Last week our water heater broke down. I thought the pilot light went out because we have had some heavy rains and flooding lately. As it turns out, it was not the pilot light going out, but rather the tank breathing its last. Due to busy schedules, our plumber could not replace it for a couple of days. Over those days we often thought about our lack of a hot water heater. I showered at the church building where I serve as pastor. We boiled water so that dishes could be properly washed. Unkempt children were allowed to ferment a bit longer than usual.
It was not suffering, by any means, but it was annoying and it disrupted our first-world lifestyle. We went from never thinking about our hot water heater to thinking about it quite a bit.
Consequently, I meditated on a conversation that I’d had during my seminary internship. At that time, one of my mentors said to me, “Nathan, pastors are often treated like hot water heaters. Nobody really thinks about them when they are working, but when they stop working, they are not repaired; instead they are quickly replaced.”
In my time of pastoral ministry, I have talked with several hurting pastors who would resonate with the water heater statement. Many pastors work extra-long hours, are unable to “turn off” care for the church when not working, preach while on vacation (to afford the vacation), and have very few outlets for reducing the stresses of ministry. A year or so ago, my doctor told me that she could often tell which patients were pastors based solely on their high cortisol levels (cortisol is a stress-related hormone that is produced in the adrenal glands). Pastors suffer from high rates of depression as well. Pastoral ministry, although extremely rewarding, often fun, and spiritually refreshing is a demanding calling that, for many, results in being—well—broken.
I need to acknowledge that many in the church, not just pastors, have high-stress vocations and are frequently left without refreshment. Burnout is a symptom of our 24-7 culture, not merely of the stress of pastoral ministry. As the Bishop of Winchester said, “When we talk about pastoral burnout, we need to be careful not to invalidate the exhaustion many feel in all of life (citation withheld).”
With that said, this article will specifically address pastoral ministry. Without proper spiritual, physical, and emotional maintenance, the high stress and high demand calling of pastoral ministry will result in burn out, which will too often lead congregations to replace their minister rather than invest in their broken one.
No one repairs a hot water heater.
As I thought about the similarities between the calling to bring God’s Word to his people and the calling to bring hot water to the home, these five ways of investing in “hot water heater maintenance” were among my meditations amid boiling water and fermenting children.
How can you help to provide maintenance for your pastor rather than replace him?
Pray for him
Consider having a stated time each week in which you pray for your pastor. Include this in family worship times as well. Frequently, the conversations in homes of church members revolve around what their pastor could be doing better, how he falls short, and what he missed in his sermon. Make your prayers for your minister more fervent than your complaints about his shortcomings. Let your children hear you praying for him and his calling. Your prayers will strengthen him before the throne room of grace, and they will soften your heart toward him. This is important, especially if the hot water stops running for a season.
Invest in his family
Many pastors leave behind extended family upon accepting a call to serve a congregation. And for many pastors, the congregation is not only his, but also his family’s calling. Without extended family around, pastors’ families can be isolated from family-style care. Day care is more difficult. Holidays can be lonely and sometimes depressing. Grandpas and grandmas are known over FaceTime more than in person.
The church cannot replace the extended family, but the church is called to be a family. Find ways to invest in his wife. Find ways to encourage and support his children. In my congregation, we have an older couple who has become surrogate grandparents to my children through encouraging and loving them in ways that also encourages me. Maybe without intention, investing in the children is investing in their pastor as well.
Discuss his teaching
Pastors spend many hours on their craft. Between sermon writing, Bible studies, and other outlets for teaching, pastors invest many hours into the work that they do. Why? It is so the people of God may be fed, taught, encouraged, built up, and led into the presence of God. As I have talked with scores of pastors over the last several years, I often ask them about congregational interaction with their sermons and teaching. Most pastors receive zero feedback on their sermons. Zero. Most hear nothing from their congregations about how they have been encouraged or challenged. Several of the pastors I have spoken with said that the majority of their feedback comes through criticism by way of their elders.
Imagine if your work—your vocation—was under-appreciated to the point that no one ever asked, “how’s work?” or “what’s new at work?” Talking about one’s work is an American past time…unless you are in the ministry.
Tell your pastor how he encourages you. Interact with his sermons. Thank him from time to time. I am not saying to be disingenuous; if his sermons and teaching are a mess, that’s a different story. But if he’s faithfully opening the Word of God to you, let him know how you are growing through his ministry. This will help prevent replacement; it is good hot water maintenance.
Ask how he’s being fed
Pastors need pastors, too. Pastors need to be in the Word of God for their own benefit, not just for the benefit of teaching and preaching. One of the dangers of pastoral ministry is coming to the Bible as a professional rather than as a worshiper. If your pastor is only in the Word to prepare a sermon or Bible study, that can be a dangerous thing. Pastors need to be in the Word for their own spiritual well-being.
Ask him what he’s reading for his own benefit. Ask him what book of the Bible he’s reading in his private worship. Make a point of asking these questions on a regular basis, establishing a pattern of accountability that will serve as a safety net. Many assume that the pastor is okay. Many assume that he’s a spiritual giant who never struggles with dryness or times of spiritual darkness. Your accountability will encourage and help him to establish healthy maintenance.
Provide means for renewal
Through your congregation, make ways for your pastor to be renewed. This may come through ministers’ conferences, such as the Banner of Truth Conference, or through continued education at his alma mater or some other seminary. Renewal may come through sending him and his wife away for a weekend. I am not suggesting that the congregation foot the bill for these means of renewal, but that your congregation work out what will be helpful for him and include it in the annual budget. This will require a conversation between church leadership on what will best aid him in being pastored. It will look different depending on the context, but the principle remains—your pastor needs pastoring.
I have known of several pastors who have burned out before their congregations ever caught on that there was a problem. There are means to help him be renewed, to be maintained rather than replaced.
After several hundreds of dollars and a few days of disruption, we got our hot water heater replaced. The kids could bathe again. My wife could wash her hair in the shower. I didn’t have to shower at the church—even though someone had left a nice tea tree shampoo in there. The disruptions were gone; we got our water back.
I don’t know the brand of hot water heater we got and didn’t ask—I figure they’re all pretty much the same. The plumber told me that it had a six-year warranty, but that most of the new models don’t last past ten years. I asked him why that was the case and he told me that they are built to be replaced rather than repaired.