leave ministry after as short a time as five years, while only one in ten retire from ministry service of some form. Turnover is a huge problem that is unfortunately too often glossed over or ignored.
Clearly there are many reasons that cause gospel ministers to leave early: unsuitability, pressure of work, family difficulties, poor remuneration, and even bullying, among many factors. However, evangelical focus is increasingly upon identifying, training and placing new ministers.
Please don’t misunderstand me. I’m not belittling the need to identify and train suitable candidates for ministry, but the harsh reality is that we will not retain every person currently in active ministry. Keeping the gifted and caring individuals who have been equipped to serve exactly where they should be, in gospel ministry, should be as high a priority as getting them into ministry initially. We need to be encouraging these servants of God as much as we are able, in as many ways that we can.
One well-known cause of leaving ministry early is the sheer busy-ness and pressure of work. Its relentless impact can ruin the health of those affected, as well as fracture relationships between couples, in families, or even between the minister and his Lord. This incessant pressure has always been a feature of Christian work, but we should be caring for those who selflessly care for and encourage us.
We should also be taking our lead from what we see in the Scriptures. In Mark 6:7-13, we read that Jesus sent the twelve disciples out on a preaching and pastoral care mission. Sent out in pairs, they preached and healed. In Mark 6:30 we see that they returned to Jesus, having done what had been required of them. We notice too, in the very next verse, that Jesus noticed how weary these men were from their mission. They had been so busy that ‘they had no leisure even to eat’ (Mark 6:31).
Quite tellingly, we see how their Lord, and ours, appreciated the weakness of their frame and need for some rest. We do not read that he tells them to ‘Man up!’, or any of a multitude of equally dismissive and disparaging comments. He says to his weary servants, ‘Come away by yourselves to a desolate place and rest awhile’.
The Lord clearly identified a problem in Christian ministry — the burden of overwork and excessive pressure — and laid down a template that we should be adopting in such circumstances.
It would have been so easy for Christ to berate those men for their lack of stamina and commitment, or for failing to understand the great need for gospel ministry. Instead we see he proposes a time of seclusion from the demands of others, an opportunity to rest.
Then, in Mark 6:32, we read that they went away into a desolate place. The problem was identified, the need addressed, and a solution proposed and executed. Surely it is time we recognised the biblical precedent of gospel ministers needing regular and complete breaks from the pressures they face?
Some would argue that ministers and other workers get holiday leave or annual leave for just that purpose. However, sometimes the necessary break fails to materialise. And, unfortunately, many in ministry service are poorly paid and unable to take a proper break from work.
Listening to a number of pastors’ children talking, they could identify with holidays that were always stays with relatives, sometimes with father being ‘called back’ because of a perceived problem in the church. The break was not much of a rest, and often a much abbreviated respite from work.
One man shared with me at a fraternal that, because of financial constraints, they are not able to get away properly; and their last five family holidays had all been disturbed for one reason or another. I could give many other examples, but I’m sure many readers could give similar accounts.
‘Six Thirty One: Refreshment Ministries’ is a new Christian charity (registered number 1170016) that hopes to provide a venue for the necessary rest away from others that many ministers so desperately need.
Our intention is to provide a safe environment for individuals, couples and families to withdraw briefly from the pressure of ministry — a place where individuals can re-engage with God, re-connect as couples and bond as families; a refuge of peace and quiet, away from the busy-ness of life and pressure of work. Providing space for no more than a couple of families at a time, the ability to relax is enhanced by peaceful surroundings.
To provide those facilities and ensure that rest, encouragement and help continues to be available on an ongoing basis will require your help. Our gospel ministers give so much and we need to give back with care, support and encouragement to keep them in their vital ministry. To learn more about this ministry, visit www.sixthirtyone.org or Facebook: 6:31 Refreshment Ministries or email [email protected]
Ray Peel is from Liverpool